It is only by insisting that human experience is intelligible that we will ever discover the shortcomings of our own reason.
Recently a good philosophical friend dropped in to visit and, after a pre-emptive apology, said, “Aren’t you just a chicken-sh*t Nietzschean? Because you accept his view of the world, his psychology, and his critique of religion and traditional morality, all the way up to the last point — his claim that pity is weakness — and you blink; you turn back and want to say that sympathy or pity is a virtue.”
It was interesting to try to work out an answer. I’m not sure how much of Nietzsche’s actual world view I do buy. I certainly don’t think of the will-to-power as a metaphysical force (and I’m not sure he really did, but he did flirt with the idea, at least). And his critique of morality is too Hegelian for me: I can’t believe that one strain of people can be categorized as “slavish” and another as “masterful” and then see the history of human society as playing out between these two groups. I think what I admire most about Nietzsche is the project he is trying to achieve by putting forward these ideas. I think his main effort is to free himself, as an individual, from ideologies and superstitions and psychological failings, and his way of doing this is to reconceive human psychology and human history in ways that get him to rethink his own. His theories are levers, in a way, to lift up the rock that is hiding deeper elements of his mind from his awareness. I could easily imagine a “Nietzschean” in this sense who advocates a radical, fundamentalist Christianity, simply because it is the tool he or she needs to get at some deeper intrapersonal forces.
Nietzsche, I think, was powerfully moved by pity and compassion — particularly self-pity. So he tried to find a way to free himself from its pull, and ended up with Zarathustra’s powerful commands to “get over it.” I guess I do blink at this point. Getting over self-pity is one thing, but getting over other-directed sympathy is another. Of course, maybe I’m just wimpy. Sympathy certainly does limit our actions, and even the range of what we can imagine doing. But at this point I can’t see the removal of that limitation as more advantageous to me, spiritually and philosophically, than keeping it. By keeping sympathy, it becomes possible to be part of a social community, a partner in friendship, and a lover, and those are all good things which encourage my growth more than the lone-wolf style of life. (And these are good things which Nietzsche never really could get a handle on — so who’s the limited one, brother?)
So let me identify myself as not a chicken-sh*t Nietzschean, but as one who admires Nietzsche’s “self-growth” project, but amends it so that even greater growth is possible. (And if that don’t sound chicken-sh*t, I don’t know what does!)
David Hume provided a compelling argument against believing in reports of miracles in chapter 10 of his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. The basic idea is this: we have to weigh the likelihood of a miracle taking place against the possibility that the report is exaggerated or simply false. The end result is that it is always more likely that the report is somehow wrong than that a miracle took place. For we have lots of experience of witnesses getting things wrong, or stories getting garbled as they are passed along, and really no solid firsthand evidence of miracles taking place. To believe such a report, you have to say, “The falsity of this report would be an even greater miracle than the one described in the report,” and that just never happens.
I think this argument can be extended to religions themselves. Every religion is based upon or implies claims that are supernatural — they would be judged as miraculously true, from the perspective of natural science. God speaking to humans, life after death, resurrection, rebirth, magical healing — all of these things, at least if taken literally, simply can’t be accommodated by natural science. (Or, if they can be naturally explained, then they lose their religious significance.) So in these cases, one should weigh the likelihood of these claims being true against the possibility that humans are being superstitious, or are being led by acritical wishful thinking, or are simply being taught to believe false things. And these phenomena are all too common in ordinary human experience. So, with any supernatural claim, it is always more likely that humans have somehow deluded themselves than that the claim is true.
It seems to me that if you try to lead your life by reason, you end up as a skeptic. A skeptic, of course, can believe many things, but will regard all these beliefs as tenuous hypotheses which can be modified or rejected if some experiences or reasons come along which seriously challenge those beliefs or demonstrate their falsity. In other words, the beliefs are mere guesses which we hold onto until something better comes along.
The life of reason leads to skepticism because (this is my guess) reason just doesn’t have the power to tell us much about the world. Or at least I’ll say that’s true of our reason; maybe there’s some other sort of being with a larger capacity for reason who can discover lots of things. But we can’t learn much through reason. And a wealth of experience doesn’t help a whole bunch, since experience always has to be interpreted somehow, and there are always alternative interpretations which reason can’t rule out. E.g. — am I really in causal contact with the keys I’m tapping? Or are my experiences being generated by a matrix/evil demon/dream?
Reason can help us sort out which guesses seem to us to be more likely — given other guesses we’ve made. So, for example, I assume that science gives us a decent picture of how the world works, on the whole. And given that picture, I can’t see that there is any room for a human soul, or for an Intelligent Designer, or some guarantee of divine providence. So — given my guess that modern science is right — reason helps me reach the conclusion that these other guesses (soul, God, hope) are wrong. I’ll be the first to admit that my initial guess, in favor of science, could be wrong. But if it’s right, I think I can mount a pretty compelling argument against believing in those other things.
So I end up as a skeptic, not very confident about our ability to know anything for sure, but fairly confident in reason’s ability to sort out which “guess packages” fit together and which don’t. And I can’t see that reason can give us much more than that.