KRONOS: ‘Nihilism‘ is one of the most ambiguous philosophical concepts. What is your idea of it? Would you consider yourself a nihilist? Does nihilism totally exclude religion? What about Meillassoux’s nihilistic faith fuelled by the inexistence of God?
RB: Very simply, nihilism is a crisis of meaning. This crisis is historically conditioned, because what we understand by ‘meaning’ is historically conditioned. We’ve moved from a situation in which the phenomenon of ‘meaning’ was self-evident to one in which it has become an enigma, and a primary focus of philosophical investigation. The attempt to explain what ‘meaning’ is entails a profound transformation in our understanding of it; one that I think will turn out to be as far-reaching as the changes in our understanding of space, time, causality, and life provoked by physics and biology.
The pre-modern worldview that lasted several millennia and spanned the transition from poly- to monotheism, is one in which the world and human existence are intrinsically meaningful. (I say “is” rather than “was” because this worldview continues to persist today, even among educated people.) In this worldview, there is a natural order, and that order is comprehensible to human beings in its broad outline, if not in every single one of its details. Religion in general, but monotheism in particular, offers the key required to decipher this natural order by explaining most (though not all) of God’s intent in creating the world: God is good, he created us in his image, so that we might strive to achieve goodness, and thereby be rewarded with eternal happiness if we succeed, or punished with eternal suffering if we fail. God is the ultimate source and guarantor of this meaningful order, through which human beings are able to make sense of their lives in terms of a struggle between sin and redemption, the conflict between good and evil, etc.
The emergence of modern mathematized natural science around the 16th Century marks the point at which this way of making sense of ourselves and our world begins to unravel. It does not collapse all at once, but it begins to lose its official theoretical sanction in the discourse of theology once the new science starts chipping away at the latter’s basic conceptual underpinnings. Over the course of a few centuries, the longstanding assumption that everything exists for a reason, that things are intrinsically purposeful and have been designed in accordance with a divine plan, is slowly but systematically dismantled, first in physics, then in chemistry, and eventually in biology, where it had held out longest. Curved space-time, the periodic table, natural selection: none of these are comprehensible in narrative terms. Galaxies, molecules, and organisms are not for anything. Try as we might, it becomes increasingly difficult to construct a rationally plausible narrative about the world that satisfies our psychological need for stories that unfold from beginning, through crisis, to ultimate resolution.
Of course, ‘nihilism’ in its broadest sense, understood as the predicament in which human life and existence more generally are condemned as ‘meaningless’ (i.e. ‘purposeless’), certainly predates the development of modern science (think of Ecclesiastes). But the emergence of modern science lends it a cognitive import it did not previously enjoy, because where pre-modern nihilism was a consequence of a failure of understanding – “We cannot understand God, therefore there is no meaning available to creatures of limited understanding such as we” – modern nihilism follows from its unprecedented success – “We understand nature better than we did, but this understanding no longer requires the postulate of an underlying meaning”. What has happened in this shift is that intelligibility has become detached from meaning: with modern science, conceptual rationality weans itself from the narrative structures that continue to prevail in theology and theologically inflected metaphysics. This marks a decisive step forward in the slow process through which human rationality has gradually abandoned mythology, which is basically the interpretation of reality in narrative terms. The world has no author and there is no story enciphered in the structure of reality. No narrative is unfolding in nature, certainly not the traditional monotheistic narrative in which the human drama of sin and redemption occupied centre stage, and humanity was a mirror for God.
All this may sound platitudinous: surely existentialists had already realized this? But the difference is that existentialists thought it was still possible for human consciousness to provide the meaning that was absent from nature: existence may be meaningless, but man’s task is to provide it with a meaning. My contention is that this solution is no longer credible, because a project is now underway to understand and explain human consciousness in terms that are compatible with the natural sciences, such that the meanings generated by consciousness can themselves be understood and explained as the products of purposeless but perfectly intelligible processes, which are at once neurobiological and sociohistorical. My claim is not that science has succeeded in explaining consciousness, but only that considerable progress has been made, and that the burden of proof lies with those who insist on denying such progress and who presume to dismiss the attempt as impossible in principle. There have been plenty of such attempts, and doubtless there will be more, but I find none of them remotely persuasive, and neither should those scientists actually engaged in trying to understand and explain the human mind.
Of course, many thinkers, including some scientists, persist in trying to wrest some sort of psychologically satisfying narrative from elements of the modern scientific worldview. But this effort is doomed because it is the very category of narrative that has been rendered cognitively redundant by modern science. Science does not need to deny the significance of our evident psychological need for narrative; it just demotes it from its previously foundational metaphysical status to that of an epistemically derivative ‘useful fiction’.
Some might object that there is a latent contradiction between my denial of the metaphysical reality of narrative order in nature and my appeal to a narrative of cognitive progress in intellectual history. But there is no contradiction: it is perfectly possible to track explanatory progress in the conceptual realm without invoking some dubious metaphysical narrative about the ineluctable forward march of Spirit. I think Robert Brandom’s reconstructive reading of Hegel does just this—it frees the normative ideal of explanatory progress from its metaphysical, and ultimately mythological, inflation into the universal history of Spirit.
Like Nietzsche, I think nihilism is a consequence of the ‘will to truth’. But unlike Nietzsche, I do not think nihilism culminates in the claim that there is no truth. Nietzsche conflated truth with meaning, and concluded that since the latter is always a result of human artifice, the former is nothing but a matter of convention. However, once truth is dismissed, all that remains is the difference between empowering and disempowering fictions, where ‘life’ is the fundamental source of empowerment and the ultimate arbiter of the difference between life-enhancing and life-depreciating fictions. Since the abandonment of truth undermines the reason for relinquishing illusion, it ends up licensing the concoction of further fictional narratives, the only requirement for which is that they prove to be ‘life-enhancing’.
I consider myself a nihilist precisely to the extent that I refuse this Nietzschean solution and continue to believe in the difference between truth and falsity, reality and appearance. In other words, I am a nihilist precisely because I still believe in truth, unlike those whose triumph over nihilism is won at the cost of sacrificing truth. I think that it is possible to understand the meaninglessness of existence, and that this capacity to understand meaning as a regional or bounded phenomenon marks a fundamental progress in cognition.
As for nihilism and religion: well, religion’s rational credibility can be rebuked without evoking modern science or nihilism: Democritus and Epicurus did so over two thousand years ago, using arguments that are still valid today, even if theists prefer to ignore them. But of course, the irrationality of religious belief has never impeded its flourishing; indeed, it is precisely what immunizes it against rational refutation, since religion is designed to satisfy psychological needs, not rational requirements. Marx was right: religion will never be eradicated until the need for it evaporates. Obviously, this evaporation will have to be accomplished practically as well as cognitively.
I have not read Meillassoux’s L’inexistence divine so do not know what sorts of arguments he adduces to legitimate the hypothesis of an inexistent ‘God-to-come’. I am sure they will be exceptionally ingenious. But I remain skeptical, since I see no need for any such hypothesis. Indeed, I view this continuing philosophical fascination with monotheism as deeply pernicious and think a moratorium ought to be declared to prevent any further ‘God talk’ by philosophers. I do not think it mere coincidence that the critique of scientific rationality in much 20th century philosophy goes hand in hand with a revival of theological themes. Religion obviously satisfies deep-seated human needs, but it has been a cognitive catastrophe that has continually impeded epistemic progress—contrary to the pernicious revisionism that claims monotheism was always on the side of science and truth. Human knowledge has progressed in spite of religion, never because of it. Philosophers should simply have no truck with it.
KRONOS: Is your career as a noise musician an act of nihilism? Why did you choose the noise genre? What are your noise music preferences? Or maybe you don’t even listen to noise, just produce it? Should noise music be perceived also as a political statement?
RB: I have no such career. But there is a connection between my philosophical interests and my collaborations with musicians. I don’t set much store by labels, but if one is to be used, these collaborations are better described as attempts at ‘non-idiomatic improvisation’ than as ‘noise’. My musical preferences are irrelevant to these experiments. There was a time when I listened to a lot of ‘noise’, but no longer. The issues of ‘noise’’s political and ideological ramifications are too complicated to go into here, but an attempt at addressing them is made in the texts ‘Idioms and Idiots’ and ‘Metal Machine Theory’ (available at http://www.mattin.org/essays/essays.html), produced in collaboration with Mattin, Jean-Luc Guionnet, and Seijiro Murayama.
KRONOS: Does art have any epistemological value? Can it possibly have any?
RB: Yes. See above.
KRONOS: How would you describe your ‘love-affair’ with the speculative realists movement?
RB: The ‘speculative realist movement’ exists only in the imaginations of a group of bloggers promoting an agenda for which I have no sympathy whatsoever: actor-network theory spiced with pan-psychist metaphysics and morsels of process philosophy. I don’t believe the internet is an appropriate medium for serious philosophical debate; nor do I believe it is acceptable to try to concoct a philosophical movement online by using blogs to exploit the misguided enthusiasm of impressionable graduate students. I agree with Deleuze’s remark that ultimately the most basic task of philosophy is to impede stupidity, so I see little philosophical merit in a ‘movement’ whose most signal achievement thus far is to have generated an online orgy of stupidity.
KRONOS: Is there still a need for metaphysics or will science alone do to describe reality?
RB: Science harbours metaphysical presuppositions whether it wants to or not. Far better for it to be aware of them so that it is able to tell which of its metaphysical assumptions are empirically fertile, and which are obstructive and redundant. The only credible metaphysic is one that is sensitive to the philosophical implications of the natural sciences, as exemplified by the way in which physics has reconfigured our intuitive notions of space, time, and causality; or biology has forced us to revise (if not abandon) our intuitive understanding of species and essence. The idea of a purely a priori, armchair metaphysics, presuming to legislate about the structure of reality while blithely ignoring the findings of our best sciences, strikes me as indefensible. This is not to say that there is no room for a priori argument and pure conceptual construction in metaphysics, but that it is illegitimate to infer substantive conclusions about what exists from arguments about relations between concepts. This is obviously a Kantian injunction, but one that I believe remains valid today, however much one might want to contest Kant’s own transcendental idealism, as I do.
Science and metaphysics are indissociable: just as empirical science can be impeded by unavowed metaphysical assumptions, metaphysics becomes mired in anthropomorphic parochialism if it fails to attend to the way in which speculative intuition is subtly constrained and influenced by empirical and historical factors. Peter Wolfendale has provided the most perspicuous account of the relation between metaphysics and the natural sciences in his ‘Essay on Transcendental realism’, which I cannot recommend too highly (available at http://deontologistics.files.wordpress.com/2010/05/essay-on-transcendental-realism.pdf.)
KRONOS: What is your attitude towards common-sense philosophy?
Belief in a monolithic pre-philosophical ‘common-sense’ risks becoming part of philosophers’ own unquestioned common-sense. Unquestioning deference to ‘common-sense’, of the kind exemplified by 1950s ‘ordinary language’ philosophy, is as debilitating for philosophy as the cultivation of heterodox or counter-intuitive claims for their own sake, which at its worst culminates in the attempt to turn a word like ‘weird’ into a term of philosophical approbation—a move as vacuous as it is idiotic. No doubt, there is much blind prejudice and ignorant doxa in ‘common-sense’, but there are also the sorts of hard-won, empirically robust generalizations that provide the indispensable starting point for scientific enquiry. The relation between common and uncommon-sense is dialectical: empirical science sets out from a stock of commonsensical assumptions but attains increasingly counter-intuitive results that often challenge the manifest image of reality from which it started. Conversely, idealist philosophers who make a great fuss about the need to suspend ‘the natural attitude’ or set aside the prejudices of common-sense often end up ratifying the inviolable authority of a brand of a priori or speculative common-sense, usually about the incorrigibility of ‘originary intuitions’ or the indubitable reality of the qualities of lived experience. I find it significant that empirical science has generated far greater imaginative challenges to our ‘manifest image’ of reality than anything conjured through purely a priori philosophical speculation. ‘Common-sense’ is more heterogeneous, and ultimately stranger and more surprising than the caricature which provides the convenient foil for the reveries of idealism. Where empirical commonsense leads to the science whose counter-intuitive results challenge the limits of human imagination, idealist disdain for commonsense often ends up ratifying a more rarefied, more insidious orthodoxy in which ‘failures of imagination are mistaken for insights into necessity’ (Dennett).
KRONOS: Living in Lebanon how do you feel about the February 2011 Middle East situation?
RB: Like most people, I am very heartened by the revolts in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Jordan, and Lybia, and have nothing but admiration for the courage of the protestors who have risked life and limb in the attempt to transform a situation that had become intolerable. I find the attempt to characterize these revolts as manifestations of the desire for Western-style capitalist democracy, and thereby enlist them as ideological victories for neo-liberalism, rather preposterous, and I hope that whatever mode of government comes to supplant those of the toppled dictatorships, it will not simply be the brand of corrupt oligarchic ‘democracy’ that the US and Europe so cynically promote. But it remains too early to tell what will ultimately come of these rebellions, so I am wary of any overly optimistic prognoses: there are too many powerful vested interests ready to do whatever it takes to ensure the preservation of their privileges, amply assisted by their US and European sponsors needless to say. There are no guarantees of victory for genuine popular democracy—indeed the remaining obstacles stacked against the protestors are daunting, if not insuperable—so I remain skeptical of some the more sanguine forecasts about the future. But overall, I welcome what I hope will prove to be the first but not the last rebuke to US and European perfidy in the Middle-East. In particular, I hope this signals the beginning of the end of Israel’s impunity in perpetrating its crimes against the Palestinian people.