Personally I am an advocate of the idea that the universe is essentially a meaningless place, onto which we impose meaning. We create significance, we constitute it – we don’t find it. However, there is a dangerous ambiguity lurking in this brief description. I said that the universe is meaningless – the events in it are without significance – without us. But what does it mean to say that something is meaningless? To call something meaningless is not to leave it exactly as it was, it is to look at it in a certain way. It is to deny the existence of meaningful relationships between it and other things. This looks very much like giving meaning to it, like taking up an attitude towards it, like interpreting it. In other words, “meaningless” is itself a meaning that can be given to things. To say that something is meaningless is not to deny it meaning, it is to give it a meaning – albeit a rather empty one. Nihilism is simply one way of constituting the world, not a refusal to constitute the world at all.
This raises the question of what things are like then before we give them meanings. In a way the question cannot be properly answered. We cannot say that they have significant relationships to other things, because that is to say they have meaning intrinsically. But neither can we assert that they lack such relationships, because that is a significant fact on its own, which is also to say that they have meaning intrinsically (the meaning of being “meaningless”). Perhaps weak souls may simply give up at this point and conclude that on the basis of this dilemma that meanings of some kind must be intrinsic after all. The problem, however, stems not from the fact that meanings are really intrinsic, but that to describe something, to understand it, we have to take up an attitude towards it. In other words, if we think about it we can hardly help but give some meaning to it. The apparent contradiction arose then because we were trying to explain what a thing is like outside all attitudes towards it, while at the same time taking up such an attitude. What we are left with are things-in-themselves, noumena, beings-in-themselves. This are all labels for the unthinkable that sits outside, and in a sense “behind”, of the domain of meaning.
This is more of a terminological clarification than anything, the idea of the noumena has already been done to death by Kant. And besides, what can you say about things of which you cannot think? The interesting lesson is not that noumena pop up, but that meaninglessness is a kind of meaning. One immediate consequence of this is that there are two kinds of nihilists, where nihilists are characterized by the slogan “it’s all meaningless”. On one hand we have the hypocritical nihilist. The hypocritical nihilist goes around labeling things as meaningless without realizing that in doing so they are giving them meaning. Thus the hypocritical nihilist is constantly in the business of contradicting themselves. On the other hand we have the catatonic nihilist. The catatonic nihilist avoids self-contradiction by actually refusing to give things meanings, and the only way to do that is to refuse to interact with them. Thus the catatonic nihilist must curl into a ball and shut out the world.
This is why nihilism is an absurd position. Are there ways for the nihilist to be consistent? Yes. The nihilist could embrace the terminological clarification we have made here and run around saying “it’s all noumena”. But this would hardly be shocking, because the claim that noumena exist and in some way lie behind the world we experience in no way contradicts our ability to find meaning in the world. Or the nihilist may admit that they had something more traditional in mind when they made their claim. Perhaps they meant only to deny the existence of absolute meanings or divinely ordained meanings. But is there really anything shocking about that these days? We are well aware that most meanings, and most values, vary from culture to culture. We would hardly be shocked if we ran into a culture that thought gold was worthless, even though our culture values it highly.
If it is at all bothersome it must be because we are attached to some small set of meanings that we hold to be above this. Ethical values, perhaps, or the significance of life. But I would say that there is nothing contradictory about denying absolute meanings while still holding on to an absolutist system of ethics. In fact the absolutist must affirm this. From the absolutist perspective an ethical fact is not something that exists because we constitute it. Rightness and wrongness are independent of people and their opinions about rightness and wrongness. Thus, so conceived, rightness and wrongness are not a meaning. Rightness and wrongness are as much a fact as the hight of the desk or the weight of the lamp. They are something that belongs to the noumena; they are something that we give a meaning to. Just as we give a meaning to the weight of the lamp (heavy enough to serve as a paperweight) so too would we give meaning to ethical facts. Thus the absolutist position, if it is indeed correct, is in no way threatened by the denial of absolute meanings. Nor is the relativist for that matter.
Perhaps I have once again made a straw man out of the nihilist’s position. Can’t the nihilist simply accompany their denial of absolute meanings with the additional assertion that ethical values are meaning and not facts? Perhaps they could, and this would threaten the absolutist conception of ethics. However, it is also to beg the question against the absolutist, and thus isn’t much of an argument. We can borrow an argument from the Euthyphro here, and ask why we constitute something as good or bad, if ethical values are meanings we give things. It it an arbitrary choice, or do we constitute it as good because it is good? The second creates a paradox – if good is nothing but our constitution of something as good, then this is to say that we constitute it as good because we constitute it as good, which says nothing. Thus it must be the first – it is an arbitrary choice. But this is nothing more, and nothing less, than relativism. And relativism is the denial of absolutism. So to tell the absolutist that ethical values are meanings and not facts is simply to assert that absolutism is false. Which is not much of an argument against it. The absolutist’s position presupposes that ethical values are facts and not meanings that we assign.
This digression into ethics, while not helping the nihilist look like less of a fool, has touched upon an interesting question, namely how to decide what is a “fact” and thus part of the noumenon, and what is part of the meaning that we give to the noumenon. Given that we can’t conceive of noumena I would say that it is impossible to know the answer to this question; we can’t look at the noumena as they are in themselves and see what we find there. But this is philosophy, the fact of the matter isn’t our concern here. On the philosophical level we are still free to hypothesize about what is and isn’t a noumenal property, on the same basis which we do all philosophy, namely that some ways of looking at the world are better than others. In simpler terms: the world makes more sense if we conceive of some properties as belonging to the noumenal, regardless of what the noumena is “really” like. This is why I think we can describe the size and mass of an object as “facts”, as properties that are what they are independent of us. It’s not that these properties couldn’t be understood as something we are projecting onto the world – they certainly could. We could point out that length is only something that comes into existence for us through our interactions with the world and through our interpretations of our experiences. This is why things shrank as we grew up, although since we are invested in the idea that length is an objective fact we describe that experience as the size of objects seeming to shrink.
But isn’t it absurd to say that length is merely a meaning that we impose on the world, and not a fact? It certainly seems absurd to me. The question is why. What’s so wrong about taking length to be something imposed on the world when it is perfectly acceptable to say it about the aesthetic value of the same item? One distinguishing feature is that we accept that judgments about aesthetic value can vary without indicating that some of them are in error, but we don’t say the same about length. If someone disagrees with us that the ruler is longer than the pencil after we place them side by side we conclude that their vision must be distorted, or that they have misunderstood the word. But if they disagree with our judgment that the pencil is more beautiful than the ruler we shake our heads and accept that they just see things differently than us.
The point is that we take uniformity concerning judgments about length very seriously, and judgments about beauty less so. A lot can hang on getting length “right”. We desire to communicate accurately and clearly about length, and we can only do that if length isn’t up for grabs. Much less hangs on beauty, and so it simply doesn’t pay to worry about having a single aesthetic standard. But I can imagine a situation where things are reversed. Imagine a culture with only a very primitive level of technology. Because they don’t have much in the way of technology they have no need for precise measurements. Indeed they don’t even have words for length specifically. Instead they have words for vaguely defined shapes each of which has a characteristic general size. In this culture there are valid disagreements about whether the ruler is “longer” than the pencil. One person might group the pencil under “A” and the ruler under “B”, which is characteristically larger. But another might classify the pencil under “C”, which is characteristically larger than “B”. Because these notions are vaguely defined, and they accept that there is no “right” way to classify shapes, both answers are equally valid. But, on the other hand, certain aesthetic values might play a large role in their lives. So large that they have developed a complicated numerical system for measuring beauty in its many different forms. They consider it to be an objective matter of fact that the ruler is 5.6 units in the R-h axis, while the pencil is only 3 units in the G-m axis. Thus the ruler has objectively greater aesthetic value than the pencil. If we disagreed with them about this they would conclude that somehow our perceptions were in error or that we didn’t properly understand what beauty means. Thus for them aesthetic value is properly placed in the noumena while length/size/shape is merely an interpretation of the world.
Now it is easy to object to this example by saying that,as I have described them, these people aren’t talking about length and beauty; the words they use simply don’t mean the same thing, so there can be no comparison. And that the words they use to describe shapes do not capture facts, as we take judgments about length to, thus says nothing about whether those judgments actually capture facts. This is a valid criticism. The reason I gave the example I did was because we are so set in our ways that we simply can’t conceive of using “length” in a way that isn’t factual. Thus I described a language that used non-factual shape words to describe something we normally think is factual, namely shape and size, to make plausible the possibility that the same could hold for length, that there might be ways of using length words and length concepts that isn’t factual either. At best this is an illustration, not an argument – and I’m perfectly happy with that because of my metaphilosophical commitments.
Let me finally get back to the point. The point of this lengthy digression is to show that what we choose to see as a noumenal property, and what we decide isn’t a noumenal property, depends on what we, collectively, consider important to communicate about in a clear, unambiguous, standardized, and objective way. We put length, charge, mass, etc into the noumena because they are part of our scientific and technological apparatus where all of the elements on the list are extremely important. It doesn’t matter if they are “really” – whatever that could possibly mean in this context – meanings projected out onto the world, so long as we are all projecting the same ones. Since beauty is not part of this or some similar apparatus we are free to leave it up for grabs.
So now let me tie this back into ethics and hopefully get some closure on this wandering mess. As I mentioned earlier, whether absolutism in ethics make sense under this worldview (where we project meanings onto a meaningless world) depends on whether right and wrong are facts – part of the substratum for interpretation, the noumena – or whether they are meanings. And that, if the second part of this piece is on the right track, depends on whether clarity, unambiguity, standardization and objectivity are things we want ethics to display. Whether they are things we need ethics to display. Obviously that is a philosophical argument in its own right. But I think the answer is yes; given what we do with ethics those features are features it needs to have, and thus we make better sense of the world we are in by placing ethical facts along with length and mass in the noumena (and let us leave questions of whether they reduce to some of those other properties to philosophers with more time on their hands).