Sunday, October 03, 2004

A Nihilist, his T-Shirt, and the Mattering Regress

I was once walking down the street of a bohemian district. An alienated teenager came toward me, his T-shirt bearing the inscription: Nothing matters. After he passed me, I turned around to see what a nihilist looks like from behind. The back of his T-shirt read: And what if it did?

That got me thinking: what does the second inscription amount to, and is it coherent? Presumably it means that even if something did matter, then its mattering wouldn’t matter. Suppose, with a nod in the direction of Peter Geach, that logic matters. Is it coherent to say that logic matters, but that it does not matter that logic matters? Or, to take a more concrete example, given that it matters to me that I eat dinner, is this consistent with this mattering’s not mattering?

I say it isn’t. I say that if p matters, then p’s mattering matters, and the mattering of p’s mattering matters, and so on ad infinitum. Mattering is like truth. If p is true, then it is true that p is true, true that it is true that p is true, and so on ad infinitum. In both cases we have an infinite regress (progress?) and in both cases the regress is benign as opposed to vicious. This is clear in the case of truth. Given T(p), T(Tp) follows. But T(T(p)) is not the ground of T(p)’s being true, but a consequence of it. Similarly, p’s mattering has as a logical consequence its mattering that p matters, but the latter is not the ground of the former. So the regress, if not virtuous, is at least benign.

In this way, the back of the T-shirt refutes itself: if something matters, then an infinity of things matter. As for the front, if it is true that nothing matters, then it follows that this truth doesn’t matter. But now our nihilist appears to be entangled in a form of performative inconsistency: if nothing matters, including the truth that nothing matters, then why inscribe this on a T-shirt, and strut down a street clothed in it? Our nihilist had to find it in some sense important to deliver his revelation to the world in order to marshall the energy to make the T-shirt (or buy it) and wear it.

But analysis of the foregoing sort won’t do our nihilist any good. It won’t matter to him. The cure for his disaffection is not logical analysis but connectedness to the wider society in the form of satisfying work and long-term relationships. In the words’ of a 1950s hit, the cure is to "Get a job."

You say I take things too literally? Well then, check out this guy.