The Deflating Power of Progress
A Nietzschean View of the Millennial Promise of Science
A Paper from the Millennial Studies Conference
Friedrich Nietzsche was a provocative and complex thinker who wrote some of the most delightful books in the Western philosophical canon. But for our purposes today, we’ll do best to concentrate on the central feature of his thought, which can be stated fairly simply.
Western culture for quite a long time--for at least two millennia--has operated out of a delusion. We have believed that our minds, which are phenomena of this world, can somehow be brought into contact with realms and forces not of this world which inform us that what we commonly call reality is, in truth, neither real nor good and therefore that we should be devoting our lives to escaping it.
This, according to Nietzsche, is a pathological illogic. If the world is not real, then our minds, which are parts of the word, are not real either. And to pay attention to unreal minds is an absurdity.
The way out of this delusionary illogic lies in facing the truth that this is the only world we have and, in fact, that this is the only world which exists. With the truth of the world’s reality in mind, we might then adopt perspectives that would allow us to live healthily within it. We probably cannot exaggerate the degree to which health was for Nietzsche the single intelligent goal of living. As he says in Ecce Homo: “I turned my will to health into a philosophy.”
Nietzsche has no illusions about how difficult escaping from this dominant delusion is going to be. We have been at it a long time. It is firmly ingrained in our mental habits. And even when we adopt modes of thought that are expressly designed to rid us of faith in a false reality, the wily power of habit finds ways to disguise the old mirage and insert it into the new system. This is true even of the brightest of modern faiths, the belief that science can lead us to a firmly grounded world of human mastery, and, therefore, of human triumph.
To grasp Nietzsche’s assessment of science, one needs to remain constantly aware of another fundamental aspect of his thought: sound thinking on almost any subject is constituted by pervasive and unresolvable tensions. We are not limited to a single valid way of seeing a thing worth examination, because the world in which we find ourselves offers an uncountable number of legitimate perspectives. And just because two perspectives are in conflict we can’t conclude that one of them has to be false or mistaken. This is the famous doctrine of Nietzschean perspectivism which has often been misread as either relativism or subjectivism. But to view it in those ways is to misunderstand Nietzsche’s argument. Just because the world will bear multiple interpretations we can’t assume that every interpretation is valid. There are many interpretations the world will not bear. And this is true whether we are speaking of the world as nature, or as nature plus all human artifacts.
Science--or at least science up till the advent of quantum mechanics--out of an unconscious loyalty to previous faiths, adopted belief in a single explanation, a unique set of effects and causes which can be traced back to a first cause. This, says Nietzsche, is to posit the world as something “that can be mastered completely and forever with the aid of our square little reason.” And then he goes on to ask, “Do we really want to permit existence to be degraded for us like this--reduced to a mere exercise for a calculator and an indoor diversion for mathematicians?”
How is it that this impulse for self-degradation rules in the world of scientific scholarship? Nietzsche’s answer is contained in the third of his four theses on the false reasoning of philosophers:
To invent fables about a world “other” than this one has no meaning at all, unless an instinct of slander, detraction, and suspicion against life has gained the upper hand in us: in that case we avenge ourselves against life with a phantasmagoria of “another,” a “better” life.
The term Nietzsche assigns to this instinct, which keeps us both miserable and pathetic, is ascetic supernaturalism. Since at least the time of Socrates and Plato, the Western world has set asceticism as an ideal because it has believed that the apparent world--the world that comes to us through our senses--is a false world, a tainted world, a low world which is, at best, a parody of the real world we should be working to attain. The purpose of life is to get out of the apparent world and into the real world. Consequently, we should involve ourselves in the apparent world as little as possible and reject the rewards it only seems to offer. Hence asceticism.
It might appear that such an attitude is the opposite of the scientific spirit which promises that, over time, we can learn to manipulate the apparent world to such a degree that it can be forced to do our bidding and usher us into a paradise where every desire we imagine can be fulfilled. This is the dream of unending progress, fueled by science, which for centuries has driven Western thought and effort. It has pointed towards an apocalypse of happiness as complete as anything religions have promised, and, in that sense, has become a religion itself.
So, what’s ascetic about that?
Nietzsche’s answer is that science, in wedding itself to mathematics, has brought forth a single perspective on reality that banishes the rich and satisfying views that ordinary people must employ as the basis of their existence. Though he does not frequently use the concept “human nature,” his arguments not only imply its existence but ground human misery in attempts to deny natural instincts. Some portions of his work seem almost to come from modern evolutionary psychology. A recent publication which is drawing extensive notice, Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate, is thoroughly Nietzschean in its premises, though Pinker’s three references to Nietzsche in the book indicate that he is severely ignorant of what Nietzsche actually wrote.
Modern science, in proclaiming that the nature of the universe is mathematical and has no moral component whatsoever, introduces an existential problem which Nietzsche links to the monotheistic past:
Why have morality at all when life, nature, and history are “not moral”? No doubt, those who are truthful in that audacious and ultimate sense that is presupposed by the faith in science thus affirm another world than the world of life, nature and history, and insofar as they affirm this “other world”- look, must they not by the same token negate its counterpart, this world, our world? But you will have gathered what I am driving at, namely, that it is still a metaphysical faith upon which our faith in science rests--that even we seekers after knowledge today, we godless metaphysicians still take our fire, too, from the flame lit by a faith that is thousands of years old, that Christian faith which was also the faith of Plato, that God is the truth, that truth is divine.
The scientific divinity may, at first glance, strike observers as hard and cold. But human psychology is ingenious in directing emotion towards whatever happens to be the current delusion. Nietzsche, in effect, says that emotion has got to go somewhere and, in his judgment, the feeling that was forced out of religious life by the Enlightenment threw itself into science.
Thus we fell into the grip of a scientific morality that exhibits the same asceticism that all Western moralities have been forced to display. The mechanism in each case is identical: “In every ascetic morality people worship a part of themselves as god and therefore need to diabolize the remaining part.” It may seem a great leap from the coldness of a universe devoid of any moral principle and indifferent to human well-being to the rosy views of the scientific enterprise that are incessantly beamed at us by popular culture. But a moment’s thought shows that the gap is not as great as it first appears. If, in fact, the universe does not care, then humans are free to indulge themselves in whatever manner science permits. And what science does permit is the control and manipulation of matter in evermore complete and ingenious ways. Since this is all there is, why not make the best of it? After all, you only go round once, as we were told recently by flickering images of young men cavorting on beaches with plenty of beer and readily available and comely female flesh.
Though the priests of science offer a different heaven from the priests of Christianity, and though they posit different delusions as the work of the devil, they are still engaged, as all priests must be, in telling us to cleave to one feature of life at the expense of all other features.
We see the effectiveness of their message all around us. Right now, as we sit here in this room, there is probably playing on the television somewhere a commercial which depicts a young man finding a brass lamp on a beach. He rubs it, and who else appears but the genie, who, naturally enough, tells him he has three wishes. Without hesitation the young man wishes for a certain make and model of an automobile. When it pops into existence, he promptly hops in it and drives away, leaving the genie screaming, “Wait, you have two more wishes.” But as the young man is racing down the road he is thinking to himself, “I’ve got everything I could possibly want.”
It is some version, or another, of this situation which is constantly beamed at us as the end and purpose of life. It is the logical end product of the scientific faith. It is the sermon that issues forth every day from the mouths of politicians as the American dream. It is the essential promise of capitalism--that happiness can be insured unto eternity by getting new stuff.
Dreams, however, as we know, can transmogrify into nightmares, and rather quickly. And if the dream has been powerful enough, the accompanying nightmare can deliver apocalyptic disappointment. In addition to idyllic images of people finding salvation through shiny cars, shimmering dresses, palatial houses on the beach and so forth, we have, also, every night on the television, a series of directives: Ask your doctor if Paxil is right for you. Ask your doctor if Nexium is right for you. Ask your doctor if Clarinex is right for you. Ask your doctor if Vioxx is right for you. Ask your doctor if Zocor is right for you. Ask your doctor if Plavix is right for you. Ask your doctor if Procrit is right for you. And so on.
These, obviously, are intended to raise anxiety to such excruciating levels it can be relieved only--and then only partially--by the expenditure of dollars. If one were to attempt to enumerate the media efforts designed to scare people out of their wits, he would soon see he could not get halfway done before death overtook him.
Fear can’t be induced in people who aren’t ripe for it. It’s no accident that the business community has chosen it as its most potent sales technique. Just a moment’s reflection on the preachments of the priests of science reveals why this is the case. Think of the young man who has in his ideal car everything he could ever want. What happens if his car is threatened?
A damnable feature of material objects is that they change, and when they’re merely left alone they almost always change for the worse--or, at least, what we call the worse. The shiny finish on the perfect car fades, no matter how expensive a garage you construct to house it. The perfect face you buy from Oil of Olay, when you’re twenty-five years old, sags. And not all the scientists Oil of Olay can employ can stop it from sagging. The magnificent heart that you built with diet and exercise and supplements won’t drive you up the hill quite as well when you’re seventy years old as it did when you were thirty.
The heaven that the priests of science have promised you is a heaven of degeneration and decay. You can drive yourself crazy trying to stop the deterioration but the best you can achieve is a diminution of the rate. The process goes forward--perhaps a bit more slowly--but forward nonetheless.
As the truth about scientific progress dawns on greater numbers, and as they also realize they have nothing but that progress to hold onto, they begin to behave in socially pathological ways. The ABC News for October 29th had a segment titled “The Worried Well,” pointing out that the numbers of healthy but anxiety-driven people seeking medical tests is seriously over-loading the medical system and driving the cost of procedures for people who need them beyond their ability to pay. One doctor interviewed said that half the people he saw had no significant symptoms but were simply worried that something might be wrong with them.
Anyone born before 1950 knows how fears about security have mushroomed. If children today did the things I and my friends did regularly when I was a boy, their parents would be facing investigations by social service agencies and a good many of them would be threatened with jail. The norms of fifty years ago have become horrific dangers today, and when a transformation of that magnitude takes place within two generations anxiety grows dramatically.
Nietzsche’s argument is that it’s impossible to escape degenerative anxiety as long as a single aspect of life, which is actually an attempt to escape life’s reality, becomes obsessive. This always eventuates in an asceticism, and as Nietzsche says, science “is not the opposite of the ascetic ideal but rather the latest and noblest form of it.”
Nietzsche can speak of science as the noblest form of asceticism because it has within it an instinct of workmanship which he admires. There is much useful work that remains for science to do, and Nietzsche says explicitly that he has no desire to destroy the pleasure that scientists take in their craft. But that scientists can work contentedly and usefully does not prove that “science as a whole possesses a goal, a will, an ideal, or the passion of a great faith.”
In truth, Nietzsche claims, the average scientific man--and here he is speaking not just of natural scientists but of any scholar who employs scientific methodology--always resembles an old maid. Both will give up anything for respectability, which is simply another form of security. The scientist needs respectability in order to overcome the internal mistrust which is the sediment in the hearts of all dependent men and herd animals.
The outcome of scientist, as scientist, is the famous “last man” who, in an attempt to achieve perfect security, has surrendered everything that makes life worth living--or at least everything that humans previously believed made life worthwhile. The description of the last man is spun out contemptuously and in great detail in the prologue to Zarathustra. The last man asks the questions that previous men have asked:
What is love? What is creation? What is longing? What is a star?
And then, in answer, the last man simply blinks.
The last man has become small. He doesn’t want to do anything that requires too much exertion and certainly not anything that involves danger. The last men still quarrel but not vehemently because it might spoil their digestion. The last man wishes to be like everyone else and anyone who feels differently “goes voluntarily into a madhouse.”
The thing we must remember is that when Zarathustra has presented this scathing picture to the crowd in the marketplace, they are delighted and cry out:
“Give us this last man, O Zarathustra.” “Turn us into these last men!”
Zarathustra, feeling that he has been misunderstood, goes sadly away.
This is the dilemma Zarathustra, and ultimately Nietzsche, leave us with. How much is to be sacrificed to a scientifically-based security, which even in his own time Nietzsche said was “now worshipped as the supreme divinity”? He wanted people to understand that the price of such security was the abolition of the individual, and particularly of the individual spirit, which was being squandered in the interests of security.
The entire body of his work is a detailed exposition of the features of this sacrifice which struck him as a great and ludicrous piece of insanity. He found it in the near worship of what we call work, which is little more than the fear of everything individual, which mightily hinders the development of reason, which functions primarily as a policeman.
He found it in attitudes about punishment which he claims defile us more than the acts for which punishment is being inflicted, and remind us to ask ourselves today why the modern world has seen fit to multiply the offenses demanding public disciplinary action far beyond the number our ancestors put into that category. Schoolyard scuffles now frequently trigger police investigations.
He found it in moralists, who have no interest in knowledge, and operate only out the pleasure of causing pain.
He found it in an impatience that is incapable of understanding that if a change is to be profound it must be achieved in small increments pursued over a long period of time, and pursued with a perspective that is unremitting.
If one comes to Nietzsche’s works in a certain frame of mind, they can appear to be magically prescient. Yet, if we accept Nietzsche’s own argument that profound changes build gradually and become recognizable to most only as they approach their final stages, we can assume that an unusually perceptive observer in the nineteenth century would have discerned movements of thought and attitude which by now, a century and a quarter later, have had time to ripen.
These are speculative matters and are not amenable to what people who believe in single, objective perspective are fond of calling ‘proof.’ Yet, it seems to me they do at least raise the question whether the translation of science from a useful tool into a god-like avenue towards perfect happiness through perfect control and security may not, in truth, be leading us somewhere else, somewhere we won’t particularly like when we get there.