The spectre of nihilism – 2

WE left the last blog stuck in the pathological stage of nihilism. The problem remains the question of ‘truth’ and its vulnerability to attack. Baker’s solution is that the heart of philosophy is not to ‘have’ the truth but to stand in a constant relation to truth – it is truth-telling as ontology, as a way of being, prior to any epistemology. This is resonant of the idea that happiness can be frustratingly elusive if it is targeted directly, but can emerge when pursuing something else, like an active life. Baker continues: “The test of truth with the other is a collaboration rather than a competitive endeavour because establishing a relationship to the truth is not something that one can do alone.”

Perhaps this notion of living truth rather than having it is exactly what is meant by deliberative democracy as practiced in the Salisbury and Bemerton Heath Democracy Cafés. But living the truth, according to Baker, courage and confidence as exemplified by the Cynics. What happens, though, when courage and confidence are absent – as they so often are? This is exactly what philosophers like Kant and Thomas Nagel were concerned about when they attempted to establish access to moral action in the absence of the desire for it or, in our case, requires courage and confidence. On the face of it the subjectivism implied by living the truth and testing it in relation to other subjects is constantly in danger of collapsing into pathological nihilism. However, all may not be lost because, as Baker puts it, this living the truth ontology comes prior to epistemology, not instead of it. So, if we can bumble along living the truth as best we can, we can still turn to more objective forms of knowledge. This is entering what Baker calls truth in the world as opposed to truth of the world, which leads to the bifurcation of the two worlds that cancel each other out.

Here we reach the core of the problem. It could be argued that when Baker writes about the truth of the world he is referring to attempts to find absolute truth in the super sensory world as in Plato’s Forms, Nietzsche’s sublimated Will to Power, the absolute knowledge of Madhyamika Buddhism or the omniscient God of the monotheistic religions. It’s when these fail, and only when they fail – as when Nietzsche declared that God is dead – that the spectre of nihilism arises and the sensory world is negated with it because it can make no sense of the absolutism either of God or Nihilism. In other words absolutism begets God and Nihilism and its only when one negates absolutism that the sensory world makes sense. In the sensory world truth is a messy affair but it is only in this world that it makes sense. Empiricism does not generate the Truth but it does generate generalizable truths. Art, music and morality do not create timeless Truth but they do create truths that give the illusion of timelessness. Shakespeare, Beethoven and Tolstoy embody truth in the way that Baker means it in the sense of being in relation to it, although, of course there may be cultural limits to this kind of truth.

Science and philosophy, on the other hand can create cross cultural truths, if not the absolute and unchallengeable Truth required in the super sensory world. For example, evolutionary biologists have adduced evidence that altruism performs an evolutionary function. This finds its scientific expression in David Sloan Wilson’s book Does Altruism Exist? in which he claims that ‘altruism is defined in terms of action and in terms of relative fitness within and between groups, it exists wherever there is group-level functional organization’. And it finds its philosophical home in Nagel’s The Possibility of Altruism in which he argues: “At least sometimes objectification will demand that everyone pursue an uncomplicated end which we already acknowledge a subjective reason to pursue; the elimination of pain, for example, or survival, or the satisfaction of basic appetites. If this is the case, then we have a prima facie reason to secure those ends for others as well as for ourselves.”

This being the messy world of our sensory world, of course, altruism will also be in conflict with our more egoistic sentiments and, as Wilson points out, just as selfishness comes in ‘benign and pathological forms’ so too can altruism. But this is our world, not a super sensory world, and it’s in our world where wisdom is required to navigate the benign and the pathological, the slippery truths of art and literature and the paradigms of scientific enquiry. The question is, then, what happens when wisdom is absent?

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