I love this book so much. It's the joy of nihilism. Nothing is true. Everything is permitted. I agree completely. I would give it a 10-out-of-10 rating but I disliked the whole second half of the book. So just read the first half. See my notes here. If you like my book “Useful Not True”, you should read this.
Nothing is true.
Everything is permitted.
What is the good life? What is the right thing to do?
Asking these questions is a mistake.
They assume that there are right values to have.
They imply that an answer is necessary, that without one our lives are meaningless, that absent a compass we will be forever lost.
We can live our lives knowing in our hearts what we value, without asking our minds whether we are ‘right’ or ‘correct’ or ‘justified’ in doing so.
So stop asking ‘what is the meaning of life?’
No answer is coming.
Values = your preferences.
You might value apples over oranges, honesty over lying.
You might believe your values to be objective.
But then people who didn’t share your values would be not only different but wrong.
Valuing something objectively will be called judging it.
Coming up with reasons why a value is true will be called justifying that value.
Valuing something while recognizing the subjectivity of that value will be called choosing it.
Claim to objectivity: thinking there is one right answer, some judgements can be correct and others incorrect.
Because a right answer is something outside the individual, this objectivity allows you to think of yourself as being guided by values, following the judgements laid out for you in advance.
This leads to a certainty that eliminates your responsibility of having to choose, and a sense of obligation to act in certain ways.
Because the right answer is something beyond the individual or society, it makes you feel that you’re serving something much greater than yourself.
If morality, justice, and value are somehow written into the universe itself, then to act in harmony with them is to take part in some sort of universal meaning. This gives you a deeper purpose to your life.
Judgements go with ideas of obligation, and morality.
These are the ideas that you should or ought or must do something, that something is morally required of you.
Values can never be justified.
We can never know whether something is better than another thing, and it’s likely that no quality of goodness exists.
Choose the values you would like to live by without first cloaking them in an objectivity they’ll never have.
Values were always subjective.
Embrace them as such.
Some think every belief has to be justified by something.
Otherwise they wouldn’t have any reason to believe it.
That justification usually comes in the form of other beliefs.
Self-evident = you and everyone you can imagine would agree with you?
Feeling something strongly enough does not make the world bend around your feelings.
Relativism is about the variations in judgements across time and space.
Many of these different judgements are contradictory.
If you think that the good life is one of hedonistic pleasure, and I think that it is one of stoic reserve, then our judgements contradict one another.
But, as judgements, these beliefs are claiming to both describe an objective reality.
And it can’t be the case that the good life is both objectively stoic and hedonistic, because the truth of one means the falsehood of the other.
So we cannot both be right.
Each judgement is a tiny minority, surrounded by the thousands of conflicting judgements held right now.
And those judgements held right now are an even tinier fraction of all the judgements that have been held in the past, or will be held in the future.
And all of the people who hold, have held, or will hold those judgements all believe that they are in the right.
What are the odds that any one of your judgements are the correct ones? That you have somehow stumbled upon even one correct answer?
Everyone who you disagree with also believes that they are definitely in the right.
Relativism makes it impossible for law or social consensus to ground morality.
You might try to use these institutions as guides to your judgement.
We are also influenced by the society we live in, our position within it, by our biology,
Influence over judgements explain that conformity.
And so on, with various other demographic factors like income, class, caste and so on.
Supposing that some judgements are correct, this influence can’t only influence people towards those correct judgements.
Where those judgements are contradictory, only one of them can be correct.
Even if you believe that the objectivity explanation applies to your beliefs, you still have to believe the influence explanation for the beliefs of everyone else. Otherwise you can’t explain why the beliefs of other people cluster together in societies like they do, nor can you really account for everyone who disagrees with you.
We can explain why people believe the judgements they hold without invoking things like inherent goodness or objective morality.
People largely believe and feel these things under the influence of all sorts of biological, social, and personal factors.
Doing so is much simpler, and makes far more sense.
Surely everyone can agree on some basics, like ‘don’t harm others’ or ‘do onto others as you would have done to you’?
I doubt that any such agreement exists, especially when you include other cultures, the past, and the imagined future.
It’s only really possible to get agreement on basics when your survey of humanity is an extremely limited one.
That meaning of ‘good’: we might call a machine gun that was really good at killing people a ‘good’ machine gun in a purpose-fulfilling sense.
Purpose could never be a guide to the objective value of things, because purposes are assigned to things by humans.
Nothing has a purpose in itself.
It merely exists.
A hammer without humanity is just a weird bit of wood and metal.
This book is a complete waste of time from the viewpoint of academic philosophy.
A truth which I can never encounter or experience is non-existent.
Saying that you have a right means that others have a corresponding obligation towards you.
‘I have a right to freedom of speech’ would be meaningless without the implication that ‘everyone else has an obligation not to interfere with my freedom of speech.’
If there’s no such thing as obligation, then rights become meaningless.
There’s no logical connection between saying that something is or would be good and proving that it exists.
The only reason you’re disbelieving it is your desire for it not to be true?
Most people really don’t want this to be true.
Nihilism is joy.
Each society’s judgements are unfounded in their claims to truth.
If there are no true judgements, then so is the judgement that ‘failing to respect the values of others is bad/wrong/evil’.
‘We should not judge others’ is itself a judgment.
‘Laws should be stopped’ is yet another judgement.
‘Should be allowed’ is yet another judgement.
‘Thou shalt not make moral judgements’ is itself clearly a moral judgement.
If everything is permitted, not permitting others to do things is also permitted.
If everything is permitted, then denying that ‘everything is permitted’ is also permitted.
That doesn’t mean that there is an obligation to permit everything in practice.
Judgements justify cruelty and exclusion, or deny the freedom of the individual.
You might then say that ‘while none of these are true, this morality upholds social order more than any other, so it is the best and the one that should be followed - while I don’t believe that it’s true, I will certainly do my best to promote it’.
And in so saying you would be wrong.
We’ll call this instrumentalism.
Because what are these criteria for selecting between these systems of judgements but judgements themselves?
Deciding between moral systems based on their likelihood of leading to social order is not dispassionately evaluating systems by neutral criteria, it’s acting on a pre-existing judgement in favor of social order.
The choice of commandments to adopt has already been framed by one commandment - ‘adopt the commandments most likely to lead to social order’.
If all judgements are false, then so is any meta-judgement made between them.
Moral judgement’s importance implies that justifying your beliefs and preferences and goals is important and vital and necessary.
A value, without the aura of truth, becomes worthless to us.
Because what happens when you believe that true judgements are impossible and that they are necessary?
Your values feel subjective, pointless.
Some may only cast aside those values explicitly upheld by their society as ‘moral’.
Rejecting those as lies, trying to break free, they become the embodiment of everything rejected by their society.
They abandon the high and go straight for the low, thinking that that’s where freedom lies, not realizing that the low is as defined by those judgements as the high.
Becoming everything that you have been told is ‘bad’ is just as unfree as remaining everything that you have been told is ‘good’.
Some denigrate values chosen without objective justification as superficial or trivial or worthless, and elevate judgements with that justification as meaningful and powerful and significant.
We often confuse products of our own social environment with eternal constants of human nature.
Values recognized as both subjective and incredibly powerful:
Very few believe that their beloved is objectively the best and most valuable person in the world, and don’t believe that those others are ‘wrong’ or ‘incorrect’ in their choice.
Imagine Sisyphus happy, perhaps walking back down the slope with a subtle smile on his lips and an ironic glint in his eye.
Justifying values or thought is impossible.
Live your life in whatever way you see fit.
Your choice for x over y, pleasure over pain, is not a fact you’re asserting about the world.
There’s no need to logically prove a statement about your own subjective feelings.
It is arational.
You could retain all the content of your previous judgements by just rephrasing them as choices.
Hold your values as choices instead of judgements.
When we ask the reason for someone’s choice, we’re asking them to elaborate about what has caused this feeling or decision.
We aren’t demanding that they prove they actually do feel that way.
We’re concerned here with providing you a basis for action in a meaningless world, not with trying to convince others.
There is no ‘correct’ answer.
There is no objective truth.
Question whether approach.
The question here isn’t whether your values are yours when viewed from the inside.
I obviously have my own position on the death penalty, one that I know reflects no broader moral truth but for which I would nonetheless fight.
This is not a philosophy of pure emotion or intuition.
You could choose to hold yourself to a principle or code stricter than any moral system of judgements.
But if you do so it’ll be at your own initiative, not because you’ve been told or convinced to do so.
You are not ‘correct’ and your opponents are not ‘wrong’.
If we think of our values as objective judgements, then we can find the right ones through logical reasoning.
If we abandon objective judgements and rely on choices instead, we can’t rely on logic or reason to guide our actions.
We have to be arational as we acknowledge and create the values which provide the basis for our action.
This is a task of emotion, of creativity, of reflection, in which there is little room for philosophy.
Logic and reason can show us the way to act on our values in the world, but they cannot tell us which values we should so act upon.
Values are beyond true and false.
If we think of our values as objective judgements, then we can think of ourselves as being guided by something outside ourselves.
This creates a sensation of obligation, and guilt if we do not meet that obligation.
But it also creates ease, and comfort.
We are not responsible for our values.
The ‘right’ ones have already been mapped out, and we are merely following along.
We are examining what we feel, not constructing a coherent set of logical statements.
No guidance is coming.
Ask yourself what sort of person you would like to be, and what sort of world you would like to exist in, and then try to create those as much as you can.
Judgement in favor of truth can be transformed into a choice made instead of a judgement believed.
The value of truth can be chosen knowingly for what it is.
The basis for reason and truth cannot be found in reason or truth.
It must instead come from our arational desires and values.
Nobody wins the other side to theirs with reason, for the simple reason that there is no rational answer to be found.
Phrasing our values as judgements means only that in cases of disagreement each side is convinced that they are in the right.
The great atrocities in this world were done in the name of ‘justice’ or ‘morality’.
The greatest cruelties are always committed in the names of the greatest goods.
Judgement places a great burden on us.
So many commandments or obligations come with so much corresponding guilt.
We stress over whether we are making good life choices.
There is no objective standard against which you could be judged, no binding rules upon which you could be convicted.
There are only those values that you impose upon yourself, and those that are imposed on you by others.
You’re more likely to have some control over your values when you no longer view them as objective truths about the world.
Many of those moral commandments serve the interests of a wealthy and powerful elite, or are relics of a vanished society that are impossible to uphold now.
We are free to do things differently.
‘Is that true?’
With this seemingly simple question comes a whole host of assumptions:
This question presumes that an objective truth exists.
It implies that you’re able to know what that objective truth is.
Our belief in objective truth is a curse.
Because we built so much upon it, the realization of its absence brings the tower crashing down upon us.
When every belief must be justified by an objective reality, the unreachability of that reality implies that no beliefs can be held, no statements made.
Find a way to live with skepticism - to finally say the words ‘Nothing is true’.
Deduction, induction, and perception are the dominant method through which we tell ourselves we get knowledge.
Deduction is only valid if the conclusion contains no more information than is contained in the premises.
Deduction is a process of rearranging statements, combining and recombining them to see in a new light the information we already had.
Any rule that we derive from induction is only as true as the instances from which it is derived.
If we are mistaken in our characterization of these instances then the conclusion we draw from those instances will be similarly mistaken.
We’re told that we gain access to an objective reality that exists apart from our subjective experiences.
In doing so, our statements become true.
And, importantly, reason is the reliable guide to this truth.
So, putting all of this together, we’re told that a true statement, come to through reason, is knowledge.
Many people have an intuition that intuition is the way to truth, a hunch that hunches are correct.
Others have revelations that revelation is the source of enlightenment, or have faith that faith will not lead them astray.
Axioms chosen by a thinker say far more about the society they live in, its unquestioned foundations and uninterrogated assumptions, than any real truth.
When somebody asserts a truth as unquestionable we may very well ask ‘Unquestionable to who?’
The conclusions you reach are determined in advance by the axioms you begin with.
Reason is merely a way of disguising what you’ve already taken on faith.
A correct and incorrect belief feel the same to the person who holds them.
Until you realize your error, they are indistinguishable.
From the perspective of the present it seems as if there has been a progression towards truth.
But it is just as likely to be perspective instead.
If as a 20-year-old you could know the progression of your thoughts until you were 80, you could very well perceive life as a constant decrease in knowledge instead.
Everything society accepts as unquestionable is potentially a mistake.
We can knowingly believe something that we think is false, or untrue, or completely unjustified.
We can act on ideas yet still not ‘believe’ them.
Books we vaguely agree with already, but which articulate our intuitions with a clarity we lack.
When reading such a book a single lucid flash, the profound moment where you recognize your half-formed thoughts in the clear prose of another’s hand, is often all it takes to reflexively agree with everything said afterwards.
I do not want your faith.