Posted by Psmith on February 13th, 2012
|Nietzsche, nIetzsche, NIEtZschE, nieTZSCHe, nietzsche, and NIETZSCHE. Can you tell which is which?|
Young Nietzsche was a skeptic, in the full spirit of what is called “the skeptical movement.” He was an advocate of science and was skeptical of religion, of superstition, of non-scientists who professed to knowledge, of morality, of the doctrine of freedom of the will, of the reasons we give for doing things and of our ability to know anything with absolute certainty. He saw science as tearing religion’s foundations out from under it. He was a powerful, creative thinker and asserted that schools should teach critical thinking and that science as a method is valuable to scientists and non-scientists alike. Nietzsche was an über-skeptic.
I have chosen not to address the concerns many people have with Nietzsche’s thought, beyond this little disclaimer. I am not a philosopher, nor have I read many of his books. What I have read I’ve found completely fascinating. Being an iconic and radical thinker, he attracts lightning that lesser, more moderate or less known thinkers escape. Many factions claim or have claimed him as their own, whether it’s postmodernists, the Nazis, feminists, Ayn Rand, or others. Though he has been accused of much, there are Nietzsche scholars and other philosophers who defend him from accusations of wrong-doing (such as Walter Kaufmann). If you, dear reader, disagree with Nietzsche on some point or other — and I do — do not forget that it would be wrong to assert that the man had nothing worthwhile to say because of the point on which you differ. Of course, you can still say he had nothing worthwhile to say; but I hope to show that Nietzsche said some things, true and worthwhile, that are relevant to the skeptical community today and anticipated many of the ideas in circulation there.
I focus on Nietzsche as an über-skeptic (and claim him for our team!) because I have been absorbed in what of him I have read and would like to share that fascination with other skeptics and unbelievers. Some skeptical ideas that seem new today were expressed by Nietzsche over a century ago. Who’d have thought? I hope that you will come to expect that sort of prescience by Nietzsche by the time you have finished this.
Over and over, Nietzsche paints science in a favorable light and religion in opposition to it (and science in opposition to religion). The idea of non-overlapping magisteria (Stephen Jay Gould’s NOMA) was around in Nietzsche’s time (though not called NOMA), but he was having none of it. Here, he compares what scientists and the religious are looking forward to.
Promises of science. Modern science has as its goal the least pain and the longest life possible – that is, a kind of eternal happiness: to be sure, a very modest kind in comparison with the promises of religions. (Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human. All citations are to Nietzsche’s works.)
He often compared beliefs in terms of their practical results, without making the mistake of thinking one was wrong because its consequences might be unpleasant. Science’s practical results outshone Christianity’s by a long shot, as far as he was concerned, but he commented on how he thought religions shaped and sometimes strengthened (and sometimes weakened) the cultures that believed in them, and on how a culture shapes its religion.
Some of what he writes concerning superstitions and wrongheaded thinking sound, with minor changes, like things a 21st-century skeptic might write.
Superstition in simultaneity. Simultaneous things are thought to be connected. Our relative dies far away, at the same time we dream about him – there you are! But countless relatives die without our dreaming about them. It is as with shipwrecked people who make vows: later, in the temple, one does not see the votive tablets of those who perished. A man dies; an owl screeches; a clock stops; all in one nocturnal hour – shouldn’t there be a connection there? This idea presumes a kind of intimacy with nature that flatters man. (Human.)
I don’t quite understand the part with the votive tablets. I welcome any help in the comments section.
He is sometimes regarded as a great psychologist. His writing shows he saw there is a truth underneath the surface of the reasons we give for our actions and that it does not match what we believe much of the time. When I read his aphorisms that dealt with human behavior, I am astounded at the insight he showed. Whether or not everything psychological that he wrote is true (it probably isn’t), the psychological aphorisms show a willingness to think beyond the conventional and to follow where his data led him. What he wrote in this vein is not flattery. It is a cold, hard look at the human “spirit”, will and “soul.”
Writing of superstitious practices among primitive peoples, Nietzsche took a strong skeptical stance. There was a problem with the particular superstition he was addressing – taboo actions with animal bones among the Eskimos, such as throwing them into the fire or giving them to animals, would lead to “no luck in hunting.” It was the unfalsifiability of the idea behind the taboo that he narrowed in on. “But one has almost always in some sense ‘no luck in hunting’. It is not easy to refute the validity of the prescription in this direction, especially when a community and not an individual is regarded as suffering the punishment; some circumstance will always appear which seems to confirm the prescription” (Human). Maybe there is an element of special pleading or post hoc ergo propter hoc in there. This is very clear and scientific skepticism that anticipates the falsifiability criterion for a scientific hypothesis made famous by the late philosopher Karl Popper.
Here is another aphorism that could have come from a present-day skeptic’s keyboard:
Reason in school. Schooling has no more important task than to teach rigorous thinking, careful judgment, logical conclusions; that is why it must refrain from everything which is not suitable for these operations – religion, for example. It can count on the fact that later, human opacity, habit, and need will again slacken the bow of all-too-taut thinking. But as long as its influence lasts, schooling should force into being what is essential and distinguishing in man: “Reason and science, the supreme strength of man,” in Goethe’s judgment, at least. (Human.)
Can there be “all-too-taut thinking”? I think so. We are not Vulcans, bereft of emotion, nor can we be. When we are seriously considering ideas, or just having a chat regarding them, we should weigh and consider, using reason and logic to their fullest (as much as each of us is able).
It was explained colorfully on RadioLab (complete with sound effects and a trip to the supermarket), one of my favorite post-radio radio shows, that we need the illogical impulses that come naturally if we are to do something as simple and quotidian as pick out a breakfast cereal at the grocery store. People who have this “intuition” impaired, such as the man with the brain tumor in the episode, must sift through the details in small print on the boxes. They cannot just say, “Hmmmm, this one looks good.” They must choose using only reason and logic, without including that irrational but evolutionarily useful trait called intuition. Is it that difficult to choose “the right” breakfast cereal? No. You can probably choose a healthy one, like the name-says-it-all type Fiber Twigs, or a super-sweet one that is loaded with high-fructose corn syrup and “essential vitamins and nutrients” that may not be taken up in the gut, such as such as little Calvin’s perennial favorite Chocolate-Frosted Sugar Bombs. The man with the brain tumor could not make such a quick-and-easy decision. I’m not sure whether the impaired brains mentioned just now have to choose the perfect cereal, or if it was just the particular person interviewed for the program, but following the irrational impulse that desires one cereal over another probably can’t do any harm if reason and logic are present just a little, if the thinking is neither too taut nor too slack.
I note that Nietzsche seems to view, in the above-quoted aphorism, the prospects for educating people “out of” religion as dim. Those of you who attended, or watched via the Internet, the debate between an honorary PhD in Christian flummery Alex McFarland, and the president of American Atheists David Silverman, at the rather Bible-thumping Church of All Nations (Christian humility, obviously), may remember the big fuss Silverman’s interlocutor made over the use of “In the year of our Lord . . .” in the United States Constitution. (If you weren’t there or didn’t see it, the “argument” was made that America was founded a “Christian nation” and that this is proved by the inclusion of “In the year of our Lord” when the date is given in the Constitution.) You might like to contrast the last lines of The Antichrist: A Criticism of Christianity with the apparent pessimism of the quoted aphorism: “And time is reckoned from the dies nefastas [unlucky or inauspicious day] upon which this fatality came into being – from the first day of Christianity! Why not rather from its last day? From today? Transvaluation of all values! . . .” That sounds a little more confident.
Nietzsche was writing when modern science was rather young. I’m not sure there was a recognized discipline called philosophy of science in the late 1800s. As a new thing, science had a shine on it.
Youthful charm of science. The search for truth still has the charm of always contrasting strongly with gray and boring Error; this charm is progressively disappearing. It is true that we still live in the youth of science, and tend to pursue truth like a pretty girl; but what will happen when she has one day turned into an elderly, scowling woman? In almost all the sciences, the basic insight has either just been found or else is still being sought; how different is this appeal from the appeal when everything essential has been found and all that is left for the researcher is a scanty autumn gleaning (a feeling one can come to know in certain historical disciplines). (Human.)
Are there scientific disciplines today that have made that turn, that have lost their luster? Or is Nietzsche asking about the “business-as-usual” or “normal” periods of science depicted by the philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn (famous especially for his “paradigm shifts”)?
Nietzsche did voice some concerns that would put him in the camp of the philosophical skeptics. But he does not go so far as to say that everyone is just as wrong as everyone else, which I think some postmodernists go as far as to say — which idea Isaac Asimov addressed in his short essay, “The Relativity of Wrong.” “Ultimate skepsis. — What are man’s truths ultimately? Merely his irrefutable errors” (The Gay Science). This epistemology goes right along with that of science if we allow irrefutable to mean that we will not be able to refute it in practice. If he means, as I think he does, that they are in principle irrefutable, not just in practice, then there is a slight difference; but neither that epistemology nor that of science claims ultimate truth, and so they are not so different after all. I think there can be a reconciliation between philosophical and scientific or rational skepticism. The young Nietzsche saw the value of science to everyone and not just scientists and philosophers.
Ability, not knowledge, cultivated through science. The value of having for a time rigorously pursued a rigorous science does not rest especially in its results: for in relation to the sea of worthy knowledge, these will be but a negligible little drop. But it brings forth an increase of energy, of deductive ability, of persistence; one has learned to gain one’s purpose purposefully. To this extent, in respect to all one does later, it is very valuable to have once been a scientific man. (Human.)
I believe this is the view of we who subscribe to the tenets of scientific skepticism. Science education is useful even if one is not to become a scientist.
When I say that we subscribe to the tenets, I should mention how hostile Nietzsche was to similar statements: “Enemies of truth. Convictions are more dangerous enemies of truth than lies” (Human). He was also wary of groups of like-minded “enthusiasts” (he led a very lonely life, I’ve read – and some of his writings suggest he was not surrounded by merry revelers often). Nietzsche wasn’t just a philosopher who wrote only prose; he also wrote songs and poems.
That region is not safe for strangers,
And having wit doubles the dangers.
They lure and love you, then tear you to bits:
They are enthusiasts, and that type lacks wits. (The Gay Science)
This poem doesn’t show it, but I should add the interesting tidbit that his poems are littered with exclamation points, especially in the original German. He! had! things to say!
Bertrand Russell related that he once stumped a Christian thinker with the question, “What if you had been born in Istanbul?” (or some other place where a religion other than Christianity predominated). Skeptics should know that we inherit many opinions, often unworthy of consideration, from our culture. Being out in the rain doesn’t cause one to catch colds. “Put a jacket on or you’ll catch your death!” the babysitter or grandmother would say to me. No god is a source of morality. “You can’t be moral without religion,” many Christians say to unbelievers. We are learning more and more about where HIV came from. “HIV was engineered by American scientists,” say some conspiracy mongers.
After we have been imbued with such thoughts, it is our duty as reasoning human beings to root them out mercilessly. Rooting out error and preventing its insinuation into our minds is what, to me, skepticism is “all about.” (Actually, for me it’s about socializing too.) The children of skeptics and New Agers alike will probably be raised to conform to their parents’ beliefs. It is important for everyone, not just those with beliefs skeptics disagree with or even find laughable or harmful, to peruse his or her own belief catalog for erroneous notions and pluck them out, to do some house-cleaning.
Origin of faith. The bound spirit assumes a position, not for reasons, but out of habit; he is a Christian, for example, not because he had insight into the various religions and chose among them; he is an Englishman not because he decided for England; but rather, Christianity and England were givens, and he accepted them without having reasons, as someone who was born in wine country becomes a wine drinker. Later, when he was a Christian and an Englishman, he may also have devised some reasons in favor of his habit; even if these reasons are overthrown, he, in his whole position, is not. Ask a bound spirit for his reasons against bigamy, for example, and you will learn whether his holy zeal for monogamy is based on reasons or on habit. The habit of intellectual principles without reasons is called faith. (Human.)
Not only does he anticipate Russell’s question (though I doubt the question was original to Russell), not only does he anticipate the position of Michael Shermer in The Believing Brain, that our beliefs come first and our rationalizations in support of them come after; he also anticipated Darrell Ray’s premiss that religion is like a sexually transmitted virus (much like a meme) and that one need only tickle the sweet spots on people to find out if they have the virus. One can tell by their reaction whether they “have faith”, in the same way Nietzsche suggested we troll for anti-bigamists. And it is not ruled out for a skeptic adherent to be a “bound spirit.” We should know why we are skeptics. When Christians tell us that our not believing in their God takes at least as much faith as their believing, keep in mind that they are only not quite right if you have not gone back and analyzed your unbelief seriously. It still takes more faith to believe in their God than it does not to. How much faith do they put into disbelieving in the Flying Spaghetti Monster, as has been pointed out so well by so many (who did it first?) But asserting there is no God (yes, but which one?) because that’s what one has been told is relying on the kind of faith Nietzsche derides.
Bound spirits stick to received wisdom. He speculated about the battle between new and entrenched ideas.
Esprit forts [Strong spirit; synonymous with “free spirit” or “free thinker”]. Compared with the man who has tradition on his side and needs no reasons for his actions, the free spirit is always weak, especially in his actions. For he knows too many motives and standpoints, and is therefore uncertain, awkward. By what means, then, can he be made relatively strong, so that he can at least assert himself effectively and not perish, having acted ineffectually? How does a strong spirit (esprit fort) come into being? In one particular case, this is the question of how the genius is engendered. Where does the energy come from, the unbending strength, the endurance, with which one person, against all tradition, endeavors to acquire a quite individual understanding of the world? (Human.)
I think of the late, great Christopher Hitchens when I read the latter half of that passage. He found a source that gave him strength (and it wasn’t Jesus or YHWH). May we all find such strength and passion! But we are often most wrong when most passionate, and most of us are bound spirits and will remain that way.
&nsbp;The Reason Rally is coming. There, atheists (and skeptics!) will gather in a show of solidarity and strength. The number of the non-religious in the US is large and growing. But we have been scattered, we skeptics who are also unbelievers. He commented that there are so many million non-believers in Europe at the time, and he imagined what might be possible if they got in touch with each other and made themselves known as a force to be reckoned with.
There are today among the various nations of Europe perhaps ten to twenty million people who no longer ‘believe in God’ — is it too much to ask that they should give a sign to one another? Once they have thus come to know one another, they will also have made themselves known to others — they will at once constitute a power in Europe and, happily, a power between the nations! Between the classes! Between rich and poor! Between rulers and subjects! Between the most unpeaceable and the most peaceable, peace-bringing people! (Daybreak.)
You agnostics — who are, as Simon Pegg’s character in Hot Fuzz (very fun movie and good too) put it, “open to the idea of religion [but not] convinced by it”: you, too, are unbelievers whether you want to wear the mantle or not. You “no longer ‘believe in God’.” Nietzsche envisioned a Reason Rally, or an Out Campaign that would include agnostics and even the “spiritual but not religious” – a secular outpouring of solidarity, a show of presence and strength through unity — in 1881.
It is edifying to find that many of the ideas that are popular today, and that many probably consider new and radical, have been around for over a hundred years. We can learn from the past and not repeat it (though I am sure I will repeat most of the mistakes people in my position have made in the past). There are two kinds of people: fools, wise men, and those who understand a false dichotomy when they see one. Wait, that’s not it at all. There are at least three kinds of people (OK?): those who make the same mistakes over and over again; those who learn from their mistakes; and those who learn by watching the mistakes of others. By reading and understanding “old” thinkers, we can learn from their good parts and slough off the false parts. My understanding is that Nietzsche advocated the life-view that we should affirm reality and wish to live our lives over, exactly as they have been, an infinite number of times. He thought the universe was eternal; but we have just this once to live.