RE: The Prejudices of the Philosophers
I. What, Me Worry (About the Truth)?
There’s a meme going around the internet recently that purports to explain the different perceptions people have about certain groups (humorously, of course, but again, humor often seems one of the straighter paths to “truth”). Here’s an example I found regarding we philosophers. I’m particularly found of Gandalf confronting the Balrog and the guy sniffing a pen.
My favorite part of this meme is the disconnect between “What I think I do” and “What I actually do,” the gulf separating one’s actions and one’s perceptions of those actions. As Nietzsche begins the first part of Beyond Good and Evil, he refers to the “famous truthfulness of which all philosophers so far have spoken with respect” and suggests, as this meme does, that our ideas about what we’re doing may be divorced from what we’re actually doing when we approach philosophical questions (BGE 199). To Nietzsche’s thinking, philosophy up to his time seems to be a search for the “truth,” as the philosophers have defined it, but this begs the question of just what it is in philosophers that wants “truth.”
This isn’t the question Nietzsche sinks his teeth into, however—following that detour, he turns onto an even more annoying avenue of inquiry: why do we care what the “truth” is, and why do we want to know it? “Suppose we want truth,” he writes, “why not rather untruth? and uncertainty? even ignorance?” He has happened upon “the problem of the value of truth” (BGE 199). What if generations of philosophers who thought their field was the pursuit of “truth” have missed the obvious, perhaps foundational question here, have overlooked what amounts to a deep, culture-wide assumption at the root of their ponderings, and the posts they’ve been trying to kick their field goals through aren’t even wired to the scoreboard?
“The fundamental faith of the metaphysicians,” Nietzsche tells us, “is the faith in opposite values” (BGE 200). The assault on this faith is the root of the title Beyond Good and Evil, and it stands as the first step in the revaluation of all values that Nietzsche is aiming for. Nietzsche lists a few of these supposedly opposite values in the opening to section two—truth vs. deception, selflessness vs. selfishness, sagacity vs. lustiness—and presents the traditional argument of metaphysical dualism, that these values originate “from the lap of Being, the intransitory, the hidden god, the ‘thing-in-itself’” (BGE 200). In this way “truth,” for example, is removed as a “mere” concept related to our experiences and placed somewhere “beyond,” reified as if it was something with physical presence in the Universe, an entity constructed from the material of space-time waiting to be discovered through the right scientific process, like a new element for the table; likewise, “untruth” is either reified as its own thing-in-itself or defined as the absence of this first thing-in-itself called “truth.” (C.S. Lewis later used a similar argument to define “evil” as the absence of “good” in the same way that “darkness” is the absence of light hitting the corneas. Notice in this example that only one of these things can be said to exist in an objective sense—light is a form of matter-energy, whereas good, evil and even darkness are simple matters of subjective human perception.) Either way, we’re stuck with a metaphysics that relies on opposing values supposedly rooted in a reality distinct from our own, unknowable and beyond challenge.
We’ll get to the metaphysical dilemmas raised by positing a dualistic Universe (such as Plato’s forms or the “spirit world” of Western religion) later on. For now, Nietzsche assaults the concept underlying dualism, our idea of opposites. “For one may doubt, first,” he says, “whether there are any opposites at all, and secondly whether these popular valuations and opposite values on which the metaphysicians put their seal, are not perhaps merely foreground estimates…” (BGE 200). Let us imagine that the traditional way of looking at values has been to imagine them as independent points in space, each a mirror image of its opposite, and it has been assumed that these points’ positions are set, concrete, immutable. Nietzsche imagines instead that these supposedly opposite values may be “insidiously related,” that what we call good is “tied to and involved with these wicked, seemingly opposite things—maybe even one with them in essence.”
What if our values are not independent, objective points, but measurements taken at completely subjective points on a unified spectrum? I’m reminded of the way the Tralfamadorian explains time to Billy in Slaughterhouse-Five, that while humans see each other as beings existing in the here and now (and only the here and now), this species of fourth-dimensional aliens can see the whole of a person’s life at once: “…Tralfamadorians don’t see human beings as two-legged creatures, either. They see them as great millipedes – ‘with babies’ legs at one end and old people’s legs at the other’” (Slaughterhouse-Five 87). Just as our subjectivity interferes with our proper understanding of the nature of time, so too does it interfere with our proper understanding of values. One may even suggest, as Vonnegut seems to in that novel, that our subjective experience of time, what Nietzsche might call our “frog perspective” on causality, is one of the factors that leads to our confusion regarding our value systems.
I’m reminded as well of one the most useful things that Nietzsche’s occasionally-hit-but-mostly-miss philosophical descendent Ayn Rand ever wrote, that when we approach the question of “value,” we should ask “of value to whom and for what” (The Virtue of Selfishness 15). To say that a value is subjective is to say that there is a subject (for example, a human being) positing that value, presumably toward some purpose (consciously realized or otherwise). Nietzsche recognizes that our subjective values may lack objectivity on a universal scale, but it’s possible they’re subjectively valuable in the sense that they fall in line with “physiological demands for the preservation of a certain type of life,” namely human life as we’ve known it till now (BGE 201). One detects a hint of Darwin in the opening to section four when Nietzsche writes, “The falseness of a judgment is for us not necessarily an objection to a judgment; … The question is to what extent it is life-promoting, life-preserving, species-preserving, perhaps even species-cultivating” (BGE 201). Note this is not an invitation to slip into social Darwinism, that old perversion of evolutionary theory so often used as an excuse for sociopathy by the upper class; rather, it’s an acknowledgment that we’re concerned with the results of our values, our judgments, and the actions that proceed from them rather than whether or not those values and judgments are objectively “true.”
What does it matter if any of us knows the “truth” about reality? Why would we humans believe we even possess the necessary perceptual senses to know anything close to this “truth?” As far as I can tell, the process of evolution acts in an “eh, good enough” sort of way. For my genes to be passed on, I need only be able to survive to breeding age, then successfully take a mate. It seems fairly convenient for me to live long enough to raise my young as well. My senses are what keep me alive in the meantime. Millions of years of evolution have left me with the ability to see, hear, smell, taste and feel, but these perceptual senses are of course subjective, not objective, and the information they give me about the “true” reality (assuming one exists) is incomplete. I have better vision than a dog, for example, but a dog has much better hearing and smell than I do (“better” here meaning “able to provide more information”). The dog and I have both evolved with the abilities necessary to survive and reproduce within our particular niches in the ecosystem. Neither the dog nor I can perceive cancer-causing radioactive waves such as those given off by the sun; that sort of thing isn’t likely to kill you before you’ve bred, so one imagines there’s no evolutionary pressure to develop a means to perceive it. From an evolutionary perspective, there’s no reason for we humans to possess the inherent abilities necessary to know “truth;” we’re just plain not that high up the ladder—at least not biologically; at least not yet.
Let us suppose, as Nietzsche does in section three, that humanity is not the measure of all things, that our species is just another blip on the chart of the Universe’s evolution as it passes from bang to crunch—that we humans, as a species, are in no way of any special significance in any objective sense. Once that admission is made, others seem to follow of their own accord:
First, that any valuations we make are questions of value subjective to us, the ones making those valuations, not some objective standard—including all morals, all ethics, everything “sacred.” Nietzsche tells us that “if one would explain how the abstrusest metaphysical claims of a philosopher really came about” we should ask “at what morality does all this (does he) aim” (BGE 203)? Philosophers have a bad habit of figuring out their destinations before they make their journeys: “They all pose as if they had discovered and reached their real opinions through the self-development of a cold, pure, divinely unconcerned dialectic… while at bottom it is an assumption, a hunch… that they defend with reasons they have sought after the fact” (BGE 202).
That’s not to say they necessarily do it on purpose; according to Nietzsche, “most of the conscious thinking of a philosopher is secretly guided and forced into certain channels by his instincts” (BGE 201), which is to say, the conscious mind may not be a top-level operation of the brain (but more on this point another time). Suffice to say for now that while humans are capable of generating subjective values, we mustn’t make the mistake of reifying them into objective values—in short, we philosophers have to remember that we’re as full of shit at the end of the day as everyone else. Nietzsche’s suggestion that it may be courageous to mock ourselves reminds me of “A Zen Koan,” significantly printed on page 00005 (see the Discordian Law of Fives) of the Principia Discordia:
A serious young man found the conflicts of mid 20th Century America confusing. He went to many people seeking a way of resolving within himself the discords that troubled him, but he remained troubled.
One night in a coffee house, a self-ordained Zen Master said to him, “Go to the dilapidated mansion you will find at this address which I have written down for you. Do not speak to those who live there; you must remain silent until the moon rises tomorrow night. Go to the large room on the right of the main hallway, sit in the lotus position on top of the rubble in the northeast corner, face the corner, and meditate.”
He did just as the Zen Master instructed. His meditation was frequently interrupted by worries. He worried whether or not the rest of the plumbing fixtures would fall from the second floor bathroom to join the pipes and other trash he was sitting on. He worried how he would know when the moon rose on the next night. He worried about what the people who walked through the room said about him.
His worrying and meditation were disturbed when, as if in a test of his faith, ordure fell from the second floor onto him. At that time two people walked into the room. The first asked the second who the man sitting there was. The second replied, “Some say he is a holy man. Others say he is a shithead.”
Hearing this, the man was enlightened.
One has to wonder: what kind of progress could our species make, what wonders could we create, what new paths forward so unlike those we have walked before could we discover, if we ever learned en masse to stop taking ourselves so damned seriously? And we might as well learn that lesson, seeing as how none of us is ever going to be right about what the “truth” is anyhow—and even if one of us was, we’d have no way of knowing it! Perhaps humor is the mind’s natural defense mechanism against existential terror.
The second admission we’re forced into is that our concept of what is logical rests upon illogical a priori assumptions. Once we’ve admitted that our observations are inescapably subjective, how can we possibly try to argue that we can make objective conclusions based upon them? Isn’t what we call “logic” a kind of bias, essentially our way of recognizing when the Universe works the way our previous observations tell us it should? “…[W]e are fundamentally inclined to claim that the falsest judgments… are the most indispensable for us; that without accepting the fictions of logic, without measuring reality against the purely invented world of the unconditional and self-identical, without a constant falsification of the world by means of numbers, man could not live—that renouncing false judgments would mean renouncing life and a denial of life” (BGE 202). Even the study of physics, which rests upon observation of the natural world and the logical, mathematical conclusions we can make based on those observations, is “only an interpretation and exegesis of the world (to suit us, if I may say so!) and not a world-explanation” (BGE 211).
But again, Nietzsche recognizes that logic is valuable, subjectively, one of those “falsest judgments” that “are the most indispensable for us.” Even if our experience of reality is subjective, even if the “logical” conclusions we formulate are inescapably tied to our unprovable ideas about “reality,” logic is just too useful to human survival to throw away. Notice how Nietzsche uses logic to argue against idealism in favor of sensualism: “And others even say that the external world is the work of our organs? But then our body, as part of this external world, would be the work of our organs! But then our organs themselves would be—the work of our organs (BGE 212)!” He labels this as a logical fallacy, a reductio ad absurdum (reduction to the absurd)—certainly there is no fear here to use the language of logic. That said, he leaves his conclusion with a question mark instead of making a definitive statement; this is sensualism as “a regulative hypothesis, if not as a heuristic principle” (BGE 212)—not an objective conclusion, not dogma, but a best guess. Could we call this quasi-scientific formulation an attempt at an “honest” use of logic?
The third admission following from the first two is this: our language (that is to say, any language) is inadequate when attempting to describe the “truth,” and in fact it often stands as an obstacle to any such attempt. We’ll talk later about the ways in which Nietzsche alleges specific philosophers have fallen into the trap of thinking linguistic tricks represent deeper truths. For now, let us speak of the need to “free ourselves from the seduction of words” (BGE 213).
The idea that the use of language is often a hindrance to comprehension and communication isn’t unique to Nietzsche. I’m reminded of Robert Anton Wilson advocating Alfred Korzybski’s E-Prime, a version of English that eliminates the word “is” and forms of the verb “to be,” in Quantum Psychology. Wilson uses the old computer slogan GIGO, or “Garbage In, Garbage Out,” and refers to the current English language as “software” that forces the hardware of the brain into focusing on “isness,” causing it to process information through what he calls “a medieval Aristotelian framework [that] makes it impossible to understand modern problems and opportunities.” To borrow one of Wilson’s examples, the seeming opposition between the standard English statements “the photon is a wave” and “the photon is a particle” is eliminated when we use the E-Prime statements “the photon behaves as a wave when constrained by certain instruments” and “the photon behaves as a particle when constrained by certain instruments.” Wouldn’t Friedrich have appreciated the way the poltergeist of opposites is exorcised simply by paying attention to the words we use? And of course this is only one proposed (and ultimately only partial) solution to the problem raised by our need to use language to communicate ideas.
Neal Stephenson’s novel Snow Crash follows a similar brain : hardware :: language : software outlook, comparing the mind to a PROM (Programmable Read-Only Memory) chip. As Hiro Protagonist explains the metaphor:
“When they come from the factory, [PROM chips] have no content. Once and only once you can place information into those chips and then freeze it—the information, the software, becomes frozen into the chip—it transmutes into hardware. After you have blown the code into the PROMs, you can read it out, but you can’t write to them anymore. So Lagos was trying to say that the newborn human brain has no structure—as the relativists would have it—and that as the child learns a language, the developing brain structures itself accordingly, the language gets ‘blown into’ the hardware and becomes a permanent part of the brain’s deep structure—as the universalists would have it” (Snow Crash 277).
This idea that language represents a potential for “metaprogramming” within the physical structure of the brain, that the language one speaks affects not only what thoughts one has but what thoughts one is capable of having, probably wouldn’t have sounded alien to Nietzsche, who posits in section twenty that the “strange family resemblance of all Indian, Greek, and German philosophizing” may relate to “the unconscious domination and guidance by similar grammatical functions—that everything is prepared at the outset for a similar development and sequence of philosophical systems; just as the way seems barred against certain other possibilities of world-interpretation” (BGE 217). We’ll see more examples of the way language dictates our metaphysics, often in sneaky ways, when Nietzsche launches his direct assaults on the philosophers who came before him.
So here we find ourselves in a jam: our values are exposed as objectively valueless, our logic is exposed as resting on illogical assumptions, and we can’t trust the language we use to speak—to think even!—to lead us to “truth” because it’s both limited in scope and limiting of potential. Luckily, it doesn’t seem that “truth” means much in the first place, and if that stands philosophy on its head—well, it was apparently upside-down to begin with. What are we left for options but to laugh—and then to charge on stubbornly anyway? That’s what all the previous philosophers have done, after all, and perhaps by studying their mistakes we can hope to avoid making the worst of them ourselves. With that in mind, let’s take a look at Nietzsche’s direct criticisms of his forerunners in the next section.