Saturday, July 11, 2009

More Thoughts on Epistemological Nihilism

Ever since my earlier discussion with Ulcer, who claimed to be an epistemological nihilist but really wasn't, I have been wishing that I could have a conversation with a true epistemological nihilist. I wish that I could talk to someone who truly and completely believes that knowledge is a false concept and that there is no such as knowledge. In thinking about it further, I concluded that I may have to wait an eternity for such a wish to be realized. There is a very simple reason for this--no human being can possibly be a true epistemological nihilist.

In some ways I am saddened by such a realization, but the facts of life ensure that truth is non-variable and cannot be suppressed, no matter how vehemently a person seeks to deny or ignore it. Imagine a young man who decides that he isn't really sure the sun exists. As he continues to question and to systematically throw out all evidence for the sun, he eventually reaches the firm conclusion that the sun does not really exist. Clearly, it is just a common social convention, an arbitrary agreement made by people who seek to maintain the status quo. Believing in the sun, he reasons, is simply used a vehicle for personal gain. Of course, being the free-thinker that he is, he recognizes the truth that the sun doesn't really exist. Now, what would you say about such a person? Those of us who are rational human beings rightly recognize that this poor young man is self-deluded and has chosen to reject the truth. Though he consciously denies the existence of the sun, every morning it shines its bright rays into his window to make a mockery of his absurd beliefs. But, the truth of the matter is, no matter how hard this young man seeks to suppress the blinding truth, subconsciously he is incapable of ceasing to believe in its existence. It is quite impossible to live life as if there is eternal night!

Likewise, we see that with epistemological nihilism, there is no possible way to deny the existence and comprehensibility of some form of knowledge. Just like the young man, there could be many who claim that there is no such thing as knowledge, but they are no more capable of proving their position than alchemists of old could turn lead into gold. Not only are their ridiculous philosophies utterly intellectually indefensible, but even the holders of such enlightened knowledge are unable to believe the philosophies that they claim are incontrovertible.

There is one thing I admire about epistemological nihilists--they are willing to take their beliefs further than the average skeptic. But, that's not saying much. Many people adopt a worldview or set of beliefs just far enough to suit their own purposes, but stop far short of truly embracing their own beliefs. Skeptics are like a man who, feeling that he is being held captive in such a narrow and enclosed vehicle, leaps out of an airplane without a parachute and rejoices in his new-found freedom. The modern skeptic is in exactly such a plight, and yet remains quite happily oblivious to it. Overjoyed by his new freedom, he neglects to recognize the morbid fact of his impending death. The man's latter state is horrendously worse than his former.

Well, the epistemological nihilist takes things further than the modern skeptic. Where the skeptic is content to question only the things he wants to question, the nihilist realizes that if he is going to be consistently skeptical, he must question everything and not simply what he wishes. So, he is willing to question knowledge, purpose and metaphysics. The nihilist, having leapt out of the airplane, has opened his eyes and glimpsed the fast-approaching earth. And yet, he is not terrified. He realizes that the sheer force of skepticism tears apart everything it encounters, leaving nothing but smokes and ashes in its wake. What he does not realize is that skepticism stops at nothing and will completely obliterate itself! Though the nihilist knows he is free-falling towards earth and nothing can break his fall, he has not yet assimilated the fact that he is actually going to hit the ground at terminal velocity. In his foolish blindness, he remains unfazed by the laws of gravity.

But enough analogies and rhetoric; allow me demonstrate the unbridled ferocity of epistemological nihilism. When skepticism faces religion and asks, "How do you really know that the Bible is true?" or, "How do you know that God really exists?" at some point the religious man must admit, "I don't know for certain, I take those truths on faith." Likewise, when the skeptic brings his questions to common observations and asks, "How do you know that the sun really exists?" the scientific man must admit, "I believe that my eyes tell me the truth about the world; I see the sun, therefore I believe it exists." There is no denying the overwhelming power of applied skepticism. The nihilist takes his questions one step further and asks, "Can I really know anything for certain?" and finally determines that he cannot know anything at all, which means that knowledge is a utopian ideal rather than a practical reality--it is a sham! On this basis the nihilist claims that knowledge itself is a false concept since nothing can be truly known. But he stops there. Once he has questioned knowledge and determined that he can't know anything, the nihilist rests his case and seeks to figure out how to live in a world where knowledge is impossible, and how to see in a world where there is no sun that shines.

However, like the fellow speedily plummeting to his death, the nihilist has forgotten to connect the last two dots and feel the impact of his hasty leap. I would like to ask the epistemological nihilist just one more question. How do you know that knowledge is a false concept? Such a question is unanswerable. The nihilist has already claimed that nothing can be known. If he claims that he knows for certain that nothing is knowable, he contradicts himself and ceases to be a nihilist. The only rational answer a nihilist can gives is, "I don't know." And if the nihilist himself is unconvinced that knowledge is a false concept, then he certainly isn't much of a nihilist at all. The nihilist cannot provide any rational arguments in favor of epistemological nihilism since he doesn't know any. Also, the nihilist cannot be a nihilist himself, since to be a nihilist he would have to know that he can't know anything, and he certainly can't know that he doesn't know anything unless he admits to knowing that he doesn't know, which shows that there is something that he knows. As gravity prevails and the sun continues to shines, reality mocks those who attempt to suppress the truth in order to throw off the repressing forces of morality and reason so that they can create their own meaning in the world.

Reason and reality have conspired to make epistemological nihilism an untenable philosophy. As such, I will never have the opportunity to converse with a true epistemological nihilist, though I certainly wish that I could.


  1. The question you ask is a loaded question. It would be like if I asked you if God could create a boulder so big that even he couldn't lift it.

    Epistemological nihilism certainly isn't about bullying everyone with an assertion that you're right and everyone else is wrong; its about surrender, serenity, humility and grace. Its about being intellectually malleable and fluid like water. Therfore, it is perfectly OK and consistent for the nihilist to say that he doesn't know that nothing is knowable.

    The problem you seem to be having is that you insist on defining everything in terms of strict, rigid logic. It seems that, for you, everything is either yes or no. There is no room for maybe. Do you remember my parable about the cube versus the sphere?

    I hope your worldview never fails you because your refusal to be intellectually adaptable means that it will be devastating to you if it does.

  2. I still don't think that the nihilism you are referring to is the commonly discussed form. Epistemological nihilism can't possibly be about surrender, serenity, humility and grace, since to the nihilist, such values can't be known and can't be communicated.

    If you would allow me to quote briefly from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

    "Among philosophers, Friedrich Nietzsche is most often associated with nihilism. For Nietzsche, there is no objective order or structure in the world except what we give it. Penetrating the façades buttressing convictions, the nihilist discovers that all values are baseless and that reason is impotent. "Every belief, every considering something-true," Nietzsche writes, "is necessarily false because there is simply no true world" (Will to Power [notes from 1883-1888]). For him, nihilism requires a radical repudiation of all imposed values and meaning: "Nihilism is . . . not only the belief that everything deserves to perish; but one actually puts one's shoulder to the plough; one destroys" (Will to Power).

    The caustic strength of nihilism is absolute, Nietzsche argues, and under its withering scrutiny "the highest values devalue themselves. The aim is lacking, and 'Why' finds no answer" (Will to Power). Inevitably, nihilism will expose all cherished beliefs and sacrosanct truths as symptoms of a defective Western mythos. This collapse of meaning, relevance, and purpose will be the most destructive force in history, constituting a total assault on reality and nothing less than the greatest crisis of humanity..."

    Nihilism can't possibly support such values, since it doesn't believe in them. Likewise, you say that epistemological nihilism isn't about saying everyone else is wrong... but that's exactly what Nietzsche is arguing! He says that every other belief is necessarily false!

    If you are referring to some other odd brand of nihilism, I would appreciate some quotations or links. As it stands, all of my study on nihilism seems to suggest that nihilism is philosophically an assault on reason and every form of intrinsic or ascribed value.

    To me, the values that you are advocating such as surrender, serenity, humility and grace seem much more akin to orthodox Christianity than they do to nihilism of any form. Jesus Christ Himself is the perfect example of self-surrender, serenity, humility and grace, as clearly illustrated by His death on the cross to save mankind and His willingness to be mistreated rather than to fight back and call down an angelic host to slay those who sentenced Him to death.

    I, too, hope my worldview does not fail. For if nihilism has it's way, then our world will be in the most dire state conceivable. Eugene Rose predicts:

    "If nihilism proves victorious--and it's well on its way, he argues--our world will become "a cold, inhuman world" where "nothingness, incoherence, and absurdity" will triumph."

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  3. The point Nietzsche makes and niilism makes is that everyone is an epistemological nihilist because nothing can be known. "You stupid human, believing you understand something because you see it or because your "using logic" to prove it" is something like what he would say. In beyond good and evil he deconstructs Descartes "doubt" that he is making alot of assumptions just by saying Cogito ergo sum. There has to be something called thinking he has to know that there is an entity that speaks or can speak or exists, he has to know what i is and what am or being is. There is nothing for anyone to predict or to challenge, Nietzsche describes the state of the human as is, stripped of the lies and deceptions of society. You are just playing games and are still bowing to the god of logic.

  4. your not breaking it down enough to process Epistemological nihilism says that there is no such thing as knowledge,
    by saying this we mean that we act upon what we believe to be true and that you can not know something to be true, now as for the sun we believe all of the things we say we know about it, but we don't know ALL about it which is necessary to KNOW something as fact
    im saying all perceived knowledge is actually Truth passed down by others and nihilism is saying that for all we "KNOW" the sun is a spaceship disguised perfectly as a star so that they can observe our planet before accepting us into the inter universal alliance... or an inconceivable other number of possibilities we are just making an educated guess with the whole ball of gases thing

    i mean to say that if knowledge were to exist(and im not saying it doesnt i dont know lol) that it would be inconceivable to any being or fragment of any universe

    actually for knowledge to exist the universe would have to be completely FINITE AND KNOWN to the "it" that Knows something, (and therefore everything)

  5. You shift the burden of proof on us to prove knowledge doesn't exist when in reality the burden of proof is on YOU to demonstrate something that is knowable. But epistemological nihilism isn't hard to defend at all. I'll just give you a syllogism.

    P.1 I don't know if logic is absolute or that our brains and sensory abilities correctly process reality.
    P.2 Therefore I can't know any logical idea.
    P.3 Therefore knowledge doesn't exist.

    You need to prove two things. First you have to prove that logic is absolute. Then you have to prove our brain accurately reflects logic. Good luck.

  6. Nothing exists, you have to understand you are nothing, litterally less than nothing at all.

    you have to realize that you are absolutely nothing important, the only importance is within you OWN mind and your OWN thoughts.

    The thing is..... these thoughts are just illusions created by your mind to provide you with this "false" sense of satisfaction within your life. Basicly you are only as important as your mind holds yourself to be, in this way mentally retarded people and religious people are able to be blissfully ignorant.
    Thier ignorance stems from the fact that they truly believe that they matter and could make a difference within this world: what they assume to "know".

    The thing is, this world, the people, the animals, even the language we speak are all what we assume to be "knowledge" what we "know" the thing is, if we look a the universe from a large scale we can easily "know" our live affect only other humans, and people within planet earth, which is to the universe what a fleck of dust is to the universe.

    This realization proves that you can "know" nothing about anything of a greater magnitude than this planet. therefore you cannot attain knowledge which indicates that the only human that could be a true Epistemological nihilist is a human that is deprived of all senses and ability to move or expirence this earth. Thus this is the only way to avoid the bias that is created by the fact that the only place you will ever experience is this planet and its inhabitants who do not even truly exist.

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  9. Discussing epistemological nihilism is pointless, since, at least in its purest form, it also asserts the non-absoluteness of logic, on which all philosophical (and all other) arguments are based.

  10. "I would like to ask the epistemological nihilist just one more question. How do you know that knowledge is a false concept? Such a question is unanswerable."

    The question is unanswerable because it's equivocating between two different meanings of the word 'know': by addressing the query to an epistemological nihilist, you're necessarily agreeing that the epistemological nihilist respondent will have to translate the word 'know' - to him or her a null reference - to the concept closest in meaning with respect to his or her personal frame of reference. But the query then refers to 'knowledge' of the sort which the epistemological nihilist denies, i.e. 'knowledge' as defined by your own frame of reference.

    Since you seem to think that knowledge does exist, you must have a definition of what knowledge is, presumably something like 'justified true belief' since that's traditionally how it's been defined - perhaps you even have an answer to the Gettier problem. The epistemological nihilist, on the other hand, believes that true beliefs cannot be justified. Therefore, if one was to convert 'How do you know that knowledge is a false concept?' into a well-formed, comprehensible question, it ought to read "Why do you believe it to be true that 'justified true belief' is a false concept?"

    At which point, the epistemological nihilist simply replies "The burden of proof that epistemological justification exists is on you."

  11. I think you are conflating "epistemic" and "epistemological" in your post. Epistemic refers solely to knowledge, while "epistemologia" translates etymologically to "knowledge(ἐπιστήμη)-logic(λόγος)". That is to say, epistemology concerns itself with knowledge-production, a notion that precedes the essence encapsulated in knowledge itself. An epistemological nihilist rejects metaphysical form/essence without metaphysical modeling.

    So, when your hypothetical nihilist rejects the existence of sun, he rejects the knowledge of the sun's existence at the level of representation (i.e. the form does not exist), yet he falls within the western dialectic of presence-absence. Thus, his rejection is based within a typified form of knowledge-production "The sun is absent because it is not present", he says, yet he is haunted by the reality of the sun's presence because he HAS NOT rejected the royalized epistemology that assumes the dialectic of presence-absence. So, while the metaphysical nihilist rejects Platonic form initially, he is trapped within the confines of the modern movement, forced to utilize its Platonic epistemology.

    The epistemological nihilist, on the other hand, negates the system of knowledge-production based within the metaphysics of presence-absence. In fact, he must reject (read: negate) all metaphysical presuppositions to epistemological systems for a breadth of skepticism. The epistemological nihilist will say "I reject the sun despite the fact that I see it, because I reject the system through which we decide the sun exists." He does not engage with the metaphysical state of the form, but instead he rejects any system through which we can come to an understanding of ANY form. That is to say, assuming the existence or non-existence of the sun for an epistemological nihilist is a silly thing to do, because he does not negate the form. He negates the method by which we get to the form.

    So, how does such a being exist? Well, our epistemological nihilist is unsure that he does to begin with, yet whether or not he does is unimportant to him. He lives without any concern for form, without some sort of pessimism and also without optimism. He exists within the limit (in the mathematical sense) between knowing and not knowing, and he does so in a way that is free from dialectical constraint. Beyond that, I could not begin to determine the epistemological state of the epistemological nihilist.