there exists no evidence for ontological nihilism...
August 20, 2016 12:23 AM   Subscribe

John O'Leary Hawthorne and Andrew Cortens: TOWADS AN ONTOLOGICAL NIHILISM (JSTOR, Springer, Academia.edu )
In this paper, we wish to motivate a radical cluster of metaphysical pictures that have tempted philosohpers from a variety of traditions. These pictures share one important theme - they refuse to accord countable entities any place in the fundamental scheme of things. Put another way, they all suggest that the concept of an object has no place in a perspicuous characterization of reality. Such pictures suffer from a number of fairly obvious prima facie difficulties. They seem to fly in the face of common sense. They seem to suggest that just about everything we say is false. They seem to gesture at a noumenal reality that human language is unable to describe. And so on. Our aim is to meet such difficulties head on, and by doing so, vindicate this sort of radical picture as one that deserves to be taken seriously.

"Ontological nihilism is the radical-sounding thesis that there is nothing at all. Turner, [PDF, Oxford Studies in Metaphysics. Oxford University Press 3-54 (2011)"]
Almost everyone believes that it is false. But this does not make it philosophically
uninteresting: we can come to better understand a proposition by studying
its opposite. By better understanding what Ontological Nihilism is — and what
problems beset it — we can better understand just what we say when we say
that there is something in the world."
What differentiates the ontological nihilist from the ontological skeptic from the epistemeological skeptic? And how does this fit into a scheme of nihilism?

"We started with skepticism, now we do relativism, and I think we should do nihilism" - Markus Gabriel: Ontological Relativism and Metametaphysical Nihilism

"Armed with this general caveat we can divest ontological nihilism — the view that nothing exists — of some of its surface angst by rendering it more faithfully as the view that no thing exists." - Sam Ludford

"It is safe to say that even the mere possibility of ontological nihilism being true would have been hard for Kant to accept, but that does not mean it should not be accepted" - Dustin McWherter

Could There Have Been Nothing?, a review. Does Nothing Exist?, an exploration. Is ontological nihilism the core of the modern world (or just Finland)? Maybe instead it's the ontology of nihilism [PDF]

Ontological Nihilisms and Their Problems [PDF download] - Mark Steen
Concerns of ontological parsimony have driven some philosophers to defend the view that there
are absolutely no things at all (or, at most one—the World). I examine these interesting and
surprisingly well-motivated views and diagnose their errors. Both Spinoza’s ‘field metaphysic’
(attributed to him by Bennett), and Cortens and Hawthorne’s feature-placing based ‘ontological
nihilism’ surreptitiously re-introduce ‘things’ or ‘substances’ into their systems. Alan Sidelle’s
stuff-ontological object nihilism either has to re-admit objects back into his system, or, perhaps
incoherently, and certainly counterintuitively, hold that we create objects ex nihilo by a process
of conceptualization.
Why Is There Something? And Is the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” equivalent to the question “Is there something rather than everything?”? let's trace the lineage of metaontological questions [PDF] and the variations on "Nothing exists" (revisited).

If nihilism is our deepest problem, what is our best response?
Let's just all be monists[PDF]

Or is this just a big paraphrase game?

Like this if you don't exist





... but really, isn't that a point in its favor?
posted by the man of twists and turns (43 comments total) 46 users marked this as a favorite
 
so this is where I say "why, this is the nicest thing anyone could ever do for an ontological nihilist like me," but then you say "oh, it's nothing at all."
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 12:30 AM on August 20, 2016 [39 favorites]


They seem to gesture at a noumenal reality that human language is unable to describe.

but the whole point of language is that it must fail in the end, it's a means not an end.

I will now read some of these links.
posted by philip-random at 12:47 AM on August 20, 2016 [1 favorite]


Does Nothing Exist?

Yes, but so does everything else.
posted by Rangi at 12:55 AM on August 20, 2016 [4 favorites]


I think when you focus too hard on the inadequacy of language to represent — and anyway like even a baby knows that language is inadequate, inadequacy is what language is for — you run the risk of falling into a lame-o epistemological nihilism that leaves you holding that things exist but that they just don't mean anything, or that they exist but only as grounds for arbitrary meaning or whatever. You can't get at what's so captivating about ontological nihilism. Probably something more like "they seem to gesture at a noumenal reality to which phenomena can't correlate" would be a better starting point.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 12:57 AM on August 20, 2016 [2 favorites]


this I promise to anyone who finds me at a mefi meetup and then gets me drunk enough:

I will start talking about ontological nihilism. I will start talking about ontological nihilism at length. Everything I say will take the form of a joke, but, serious. so serious.

and so drunk.

if you're lucky I'll even go into my whole classification scheme for all the different ways that objects can appear to exist when they don't.

There's probably mention of them in these links that I'll be reading for weeks, but several of the philosophers associated with Object-Oriented Ontology come close enough to ontological nihilism to have to fervently deny it. They may be interesting to anyone out there who's interested in radical absence and its relatives.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 1:07 AM on August 20, 2016 [10 favorites]


Suppose there were nothing. Then there would be no laws; for laws, after all, are something. If there were no laws, then everything would be permitted. If everything were permitted, then nothing would be forbidden. So if there were nothing, nothing would be forbidden. Thus nothing is self-forbidding.

Therefore, there must be something. Q.E.D.


I feel like the author is dividing two sides of an equation by zero with this rhetoric. The sentence "suppose there were nothing" requires making "nothingness" just another axiomatic thing, which is forbidden. As soon as it is a thing, it cannot be nothing, by definition. "Nothingness" is therefore unknowable and indescribable. As soon as it knowable and describable, it is no longer "nothingness", but just another thing in the universe of things — albeit something with an odd name. Anyway, it seems weird to use a paradox as the basis for a proof.
posted by a lungful of dragon at 1:42 AM on August 20, 2016 [2 favorites]


yeah, firstly this is just a language game, secondly, if you're working with an idea of "nothing" that's stated in positive terms you're begging the question in the technical sense.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 1:59 AM on August 20, 2016 [5 favorites]


this is where I put in a plug for the methods of apophatic theology.

and this is where I remind myself that it's two in the damn morning and I should probably turn off my computer and get to bed.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 2:00 AM on August 20, 2016 [3 favorites]


So, I think the question is not about 'nothing' or 'nothingness', but about why would such a barren ontology be preferable. If the argument were only that a certain kind of language (for example, Hawthorne and Cortens suggest a language where everything is expressed in sentences similar to 'it is raining', which they think are ontologically innocent) is possible and expressively equivalent to ordinary talk about things, there would be no issue (maybe! the ontological nihilist should do the full work to build this language). Now, what are the reasons to think that it is ontologically preferable? Going back to Hawthorne and Cortens, they consider two motivations. First, simplicity via appeal to Occam's razor, which itself needs to be motivated. But secondly, and more tellingly:
There is also a deeper sort of motivation for ontological nihilism, however. That view has the consequence that many metaphysical disputes - concerning, inter alia, identity, composition or alternate ontologies - are somehow perverse. Such is the widespread impatience with those disputes that this consequence will inevitably be seen as a selling point of a nihilistic approach to ontology.
posted by fmoralesc at 2:30 AM on August 20, 2016 [1 favorite]


English songs are quite fond of ontological nihilism.

"nothing is real, nothing to get hung about"

"life is but a dream"
posted by idiopath at 3:05 AM on August 20, 2016


So if I understand correctly, this argument could be summarized as “It’s always something”?
posted by scruss at 3:13 AM on August 20, 2016 [2 favorites]


Ain't "Nothing" but a cowboy?
posted by Kabanos at 4:05 AM on August 20, 2016 [1 favorite]


Boy, those Seinfeld fans do go on, don't they?
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:26 AM on August 20, 2016 [9 favorites]


I will start talking about ontological nihilism. I will start talking about ontological nihilism at length.

Which I will just counter with Peirce's maxim, which is almost, but not quite, completely unlike ontological nihilism: "Consider what effects, that might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object."
posted by Pyrogenesis at 4:37 AM on August 20, 2016 [6 favorites]


The sentence "suppose there were nothing" requires making "nothingness" just another axiomatic thing, which is forbidden. As soon as it is a thing, it cannot be nothing, by definition.

That is actually the point of the thing you're quoting?
posted by Pyrogenesis at 4:40 AM on August 20, 2016


Ontology recapitulates philately.
posted by jenkinsEar at 4:52 AM on August 20, 2016 [10 favorites]


THERE IS NO SPOON
posted by grumpybear69 at 5:26 AM on August 20, 2016 [1 favorite]


Language is used for more than reference.

Words are things that exist even if they refer to nothing.

/another Peircian heard from
posted by spitbull at 5:26 AM on August 20, 2016 [2 favorites]


I have always felt it is my duty to stand against those who seek to guide us into a utopian fantasy of nothingness as a solution to suffering. It's important to me because those who are trying to dwell in nothingness as a solution to their suffering do not seem to be achieving dissolution of their suffering as promised and I think they may be seeking the wrong solution.

This is a fun thought train and I personally enjoy attempts to disprove nihilism in it's many forms. I have tried to click them and read some of them but I think in part my extensive experience discussing these kinds of concepts with male philosophy majors who also happened to be assholes has left some parts of me exhausted. How do you defend that compassion is important when we can't establish that anything or anyone exists- or should exists? And how could they matter if they don't exist and how can you prove that existing is better than not-existing?

I have realized that likely I can't but kudos to anyone who tries and succeeds and can only rest in the knowledge that I believe it is a certain likeliness that others exist and if they exist they matter and I must let my heart live in faith that reality exists and sensing beings matter and all sensing beings are thus relevant and important to me even if I can "prove" it to no one else.
These are fun to peruse, thank you for posting.
posted by xarnop at 5:28 AM on August 20, 2016 [10 favorites]


What does "perspicuous" mean?
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 6:15 AM on August 20, 2016


Nothing's really matter. Anyone can see: nothing's really matter. Nothing's really matter, to me.
posted by Segundus at 6:35 AM on August 20, 2016 [3 favorites]


Say what you want about the tenets of...
posted by stevis23 at 7:17 AM on August 20, 2016 [1 favorite]


Ontology recapitulates philately.

Are you suggesting that stamps don't exist?
posted by Pope Guilty at 7:33 AM on August 20, 2016 [5 favorites]




Fuck me. I mean, say what you want about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it's an ethos.

-Walter Sobchak.
posted by sparklemotion at 7:56 AM on August 20, 2016


a lungful of dragon: paradox used in proof is done often in mathematics. It's a a valid operation. As is declaring a null set (nothing) as a thing so it can be manipulated in a proof.
posted by chisel at 8:59 AM on August 20, 2016


fwiw, jim holt wrote a book about this and had a great interview with john leslie (not the pornographic film actor-director-producer!) about it a few years back :P

oh and this formulation has stuck in my mind!
"Because everything is attracted to everything else by gravity, that gravity is acting, in effect, as negative energy. Add together the negative gravitational energy in the universe and the positive energy (including all the mass around), and the result is zero. Or so Dr Linde and Dr Vilenkin assert. And observations of the amount and distribution of stuff in the universe do not contradict them. Given that the universe actually consists of nothing at all, explaining its existence becomes rather easier..." (not even wrong? ;)

Ain't "Nothing" but a cowboy?

-a g thang?
-it don't mean nothing...
posted by kliuless at 9:26 AM on August 20, 2016 [1 favorite]


> How do you defend that compassion is important when we can't establish that anything or anyone exists- or should exists? And how could they matter if they don't exist and how can you prove that existing is better than not-existing?

Probably the trick is to avoid conversations with people who treat ontological nihilism as a means to doubt the existence of alterity, but who don't appear to have been thrown into a continual apparent state of anxiety over existence's lack of a self or anything resembling a self.

Also, though, people using ontology to argue against compassion toward alterity (or against the respective value of a hypothetical existence as opposed to a postulated nonexistence) are, I think, making a sort of category error; ethical claims, even negative ones like "compassion isn't important," requires first willingly participating in the fiction that there is anything.

My favorite ontological nihilists are the ones who seem continually gobsmacked by the apparent existence of something despite the impossibility of any real existence. The ones who use it to seem all tough and hard are missing the point.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 9:30 AM on August 20, 2016 [7 favorites]


> I have always felt it is my duty to stand against those who seek to guide us into a utopian fantasy of nothingness as a solution to suffering. It's important to me because those who are trying to dwell in nothingness as a solution to their suffering do not seem to be achieving dissolution of their suffering as promised and I think they may be seeking the wrong solution.

srs question: don't you catch a lot of Buddhists in your net with the standing against against nothingness as a solution to suffering stuff? (apologies if I'm just wildly misinterpreting concepts like sunyata).

also though, postulating nonexistence doesn't necessarily entail postulating it as a solution. really, it's more of a problem.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 9:44 AM on August 20, 2016 [3 favorites]


and can only rest in the knowledge that I believe it is a certain likeliness that others exist and if they exist they matter and I must let my heart live in faith that reality exists and sensing beings matter and all sensing beings are thus relevant and important to me even if I can "prove" it to no one else.

or as was said to me at a key point of a now decades old acid trip: "Everything matters, nothing makes sense." Words to live by, I've found. Certainly, magnitudes more entertaining than the alternative.
posted by philip-random at 9:58 AM on August 20, 2016 [1 favorite]


That is actually the point of the thing you're quoting?

No, they are using things to prove the existence of things.
posted by a lungful of dragon at 11:30 AM on August 20, 2016 [1 favorite]


one real problem with talking about nihilism is that you've got to be really careful with your editing, to make sure you don't accidentally use a triple-negative when what you really want is a double-negative.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 12:04 PM on August 20, 2016 [5 favorites]


Many of these papers start by talking about reality but almost immediately veer off into a discussion of language (e.g. adverbs in "Towards an Ontological Nihilism") and "truth". What does language have to do with reality? Is there any reason why language—a messy, evolved, human mechanism—should be able to describe reality faithfully? Maybe I'm missing some background here.
posted by panic at 1:35 PM on August 20, 2016 [3 favorites]


I can't help but think that even if the supposition were true, that nothing exists, that it doesn't matter; whatever myriad of delusions create the impression that we exist and other things exist, they feel "real" enough, and the consequences of our actions still feel "real" enough, to cause real joy or anguish or ennui depending. And since we're trapped within this framework of delusions, there is nothing we can do about it.

Jesus what a bummer.
posted by Aya Hirano on the Astral Plane at 1:51 PM on August 20, 2016 [2 favorites]


Like panic, something I wish is that this selection of articles dwelt a bit less on language (which I agree is a bit of a distraction) and more on time and memory, both of which are possessed of a ephemerality/fleetingness that invariably leads one toward thoughts of ontological nihilism. If all that currently exists of the past is the trace left by the past on objects in the present, and if memory is understood as an act, performed in the present, of rumination on those traces, also in the present, then the retraction of the present and replacement with a new present moment to moment (with the eventual promise of a present wherein all extant traces in memory of all pasts are obliterated) indicates not just change, but actually the eventual retroactive obliteration of the appearance of existence in all former presents. The sensory experience that appears to indicate that existence exists is a temporary mistake or delusion; the answer to "why is there something rather than nothing" is basically just "wait a sec and it'll be always already gone."

or something like that. That particular depression-bomb is just standard Internet nutbar-talk rather than anything significant. The trick is to deliver the speech with a big smile, so that no one can quite tell whether or not it's serious. Mostly I get a little frisson of hope each time someone tells me a new reason why the reasoning is misguided, which I think is the chief reason why real thinkers (rather than internet nutbars) play around with ontological nihilism.

> I can't help but think that even if the supposition were true, that nothing exists, that it doesn't matter...

I do, though, think it's important to keep the two parts of this statement separate: "not mattering" and "not existing" are distinct concepts, with not mattering being more about epistemological nihilism than ontological nihilism. Maybe the way to keep the experience of only temporarily appearing to exist from being too grinding to bear is to simultaneously hold that nothing exists and also that it matters.

this is where drunk me gets into categorizational schema for the different ways that things that don't exist can matter; they can be absurd, they can be fictional, they can be invalid, they can be hallucinatory. Unfortunately, sober me is incapable of figuring out the differences between these categories.

Can anyone follow the book chapter on Finnish linguistics? With all the missing pages there's something that seems tantalizingly close to being a comprehensible argument, but I can't quite put it together and I know precisely nothing about Finnish other than that it's different from Indo-European languages. As best I can figure from what I can see and understand, the chapter is saying that Finnish has a grammatical form that allows you to refer without affirming the existence of any thing referred to, so that, for example, instead of saying "there is a fishing net," you can just allude to the occurrence of a localized sense of nettedness in which fishiness can also happen.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 2:32 PM on August 20, 2016 [8 favorites]


oh and also:

Metafilter: the occurrence of a localized sense of nettedness in which fishiness can also happen.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 2:39 PM on August 20, 2016 [5 favorites]


I believe that the very act of knowing something creates its own counterexamples.
posted by BentFranklin at 11:54 PM on August 20, 2016


The idea that things are fundamentally separate breaks down when you start thinking seriously about the nature of the borders that supposedly separate them, and this remains the case regardless of how many clever word games you play.
posted by flabdablet at 8:40 AM on August 21, 2016 [1 favorite]


panic: "Many of these papers start by talking about reality but almost immediately veer off into a discussion of language (e.g. adverbs in "Towards an Ontological Nihilism") and "truth". What does language have to do with reality? Is there any reason why language—a messy, evolved, human mechanism—should be able to describe reality faithfully? Maybe I'm missing some background here."

Don't bring epistemology to an ontology fight, damnit!
posted by symbioid at 8:49 AM on August 21, 2016 [1 favorite]


Aya Hirano on the Astral Plane: "I can't help but think that even if the supposition were true, that nothing exists, that it doesn't matter; whatever myriad of delusions create the impression that we exist and other things exist, they feel "real" enough, and the consequences of our actions still feel "real" enough, to cause real joy or anguish or ennui depending. And since we're trapped within this framework of delusions, there is nothing we can do about it.

Jesus what a bummer.
"

Speaking of epistemology - this is sort of what I've concluded about "what we can know" (not infer). The only thing we truly "KNOW" is that which we experience "now". Anything else is illusion - past is but what we call memory, the future is unknown. We experience a flow of time, but don't know anything else except any given moment. So how do I cope with this fact? Accept the illusion of the flow or memorys and past and just live as it appears to be.

Why waste time worrying about it? I don't think a 10 year old child mining for some rare-earth mineral in Afghanistan is going to fucking give a shit about whether the shit he's dealing with in life is "real" or not. To his experience, it IS. And that experience, for all practical purposes, is enough.

Now yes, it's fun to play philosophical and important in the grand collective narrative of understanding (similarly to scientific inquiry of things that appear to not directly matter to our condition of day to day living), but in that day to day living -- the only philosophical concern is how do we survive and live in the world we do. And perhaps that ontological compass is that which gives us the bearing to maintain our orientation in this life, our lodestar to the grave.

But for most people it's not a conscious concern. This isn't meant as a negative judgement. I love to philosophize in my amateur way, but it's all too easy to take our supposition's worth as far more than it deserves to be when the reality on the ground is so different for so many.

Though was that quote? The point of philosophy isn't to examine the world it is to change it? I suppose in a collective sense, changing a weltanschauung of a society and it's ethos and modes of thinking to cope with reality is an important endeavour for good or ill.
posted by symbioid at 8:56 AM on August 21, 2016


Totally exasperating.

If it's not one thing, it's another.
posted by BlueHorse at 9:27 AM on August 21, 2016 [2 favorites]


The idea that things are fundamentally separate breaks down when you start thinking seriously about the nature of the borders that supposedly separate them, and this remains the case regardless of how many clever word games you play.

I wrote a short historical overview about this as it pertains to organisms.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 5:27 AM on August 22, 2016 [3 favorites]


That's so great, and beautifully written, Pyro! Now I want to read more of your work, on any topic(s).
posted by the quidnunc kid at 11:48 AM on August 22, 2016


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