But in order to avoid spinning into the nihilism of some speculative realists, where human values are a fluke in an uncaring and fundamentally entropic universe… I think OOO needs to unpack its own theological and anthropological implications.
Over the years this issue of nihilism has come up a few times with respect to OOO and SR. To be quite honest, I’m not sure what exactly is being asked for or what exactly it means. How, precisely, does anything change with respect to values and meanings by arguing that humans are amongst beings, that they are one type of entity among others, rather than arguing that all other entities are correlates of humans? If humans and all other rational entities cease to exist, all sorts of other entities will continue to exist. There will still be frogs, the sun, asteroids, and octopi. What OOO refuses is any ontological framework that reduces entities to correlates of human beings and that renders all other beings dependent on human beings.
Yet how does the claim that fire ants are no less entities than humans lead to nihilism? This is something that I don’t understand. Indeed, I’m unclear as to what, exactly, is meant by nihilism here. Despite the fact that humans are on equal ontological footing with other beings, this in no way leads to the disappearance of values and goals for human beings. We still value things. We still set goals for ourselves. We still evaluate things about ourselves, the world around us, society, and other people in terms of these goals, and so on. Why would all of this suddenly disappear? It’s not as if I come to suddenly experience my daughter as being equivalent to a stone because she is no more a being than the stone is. It’s not as if I suddenly become indifferent to my home, happy to sleep in the sewage treatment plant, because my house is no more an entity than anything else. It’s not as if we suddenly conclude that because humans are no more real than the planet earth we ought to go and start eating humans.
I thus find these questions about nihilism really perplexing. In a certain respect, I find it perplexing that these charges seem to arise in particular with respect to OOO. If overcoming nihilism means evoking the existence of values and meanings inscribed in the very fabric of existence itself, then it seems to me that the only orientation that escapes nihilism would be a theological orientation that sees values and norms as issuing from some sort of divine being. However, I see no reason to entertain such a hypothesis. Again and again we’ve witnessed the triumph of naturalistic explanation, yet I can’t see that there’s ever been any support or evidence for the existence of some sort of divine being that grounds values and meaning. Do I know that such frameworks are untrue? No. But I also find no compelling reason, arguments, or evidence that would lead me to believe them. In my view, this leads to the conclusion that the only credible and legitimate framework within which to pose questions of meaning and values is the naturalistic framework.
Some might say that this leads to the incomprehensibility of why, for example, we don’t just kill and eat other people. “If there’s no transcendental ground that forbids killing and eating other people, then why don’t we kill and eat other people?” I’ve always found this line of argument rather strange. The first point to note is that those living in a framework that is naturalistic and atheist still find it wrong to kill and eat other people. Such people still find meaning and purpose in their life, still evaluate things, still think certain things are right and certain things are wrong, and so on. The fact that these phenomena persist in the absence of transcendent guarantees indicates that transcendent guarantees are not a necessary condition for finding meaning, purpose, and for values and normativity. Indeed, those Northern European countries, which are highly secular, look like pretty damned good places filled with people concerned with justice, the value of human life, etc (hey, anyone up there looking for a philosopher?). Second, it’s unclear to me how transcendental guarantees ever prevented abuses of others or horrific acts. It seems to me that within cosmologies that have a central place for the transcendent divine as a transcendent guarantee of meaning and value, we find that humans are every bit as wretched and awful as they are within secular cosmologies, and that often they are even worse because these transcendent guarantees and declarations are used as a reason for the brutal oppression of other groups of people. Here we need only think of the treatment of women and homosexuals within many religious frameworks, the use of religion to justify slavery, the Inquisition, witch burnings, the treatment of the Celts by Christians, and on and on. I am not, suggesting that secular cosmologies are immune to these sorts of things (the Stalinist and Maoist regimes were pretty awful), but I am pointing out that I see no correlation between belief in transcendent values and decreed by a divine being and recognition of the dignity of humans, the planet, and other creatures that populate the earth.
Along these lines, I’m inclined to go so far as to suggest that a recognition of finitude, that this is it, that you die and that worms will eat you, that there’s no ultimate teleology towards which history is moving, that there’s no ultimate salvation, that this planet is all we have, and so on actually fosters a greater reverence for other humans, life, and the planet. If I believe that a God is going to save me someday, that history will culminate in some final confrontation, etc., it’s easier to have no regard for the present, this world, other people, and the planet. If I believe that I am acting on behalf of a God, if I believe that God commands heteronormativity or that he commands this way as the only true way, it’s easier to kick the shit out of a homosexual or destroy a group of people that practices a different religion. If this is all there is, however, if every life is a singularity that will never be repeated again and that utterly ceases to exist with death, if there’s no escape hatch from this planet whether through the “end of days” or interstellar travel (I’m pretty skeptical about the possibility of interstellar travel given the great distances between stars and limitations of technology), I think you tend to value life a bit more and this world a bit more. Most importantly, within an immanent framework, goals, norms, values, etc., are not given and absolute, but are things to be deliberated over and discussed collectively so as to determine whether they should be followed and endorsed. One will respond that life was cheap for the Stalinists and that they were secularists. However, that’s just it: they thought that there was the possibility of a secular salvation, a final point in history where all would be reconciled, and therefore saw anything as being justified in the present to produce that salvation. Life becomes cheap when the present is subordinated to the future in this way. Yet if we are without any ultimate future, without any final reconciliation, such a teleology becomes a little less compelling. It seems to me that without theological frameworks life is often very cheap. It’s hard, I think, to find life cheap if it is essentially rare in the universe and this is it.