In the comments on my last NYU Local post, Chris Kennedy wonders how I got from laying out a case that we live in a world completely absent of any concrete meaning and value to arguing that, “the ceaseless search for one is the fundamental worthwhile human endeavor.” I didn’t have the time or space over there to fully connect the dots, but I would argue that the latter conclusion is an inevitable consequence of the former.
Once you’ve come to the conclusion that nobody has conclusively demonstrated the existence of a set of concrete values you can buy into unreflectively, that leaves you with pretty much two options which I outlined in that post: unreflective skepticism and positive skepticism. Unreflective skepticism is the philosophical position that value is either inherently unknowable or nonexistent, so there’s no point in seeking it out, and we might as well just live our lives.
I’ve already talked at length about the problems with that attitude, but here’s a recap: it’s profoundly lonely and unsatisfying, because it means that all that’s left for us is transitory, corporeal pleasures. I’m profoundly skeptical that anyone can live on that stuff alone and be happy. It reduces us to the level of mean-spirited, self-involved children.
Of course, arguing the psychological costs isn’t very persuasive if the unreflective skeptic still happens to think he is factually correct. So here’s something else to chew on: because it is, as I’ve said, unreflective, it’s a position that hobbles your ability to critically assess your own beliefs in a similar with that fundamentalist religion does. The only significant difference is that religion promises spiritual fulfillment, while all unreflective skepticism promises is a smug sense of rationalized self-satisfaction.
Besides which, any unreflective position leaves you fundamentally unfree and chained to that position. I’ve written before about the idea that we don’t “choose” our unreflective beliefs in any meaningful sense, which means that the only way to really make a choice on your own is to derive it from values and goals you’ve reached only after a long period of agonized introspection.
This introspection is the position that I call–oxymoronically, probably–positive skepticism. It’s the belief that we don’t know anything about values for now, and that even if we never do, we should make a project out of continually searching/trying to construct and deconstruct those values. Kant argues that skepticism is “no dwelling place for permanent settlement”–I argue that, barring a profound, life-shattering insight of the kind I can’t even imagine right now, we should never be satisfied with any permanent dwelling place.