No meaning without proof

Golden-eyed tree frog
Image (CC) Charles J. Sharp

“You can’t prove meaning exists! Therefore, nihilism.

“No, that is not meaningful. Nope, neither is that. Nothing is!”

This is the hardest core of hardcore 190-proof nihilism. Some evangelical nihilists go out of their way to pick a fight, and then simply reply “not a proof” when given any reason to think there are meanings, and “nope, not meaningful” to any example you point to. Usually this stubborn refusal to accept the obvious comes with with a smug, elitist air of certainty of impending intellectual victory. It is, in fact, a guaranteed win in some sense…

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[Scene: A university herpetology lab. RANA, a herpetology postdoc, is weighing a frog. An ANANURIST bursts in.]

ANANURIST: You are all frauds! Frogs do not exist!

RANA: Here is a frog.

ANANURIST: That isn’t really a frog!

RANA: Uh… yes, it is?

ANANURIST: You can’t prove it!

RANA: Looks like a frog to me.

ANANURIST: You are deluded by your faulty perception. Also you are blinded by your false anurist ideology. Nothing is a frog, really.

RANA: I think you’ll find that every sane person would agree that it is a frog.

ANANURIST: Everyone used to agree that the earth is flat! That proves nothing. Nowadays, more and more people are discovering the truth of ananurism! There is no scientific proof of the existence of frogs!

RANA: I just weighed it. 37 grams of frog.

ANANURIST: That might prove gravity exists, but not frogs.

RANA: So what is this, if it isn’t a frog?

ANANURIST: It’s just a bunch of atoms.

RANA: It is an amphibian with no tail, nine or fewer presacral vertebrae, a urostyle, a hyoid plate and unsupported tongue, and a protractor lentis muscle; which makes it a frog.

ANANURIST: You can’t prove any of that either. None of those things exist.

RANA: So what would persuade you that this is a frog?

ANANURIST: Logic. You can’t prove the existence of frogs by rational deduction, and you know it!

RANA: Can you prove you exist?

ANANURIST: I am not a frog!

[An ORDERLY arrives from the adjacent Philosophy Department.]

ORDERLY: Professor Nihil, it’s time for your medicine.

ANANURIST, wide-eyed: I do not exist!1 You do not exist!2

[ORDERLY injects him with 2mg lorazepam. He calms down almost immediately.]

ORDERLY: I’m so sorry, Dr. Pipiens, sometimes our charges escape the Department. I hope he didn’t give you too much trouble!

RANA: No… it was… quite interesting, actually.

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Let’s take “no proof!” much more seriously than it deserves. We’ll consider it first from point of view of logic, and then motivation.

At the level of logic, there are two issues: burden of proof, and standard of proof.

The burden of proof argument is that the non-nihilist is somehow obligated to convince the nihilist that meaning exists. Who would accept that? For most people, since meaning is obvious practically everywhere, the natural response is “Yeah, okay, believe whatever insane thing you like, dude” and then to ignore them. There’s no point arguing with flat earthers, or ananurists (people who claim not to believe in frogs), or nihilists (people who claim not to believe in meanings).

Some evangelical eternalists will take the nihilist’s bait. They usually make metaphysical, first-principles arguments, often religious ones, which are easily defeated. This is rather sad. The eternalists are trying desperately to shore up their own wavering belief in eternalism with some argument that fails because eternalism is also false. “Cat food is meaningful even to cats” is the correct reply to “no proof!”, but that doesn’t reinforce eternalism. Eternalists—who enter such debates mostly to try to convince themselves—won’t use it.

Often, if you don’t take the “no proof!” bait, an argumentative nihilist will make one of the many “science proves meaning doesn’t exist” moves, implicitly accepting the burden of proof themselves. We’ll discuss those in upcoming pages.

The standard of proof question is: what would count? What evidence or reasoning would be acceptable? You can point to a concrete example like “cat food is meaningful even to cats,” and the argumentative nihilist can just say “you can’t prove that either.”

That nihilist move proves too much, as we’ve seen. Someone can always simply refuse to accept any evidence or argument for anything. Outside of mathematics, there is no such thing as absolute proof. On the other hand, no sane person will agree that the existence of frogs is put in doubt, much less disproven, by such stubbornness.

Nihilists often demand rational or scientific proofs, specifically. Some eternalists do promote first-principles, supposedly-rational “proofs” of eternalist claims. All are fallacious, so the nihilist rightly anticipates a quick win here. You can’t prove the existence of anything that way (outside of mathematics). Scientific “proof” has also not been considered possible since the mid-twentieth century, when philosophers reluctantly recognized that science can often provide persuasive evidence, but never absolute certainty.

Many meanings that eternalists promote are imaginary, so demanding evidence in those cases is reasonable. It was partly scientific investigation that led many people to stop believing in angels and immaterial souls. By analogy, it might seem reasonable to expect that scientific investigation would discredit meaningfulness too. (That analogy underlies most of the “science proves meaning doesn’t exist” arguments, as we’ll see later.)

Some meanings are like angels: purely an article of faith. Dismissing them for lack of evidence is sensible. Some meanings are like frogs: they are right there. Demanding proof of frogs is not reasonable, and it’s unclear what evidence could force an ananurist to change their tune.

There is no scientific instrument that measures meaningfulness, but there is no scientific instrument that measures frogness, either. A DNA hybridization assay can tell you that one living thing is closely related to another, but the ananurist can say “that just shows these two globs of atoms are similar; it doesn’t prove that either of them is a frog.”

Of course, you can investigate frogs scientifically; that’s what a herpetological laboratory does. Scientifically, a frog just is a bunch of atoms, organized and interacting in particular, observable patterns. You can also investigate meanings scientifically, and there are laboratories that do that. Scientifically, a meaning also is a bunch of atoms, organized and interacting in particular, observable patterns.3 Scientific, empirical investigation of ethics is a substantial field, for example. We’ll look into that in upcoming pages. (Most eternalists and nihilists both assume that meanings would have to be non-physical, so this may come as a surprise to some?)

Let’s turn now to motivations for taking the “no proof,” “not a meaning” line. I can see three. Two are in bad faith, as 190-proof nihilism almost always is. The third can be genuine, in good faith.

First, some people just like winning arguments, and “that’s not a proof” is in some sense always guaranteed to “win.” It makes you look like an obnoxious idiot, but you can have the satisfaction of holding your ground against an opponent. It also can lure unwary eternalists into making silly arguments of their own,4 which you can then dismember and crow about.

Second, it’s the defense of last resort when someone is making a good case for something being meaningful. You can simply refuse to concede when you are clearly losing. It is transparent and leaves you looking weak and defeated, but you don’t have to admit that explicitly.

Eventually you’ll realize arguing for something you don’t believe is dumb, and feel a bit ashamed, and like maybe you should stop. You might find the nihilist rage section helpful in working out how to drop the combative attitude.

The third motivation is fear of getting fooled again, of getting pulled back into eternalism if you admit that anything is meaningful at all. It’s a slippery slope: from cat food to the Rapture, Plague of Frogs, Second Coming, and all that. This motivation is genuine, but the fear is perhaps exaggerated.

If this is where you are at, there’s a good way forward: from 190-proof to lite nihilism. It’s safe. You can continue to reject all the delusional special meanings eternalists insist on. Acknowledging super obvious mundane meanings like “a purpose in making an omelet is to have something to eat” does not lead to glassy-eyed religious devotion.

  1. 1.Peter Unger, “I Do Not Exist,” in G.F. Macdonald (eds) Perception and Identity, 1979.
  2. 2.Peter Unger, “Why There Are No People,” Midwest Studies in Philosophy 4 (1979), pp. 177-222.
  3. 3.I’m using “scientifically” as a qualifier here to avoid taking any position on the mind/body problem. Meanings aren’t entirely mental, but they usually involve mental things. Like other mental things, investigating those scientifically means treating them as physical, and thereby implicitly taking a provisionally physicalist mind/body problem stance. I myself am not committed to that approach to the mind/body problem, nor to any other.
  4. 4.Maybe they will try to prove the existence of frogs by quoting the Bible. Exodus 8:3: “And the river shall bring forth frogs abundantly, which shall go up and come into thine house, and into thy bedchamber, and upon thy bed, and into the house of thy servants, and upon thy people, and into thine ovens, and into thy kneading troughs.”