Is It Okay for Nihilists to Doublethink?

1. Introduction

Nihilism is the view that nothing matters. More precisely, it is the view that nothing has value, and there is no reason to do, want, or feel anything (Kahane, 2017). This entails the view that all evaluative propositions are false. What will happen if you come to believe in nihilism? A tempting view says that if I believe that all evaluative propositions are false, I will lose my belief in any evaluative proposition[1]. After all, unless people failed to notice the incompatibility of their beliefs, they typically seem to try to resolve inconsistent beliefs by dropping at least one of them. This, according to Kahane (2017), means that nihilism has scary consequences. If I start believing that nothing has value, then I will likely stop believing that anything has value, and I will thereby stop caring about everything.

2. Belief is Question-Sensitive

On Holguín’s (2020) view, thinking that p is a relation between an agent S, a proposition p, and a question Q. To think that p is to guess that p is the answer to the question at hand, and that to think that p rationally is for one’s guess to that question to be (in a certain sense) non-arbitrary. I will follow Holguín in treating the meanings of questions as partitions, where a partition is a set of mutually exclusive and exhaustive propositions. So thinking is always relative to a partition Q.

3. Doublethink for Weak Nihilists

Now we can return to nihilism. One implication of descriptive best guess follows straight away. One can believe in nihilism relative to one question but believe evaluative propositions relative to another question. Take the following case:

4. Doublethink for Serious Nihilists

However, there is a serious objection that one can make on behalf of Kahane. I’ve only shown that we can doublethink about nihilism given highly artificial sets of credences. In particular, for a person to doublethink about nihilism, it seems required that she has a credence of less than 50% in nihilism. But real life nihilists don’t have such credences. For one thing, if asked whether nihilism is true, many nihilists would happily say yes! Since the relevant partition here seems to be {nihilism, ¬nihilism}, it would follow from descriptive best guess that these nihilists have a credence of over 50% in nihilism. Call these nihilists serious nihilists.

4.1 Possibilities Properly Ignored

We need to allow the restriction of the set of possible worlds that are partitioned. Again, we are treating questions as partitions, where a partition is a set of mutually exclusive and exhaustive propositions. We will also treat a proposition as a set of possible worlds. Holguín treats questions as partitions of logical space. For every partition, the union of all member propositions includes all logically possible worlds, and the best guess is the member proposition in which you have the highest credence. However, it is not clear why we should partition over logical space, and there are reasons to think that the set of possible worlds over which questions partition should sometimes be restricted. We often ignore certain possibilities when we answer or ask questions due to the context we are in. The best guess to a question must be a possibility that is not properly ignored in the context. Once we have updated our account of rational belief to allow for proper ignorance, it can be shown that the possibility of nihilism can be ignored even when your credence in it is over 50%. If this is right, then you can still believe that torturing penguins is wrong relative to some questions because the possibility of nihilism is properly ignored relative to these questions.

4.2 What to Ignore

If there are contexts in which nihilism is properly ignored for the serious nihilist relative to some question, then we have a way for even serious nihilists to believe evaluative propositions. To see whether there are such contexts, let’s first look at the ways in which contexts can rule out possibilities. It may, for example, do so with contextual presuppositions, as shown by the previous example with the Democratic Primary. When answering the second question, the possibility of no one winning a majority m is properly ignored in virtue of the fact that I have already expressed my belief in ¬m, or my belief that someone will win a majority, in the same conversation. This seems to be how contexts work in general. If in a context c, a subject s has expressed a belief in some proposition p, then s cannot answer ¬p to subsequent questions in the same context. In effect, the possibility of ¬p is properly ignored for all subsequent questions in the same context. Assuming that if I believe p, then there will always be contexts in which I can express that belief (after which ¬p can be properly ignored), we can formulate the general principle:

4.3 Nihilism Properly Ignored

According to presupposition of beliefs, if we can show that even serious nihilists may believe ¬nihilism relative to some question, then this entails that there may be contexts where serious nihilists can properly ignore nihilism relative to some question and therefore hold substantive normative beliefs. Take the question: is it bad to torture penguins? An exhaustive partition is:

5. Conclusion

I have tried to show that, given Holguín’s question-sensitive account of belief with an amendment that allows the restriction of the possibility space partitioned by questions, some nihilists can be expected to hold substantive evaluative beliefs and be rational in doing so. In the election case, we expect people with the given credences to think that no republican will win relative to some question but think that Trump will win relative to a distinct question. We also think it is rationally permissible to hold these beliefs. My claims for nihilists are analogous. We should expect nihilists with certain sets of credences to affirm nihilism relative to some questions but express substantive evaluative beliefs in other contexts. There is nothing rationally impermissible or inconsistent about this. Similar arguments to those given in this essay could also be given for moral error theory, epistemic error theory, and other views that deny the truth of a general class of propositions. Contrary to what we might have thought, doublethink is more widespread and rational than it may seem. Contrary to Kahane (2017)’s claim, nihilists are not in danger of losing all of their evaluative beliefs.


1. Blackburn, Simon (1998). Ruling Passions: A Theory of Practical Reasoning. Oxford University Press UK.



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Edison Yi

Edison Yi

This blog contains a collection of satires, notes, and essays on philosophy, economics, etc. I’m a master’s student in Philosophy at Oxford.