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small portrait of Nietzsche from Wikipedia

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Nietzsche Contra Science, Part I

blackboard with equations

Two weeks back I finished reading Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil. As I read it, I was happy to find all the critical remarks Nietzsche makes about science, especially its relation to interpretation and truth. I’d forgotten about these comments in the nearly ten year break I’d taken from reading his work and the few memories I had left were of the “God is dead” variety. So it was with surprise that I found an already cleared path on which I could test some of my suspicions about the limits of science and its interpretive scope. My interest in this topic stems both from Nietzsche and from authors like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, who I take to be very popular and of the opinion that scientific conclusions are both more true and more valuable than other truths, like those we find professed by various religions.

This post is not meant to be a refutation of their positions, however, and it’s not necessarily an endorsement of Nietzsche’s views either. The following commentary is just a series of notes, clarifications, reactions, and various suspicions aroused by Nietzsche’s attacks on science in Beyond Good and Evil. I hope to write further posts like this one, probably in short installments that will focus on just a few sections at a time. My aims are to clarify his positions for myself and to test some of my own thoughts on the subject. For the record, I read this Cambridge University Press edition, translated by Judith Norman.

Nietzsche begins his book with a brief but striking—and infamous—introduction. “Suppose that truth is a woman — and why not? Aren’t there reasons for suspecting that all philosophers, to the extent that they have been dogmatists, have not really understood women?… What is certain is that she has spurned them…”

Philosophers seek the truth and are turned away again and again. This is the idea he wants you to consider from the start. No matter how passionate the pursuit, philosophy is doomed to a life of unrequited love. But Nietzsche’s not just having fun at our expense. He continues, questioning why we seek truth in the first place and not something else. Nietzsche asks, “What in us really wills the truth? … why not untruth instead? And uncertainty? Even ignorance? The problem of the value of truth came before us, — or was it we who came before the problem?” (§1).

His answer is, in part, that individuals will a truth suitable to their own needs and personalities. In section five he writes, “[Philosophers] act as if they had discovered and arrived at their genuine convictions through the self-development of a cold, pure, divinely insouciant dialectic… while what essentially happens is that they take a conjecture, a whim, an ‘inspiration’ or, more typically, they take some fervent wish that they have sifted through and made properly abstract — and they defend it with rationalizations after the fact. They are all advocates who do not want to be seen as such.” We desire the truth in order to rationalize our beliefs, ideas, and actions. There’s none of the noble or heroic ideals about finding truth because it is the highest or best thing in life. At least, not here. What matters instead is the psychological element. Truth is a mutable thing, bent and sculpted into different shapes by different people with different purposes.

Nietzsche cuts even further into the idea of a firm and unchanging truth by attacking the idea of a “thing-in-itself”.  First he considers what it means for there to be a “thing-in-itself,” then he makes an important distinction between the value of truth and the nature of truth. As far as the “thing-in-itself” goes, Nietzsche associates it with a tendency to divide the world into pairs of opposites. He states, “The fundamental belief of metaphysicians is the belief in oppositions of values. It has not occurred to them to start doubting right here at the threshold, where it is actually needed the most, even though they had vowed to themselves ‘de omnibus dubitandum’ (§2).

What does he mean by opposition of values?

I’ll use moral values to help figure that out. If we jump ahead to section 44, we find Nietzsche proposing that humanity’s worst qualitiesour disposition to violence, deception, even slaveryare valuable for human life. Maybe even more valuable than qualities like selflessness and honesty. Someone who isn’t too cynical might ask how that could be. Lying and selfishness are typically categorized as destructive or negative traits, selflessness and honesty as positive ones. Every kid knows that lying might help in a pinch, but that it can also come back to bite you in the ass. Selfishness is worse. We associate that with narcissism, parsimony, greed, and other reprehensible traits. So what could Nietzsche mean when he claims that even tyranny could be good for humanity?

We might think that he means “whatever doesn’t kill us makes us stronger,” and I think that’s at least partly right. But this isn’t just a matter of casting a positive light on difficult times. Nietzsche goes further.

In order to think of something as inherently good or inherently bad, in order for us  to think of paired oppositeslike self-interest/selflessness, deception/honestyas opposite, it’s necessary for us to think of them as fixed concepts. If self-interest and selflessness were at all confused or muddled together, were we to find even the hint of one in the other, then the opposition they represent would fall apart. Think God’s laws as they appear in the Old Testament: they’re firm, clear, and distinct. They stand in clear opposition to other laws or rules we might formulate like “only the strong survive” or “jealousy is the sign of a healthy appetite.”

The problem is that the world we’re familiar with, the one made up of jobs and families, of social circles and private thoughts, is always in flux. Knowledge, on the other hand, is supposed to be fixed and unassailable. Because of this, a space opens up between the world and the knowledge that is supposed to help us move through it. Moral laws like “don’t kill,” or even physical descriptions, like general relativity, are the kinds of things we expect to stay the same no matter what the case. But when we look around the world we find that there isn’t much that’s standing still. Everything is constantly changing, from the global level right down to the atomic.

This is, I think, at the root of Nietzsche’s attack on both philosophy and science. Both hope to describe or explain the world in fixed terms and, what’s more, they hope to show that their descriptions and explanations constitute the truth, exclusive of other explanations.

But Nietzsche’s claim isn’t that these explanations and descriptions are just false; it’s not that we have the wrong moral laws or bad physical descriptions and need to change them. His claim is that all truths derive their strength from a lie about the existence of opposites. So what if selflessness turned out to be the product of a twisted self-interest? What if truth were possible only because of a lie? What if the philosopher and the scientist didn’t find truth so much as construct it with bits and pieces of fiction?

Nietzsche makes that claim in section four:

§ 4

We do not consider the falsity of a judgement as itself an objection to a judgement; this is perhaps where our new language will sound most foreign. The question is how far the judgement promotes and preserves life, how well it preserves, and perhaps even cultivates, the type. And we are fundamentally inclined to claim that the falsest judgments (which include synthetic judgments a priori) are the most indispensable to us, and that without accepting the fictions of logic, without measuring reality against the wholly invented world of the unconditioned and self-identical, without a constant falsification of the world through numbers, people could not live—that a renunciation of false judgments would be a renunciation of life, a negation of life…

Just like most philosophy, science seeks absolute truth. Reproducible results, precise measurements, rigorous logic, the elimination of doubts and of superstitions, unconditional results—these are its hallmarks. Nietzsche seeks truth too, thinks truth is even necessary for life, but his contention is that no truth is unconditioned, which is to say that absolute truths are useful myths.

There’s a lot to unpack in that section, but what I notice first is the way Nietzsche frames his discussion. The promotion and preservation of life usurps everything else. If a perceived truth proves somehow fatal for life—a term Nietzsche will develop throughout the text—if it threatens the health of humanity as a species, then he will denounce it, preferring a falsification that yields vigor, strength, enthusiasm, originality. Nietzsche constantly elevates these kinds of athletic and artistic qualities above the more traditional ones, shifting the philosophical discourse from a desire for truth to a desire for cultivation, strength, and individuality.

This is a major shift, and it entails a deeper corollary: that all so-called truths are actually falsifications in disguise. So it’s not as if philosophers and scientists, through deeper thinking or scientific method, can discover more certain truths and discard the less certain ones. Re-read that section. All logic is a fiction. Apparently unconditioned truths are inventions—even numbers get tossed under the bus.

Consequently, calling any kind of information the truth is meaningless, because even if a particular truth is a functioning, life-affirming one, it’s still also a lie. Nietzsche’s suspicions about the “opposition of values” extends that far.  True and false—no two things could appear more distinct, but here Nietzsche draws them closer, asking what if?

Well, what if all oppositions are illusions? What if all knowledge is built on a lie? What does that mean for philosophy and science?

One of science’s great seductions is that it works. It’s produced penicillin and manufactured jet engines, explained the motions of the stars and described the variety of life on this planet; it shot man into space and made photographing Saturn’s moons possible. How could something that so plainly works be the product of falsification and fabrication? Nietzsche’s contention that some truth could be unappealing or even life-defeating isn’t unusual and it isn’t contradictory. We’ve all heard that “the truth hurts” and anyone who thinks about it long enough might question whether science, as technology, has had a positive or a negative effect on humankind.

To think that Nietzsche would deny the practical results of good engineering, however, seems somehow crazier.

At least, crazier at first glance. When I think about it, I can imagine a scientific explanation that produces practical results, but does not produce an unconditional, universal truth. Modern medicine, for instance, has made it possible to treat illnesses that were once impossible to treat, and this because it has access to more information about what causes illness, how chemicals react in the body, how cells mutate, and so on. Treat the right cause and the effect disappears.

But does this mean that the practice of medicine—and all the associated research—has unearthed some fundamental and unconditional truth?—about biology, chemistry, compounds, atomic elements? Or has it added just another descriptive level to an already complex nexus of data and events that includes everything from feelings of illness to social stigmas about the sick? That one cure works and another doesn’t… that anything works while another doesn’t—is that enough to claim sole ownership of the truth?

The more I consider that possibility, the more ludicrous it becomes. That view reduces truth to a game of identifying causes and predicting effects. We take the predictive power of science to be an indication that we’ve understood something fundamental about a particular subject, which may be true.  But then we extrapolate on that indication and apply the lessons we’ve learned in one subject to numerous other subjects. By that means, we make conclusions about the existence of God using the laws of physics, or we model our understanding of societies on models of the atom. And by this I don’t just mean that we use images from one field to help describe ideas in another. I mean that we take the physical description of the universe as being the fundamental, all-encompassing description over and above all others merely because the physical description produces empirical results that we can measure and use for our own satisfaction. 

And satisfaction is exactly where this post started. “They are all advocates who do not want to be seen as such.” They might be philosophers, artists, or scientists. No matter who proposes it, we can see here how a truth might be built on a lie. Why should we presume that the physical model of the universe is sufficient for describing all phenomena? What rationale do we have for applying the lessons of one science to the questions of another? Is it a lie that such a leap is even possible? Could cause and effect itself be a lie? As a side note, that something good and true could be founded on a lie isn’t an idea original to Nietzsche. Plato either wrote or recorded such an idea roughly 2000 years earlier, in Book Three of The Republic.

I can hear someone asking, “What other kinds of truth, beside the scientific, might there be?” Religious and cultural truths are the first that come to mind. They are not without their own rationale, and some are even based on simplistic empirical observations. Philosophy produces its own truth too. Within it there are many different perspectives about what constitutes truth and even some dispute about whether or not the truth—along with virtue—is something we can learn.

In my next post I plan to look at section 21 and the way it connects with Nietzsche’s view of nature, which is basically that it is unlawful and without order. He calls it “profligate without measure.” His contention in that section, that the notion of cause and effect is itself a convenient fiction, tosses science, along with philosophy, into an even deeper mire.

(Please leave comments if you’ve found this even remotely helpful, or if you think I’ve gotten something terribly wrong. My intent in writing these is not to pontificate, but to work through the book actively.)