From nihilism to knowledge

by Neil Rickert

I’ve been planning to post this for a while.  However, I have been struggling with exactly how to present it.  So I guess I should just blurt it out, and not worry.  The reason for my hesitation, is that I know it will be misunderstood by some readers.

This is related to earlier posts on convention and posts on categorization.

I shall be quoting two short segments from Genesis 1.  There is no religious reason for this, and I will be giving a non-standard reading of what I quote.  My reason for quoting is that the quoted text will be familiar to many.  And it happens to fit with the topic.

Epistemic nihilism

There’s a kind of epistemic nihilism, in which a person’s head is full of facts but he does not believe any of them.  This sometimes explored as a way of investigating the extremes of skepticism.

There is, however, another kind of nihilism that is possible.  And that’s when there are no facts to be had.

Genesis 1:2 And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.

In that kind of formless world, there would be no facts.  There is no form, no structure to the world, so there is nothing for facts to be about.  No description is possible, because there is nothing to describe.


But, then:

Genesis 1:4 And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.

Suddenly, there is some form, some structure.  The world is now divided into light and dark.

That dividing is a cognitive act, an act of categorization.  The world is now carved into two parts, the light part and the dark part.  And now there can be some facts.  “This part of the world is light” and “That part of the world is dark” are two possible facts.  So categorization — dividing the world into parts — makes available facts that were not possible before that act of categorization.

The Genesis text is about the creation of light.  But what really matters, is the ability to distinguish between light and dark.  Biological organisms acquired that ability when the acquired light sensors.

The same ability to have facts arises with any reliable way of dividing the world into categories.  If an organism can categorize on the basis of whether or not there is sound, then it can have knowledge about noisiness.  Combining a division on the basis of sound with one on the basis of light, allows the organism to have, as possible facts:

  • It is light and noisy.
  • It is light and quiet.
  • It is dark and noisy.
  • It is dark and quiet.

Dividing the world into categories, based on some criteria one to know something about parts of the world.  Multiple divisions, perhaps nested divisions, allows for more complex knowledge.

And it works the other way.  Suppose we have a description, such as “the ground is grassy here.”  We can divide the world into those parts where the description is true, and those where it is not true.  And that is a division into categories.  So descriptive knowledge seems to be the knowledge that one can have on the basis of one’s categorization abilities.


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