My Path Out From Intellectual Nihilism

For a good long time, I believed that the truth was unknowable, or at least unknown, and that the scholarly effort, was only really of value insofar as it illustrated this fact. It might well be worthwhile to pretend to play the academic game at one time or another, for practical social purposes, but the enterprise as a whole was just humanity trying to deceive itself into forgetting its enormous and unbounded ignorance — and nothing else.

There were two or three main factors that helped me feel my way out of a trap that looked initially inescapable.

The first was the Great Courses. As I began to listen to some of the offerings of the Teaching Company, and especially as I began to listen to different courses by different professors that overlapped and discussed the same content, I began to feel some hope. The professors definitely had minor disagreements with one another or with the consensus of their field, but it was also impressive to me how much agreement they had on fine details, and the robust arguments and appropriate humility they displayed in making the case for their conclusions.

The second was the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. A professor recommended it as a trustworthy resource, so I began reading around in its many articles. Again, it impressed me to see how agreements were explained and how disagreements were set in context.

And the third, which came somewhat later but still has made a great impression on me, is exercise and nutrition science. It’s something that’s been of interest as I’ve tried to improve my health over the past half a decade. Nutrition in particular is famous for being full of contradictions, disagreements, inconsistencies and misinformation. And so it was astonishing to discover again how much agreement there actually is on questions relating to how to improve health or increase strength.

What’s been especially remarkable about health and nutrition questions is that it’s easy to see the science reflected in real life. I take comfort knowing that experts agree on plenty of things about the ancient Greeks, but I can’t exactly check to find out if they’re right or wrong. On the other hand, when I change my eating I can see the effects in how I look, how I feel, what I’m able to do, and what the doctor says at my annual physical. Believing that there is truth to be found in the realm of health and nutrition can lead to vastly different outcomes than shrugging and assuming that no one knows the truth, or that every perspective represents bids for power and doesn’t get us closer to truth. I didn’t list a resource for this point as I did for the previous two, but Michael Matthews of Legion Athletics and Bigger, Leaner, Stronger was an early influence for me, and Michael Greger of and How Not to Die has been an important guide for me in recent years.

My distrust of reason’s capacity stayed with me longer than I thought it did. Long after I believed I had cast it off, it was still overshadowing me. Over time, though, I think I have largely found my way out of the labyrinth, and I am so glad.

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