Sunday, July 1, 2018

Nietzsche: Godless Prophet

Nietzsche was atheism’s prophet. Other skeptics and atheists before him were subversive, but perhaps none with such power and devotion to telling unpleasant truths. David Hume dismantled the empirical case for theism and revealed the nonrational, pragmatic basis of science, but Hume stood more for the method of skepticism than for the conclusion of atheism. He also avoided questions about the unsettling implications of naturalism, by appealing to a mechanistic theory of morality, which reduced questions of what we should do, to a crude model of how moral “sentiments” or feelings work. The Marquis de Sade was a vigorous and scandalous proponent of atheism, and was more subversive than Nietzsche, opting for a satirical mode of writing to illustrate the horrific liberty that atheism entails—what Dostoevsky called the freedom in which everything is permitted. However, de Sade’s ethical egoism and proto-social Darwinism are fallacious and as crude as Hume’s mechanistic model of the mind. Thus, while his writings are superficially more shocking than Nietzsche’s, they’re also more easily dismissed. The pessimist Schopenhauer drew out some dark consequences of naturalistic atheism, but his writings seem to imply Eastern-inspired pantheism: he says nature has an evil or inhumane will which we should resist by ascetically withdrawing from natural functions, and if by “will” he meant only “energy,” he’d lose the moral force of his pessimism since energy would be amoral.

Nietzsche’s Authentic Atheism

By contrast, Nietzsche dramatized the horror of atheism while forcing the reader to grapple with the meaning of God’s nonexistence. He does this most famously in a passage of Thus Spoke Zarathustra in which Nietzsche tells a parable about an insane atheist trying to convince fellow atheists that God’s absence has dire consequences:
The insane man jumped into their midst and transfixed them with his glances. ‘Where is God gone?’ he called out. ‘I mean to tell you! We have killed him, you and I! We are all his murderers! But how have we done it? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the whole horizon? What did we do when we loosened this earth from its sun? Whither does it now move? Whither do we move? Away from all suns? Do we not dash on unceasingly? Backwards, sideways, forwards, in all directions? Is there still an above and below? Do we not stray, as through infinite nothingness? Does not empty space breathe upon us? Has it not become colder? Does not night come on continually, darker and darker? Shall we not have to light lanterns in the morning? Do we not hear the noise of the grave-diggers who are burying God? Do we not smell the divine putrefaction?—for even Gods putrefy! God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him! How shall we console ourselves, the most murderous of all murderers? The holiest and the mightiest that the world has hitherto possessed, has bled to death under our knife—who will wipe away the blood from us? With what water could we cleanse ourselves? What lustrums, what sacred games shall we have to devise? Is not the magnitude of this deed too great for us? Shall we not ourselves have to become Gods, merely to seem worthy of it? There never was a greater event—and on account of it, all who are born after us belong to a higher history than any history hitherto!’—Here the madman was silent and looked again at his hearers; they also were silent and looked at him in surprise. At last he threw his lantern on the ground, so that it broke in pieces and was extinguished. ‘I come too early,’ he then said, ‘I am not yet at the right time. This prodigious event is still on its way, and is travelling—it has not yet reached men’s ears. Lightning and thunder need time, the light of the stars needs time, deeds need time, even after they are done, to be seen and heard. This deed is as yet further from them than the furthest star—and yet they have done it!
Never has the meaning of atheism been rendered as vividly and as starkly as in those lines. Nietzsche wrote in an oracular and often prophetic style, because he must have felt some kinship with the biblical prophets who stood apart from their society to condemn its follies, since they devoted themselves to what they regarded as the terrible truth of living within sight of an angry and jealous God. As to those messages of the Jewish prophets and of the Christian messiah, Nietzsche denounced them in turn for being insufficiently truthful. Judaism was slightly more naturalistic than Christianity in treating monotheism as an excuse for the brutality wrought by earthly kingdoms. But polytheism is the more naked rationalization and thus the more naturalistic religious fiction. Monotheism makes divinity transcendent, immaterial, and thus unnatural, which cleared the path for Christianity’s otherworldly slave morality. In the real world, as opposed to the imagination of the weak-willed and resentful masses, divinity is found only in the creativity of the most powerful human persons. Divinity is thus mere nobility. But because nature is amoral, it includes the capacities for treachery and dishonour, not just for the inclination to worship human rulers and great artists. Thus, in Christianity, “omega” and “beta” mindsets have their revenge against the “alphas,” but by the unheroic method that’s the formers’ only recourse. Instead of defeating natural winners at their game, demonstrating their courage in the face of reality, Christians bewitch winners into exchanging natural virtues with those of the natural loser, and into imagining a fanciful utopia in which losers are explicitly rewarded while winners are punished for eternity.

In the modern period, genuine philosophy begins, then, with atheism and with the ability to see through the Jewish and Christian ruses, for example. The point isn’t just that God doesn’t exist, but that mass religions have dishonourable functions as well as some social utility in delaying the reckoning with the dreadful truth of nature. Religions pacify populations, but a price of civilization is the domestication of the individual and the loss of artistic greatness, which is to say the loss of real divinity. By convincing the human herd that everything will be alright in another realm in the afterlife, sheepish individuals lose their incentive to create something new. On the contrary, we fear God’s reprisals, so we obey the nonsensical morality preached by God’s alleged earthly representatives. The result is nihilism, since by ignoring nature as a fallen place that pales next to Heaven, the theist effectively worships nothing at all; more specifically, she prizes a fantasy that’s meant to replace natural reality, as in tales of the apocalyptic coming of God’s kingdom.

But theists aren’t the only ones bewitched by ignoble fantasies. Nietzsche condemns so-called atheists, too, for their complacency. Liberals, socialists, nationalists, hedonists, and rationalists put their faith in unworthy idols, largely because they haven’t understood the momentous stakes raised by God’s irrelevance in the modern (scientifically-informed) age. The prophet Nietzsche longed for the coming of a worthy idol, for a substitute deity that would earn our admiration. This idol wasn’t exactly the Nazi Fuehrer, although Nazism is harder to refute on Nietzschean grounds than many Nietzscheans would prefer to admit. Nietzsche wasn’t himself anti-Jewish or fascistic, nor was he sadistic or a social Darwinian who reveled in domination. But Nietzsche did stand for the glory of authentic creativity in the face of enormous odds. The attempt to build a fascist empire that overthrows the liberal democracies of the “Last Men” or the beta males whipped by their female taskmasters that rule ignobly from the shadows would seem to qualify as roughly Nietzschean in inspiration. Even the Holocaust could be defended on Nietzschean principles, since wasn’t Judaism responsible ultimately for the collapse of honourable polytheism and for the rise of slave morality through the Jewish sect of Christianity? Isn’t the authentic atheist and naturalist left with no normative guidelines besides those she creates to celebrate the will to power that prevails in the universe? Why not, then exterminate the Jews? In reality, the Nazis attempted to do so for lowly reasons, because the German gentiles couldn’t admit their weakness and resorted to scapegoating an innocent party for the downfall of Germany after the Great War. Even were the Nazi motive to have been revenge for ancient wrongs, that too wouldn’t have impressed Nietzsche, since heroes should be above such a backward-looking scheme. So a Nietzschean wouldn’t admire the character of Nazis. Still, fascism (a secular version of ancient theocracy) was new (spearheaded by Mussolini) and Nazism was epic.

If you’re tempted to think that Nazism should obviously be condemned on moral grounds, you haven’t grasped what’s radical in Nietzsche’s prophetic philosophy. Morality which rejects violence for supernatural reasons is anathema to those who are strong-willed enough to live by the truth. Animals kill all the time, albeit almost exclusively to survive. The Nazis didn’t need to kill Jews to survive—obviously, Jews weren’t hunted for food—but that only testifies to our potential for divine creativity. That creativity is what Nietzsche celebrates with his concept of the Ubermensch, of the individual who overcomes all obstacles in pursuit of artistic ideals, and it’s why Nietzsche laments egalitarian societies that prevent the rise of such great individuals. The problem is that perfect equality across a wide population would require a miracle and a supernatural designer. As Nietzsche points out, our concepts overgeneralize, strictly speaking, by ignoring irrelevant differences between instances of a type. If not even every chicken egg has exactly the same properties, although we regard each as equally falling under the concept <chicken egg>, there’s much less of a chance that every person is naturally equal to everyone else, since a grown person is more complex than a chicken egg and so there’s more chance of genetic and experiential variety between persons that falsifies the concept <person>, strictly speaking. We assume we all have equal value as members of our species, but we can be actually equal in that respect only if God bestows on each an immaterial spirit or if a secular institution stipulates that we have rights in virtue of our humanity. The first is a theological fiction, the second a legal one. Realistically speaking, we’re each obviously different, although for many practical purposes we can usefully generalize about our type.

In any case, one important difference is that only a minority of us are artistic geniuses. Most of us prefer to follow established patterns rather than create something new. Not only social democracies, but dictatorships, too, foster dullness of character, for different reasons. The majority rule in a liberal society, and the majority are naturally mediocre. In an illiberal society, a minority can have vastly greater power than the majority, but this tends to corrupt that minority, in which case the ruling class loses its honour, becoming decadent and more interested in retaining power than in using it to inspired ends. The dictator or aristocracy thus oppresses the majority, depriving them of opportunities to apply their talents since doing so would run the risk of nurturing an opposing power base. Nietzsche’s point is that the death of God is catastrophic since there’s no clear naturalistic solution to this problem that without God, we’re the sole creators of value. Thus, our best course is to form a society that treasures the creative class or that develops the creativity in each of us; in short, we should trust in human creativity to enable us somehow to overcome the horror of God’s death. Most secularists, however, don’t even recognize the problem, because they’re insipid betas who are inured to the deleterious effects of late-modernity on our mind and character. The depths to which our democracies have sunk can be gauged from the fact that writers make a pittance, with the vast majority of profits from their creativity being siphoned to the likes of Amazon. But we subscribe to the substitutionary religion of consumerism and take pride in our domesticity, fearing radicals like Nietzsche for attempting to disturb the peace.

What is the Relativity of Truth?

Art by Alex Grey
Nietzsche was a prophet of atheism, but he was one also of postmodernity. For example, he wrestled with the problem of truth’s relativity. As is now well-established in logic and epistemology, if the relativist says, “Truth is relative,” relativism seems to refute itself since the claim would presuppose the universal, non-relative statement that all truths are relative, that there’s no such thing as universal truth for everyone. Relativism thus makes an illicit exception of itself. This problem affects my thinking, too, since I’m inclined to say that nature creates itself, in which case everything is best viewed as an artwork having only aesthetic value. But is this aesthetic take on pantheism true? If the suggestion is that everything is fundamentally a product of some creative power, then that very proposition must likewise be just an expression of creativity and so the aesthetic take on nature doesn’t automatically have universal validity—as would an objective statement that corresponds to facts. There are no such facts or meanings in this metaphysical picture, but to say as much seems to violate the contents of aesthetic pantheism. In short, relativism of any kind, from pragmatism to social constructivism to the Nietzschean, aesthetic view of naturalism has a problem with self-reference. How can such systems of thought be regarded so that they don’t fall into incoherence?   

Take my statement that “Life is art.” Technically, I’ve said, rather, that we can adopt an aesthetic, quasi-mystical or posthuman attitude that makes life look only as good as art. But suppose we generalize and just declare that life must ultimately be merely art, the product of natural or artificial creative powers. The problem of postmodernity reduces, then, to the interpretation of that word “be.” If we interpret the aesthetic generalization to mean that life is art as a matter of fact, that the statement is supposed to be true in virtue of its agreement with an objective fact, we’re presupposing a non-aesthetic notion of truth. Again, all relativists, including Nietzsche, are susceptible to this objection. I respond that the correspondence theory of truth makes no sense in the big, cosmicist picture of nature, since the world toys with and tortures rather than supports living things; our products don’t “agree with” reality, since nature is human whereas we’re condemned to be conscious and compassionate despite the futility of our ideals. Friends are in agreement; enemies not so much. But this response only encourages a repetition of the objection: is cosmicism, then, supposed to be objectively true? Am I presupposing a double standard, objectivity for cosmicism and relativism for all other ways of thinking?

If we do presuppose objectivity at that point, this would indicate that the scientistic myths of early modernity have wormed their way into us. The kind of objectivity that epistemic realists have in mind is a crypto-theological notion. In reality, science is more pragmatic than realistic, as Nietzsche would point out. The technological applications work because scientific theories are better than alternative ways of understanding nature, but the success isn’t because the theories agree with reality. Scientists use information (“natural meanings” in the philosopher Grice’s sense) to understand the world, and that understanding is fundamentally a form of empowerment, not a mirroring of facts; indeed, to mirror the facts would be to become monstrous, which would be the deeper form of self-destruction. By contrast, science is instrumental, and calling scientific statements “factually true” honours or flatters that utility.

But what could it mean to say, as I just did, that “In reality, science is more pragmatic than realistic”? Isn’t that just self-contradictory? Perhaps a pragmatist should be strictly empirical, ban herself from issuing any such generalization, and remark—like the hyperrationalist Data from Star Trek—only on what the evidence directly supports. So instead of speaking of the metaphysical entity of “reality,” we should speak only of what’s present to our senses, to observables such as changes in the instruments used in our experiments. This positivism, however, is itself a pseudoproblem since it fails to reckon with the nonrational side of our nature. The cosmicist generalization about reality shouldn’t be interpreted as empirical; indeed, to interpret it that way is itself to presuppose the philosophy or religion of scientism, and thus to violate the conceit of hyperrationality. Instead, cosmicism is a feeling of horror about things in general. Aestheticism, too, is a complementary feeling of wonderment about things in general. So when I say, “In reality, science is pragmatic,” I’m reporting on my sense that in the ultimate picture which is more felt than demonstrated, science, too, is a plaything of inhuman forces which surpass our understanding. The empiricist mindset is a defensive posture meant to cope with natural threats, as pragmatists such as Richard Rorty have pointed out. To speak of a natural object or event as a “fact” is to belittle and humanize an indicator of inhuman reality; we seek to reduce the world to manageable units, to tame the unknowable, and we do so to mitigate the fear that our life is out of our control.

To ask, then, whether pragmatism or cosmicism or aestheticism is factually true, contrary to their alleged relativism, is to mistake feeling for logic. Pragmatism, for example, the view that truth is fundamentally a question of utility is the feeling that more flattering interpretations of truth are vain. The issue of relativism, therefore, is about whether reason is cognitively prior or superior to feeling. To say that the pragmatist presupposes truth’s objectivity or universality is itself to presuppose that reason is primary while feelings such as fear, disgust, or awe are secondary for cognitive purposes. To take up the aesthetic perspective is to suspect that our instrumental preoccupations are irrelevant to the world at large and that from nature’s inhuman viewpoint, as it were, we’re all just virtual artworks to be abandoned as the creative urges shift beneath our feet. That’s not meant to be an airtight demonstration, but a philosophical, semi-literary, poetic or otherwise nonrational report on the possible relevance of that aesthetic experience. Truth's relativity can mean only that what we call truth depends not just on the empirical evidence, but on subjective factors such as our interest in an explanation's usefulness or in reconciling us to our existential predicament. Again, the realist about truth is free to dismiss all forms of relativism and irrationalism as being inferior to strictly rational systems of thought, but this would presuppose that there is such rational purity, whereas cognitive science itself shows that we’re fundamentally irrational. The conventional form of naturalism that supports the happiness of “sane atheists” is incoherent, and the prophet Nietzsche ranted within the belly of the living-dead monstrosity to alert us to that unhappy “fact.”

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