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This essay isn’t true

Alethic nihilism is the theory that nothing is true. There is much to gain by taking this radical idea seriously

by David Liggins + BIO

Photo by Alex Majoli/Magnum

Truth is a topic philosophers have spent centuries considering. We have asked questions such as: what is the content of the concept of truth? That is, what is it to think of something as true? And what is truth itself? Can we come up with a true and illuminating account of what truth really is? For example, is truth the same thing as matching the facts? How does truth relate to other important philosophical topics, such as knowledge, reasoning and assertion? Those are all good questions, but the question I’d like to focus on is one that has been discussed far less often. As it’s far more fundamental, it deserves close examination. The question is this: do we have good reason in the first place to think that some things are true?

Our ordinary view is along the following lines. Not everything is true. But some things are: some beliefs and assertions, for example. The longest river in Ireland is the Shannon, so anyone who believes that the longest river in Ireland is the Shannon believes something true, and anyone who asserts that the longest river in Ireland is the Shannon asserts something true. Almost everyone holds true beliefs about many things – their name, where they live, what year it is, and a vast array of other topics. And everybody holds some beliefs and makes some assertions, of course, that aren’t true – and some people make a lot of assertions that aren’t true. But the point is that there are lots of true beliefs and assertions, so there are lots of true things. (Probably there are true things that are neither beliefs nor assertions: true hypotheses, for example. But I’ll focus on beliefs and assertions.)

Now that we’ve stated our ordinary view about what is true, let us critically examine it. There are two reasons why this is exciting. First, if it turns out that nothing is true, that is, to put it mildly, a huge conclusion, one that overturns something we constantly suppose. And if it turns out that not only are there true things, but that they are more or less the things we previously thought were true, then that it would enable us to understand the reasons for thinking that there are true things. Thinking that some things are true would no longer be an unquestioned assumption: we would understand why we ought to think that some things are true.

One way to tackle this enquiry would be to take all the things we think are true, and scrutinise them very carefully, one by one, to see whether they really are true. I think my name is ‘David’, but is that belief really true? When people ask me what the longest river in Ireland is, which admittedly isn’t very often, I tell them it is the Shannon, but is that assertion really true? There are, however, so many things that we ordinarily think of as true that trying to examine them one by one would be a foolish way to pursue the project.

A better way is to think about a theory. Let’s start with a very simple one: the theory that nothing whatsoever is true. The theory says there are no true beliefs, no true assertions, no true anythings. Since we usually assume that there are many true things, this theory is in violent conflict with our ordinary beliefs. It’s a radical theory by any standard. But is there anything to be said for it? Does the theory offer any advantages over our ordinary view of the matter?

There is a special problem here for any philosopher pursuing this project. As the philosopher Jamin Asay puts it: ‘The thesis that nothing is true has long been thought to be a self-refuting position not worthy of serious philosophical consideration.’ And if it is possible to show that it is self-refuting, then we have no reason to believe it. If the theory is obviously a non-starter, that would explain why many find it just absurd.

Let me put my cards on the table. I do take seriously the theory that nothing is true. I don’t think it is self-refuting. At the very least, the arguments that seem to show that it is self-refuting don’t work. And I think that, although it’s a radical view, holding that nothing is true does offer us some advantages. In particular, I think it promises to solve some long-standing philosophical problems. These are all delicate and controversial matters, so I can’t put my hand on my heart and say I sincerely believe that nothing is true. But I do sincerely believe that the theory is worth taking seriously, even if philosophers rarely discuss or even mention it. I call the theory ‘alethic nihilism’ – ‘alethic’ from the Greek word for ‘truth’, and nihilism from the Latin word for ‘nothing’. (The British newspaper editor C P Scott is supposed to have said of television: ‘No good will come of this device. The word is half Greek and half Latin.’ Feel free to choose your own name for the theory if you are as linguistically sensitive as Scott.)

Before we can get to examining whether alethic nihilism has any advantages, we need to see whether it can be ruled out straight away. Why might we think that it is self-refuting? One argument is that alethic nihilism implies the denial of absolutely every claim. Suppose someone makes the claim that human activity is the main cause of global heating. They are perfectly correct. What would an alethic nihilist – that is, someone who believes that nothing is true – make of the claim? We can imagine them reasoning as follows: ‘Well, if human activity is the main cause of global heating, then the claim is true. But nothing is true. So human activity isn’t the main cause of global heating.’ The argument is that alethic nihilism leads us to make denials that we are in no position to make, some of which are positively dangerous.

Another argument focuses on the person trying to persuade us that nothing is true. ‘If you are trying to get us to believe alethic nihilism, you must believe it yourself, so you must think alethic nihilism is true. But, if so, then you must think that there is something true – namely, your own theory!’

Saying something that is the case isn’t enough for being true

These arguments are serious threats to alethic nihilism, but I don’t think they teach us that the theory should be rejected. Rather, I think the lesson to take from them is that the theory as it stands is too meagre. To be more defensible, the theory needs to say more. To see how to enrich the theory, let’s examine another aspect of our ordinary thinking about truth. As I pointed out earlier, our ordinary view says that since the longest river in Ireland is the Shannon, anyone who believes that it is, believes something true. That is an example of a wider assumption, which we can sum up like this: something is true if what it says is the case. For example, suppose I believe there is a fly in my soup. If there is a fly in my soup, then I believe something true. Call this the ‘reality-to-truth link’.

As well as the reality-to-truth link, we ordinarily believe in a truth-to-reality link. Take the same belief again. The truth-to-reality link says that if my belief is true, then there is a fly in my soup. More generally, the truth-to-reality link is the belief that, if something is true, then what it says is the case. The links are different because they run in different directions. The reality-to-truth link enables you to infer that your belief is true, based on the existence of the fly. The truth-to-reality link enables you to infer that there is a fly in your soup, based on the truth of your belief.

The reality-to-truth link is the important one here, because both of the arguments against alethic nihilism rest on it. The first argument portrays the alethic nihilist as thinking: ‘If human activity is the main cause of global heating, then the claim that human activity is the main cause of it is true.’ The second one portrays the nihilist as thinking: ‘Nothing is true. So the belief that nothing is true is true.’ Both those are examples of the reality-to-truth link. The lesson for the alethic nihilist is clear. Alethic nihilism would be more defensible if we folded into it the denial of the reality-to-truth link: then those two objections could not get started. Sure, the alethic nihilist should say that people generally believe the reality-to-truth link. But they should then deny the link: saying something that is the case isn’t enough for being true.

We cannot underplay how strange it is to cut the link between truth and reality. To use a different example: we ordinarily assume that there’s a correlation between whether it’s raining and whether my belief that it’s raining is true. Either it’s raining, and my belief is true, or it’s not raining, and my belief is not true. By denying the reality-to-truth link, the alethic nihilist denies correlations such as this. From their perspective, the belief that it’s raining is not true, whatever the weather is doing. There’s nothing the world can do to make the belief true. That represents an enormous departure from our ordinary assumptions about how truth works. So denying the reality-to-truth link makes alethic nihilism even more radical than it was before. But, as we have seen, it also makes it more defensible.

So those arguments don’t show that alethic nihilism is self-refuting. As far as I can tell, there are no better arguments for that conclusion. Let’s assume that’s right, and move on to examining what advantages alethic nihilism might have in store for us. To explain the advantages, I need to explain some of the long-standing philosophical problems the theory might help us solve. The first one is about a paradox – that is, an argument that seems fine when we look at it step by step, but which must be flawed because it leads to a contradiction. The paradox in question has been known since at least the 4th century BCE: the ‘Liar’ paradox. Imagine someone asserts: ‘The very thing I am asserting right now is not true.’ Is their assertion true or not? Let’s suppose that it not true. If it’s not true, then what the person says is the case, so what they are saying is true after all. In other words, the supposition that it’s not true leads to a contradiction. So the assertion is true. But then what it says must be the case, and it says that it’s not true. So it’s not true. But we already concluded that it is true! So we have a contradiction. This argument must go wrong somewhere, but where? To show where is to solve the Liar paradox.

The Liar, and other paradoxes like it, have been the focus of philosophical research for centuries, in a number of different philosophical traditions. Research continues today, and there is no consensus on how to solve these paradoxes. All the possible solutions look highly unappealing in some respect or other. Some of them are extremely radical: for example, some philosophers think that the least-worst solution is to revise the commonly accepted rules of logic and accept that the assertion is both true and not true. That means that the Liar paradox is far from being a triviality or a mere game: it challenges the methods we use for reasoning about any subject.

The other problem I have in mind is a variation on the theme of the Liar paradox, but it’s not really a paradox, more of an enigma. It’s called the ‘Truth-teller’. Suppose someone asserts: ‘The very thing I am now asserting is true.’ The problem is to work out whether they are speaking the truth. It’s hard to see what evidence we could give for thinking that they are speaking the truth, and it’s equally hard to see what evidence we could give for the opposing view. If you’re a philosopher working on truth and paradox, this problem will sooner or later land on your desk. But it seems impossible to work out what we should say about the truth or otherwise of this assertion.

Sometimes it is hard to make a case for radical claims precisely because they are so radical

Now let me try to show how alethic nihilism makes a difference, starting with the Truth-teller. Someone asserts: ‘The very thing I am now asserting is true.’ Is their assertion true or false? Alethic nihilism gives a quick answer to that question: the assertion isn’t true, because nothing is true. The general philosophical principle that nothing is true directly answers the enigma.

Let’s turn now to the Liar paradox. Someone asserts that the very thing they are asserting is not true, and our task is to work out whether the assertion is true or not. Like with the Truth-teller, alethic nihilism gives a quick and direct answer to that question: the Liar assertion isn’t true, because nothing is true. Alethic nihilism also pinpoints where the Liar paradox argument goes wrong. Recall this part of the reasoning: ‘If the assertion is not true, then what the person says is the case, so what they are saying is true after all.’ This is just another example of the reality-to-truth link. As we have seen, a defensible form of nihilism denies that link. We now see that that denial is not just helpful for seeing off objections to alethic nihilism – it also helps us to solve the Liar paradox.

Such are the alethic nihilist’s proposed solutions to the Liar and the Truth-teller. Making the case that they are superior to the other solutions on offer requires a lot of technical argumentation – which I will spare you. I believe that alethic nihilism is a serious contender. If it turns out to solve these difficult philosophical problems, that is one reason to believe it.

Sometimes it is hard to make a case for radical claims precisely because they are so radical: we need especially strong reasons to give up so much. As alethic nihilism is such a radical theory, that seems like a problem. But here it is not such a problem, because the leading alternative solutions to paradoxes such as the Liar are also very radical. To use the example I have already mentioned, one important approach is to revise standardly accepted rules of reasoning. That is even more radical than alethic nihilism.

One important job the alethic nihilist needs to do is to explain how we came to believe that some things are true. If they cannot do that, their theory will not be very plausible. To close, I’ll sketch out an alethic nihilist account of how we came to think and talk in terms of truth. This happened so very long ago that any claims about it must be extremely speculative. All that matters here is that there is a possible account that is compatible with alethic nihilism.

One thing about truth-talk is that it helps us to say more – or to say more per second. For example, if we want to deny everything that someone has said, we can say: ‘None of that was true.’ That is a lot quicker than going through the claims made and contradicting them one by one. And once we can talk in terms of truth, we can say things like: ‘If Keynesian economics is true, then such-and-such a consequence follows’ – which saves us the demanding and technical business of stating the claims of Keynesian economics.

I conjecture that we started off with an expression like ‘yes’. When someone says something you agree with, one way to show you agree is to say ‘yes’ then repeat what was said. Showing agreement with ‘yes’ is significantly different to truth-talk. We use the word ‘true’ to describe things, for instance, when we characterise someone’s belief or assertion as true. But if I say: ‘Yes, the weather was brilliant yesterday,’ I’m not describing any belief or assertion as true. I’m not even mentioning any belief or assertion. Rather, I’m describing yesterday’s weather, and at the same time showing that I agree with the person who spoke before.

‘None of that is yes’ doesn’t make grammatical sense, but it’s readily intelligible

Now suppose some bold person experimented with using an expression like ‘yes’ more creatively. To show that they completely disagreed with the assertions made by the previous speaker, perhaps they said something like: ‘None of that is yes.’ They moved from using ‘yes’ to signal agreement to using it to describe things. If the speaker agrees with an assertion, then the assertion gets described as being ‘yes’.

‘None of that is yes’ doesn’t make grammatical sense, but it’s readily intelligible. And it’s easy to see how such a way of talking could have caught on. Describing things as ‘yes’ helps us to say more in a way that merely using it to signal agreement does not. In fact, once we use ‘yes’ to describe things, we can say much more. The old way of using ‘yes’ didn’t give us a way of signalling total disagreement, but now we can say ‘None of that is yes.’ And there are plenty of more sophisticated claims that the new way of using ‘yes’ makes sayable. ‘Most of what she believes is yes, so listen to her,’ is just one example.

My conjecture is that truth-talk arose like this. We had a device for expressing agreement that was transformed into a way of describing things. The transformation was beneficial because it enabled us to say more. But it came with a price. We had to believe that some things are true. And we had to believe that something counts as true if what it says is the case. In other words, we had to believe the reality-to-truth link. Of course, our ancestors were happy to take on these useful assumptions without launching a philosophical enquiry to check that some things really are true. And so the assumption that some things are true entered human culture, along with the reality-to-truth link. These assumptions were passed down to us through the generations, just as they are still being passed on to children right now.

Philosophers generally draw on the assumption that there are truths when discussing lots of topics: knowledge, reasoning, assertion. If we discover that nothing is true, all those discussions will have to be rethought. It looks as if the discovery that nothing is true would have massive implications for how we live our lives. For example, it seems to imply that lying is fine. No-one can be faulted for failing to tell the truth – because there are no truths to tell. I would be very uneasy if the theory I’m sympathetically exploring had that implication. Actually, I think it doesn’t. What it does imply is that our understanding of lying has to change. It’s easiest to make the point with an example. Suppose I’ve robbed a bank. My friend lies to give me an alibi: he says I was at home at the time of the robbery. Why was the claim a lie? We’d ordinarily say: because the claim wasn’t true. But the nihilist can’t say that. Instead, they have to say that the claim was a lie because I wasn’t at home. If lying is understood in this way, then the nihilist can say that lying is wrong – although there is nothing wrong with not telling the truth.

Any brief discussion of alethic nihilism is bound to raise more questions than it answers. But I hope that this one illustrates one of the purposes of philosophy itself – that is, to be genuinely critical. To put that another way: one of the purposes of philosophy is to take assumptions that we hardly ever stop to consider and put them under the microscope to see whether they genuinely deserve to be believed.