What is Nihilism, Anyway? A Chat With Sean D. Kelly, Co-author of <i>All Things Shining</i>

I was curious how the practice of philosophy, mankind's attempts to understand what it means to exist, has been affected by rapid scientific progress in understanding how our brains work.
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How can we lead meaningful lives in an age when the broad culture no longer embraces a single vision of religious truth? In a remarkable new book, All Things Shining, philosophy professors Sean D. Kelly of Harvard and Hubert Dreyfus of UC Berkeley undertake a rollicking survey of three millennia of Western thought, contrasting the ways that Homer, Aristophanes, Dante, Melville, and others found meaning in their worlds. The main challenge we face today, they write, is to find a convincing response to nihilism, a position that they identifying particularly in the writings of David Foster Wallace.

What's particularly fascinating about Kelly is that he began his academic career not in philosophy but in computer science and artificial intelligence. The deep problems that arose in trying to understand the nature of consciousness led him to philosophy. But he remains deeply steeped in the scientific perspective, and I was curious to ask him about how the practice of philosophy -- mankind's attempts to understand what it means to exist -- has been affected by, or perhaps even superseded by, rapid scientific progress in understanding how our brains work.

What is nihilism?

It's the feeling that nothing in the world matters any more than anything else. Nietzsche's analysis was that people once found meaning in their belief in the Judeo-Christian God, but that in the post-medieval world belief wasn't sufficient anymore to give people the sense that things really mattered. The basic philosophical issue underlying the book, then, is: how are you supposed to live your life in order to make it possible that things matter again?

Is nihilism an intellectual problem, or an emotional one?

Some people really suffer from the feeling that nothing seems to matter any more than anything else. David Foster Wallace called it a 'stomach-level sadness.' I think that's a pretty good description of it.

Jared Lee Loughner, who shot Arizona congresswomen Gabrielle Giffords and 19 others, seems to have been obsessed with philosophy, and had some strange ideas about meaning. Was he a nihilist?

It wouldn't surprise me, but I don't know, I haven't heard anything of his philosophy. Frankly, it seems he was mentally ill, in some way or another. But mental illness takes different forms, in different contexts. I wouldn't be surprised if this going cultural concern is one of the things that someone with a certain kind of difficulty could latch onto and really obsess about.

So for a nihilist, does the intellectual idea result in the mood, or vice versa?

I think that the mood is usually first. I think that we experience the world in terms of the moods that we inhabit. Moods are not only inner psychological states. A culture can have a mood, a conversation can have a mood, a party can have a mood. And you can be drawn into that mood. Depending on what mood is, you experience different things in a situation differently. One of the things that Wallace might have meant, when he said that there's this kind of stomach-level sadness, was that the mood of the culture as he understood it was one that revealed the world as lacking any meaningful distinctions.

How can our thoughts or intellectualizations about this mood help us overcome it?

I think that thoughts are, in a certain way, overrated. There are things that you can do to change your mood, but it's like trying to go to sleep: the harder you try to do it, the less likely it's going to work. You have to do other things. You have to get yourself into the right kind of posture. If you're trying to go to sleep you have to perform various kinds of rituals that allow yourself to be drawn into it. One of the things that the book does is to describe what that process looks like for different people in the different epochs in the history of the West.

In your book you describe various techniques for calling forth some of this feeling of things mattering, of being in the presence of "shining things" -- for instance, attending a sports game in order to caught up in the mass excitement, a process that you call "whooshing up." It struck me that you were invoking what contemporary psychologists call automaticity. Was your book informed by the trend in psychology to assign a greatly increased role to automaticity?

I did my undergraduate work in math and computer science, and then I did a lot of work on computational neuroscience. The idea was current in the '80s that if you could build an intelligent system and teach it logic and the most rational kind of discourse, it would be just as good as human beings in the most general sense. But then after this came idea that you might be able to think about the brain not as a kind of rational problem-solver, but as something else.

For instance, a collection of semi-autonomous, automatic systems.

I think that's a terrific development in the sciences, and I'm interested in thinking about it both from an empirical point of view and from a philosophical point of view.

Does that mean that its now impossible to practice philosophy without a guiding hand from computational neurobiology? Indeed, has psychology superseded philosophy altogether?

Even if you had all the details on how the brain works, there's an extra kind of question, which is something like: "How are we supposed to understand our own lives, or our own existence, or the kind of being that we are, and what form of excellence for our being is really the best one for us to be aiming at?" That's a philosophical question, and it's the one that's organizing the book. I don't think neuroscientists can say anything about that.

If neurobiology delivers on its promise to unlock all the secrets of the brain, then it could give us the ability to have this mood that you describe, without needing an intellectual process to get there.

If you found the part of the brain that was responsible for "making things matter," I don't think it would be sufficient to say, "Well, just install a deep brain stimulator in that part of the brain and turn it on every once in a while." I don't think that the life that you want to be aiming at is one in which you arbitrarily push a button on the mechanism on the side of your head every once in a while and start to feel good about things.

So what are we aiming at? If you're Christian, you get to gaze unblinking into the face of God; if you're a Buddhist you get to achieve this selfless one-ness with the universe. What does the Western philosophical tradition, as you see it, give us at the end?

You get a world that's meaningful on its face, and whose meanings are worth cultivating. You get a world in which there are "shining things."

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