Posted by: Dan | February 15, 2007

Does Reductionism Lead to Nietzsche and Nihilism?

My Evolution Sunday post initiated an interesting discussion with an individual who was quite honest about his objections to naturalism and reductionism being on religious grounds. Specifically, ‘Blogginbaldguy’ (hereafter referred to as BBG) was arguing the following point, it appears:

Perhaps you missed the thrust of the argument. I am arguing that the contrary is impossible. Without God, your interest in migration and biology is ultimately meaningless. Nietzsche admitted so much, although I know from conversing with various atheists not all accept his paradigm.

It appears that this view is what was behind his argument that the functioning of the human mind cannot be reduced to mere neural circuitry, neurotransmitters, and the like. BBG didn’t appear to be contesting the science so much as the philosophical implications, or at least that is how I interpreted him after the comment above.

Now, I’m not a Nietzsche expert, but I know enough about him to realize that he was suggesting that I was a nihilist. Just so we’re on the same page here, wikipedia’s entry defines nihilism as:

Nihilism (From the Latin nihil, nothing) is a philosophical position which argues that the world, especially past and current human existence, is without objective meaning, purpose, comprehensible truth, or essential value. Nihilists generally assert some or all of the following: there is no reasonable proof of the existence of a higher ruler or creator, a “true morality” is unknown, and secular ethics are impossible; therefore, life has no truth, and no action is known to be preferable to any other.

So, does atheism (the conclusion that man was not created in God’s image, but instead, man created God in his image) lead to nihilism, as described above? Specifically, is there objective meaning, purpose, truth or value to our lives? Doubtful – how could we, as humans, ever come to an objective agreement on such things.

All humans find meaning, purpose, truth and value in their lives though. These are subjective characteristics, however, and what may be true for you is not necessarily true for me. These are sociological concepts that the typical creationist doesn’t seem to understand. They’re independent of whether there is a god or not – such characterics are what define our cultures, and are a part of who we are as humans.

For BBG, clearly, he finds meaning, purpose, truth and value in his belief that there is a god. I’m sure he also finds those things in other parts of his life as well – his family, his children, his spouse, activities that he enjoys, his hopes for the future, his nostalgia for the past. These are very personal areas of his life, and he perceives them in a way that resonates with his own identity. To him, even if they’re not “real” perceptions of the world around him, they’re real for him. The same is true for me and where I find meaning in my life.

Which, briefly, is based on my understanding of natural history (I am a biologist, studying life, afterall). The one immutable characteristic of life is the drive to reproduce. Even on a biochemical level, the simplest viruses and bacteria exhibit this. For whatever reason, we’re here, and we hope to survive (succeed even) and have descendents, or at least make the world a better place for our kin to have descendents in. In the way a child asks “Why is the sky blue,” we all would like to know why this is the case. But does it matter? Why is it wrong to say that we don’t know WHY we are here; we should enjoy that we ARE here, anyway.

So for me, and my perspective as a biologist, naturalism and reductionism don’t lead to Nietzsche or nihilism. They lead to a deeper appreciation and awe of the world, and the richness of its intricacy. I don’t need to know why its here – although that’s an interesting thing to ponder – I just know that I find it surprising and fascinating and humbling, all at the same time. And maybe, by trying to understand it better, I can help to make it a better world, in some small way.

And I definitely think that these views of mine disqualify me as a “nihilist.”


Responses

  1. Dan-

    That was a thoughtful and well written post. I appreciate your taking the time to write on this topic. Further, I appreciate the fair representation of my views, and the lack of caricature or straw men. In return, I will attempt to respond in kind.

    While this doesn’t deal with Nihilism, you took the time to mention the below which I find very interesting, so pardon my taking us a little off course momentarily.

    The one immutable characteristic of life is the drive to reproduce. Even on a biochemical level, the simplest viruses and bacteria exhibit this

    Wouldn’t naturalism say that the desire to reproduce at a high rate is implicit in the underpinnings of it as a _system_? For instance Darwin said:

    “A struggle for existence inevitably follows from the high rate at which all organic beings tend to increase.” (Darwin, Origin pg. 66)

    And yet not all human beings (while organic) demonstrate the desire to reproduce. Some decide to only have one child, some decide to have no children. I find this very interesting even though it is a bit off topic.

    Further you said this:

    They lead to a deeper appreciation and awe of the world, and the richness of its intricacy. I don’t need to know why its here – although that’s an interesting thing to ponder – I just know that I find it surprising and fascinating and humbling, all at the same time. And maybe, by trying to understand it better, I can help to make it a better world, in some small way.

    I would agree with you the world is an awesome place, and it is interesting to ponder. I find it curious that you use terms that are laden with content. Doesn’t this presuppose in some way, there is something greater than yourself? Doesn’t it transcend your own existence, which infers some purpose beyond the short life that we have on this earth?

    Your self-assessment is entirely correct, I don’t think anyone could call you a nihilist.

  2. I am sorry, I have not mastered the blockquotes html yet. I recently switched from blogger so please be patient.

  3. No problem on the html. :-)

    To respond:

    And yet not all human beings (while organic) demonstrate the desire to reproduce. Some decide to only have one child, some decide to have no children. I find this very interesting even though it is a bit off topic.

    Indeed. There are many reasons why individuals chose to (or not to) have children, how many they have, etc. Even for those who wish to remain childless, however, it is a common drive to make the world a better place for our extended family – even people we don’t know, and even in indirect ways.

    I would agree with you the world is an awesome place, and it is interesting to ponder. I find it curious that you use terms that are laden with content. Doesn’t this presuppose in some way, there is something greater than yourself? Doesn’t it transcend your own existence, which infers some purpose beyond the short life that we have on this earth?

    Actually, it’s funny that you say this – I actually draw a lot of my impressions of the world from Thoreau’s Walden, and his transcendentalist views, which was one of my earliest and still most favorite books. And in a sense, I do presuppose something greater than myself – not necessarily a god though, and definitely not the God of the Old Testament that Jesus of Nazareth and his disciples assumed to be real.

    What do I suppose is greater than myself? Well, for starters, I think that humans, and myself in particular, are late intruders into the world. There are millions of other species that we share Earth with, and billions upon billions of other worlds that we share the universe with. That vastness alone is sufficient to generate humility concerning something much greater than myself – the admittedly complex universe.

  4. Nihilists generally assert some or all of the following:
    there is no reasonable proof of the existence of a higher ruler or creator,

    check.

    a “true morality” is unknown, and secular ethics are impossible

    Nope. All atheists are not nihilists.

    Atheism is your view of what you believe is true; nihilism vs. hedonism vs. humanism is your attitude towards it.

    Secular ethics are not only possible, they are the only option, even for theists. Plato knocked off the possibility of god-given ethics ~ 2400 years ago with the Euthyphro dialogue.

  5. The trouble is that something can be true ( or false ) even if we don’t ( or do ) like the implications.


Categories

%d bloggers like this: