While discussing philosophy on a discussion board, I had a discussant levy the claim against me that I am a nihilist. After telling this person that I am a scientist, a physicist, in fact, he or she flatly said that a scientist could not think as I do, told me to look at what I had previously said on the board, and that was the end of the conversation. This was not the first time that someone completely failed to understand my position on epistemology, so I have decided to make my position plain. First of all, I am not a nihilist, so let’s begin with my disposition and what I do believe.
My disposition: I want there to be an objective Truth, which is to say, I hope that I will someday stumble across anything that looks like it is universal, necessary, and certain. My belief: I believe that there is nothing that can be known for certain. This qualification, at the end of my belief statement, is central, because, while it may be the case that I do know things, I certainly have no way to validate to others that I do. Do I still sound like a nihilist? Maybe, but that is not so, particularly, because of how I proceed from these axioms. For the most part, anyone who believes what I believe simply doesn’t waste his or her time with looking for that thing which they do not believe exists. People have been called insane for less, right? Yet I think that I am as intellectually honest as I can be: I am in a continual intellectual search to prove myself wrong, and I posit that those individuals who are true nihilists are dishonest, in the sense that they reject everything, not just because they can, but because they want to. If such a nihilist were to come across a nugget of truth, it would likely be rejected on the basis of confirmation bias or whatever. Those who do not wish for anything to be a philosophically acceptable proposition have a conflict of interest, in matters of “truth seeking.” At the bottom of it all, they cannot seek for a Truth that they do not wish to exist. Therefore, I consider this, my pursuit, the purest form of Socratic enquiry. That I agitate is the mark of a gadfly, and not exclusively a trait belonging to the nihilist, though they are much refined in the art.
In attempting to explain the above to people, I have been told, “that is all fair and good, but how can such a person can have this kind of philosophy and be a scientist?” The analogy I use is the chess player at a board. Can this individual both play chess and philosophize? Certainly. He can choose to follow the rules, playing, as white, e4 followed by Nf3. He is capable of playing to the dogma of accepted principles of the “culture.” However, the philosopher can also, on the first move, pick up a pawn, and swipe the opposing player’s queen, saying “You lose!” The opposing player complains, “You can’t do that!” The philosopher says, “I just did, and I won.” The opposing player retorts, “That’s not a possible maneuver.” The philosopher says, “It is metaphysics that determines what is logically possible, not the other way around, for, if logic told metaphysics what to do, we should have a science of metaphysics.” The opponent would probably just think the philosopher nuts, and look for someone else to play with, but the point should be clear, and the point is “dogma.” A philosopher can subscribe to a system of dogma, no matter the rules; it just takes a certain amount of training. In any particular instance, that the philosopher does not play by the cultural laws of pretend, at the chessboard or whatever the cultural practice might be, does not preclude that the philosopher can operate within the cultural dogma.
For me, saying, “Okay, assume, in this case, that these operations and principles are in play,” is little more than learning a culture. That I maintain philosophical views, even epistemological views, that conflict with the dogma of a thinking culture, like physics, does not preclude me from being a part of that culture. If anything, it is honest to learn such dogmas, so as to squeeze them for nectar, and see if they yield anything of epistemological value.
In much of what I write, I say that I am willing to take up either side of any argument, and my willingness to do so is a direct consequence of my epistemological position. If one were to try to untangle my views, without explicitly asking me what position I believe is closest to being the truth, that individual is likely to be tangled up very quickly. I do give my opinion, on occasion, but be sure that, in any given thing I say or write, that you have not confused my opinion with an argument I am projecting purely for the sake of philosophical examination. If you do, you might just end up calling me a nihilist or at least incoherent.