Thursday, April 05, 2007


There is a closer connection between evil and nihilism than is obvious. Evil is serious harm that makes it less likely that its sufferer will lead a good life (this being the Kekesian definition of evil.) We are subject to impulses to obtain pleasure. To refrain from submitting to them requires that one see that there is a good life to be made from a structure of character and habit that requires foregoing any opportunities to experience pleasure. Nihilism is a belief that causes a person to lie to himself, saying that such a good life is not really good or not really possible. Prudent self-interest being thus undermined, only the moral stricture against harming other people is left to prevent one's fulfilling the impulse to do evil. This stricture is not strong enough in many cases to prevent the action. In any case, one is quite vulnerable to the urge to take pleasure by harming oneself (alcohol abuse, cigarette smoking, and slothful habits being examples.) So, since it is not obvious that one can have a genuinely good life, nihilism lurks. But it lurks unobviously. The origin of some wrongdoing in nihilism is therefore also unobvious.

The gist of the matter is that people sometimes do evil because they think it doesn't really matter - that nothing really matters and that immediately obtained pleasures are the best option. This is why people of religious faith are likely to see those without it as teetering on the brink of nihilism and sin. They think that in a society that lacks it the center will not hold and all hell will break loose. The unobviousness of the mechanism by which nihilism effects these results impairs debate over this point, to say the least. Both sides are prone to misunderstand and disparage the other.

Faith is the result of a psychological transformation in which the efficacy of nihilism is broken because there is a religious experience of the possibility of a genuinely good life. The first component of this experience is metaphysical. It is that the creation of this world is purposive and good. The second component is much more intimately psychological. It is the unlinking of the mind from mundane frustrations, resentments and anger. These are connected, in that the experience of the goodness of this world makes the resentments and the rest seem petty and ignorant. But one doesn't have to be so very metaphysically minded to accomplish the psychological component of faith through techniques of calming and mental release: meditation and prayer.

What of atheism, then? What is the disagreement over nihilism and goodness? The atheist can recognize that the fact that this world exists is good. He can also withdraw his mind from the mundane frustrations and cease to be subject to their return. Besides the disagreement over whether a God exists - an abstract and lifeless question akin to "How many angels can fit on the head of a pin?" and almost entirely to the side of the real disagreement between the atheist and the theist - there is a disagreement over one or the other of the following:

1. The correct description of this redemption: whether the theistic talk can be
eliminated from it.
2. Whether any redemption is necessary. In this case, the atheist who maintains
that it is not is either incorrect or an extraordinarily talented person who has
always by nature been in possession of redemption.

More on this later. Also, we will be returning to our series on John Kekes, and on the two issues in conservatism. As well, I will ask for your help in certain matters of philosophy of language and metaethics.