Doubt, Nihilism, and the Circular Trap

Underlying philosophy is a tangled nest of peculiar questions that don’t seem to have satisfactory answers. These include apparent stumpers like:

  • Does anything exist?
  • What is reality?
  • Why is there something instead of nothing?

In some sense it seems that anything can be doubted or questioned. Of course, applying this principle to doubt and question itself immediately results in a paradox of sorts: if everything can be doubted, can we doubt that everything can be doubted? But despite this problem it still seems that “why?” can be asked of any statement. It is part of the nature of statements to be doubtable.

While it is part of the nature of statements that they can be questioned, it is part of the nature of most questions to include statements. In fact two of the three “stumpers” I listed above implicitly involve some sort of premise which must be true for the question to be coherently meaningful. When asking “what is reality?” the question assumes that there is a reality; when asking “why is there something instead of nothing?” the question assumes not just that there is something, but that its existence has a cause.

In fact, it seems that the only questions which don’t involve some sort of explicit premise are the simplest ones of the form “Does such-and-such exist?”, and even these involve certain complications when filling in the value of “such-and-such”. If we fill it in with “the French Riviera” to form the question “Does the French Riviera exist?” then the question still isn’t meaningful to people who don’t know what I mean by “the French Riviera”.

So what happens when we fill in “such-and-such” with a word like anything or some other such abstract term? We have a yes-or-no question with no apparent way of picking an answer. Any reason we give for answering Yes or No can be doubted, or reversed. We have reached the dead end of epistemic nihilism. Additionally, if we choose to answer “Does anything exist?” with a No, then we have also reached metaphysical nihilism; there doesn’t seem anything philosophically wrong with this, it just doesn’t explain all of the various things that seem to be, and doesn’t lead to much practical advice for living.

All of this to say that at the bottom level there isn’t a lot that makes sense no matter which way you look at it. Some philosophers blame this on language, claiming the questions themselves are meaningless phrases that we only entertain in the first place because they follow the rules of grammar. Some philosophers (famously Descartes, with his I think therefore I am) start with a premise as given and try and derive their way from there.

But of course this entire discussion is circular at heart, one of the great sins of philosophy. Simply by reasoning, making claims, asking questions I am implicitly accepting the validity and existence of all of the constructs I am invoking. This circular trap seems inescapable – simply to discuss it involves taking premises which are either unsupported or self-supporting. And the requirement for a premise to be supported and non-circular is itself a premise. So.

While the circular trap is, to the best of my knowledge inescapable, that doesn’t mean we should give up right away. Some circles are prettier and more useful than others, and we can still build a useful theory even if it fundamentally rests on nothing but wishful thinking (if, of course, that exists). We’ve got no reason to do anything else instead, right? And who knows, our theory might even provide an explanation for the circular trap itself – wouldn’t that be a circle!

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7 thoughts on “Doubt, Nihilism, and the Circular Trap

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