Blue, Red, Black

I’ve often mentioned a popular neoreactionary metaphor, the “red pill” (in fact I did so just two posts ago). Now, with a hat-tip to the latest edition of Nick Steves’ weekly roundup, we offer you an essay by Brett Stevens about another existential medicament: the black pill.

What is the black pill? In a word, it’s nihilism.

Nihilism is a topic I’ve also mentioned often in here. It lies in wait everywhere alongside the naturalistic path, and a panoramic view of its yawning abyss awaits every traveler who follows that path all the way to its end. I’ve stared into that chasm for a very long time now. I have formed some conclusions about it.

One of those conclusions is that the abyss is where the naturalistic path goes. There is no bridge at the end: the abyss is so deep that there is no place you could put the pilings, and anyway, there’s nothing on the other side. (Think of the “Troll’s Tongue”, below, but without the scenery.)

 
Nevertheless, I’ve always rejected nihilism in the form it’s usually presented — which is as an excuse, if not an outright mandate, for presentism, hedonism, relativism, anomie, and the other mortal afflictions of the modern secular West. It’s hard to stare at the Void for long without feeling the chill of meaninglessness, and despair, seeping up out of its bottomless darkness. You need warm socks.

I don’t like meaninglessness, and I see no upside in despair. But here I am, standing on the Troll’s Tongue, cantilevered way out over, well, nothing. I have a feeling many of you are too.

Well, buck up. The happy fact is that we have a world to live in, and a pretty nice one, too. We find ourselves in useful bodies, with clever brains. We are exquisitely adapted and configured to model the world around us in ways that enable us to flourish and prosper — and what’s more, we’re bright enough to understand, if we make the effort, just what makes us flourish, and why. There is beauty in the world, and wisdom, and good food and drink, and children and families and communities, and there are stories to tell and songs to sing. In times of doubt and confusion, we have the guidance of conscience and tradition to help us build organic societies that are harmonious with the varieties of our nature. Above all, there is Love, in all its forms.

If naturalism is right — if the abyss is real — then we get to choose what to do with that enormous fact. Yes, we can choose to despair, if we like — but we can just as well choose not to. Despair is crippling, it is painful, and above all, it is pointless.

For those with the capacity to understand it correctly, what seeps out of the abyss is not despair, but liberty. With liberty comes responsibility, because what we do is entirely up to us. And with responsibility come meaning, and purpose, and duty, and all the things we thought we had lost.

Read Mr. Stevens’ article here.

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39 Comments

  1. I’ve always thought that the Fascist worldview was borne out of exploring nihilism.

    If nothing in this world has meaning, what do we turn to for guidance? Ourselves. Our family. Our blood. Our Nation (which is defined as “a large aggregate of people united by common descent, history, culture, or language, inhabiting a particular country or territory”).

    The Fascist worships and honors themselves and their ancestors, as that is the only thing they can see that has any meaning in this world; yourself, the those who came before you, who gave you life. When they elevate the Nation, they are elevating their extended family. Blood and soil, the Volk – it’s all related to those who literally birthed you and the land that feeds you. It’s the only thing that they can find existential meaning in.

    Just some thoughts. I don’t think much about Nihilism (I try not to, in order to keep depression at bay), but I for some reason have always connected Fascism and nihilism.

    Posted April 29, 2016 at 5:32 pm | Permalink
  2. Great post; thank you for citing my own writings. I have always felt it made sense to view life as a space of possibility. We cannot know what ranges beyond it, and so must assume the minimum, but in the meantime, there is much here we can do which rises to greatness.

    Posted April 29, 2016 at 6:10 pm | Permalink
  3. djf says

    @August Rush, fascism proper, a la Mussolini, glorified the State, not the Volk. The Italian fascists were more interested in the long dead Roman empire than in Italian folkways, and many Italian Jews were members of the Fascist Party (before they were thrown out as the result of Mussolini’s alliance with Hitler). It was Nazism, which was related to fascism but not identical to it, that looked to the Volk.

    Posted April 29, 2016 at 6:42 pm | Permalink
  4. Pass me the Zoloft pill.

    Posted April 29, 2016 at 7:01 pm | Permalink
  5. “The only possible utility voting possesses is the potential to vote for the worst possible candidate in order to hasten the demise of this broken society.”

    Yeah, yeah. I’m still voting against the lying bitch.

    Now pass me a glass of Pinot Noir.

    Posted April 29, 2016 at 7:16 pm | Permalink
  6. Whitewall says

    The Stevens article is interesting. It seems that no matter how “advanced” we have become, there is a large segment of the population–read Progressives–that seem to be completely bored and therefore must force change where no change is needed or even wanted. A workable contentment among people is somehow intolerable to them. Even the proper use of bathrooms is a do or die cause for them at the moment.

    Posted April 30, 2016 at 11:26 am | Permalink
  7. Malcolm says

    Robert,

    …and therefore must force change where no change is needed or even wanted.

    It’s a mechanical, entropic process, like water finding every crack and fissure as it seeks the lowest level.

    It is entropic precisely in the sense that it levels and flattens everything, as order yields to disorder. In particular, it levels the gradients that are necessary, in any thermodynamic system, for the possibility of useful work. Ultimately, everything will be undifferentiated from everything else. (Is that not the obvious endpoint of our secular religion’s pathological mission?) It is this flattening, correctly understood as a thermodynamic exhaustion, that is why Leftism always reduces societies to economic and cultural rubble.

    Astrophysicists speak of the “heat death of the Universe”. This is perfectly analogous: it is the heat death of our civilization.

    Posted April 30, 2016 at 12:27 pm | Permalink
  8. A very good analogy, Malcolm. Entropy’s universal “mission” is, indeed, to wipe out all creative complexity that, in the absence of a counterbalancing natural force, would lead to the heat death of the universe. Thus, entropy may be said to be the universal destructive protagonist.

    There is, however, a universal antagonist to entropy — gravity. Gravity is the anti-entropy. It is nature’s ultimate creative force. Gravity enables localized (in spacetime) decreases in entropy, which are the permissible exceptions to entropy’s inexorable increase in the universe taken as a whole.

    Astrophysicists have not (yet) been able to determine the ultimate fate of the universe — either heat death due to entropy’s primacy, or the big crunch if gravity somehow prevails. There may be other fates not yet discovered, though it seems clear that some form of universal doom is inevitable.

    Humanity is one of the most (perhaps even the most) complex instances of localized decreases in entropy. Therefore, I am persuaded to throw in with gravity in that universal struggle.

    For me, that means, among many other things, that I will still vote against that lying bitch.

    Posted April 30, 2016 at 3:55 pm | Permalink
  9. JK says

    Malcolm? Waka Friends?

    I’m sitting alongside just now as it happens, a person I once knew and, for whatever reason, became reacquainted with fortunately. In this present.

    And in this (very recent) present moment I was asked aka “Why at that particular time?” etc, etc.

    It was complicated but; I was scheduled to be on

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PSA_Flight_182

    and I guess I’ll go all Forrest Gump.

    “That’s all I got to say about that.”

    Posted April 30, 2016 at 9:21 pm | Permalink
  10. Whitewall says

    JK, I understand how that can be cold chill stuff.

    Posted May 1, 2016 at 9:47 am | Permalink
  11. Whitewall says

    Brett Stevens’ article is starting to do a “tap on the shoulder” with me as I keep going back to it.

    He wrote: “Once a civilization falls into decline, far more decisive action is required than its political, social and economic system allows. It requires the intervention of strong power to remove the rot and send it far away, then rebuild institutions around good people who can make the complex decisions that rules, elections and markets cannot. This means that many dreams will be smashed, and all parasitic people need to be disenfranchised if not outright removed.”

    Our Western history with all its conquests and attending mythologies…the gods of Olympus, the Norse gods etc tell us that mortal man might not be the “strong power” that can intervene and remove the rot and parasitic people. Hollywood with all its action packed “benevolent hero” themes are I think a fiction based longing for some “strong power”…hopefully a good one. But that’s entertainment.

    This begs the question—could this be the possible stage being set for an often wished for “religious revival” so often mentioned as long as Christianity has been around? After all, something has to produce the “good people” that will rebuild what we have destroyed.

    Posted May 1, 2016 at 10:18 am | Permalink
  12. colinhutton says

    Malcolm.

    Nice photo. Being averse to heights, however, I wouldn’t go there; at least, not without appropriate safety gear to ensure my access to a secure retreat.

    I like your “liberty’ to describe the compensation for peering into Nietzsche’s abyss. I would add the word empowerment. However, extending (straining?) your analogy, the secure retreat you outline is not a ‘safe space’ accessible to much of humanity – whether for psychological reasons or lack of good fortune. Perhaps those of us who do have such access need to ‘mind our privilege’.

    For myself, now that a degree of anhedonia, which comes with advancing years, chips away at the space you outline, I get much satisfaction from viewing society and humanity (myself included) through a Darwinian lens. And from using pc terminology in unexpected/ironic contexts.

    Nice post.

    Posted May 2, 2016 at 5:50 am | Permalink
  13. Malcolm says

    Colin,

    …the secure retreat you outline is not a ‘safe space’ accessible to much of humanity – whether for psychological reasons or lack of good fortune.

    That’s a very important point. This is why I consider large-scale secularism to be severely maladaptive, and it is the reason for my apostasy from, and opposition to, activist atheism.

    What’s more: naturalism may be false. My only purpose in writing this was to give succor to those readers who are inclined to philosophically reflective naturalism, are intrepid enough to grasp its implications, and who are feeling the chill of the Void at the end of that road.

    Posted May 2, 2016 at 12:40 pm | Permalink
  14. Jacques says

    Malcolm, can you say more about how liberty of this kind generates responsibility? (I’m assuming this is not just causal responsibility, i.e., the property of being the proximal cause of some of your actions.)

    I think your reasoning is something like this: Nihilism entails there are no objective standards or rules or constraints that determine how we ought to live; therefore, nihilism entails that we are radically free to decide that for ourselves, with no possibility that our values are objectively wrong; therefore, we are responsible for the values or standards we choose for ourselves.

    If this is what you have in mind, it doesn’t make sense to me. If we are radically free in that sense, we are also free to choose whether we are responsible for our choices (including that choice itself). Maybe, under nihilism, it is possible for us to be responsible: we are responsible if we choose to be responsible, there being no reason for that choice except an arbitrary preference or act of will. But it doesn’t seem to follow that, under nihilism, we are in fact responsible. And responsibility that can discharged at any point by an arbitrary act of subjective will — if that’s the only kind possible — doesn’t seem like real responsibility. On the other hand, if it’s an objective fact that we just are responsible for choosing our own values, like it or not, then it seems there is at least one objective value-fact (and nihilism is false).

    Posted May 3, 2016 at 9:02 pm | Permalink
  15. Malcolm says

    Hi Jacques,

    I thought you’d have something to say about that.

    Maybe, under nihilism, it is possible for us to be responsible: we are responsible if we choose to be responsible, there being no reason for that choice except an arbitrary preference or act of will. But it doesn’t seem to follow that, under nihilism, we are in fact responsible.

    Right, this is the same conversation we’ve had all along. Again, you insist on an ontological bedrock that I suspect does not exist. My point is that to insist on its existence is itself just a choice; there is no reason we cannot hold ourselves responsible, and hold others responsible, regardless of whether such bedrock actually exists.

    Furthermore, we cannot know whether the foundation you demand actually exists in fact. There’s no knock-down evidence to settle that question either way — so to believe that it does is a matter of faith, or doxastic choice (if you can manage it), and to insist that it must exist in order to hold oneself responsible, and to declare responsibility to be impossible otherwise, is likewise a matter of choice.

    Let me reverse your argument. If nihilism is false, and we are responsible “in fact” in the way you want, then all is good, and I was “right” all along to assume responsibility for my actions.

    And if nihilism is true, and there is in fact no such bedrock undergirding my sense of responsibility, then I’ve lost nothing by assuming responsibility anyway.

    Either way, I get to take responsibility for my choices and actions, which makes, I think, for a better me, and a better world. (“Better” of course, simply according to my preference for that sort of me, and that sort of world. If you, on the other hand, prefer chaos, I can’t prove to you that you shouldn’t — but in purely practical terms, you can expect some push-back from the rest of us.)

    Posted May 4, 2016 at 12:10 am | Permalink
  16. Malcolm says

    Let me put that another way:

    It may or may not be true that we are “really” responsible in the way you want. But whether we are or not is an unknowable fact. Where, then, does its binding power come from? It can come from nowhere but our belief.

    What you are saying, then, is that this belief in an unknowable fact makes all the difference; that without it our assumption of responsibility is somehow unsustainable.

    But to me that just seems like the “magic feather” that the Disney elephant Dumbo needed to hold onto in order to fly. I’m saying we can fly without it!

    Posted May 4, 2016 at 12:33 am | Permalink
  17. Jacques says

    Hi Malcolm,
    Yes, it’s the same old thing I guess! A few comments…

    “there is no reason we cannot hold ourselves responsible, and hold others responsible, regardless of whether such bedrock actually exists.”

    I agree, nothing would stop you. But are you saying that your belief in responsibility would be true, even under nihilism? Or just that it would be a harmless but pleasant illusion? If you think the belief would be true, I remain puzzled by your position. How could it be true, unless you really were responsible? And how could you be responsible merely in virtue of believing that you are? That doesn’t seem like the kind of fact that could suffice for responsibility. (For example, that is a fact in possible worlds where your behavior, down to the least detail, is caused by things other than you.)

    If instead you’re just claiming that a false belief in responsibility would be pleasant or useful, I agree; but then, if you yourself think the belief would be false under nihilism, it seems self-defeating to believe nihilism while also trying to actually maintain this belief — one that you’d be rationally committed to regarding as false.

    Posted May 4, 2016 at 2:46 pm | Permalink
  18. Malcolm says

    Jacques,

    But are you saying that your belief in responsibility would be true, even under nihilism? Or just that it would be a harmless but pleasant illusion?

    By “would be true”, I assume you mean ontologically true.

    I’m saying neither of these things — and, begging your forgiveness, I think your insistence on this unknowable underlying “reality” as a necessary condition for assuming and ascribing responsibility borders on incoherence.

    Why is responsibility an “illusion” if it isn’t supported by the sort of ontological bedrock you insist on? I don’t really even see how “responsibility” is the kind of thing that could exist as an objective fact of the world, in the absence of human conventions and definitions.

    Posted May 4, 2016 at 2:48 pm | Permalink
  19. Jacques says

    ‘It may or may not be true that we are “really” responsible in the way you want. But whether we are or not is an unknowable fact. Where, then, does its binding power come from? It can come from nowhere but our belief.’

    Two thoughts…

    (1) Why do you think we can’t know that we’re really responsible? It seems to me that we can know or, at least, rationally believe that we are responsible. For example by this argument:

    P: It seems that we’re (really and truly) responsible for (many of) our actions.
    P: There is no good reason for doubting that we’re responsible.
    P: If it seems to us that X, and there’s no reason for doubting that X, it’s reasonable for us to believe that X.
    C: It is reasonable for us to believe that we’re responsible.

    (2) The binding power of the metaphysical fact that we’re responsible — if there is such a fact — does not have to come only from our belief. Rather, the belief itself might involve an intellectual acquaintance with the metaphysical fact, and an appropriate sense of its binding power. If there really is such a thing out there (as I think) it’s binding power might reach us through our beliefs.

    Posted May 4, 2016 at 2:52 pm | Permalink
  20. Jacques says

    What do you think of the following speech?

    “Sure, for all I know I’m living in a Matrix. For all I know, none of my apparent achievements or relationships are real. But even if I _am_ in the Matrix, nothing stops me from choosing to treat these appearances as if they were real; yes, they’d be illusions in that case, but I’d never find out. Therefore, it makes no difference whether I’m really in the Matrix or not. In fact, I believe that I _am_ in the Matrix, but I don’t care, because I really like these illusions.”

    Would you agree that the speaker’s attitude is unreasonable? Or would you say your attitude isn’t like his?

    Posted May 4, 2016 at 2:58 pm | Permalink
  21. Malcolm says

    Jacques, we are in what we programmers call a “race condition” here – you are posting new comments as I am responding to your previous ones. Your last two came in as I was writing my response to the one you posted at 2:48, and so I adjusted the time of my own to make it next in sequence.

    WRT your comment of 2:52:

    (a) As I said just above (which you hadn’t yet seen): more than not knowing whether we are or not in fact “really” responsible, I can’t even picture just how “responsibility” is the sort of thing that can exist as an objective fact, beyond its instantiation in human conventions.

    (b) If our only possible point of contact with this underlying reality is through our beliefs, then you’ve really just repeated what I said two comments ago:

    Where, then, does its binding power come from? It can come from nowhere but our belief.

    The difference is simply that you insist that the content of this belief must also include a belief in an underlying ontological fact that grounds our assumption of responsibility. I am saying that this is simply a matter of faith anyway — because the existence of this “fact” is forever unprovable — and so we can just “cut to the chase” and assume responsibility on our own.

    I realize that this is, for some people, unsatisfactory. (I’ll cite this conversation as evidence!) It is, however, a perfectly workable accommodation to what I suspect is the actual Reality of the world, namely, the Abyss.

    Posted May 4, 2016 at 3:20 pm | Permalink
  22. Malcolm says

    As for the Matrix, your analogy presumes two things, to wit: (a) that there actually is an underlying reality (i.e., a set of moral or other metaphysical “facts”) that the Matrix denies or misrepresents; and (b) that we can know (a) to be true.

    In other words (and in the exact terms of your example), you are comparing the Red and Blue Pills. But here, we are talking about the Black pill!

    Posted May 4, 2016 at 3:25 pm | Permalink
  23. Whitewall says

    OK! That’s it! The Matrix again…I have just ordered the Matrix trilogy to see for myself. Seems I missed a lot over the years. Must have been working or something.

    Posted May 4, 2016 at 4:11 pm | Permalink
  24. Malcolm says

    It’s a great, but really dumb, movie. Fun to watch, though. And NRx owes it something for a very useful metaphor.

    Posted May 4, 2016 at 4:18 pm | Permalink
  25. Jacques says

    Hi Malcolm,
    Sorry for the comment blitzkrieg :) A few more thoughts…

    (1) “I don’t really even see how ‘responsibility’ is the kind of thing that could exist as an objective fact of the world, in the absence of human conventions and definitions.”

    Are you sure about this? I think there are some ‘objective facts’ necessary, at least, for responsibility. For example, it is an objective fact (if it is any kind of fact) that people are free in some sense necessary for responsibility. If you learned that all your actions, down to the least detail, were in fact the inevitable effects of causes at work a billion years ago, and that all your seeming deliberating was just an epiphenomenon… Wouldn’t that make you doubt that you were responsible? And wouldn’t it make you doubt that (under these circumstances) you could _be_ responsible or _become_ responsible simply by choosing to regard yourself as responsible? I grant that some facts about human subjectivity (but not ‘conventions’) are also necessary for us to be responsible. But I find it easy enough to imagine how responsibility could be the kind of thing that is _partly_ constituted by facts about the objective world.

    (2) Why are you so certain that we can’t know or prove that we are responsible (or ‘objectively’ or ‘ontologically’ responsible)? I’ve offered a quick argument that seems to me to be good grounds for believing that we are responsible — namely, it appears to us in our experience, deeply and vividly and compellingly, that our moral responsibility is real. Think of moments of agonizing guilt. In those moments, it sure seems to _me_ that I am responsible. Now I have no reason to doubt that I’m responsible, and no reason to believe that the mental faculties that make it appear to me that I am responsible are unreliable. So why isn’t that enough to know (if not ‘prove’) that I am responsible? You seem to think that an objective world transcending our beliefs and perceptions has to be some kind of mysterious unknowable ineffable thing. But it could be that we are directly aware of this thing in everyday experience, if we just attend to it closely. (Or, maybe, if we just allow ourselves to be in the moment.)

    (3) My analogy with the Matrix does presuppose that there is an “underlying reality” misrepresented by the Matrix. But isn’t that also what the Black Pill is about? When you take the Black Pill, you realize that the ultimate underlying reality is nihilistic — that it contains no objective goods or norms, for example. Isn’t the Black Pill like the Red one in that way?

    Posted May 4, 2016 at 8:36 pm | Permalink
  26. Malcolm says

    Hi Jacques,

    (1) “I don’t really even see how ‘responsibility’ is the kind of thing that could exist as an objective fact of the world, in the absence of human conventions and definitions.”

    Are you sure about this? I think there are some ‘objective facts’ necessary, at least, for responsibility. For example, it is an objective fact (if it is any kind of fact) that people are free in some sense necessary for responsibility. If you learned that all your actions, down to the least detail, were in fact the inevitable effects of causes at work a billion years ago, and that all your seeming deliberating was just an epiphenomenon… Wouldn’t that make you doubt that you were responsible? And wouldn’t it make you doubt that (under these circumstances) you could _be_ responsible or _become_ responsible simply by choosing to regard yourself as responsible? I grant that some facts about human subjectivity (but not ‘conventions’) are also necessary for us to be responsible. But I find it easy enough to imagine how responsibility could be the kind of thing that is _partly_ constituted by facts about the objective world.

    This question is a very tricky one, and there’s a lot to unpack. I’ll start by asking you to clarify the difference between “deliberating” and “seeming deliberating”. My own position is that deliberating is simply to weigh available choices in terms of one’s interests, preferences, and the information one has — and that’s what we do, regardless of the unkowable microdetails of physical determinism. (Years ago I wrote a linked series of free-will posts developing this view, starting here.)

    (2) Why are you so certain that we can’t know or prove that we are responsible (or ‘objectively’ or ‘ontologically’ responsible)? I’ve offered a quick argument that seems to me to be good grounds for believing that we are responsible — namely, it appears to us in our experience, deeply and vividly and compellingly, that our moral responsibility is real. Think of moments of agonizing guilt. In those moments, it sure seems to _me_ that I am responsible. Now I have no reason to doubt that I’m responsible, and no reason to believe that the mental faculties that make it appear to me that I am responsible are unreliable. So why isn’t that enough to know (if not ‘prove’) that I am responsible? You seem to think that an objective world transcending our beliefs and perceptions has to be some kind of mysterious unknowable ineffable thing. But it could be that we are directly aware of this thing in everyday experience, if we just attend to it closely. (Or, maybe, if we just allow ourselves to be in the moment.)

    I don’t deny the subjective experience you describe. All I’m saying is what I’ve said previously: (a) I don’t understand what the mode of existence of such a thing as ontological “responsibility” could possibly be, beyond being a normative disposition in social beings; and (b) I don’t see why we have to insist on the existence of an objective metaphysical substrate such as you describe, when we can only reach it subjectively anyway. Why can’t we just accept the subjective experience and leave it there? (If all you’re saying is that it is an objective fact that beings such as us experience a feeling of responsibility, that’s true, of course, but uninterestingly so. But I don’t think that’s what you’re saying.)

    (3) My analogy with the Matrix does presuppose that there is an “underlying reality” misrepresented by the Matrix. But isn’t that also what the Black Pill is about? When you take the Black Pill, you realize that the ultimate underlying reality is nihilistic — that it contains no objective goods or norms, for example. Isn’t the Black Pill like the Red one in that way?

    Yes, I suppose you could say it is. It works at a different level, though; it peels back an extra layer.

    Posted May 4, 2016 at 9:46 pm | Permalink
  27. Jacques says

    “Why can’t we just accept the subjective experience and leave it there?”

    This does go right back to the earlier intractable debate we were having! The reason, for me, is that the subjective experience is itself subjectively experienced _as_ an experience of something transcending subjective experience. Here’s a mundane analogy. I open my eyes and it just appears to me visually that there is a world out there: an objective world that transcends my subjective visual experience of it. So when I see the sun and the stars and the trees and the squirrels, my subjective visual experience has as its content an objective reality. I don’t have a visual experience which is neutral with respect to different ‘metaphysical’ hypotheses. My visual experience is ‘realist’ or ‘objectivist’ and it takes philosophical reflection to generate any psychologically compelling doubts about its general basic correspondence to how things objectively are.

    So I don’t just ‘accept’ my visual experience and ‘leave it there’. Instead I take my visual experience (usually) to reveal how things are in the objective world. I think experiences of guilt, for example, are comparable. They appear to us to be subjective experiences of something other than a subjective experience. When we feel guilt, it doesn’t feel like the guilt is a human ‘convention’ or something that would go away if we just didn’t believe in it or feel it. So unless there is some compelling reason not to trust these experiences, they can be strong reasons for concluding that the objective world is the way that we subjectively represent it.

    Posted May 4, 2016 at 10:40 pm | Permalink
  28. Jacques says

    I’m not sure how to distinguish real deliberation from merely seeming determination. But I think Bill V is probably right. When you deliberate in a serious way, you can’t help but feel (or presuppose) that the outcome of the deliberation is up to you. Without having a good definition to offer, I’ll claim that deliberation is real only if it’s in the power of the deliberator to reach some decision other than the one he actually does reach. That is, multiple outcomes must be ‘available’ in some fairly strong sense. (To be sure, it quickly gets very confusing trying to sort out what kind of ability or availability or whatever may be relevant here.)

    Posted May 4, 2016 at 10:48 pm | Permalink
  29. Malcolm says

    Jacques,

    …I take my visual experience (usually) to reveal how things are in the objective world.

    Right, but with this analogy you are overlooking an important difference: in the case of vision, we can identify with precision the actually existing material phenomenon that your subjective experience is a reliable mapping, or correlate, of: namely the photons, reflected or emitted by objects in the world, that impinge on your retina. The photons would still be there, whether our retinas were around or not. I’m not aware of any such objective foundation for normative perceptions.

    Posted May 5, 2016 at 12:02 am | Permalink
  30. Malcolm says

    …deliberation is real only if it’s in the power of the deliberator to reach some decision other than the one he actually does reach.

    Under what conditions? The precise state of the Universe that applied when the choice was made? But of course those conditions only have, and only ever will, apply exactly once, and we made the choice we made. So how can we ever know if, in those circumstances, we “could have done otherwise”?

    Moreover, what, in any practical or actually desirable sense, would we want to have “caused” our choice in the first place? Wouldn’t it be some combination of our desires and our interests, weighed in the context of our options and the available information? But that’s what we do anyway, regardless of the unknowable and unrepeatable microdetails of the state of the Universe. This idealized concept of a “free” choice, that is somehow radically uncaused by any of the things we would rationally want our choices to be determined by, seems incoherent to me. If that’s what “free will” is supposed to mean, why would anybody care about having it? What’s it good for?

    Add to all that the fact that we both experience our choices as being our own, and must, to preserve order, ascribe agency to others, and I begin to find the whole question of atomic-level “free will” far less interesting or important than it’s cracked up to be.

    As Daniel Dennett said, “If you make yourself small enough, you can externalize everything.” But why on Earth would we want to do that?

    Posted May 5, 2016 at 12:17 am | Permalink
  31. Jacques says

    “in the case of vision, we can identify with precision the actually existing material phenomenon that your subjective experience is a reliable mapping, or correlate, of: namely the photons”

    You seem to be assuming something like the following principle:

    “An experience with the content [X exists] justifies the subject in believing [X exists] only if we have some other way of identifying X with a ‘material phenomenon'”.

    And I’m saying that the experience alone_already_ justifies the relevant belief, provided that (a) there’s no reason for thinking its content false and (b) there’s no reason for thinking the faculties that caused the experience are unreliable. Say that when (a) and (b) hold there are no ‘defeaters’ for my belief.

    In passing, ‘objective’ doesn’t mean ‘material’. Obviously, in claiming that there are objective moral norms I don’t mean to identify these objective things with material things of any kind! There are lots of objective immaterial things, such as truth or meaning. Or experience, for that matter.

    At any rate, the principle that you seem to be relying on is not true. Even if I knew nothing at all about photon or any other such ‘material phenomenon’, it would still be perfectly reasonable for me to believe that the sun is an objectively real thing just because it appears to me that it is objectively real, and there are no defeaters for that belief. Indeed, if such beliefs were not reasonable we could never have any reason for believing that photons exist either, since beliefs in these kinds of theoretical posits are ultimately grounded in more basic perceptual beliefs. So I think the disanalogy you meant is not relevant.

    Posted May 5, 2016 at 3:53 pm | Permalink
  32. Jacques says

    “Under what conditions? The precise state of the Universe that applied when the choice was made? But of course those conditions only have, and only ever will, apply exactly once, and we made the choice we made. So how can we ever know if, in those circumstances, we ‘could have done otherwise’?”

    I’m not sure, but I’m drawn to libertarian theories of freedom: under the singular conditions of a given free choice, the agent has the power to do more than one thing. The actual choice (if free) is not determined by anything except the person, in those circumstances, who simply chooses.

    How can we know that this happens? Well, I have basically the same argument here as above: it appears to us in our experience that we sometimes have the power to do more than one thing, and there are no defeaters for the belief that we sometimes have that kind of power. So we have adequate evidence for believing that we really do sometimes have it. (Of course, some people think there are defeaters — e.g., some argument for universal determinism. But I don’t think those arguments are really so compelling.) Alternatively, we can know that we have this kind of freedom by knowing (on the basis of appearances without defeaters) that we are sometimes responsible, and knowing (by conceptual analysis) that responsibility requires that kind of freedom.

    Posted May 5, 2016 at 3:58 pm | Permalink
  33. Malcolm says

    Jacques,

    Now we have combat in two theaters at once! I don’t think even the U.S. Army could manage that, these days.

    You wrote:

    You seem to be assuming something like the following principle:

    “An experience with the content [X exists] justifies the subject in believing [X exists] only if we have some other way of identifying X with a ‘material phenomenon’”.

    No, I stop far short of that. We believe all sorts of things, with or without justification.

    And I’m saying that the experience alone_already_ justifies the relevant belief, provided that (a) there’s no reason for thinking its content false and (b) there’s no reason for thinking the faculties that caused the experience are unreliable. Say that when (a) and (b) hold there are no ‘defeaters’ for my belief.

    We could open a third thread here on the nature of doxological “justification”, but I don’t think we need to. I’ll just say that in the absence of defeaters, we can hold such beliefs as we like (or, as is the case at least as often, such beliefs as we find compelling).

    I do say, however, that there is an asymmetry between a belief that is held only because it seems intuitively correct (like a belief in the objective existence of moral norms), and one that is confirmed not only by subjective experience (conscience, intuition) but also by an understanding of the objective framework that gives rise to the subjective perception (e.g., that the tree I see is actually there, and so it bounces photons into my eyes, can smash my car, etc.) That is the basis of the discrepancy I pointed out, and I’m sticking with it.

    In passing, ‘objective’ doesn’t mean ‘material’. Obviously, in claiming that there are objective moral norms I don’t mean to identify these objective things with material things of any kind!

    Yes, I understand this, of course.

    Here’s another asymmetry: you seem keen to persuade me that my view of all this is false, while I’m not attempting that with you. I’ll agree again: in the absence of “defeaters”, we can believe what we like. (After all, you don’t have any defeaters for my belief that there are no objective moral norms!) I’ll freely admit: it may be that there are objectively existing moral norms, that God exists, etc. I’m just saying that there is another perfectly coherent view available, which, for many of us, feels “truer” — but it leads to the Abyss.

    I’m certainly not trying to drag you over here to stare into the Abyss with me! It’s not for everybody. I get weary of it myself, sometimes. But there It is.

    Posted May 5, 2016 at 5:18 pm | Permalink
  34. Malcolm says

    Let’s say I need to choose between P and Q.

    The actual choice (if free) is not determined by anything except the person, in those circumstances, who simply chooses.

    This is the part I find barely coherent. Say I choose P. Why did I do so? There are, as I see it, two possibilities:

    (a) I chose P because at the moment of choosing, I weighed P against Q in the context of all of my preferences, valuations, affinities, aversions, desires, etc., and in consideration of all the information available to my deliberation, understood and calculated and modeled and projected to the best of my ability (all of those factors being conditioned, of course, by my state of mind, health, fatigue, distraction, and so on.) My choice of P was the output of this process. (I almost certainly will not have been conscious of all of this — decisions just seem to “bubble up” — but that’s what was going on “under the hood”.)

    (b) I got all of what I just described up and running, but the decision was somehow completely independent of all of that, and despite all of those factors, could have just as well have gone either way.

    It’s hard for me not to prefer (a) here; indeed I can’t see how, in any meaningful sense, (b) is not simply aleatoric. Fortunately, (a) is what I think we do!

    You, though, seem to prefer (b). So tell me — under your preferred view, why did I choose P? (Pre-emptive notice: to say “well, you just did!” does not advance the ball.)

    Posted May 5, 2016 at 5:18 pm | Permalink
  35. Jacques says

    Hi Malcolm,
    I think all beliefs or knowledge are ultimately based on beliefs that we hold “only because they seem intuitively correct”. Why else do we believe in logical rules, for example? And if we don’t believe in those, we have no rational basis for any scientific beliefs such as the ones that you seem to think are more solidly justified. So if believing that p just because it seems to me that p without defeaters is not a strong kind of justification, no belief is justified and no belief is knowledge. But I reject that implication, so I think we can be strongly justified in believing (for example) that there are objective moral norms.

    I don’t think I can show that your view is false. But I do question the idea that nihilism really does feel truer, once we take into account our belief in moral responsibility, etc. I’m still not sure those kinds of beliefs can be squared with nihilism.

    Your point about understanding the objective framework within which subjective experiences arise is interesting. But what is the objective framework? In my view the objective framework includes not just physical things and laws but also metaphysical things like truth and value. And I don’t think we can really understand anything — including the objective physical framework — except by granting the existence of these metaphysical things. For example, unless truth is a real thing that exists independently of our concepts and beliefs, it makes no sense to speak of objective physical laws. Laws and truth are inter-dependent. So I’d say that by your own standards you have reason to think that my belief in objective norms is in the same category as your beliefs about the visible world or photons.

    Posted May 5, 2016 at 8:02 pm | Permalink
  36. Jacques says

    Now the other theatre :)

    Why did you choose P? I think the question is ambiguous. If you mean “What were the factors that were sufficient for your choice of P?” then I’ll ask why you assume there must be such factors, i.e., that free choices are always deterministic. If you mean “What reason did you have for choosing P?” then I think the answer is “Whatever the reason you had in mind”. I admit there is still a mystery in this line of thought. No theory of this kind is fully satisfying! But I think compatibilism is worse. There’s no mystery about ‘why’ you chose as you did, but it seems incoherent to claim that a ‘free’ choice of yours was nonetheless inevitable given how things were a billion years before you existed. I admit I’m not happy with my tentative libertarianism though!

    Posted May 5, 2016 at 8:08 pm | Permalink
  37. Malcolm says

    Jacques,

    I think all beliefs or knowledge are ultimately based on beliefs that we hold “only because they seem intuitively correct”.

    Mostly, perhaps, but many of those turn out to be false. The history of science, especially 20th-century science, is full of examples — and tellingly, the best examples, like relativistic and quantum physics, are where our intuitions, which in my view are practical systems for getting around in the world in which our brains evolved, come up against situations or scales for which they weren’t designed. (I’m using “designed” here in my sense of the word, not yours.)

    I think our intuitions about moral norms are what they are because they were conducive to human flourishing — so much so that they got wired right in. And I do believe that it is an objective “fact of the world” that they do indeed contribute to our flourishing, but that’s all I am willing to sign on for.

    With all of these topics, when you tug on one thread, you find yourself tugging on the whole web. With your last comment we are beginning to get to yet another hard question, namely the nature of abstract objects. Getting that all sorted out for the ages might takes us hours, or even days!

    If you mean “What reason did you have for choosing P?” then I think the answer is “Whatever the reason you had in mind”.

    Yes! I agree. But I’d say that is so regardless of the opaque microdetails of determinism. We just need to “zoom out” a bit.

    …it seems incoherent to claim that a ‘free’ choice of yours was nonetheless inevitable given how things were a billion years before you existed.

    I don’t think that’s incoherent, but I’m not sure it’s correct, either, given quantum effects. (And now, off we go into “what causes wave-function collapse?”…)

    But I do question the idea that nihilism really does feel truer, once we take into account our belief in moral responsibility, etc. I’m still not sure those kinds of beliefs can be squared with nihilism.

    Well, this is where the rubber really meets the road. Given that neither of us can prove the case one way or another (and we’d be on the front page of the paper if we could!), we fall back on what does feel truer, and what works for us. You believe that absolute moral truths exist. I believe that they don’t, but that we don’t need them to exist in order to live according to our moral intuitions. Because I don’t feel the ontological hunger that you do here, it isn’t a nagging and corrosive problem for me that such absolutes don’t exist. For you it would be, but — presto! — you solve the problem just as well by believing that they do exist. The good thing is that both of us come out fine!

    My post was intended as a help to those whose intuitions (and, therefore, beliefs) draw them to the edge of the Abyss; for many people that’s a very uncomfortable place to be, and I wanted to reassure them that it doesn’t have to be. You, on the other hand, are well back from the edge, which, frankly, is a nicer place to be, and probably a much safer one. (I think it’s better for the world if most people stay behind the yellow line, because there is very definitely a train approaching.)

    I don’t know that we can make a lot more progress here, but I think we’ve done a nice job getting our views on the table.

    Posted May 5, 2016 at 10:13 pm | Permalink
  38. Jacques says

    Thanks for another very interesting exchange Malcolm! And thank you for the blog.

    Posted May 7, 2016 at 9:18 pm | Permalink
  39. Malcolm says

    Thank you too, Jacques.

    Posted May 8, 2016 at 11:57 pm | Permalink