I’ve been reading a weird variety of books lately, two of which are The Cambridge Companion to Charles Darwin and Menand’s The Metaphysical Club (actually, re-reading this one).
Several of the essays in the Darwin book concern Darwinism and ethics. I think a reasonable view of the connection between the two is as follows. There is, no doubt, some evolutionary account to be given of why human beings have ended up with a certain range of moral emotions, including fear, anger, surprise, happiness, sadness, disgust, and contempt. Having these emotions, and sharing roughly the same responses to the same things, helps foster coordination and cooperation, which seem to be a good thing for the survival of individuals.
Some people might raise Moore’s objection: but so what if caring about other people has evolutionary advantages? What is the link between such advantages and morality? What makes it good? I’m not much interested in this objection, since it makes sense only if you assume there is some pure form of morality. Seems unlikely to me.
But here’s a more interesting objection: are we beholden in any way to continue caring about others, or to continue to foster coordination and cooperation? Well, no, I would say — except for the fact that all or most of us actually do have an interest in living in a stable society, counting on sympathy from others, etc. It’s only our actual interests that give us any reason to further promote the “virtues” that evolution has coached us toward promoting. And if our interests change, so too will our virtues. But it’s hard, at least right now, to see the advantages of coordination and cooperation fading away. (Unless I get that Iron Man suit.)
This general approach ties in well with what I’ve been reading about Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., in Menand’s book. The Civil War taught Holmes that certainty leads to violence, and so he became skeptical of ideologies, moral certainties, and all isms — except, I guess, for his own certainty that war is unspeakably horrible. You might see connections to Vonnegut here; but actually Holmes ends up far colder. He must have seen the job of gov’t, and law, as trying to stave off violence that inevitably comes about, since people can’t help feeling certain. It’s sort of the job of a herd manager: these animals will end up wanting to kill each other, so try to sort things out ahead of time to keep carnage to a minimum. What the animals believe is almost beside the point; they’ll all end up adopting the beliefs of the less-losing side anyway, eventually. His opinions on social issues brought before the Supreme Court weren’t determined by any high ideals, but from a colder, distant, managerial perspective. He famously agreed with a state claiming the right to sterilize mentally-deficient adults, saying that three generations of idiots were enough.
And, of course, I hear Nietzsche in the background. The task is to legislate our moral ends, in full cognizance of our evolutionary past and the constraints of the present. But the Darwinian/Holmesian thinking lacks the Nzean end of producing some sort of heroic individual. We have to get not only beyond good and evil, but also Prussian “Big-Man”-ism.
I should have read this book ages ago. I have read a lot about it — you can count on seeing it cited and discussed by any good recent book on Nietzsche. So I have learned from others what Clark says. But this is my first time reading the book, and I am extremely impressed with her scholarly judgment, her philosophical acumen, and her careful study of Nietzsche.
The focus of the book is on Nietzsche’s attitude toward truth, and the effect it has on his view of the role of philosophy. Some of Nz’s most famous quotes come from an unpublished essay, “Truth and Lie in the Extra-Moral Sense,” written in 1873. It is there we find this shiny gem:
What, then, is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms—in short, a sum of human relations which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people: truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are; metaphors which are worn out and without sensuous power; coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer as coins.
That sure sounds like a denial of truth. But Nz seems to be offering his view of the truth, and criticizing others, throughout every page of every major work. So what gives?
According to Clark — and she provides a close argument for this conclusion — Nz’s view of truth shifted over his career. Fairly early on, when he was still messing with Schopenhauer, he had some belief in an ultimate reality, a noumenal world of things in themselves which exist independently of human experience. He believed at the same time that humans are particularly ill-suited toward having any knowledge of such things. And so the best we can manage is some sort of faulty image, a metaphor, for what is really out there.
But then, as Nz gave up Sch and Wagner, and wrote HAH, he dispensed with the notion of things in themselves. They play no role in explaining anything in our experience, and we cannot even conceive them — so why believe in them? But at the same time, Nz inconsistently held on to the idea that our so-called knowledge is at best a pale, insufficient version of what is really true. But you cannot dis our knowledge without affirming some independently-existing thing whose structure is not getting captured by our thinking.
Eventually — after BGE — Nietzsche gave up the “metaphysical correspondence” theory of truth, and believed truth to be immanent to a perspective. Once we give up things in themselves, we give up the idea of a “God’s eye perspective,” i.e., a perspective from everywhere and nowhere, and affirm only particular perspectives. These perspectives overlap with one another and can be compared with one another — we can see the world through this lens and that lens, and evaluate which lens gives us the better picture, given our own interests and concerns. When we’re concerned with predictive accuracy, for example, Einstein’s lens turns out to be better than Newton’s.
Clark’s account continues. Nz was interested in big philosophical lenses, and (principally in GM) argues that humans have throughout history employed the lens of asceticism: that life is to be lived for the sake of higher, unearthly ideals. The basic human concern this lens was trying to satisfy was our interest in finding something worth living for, and some reason not to fall into suicidal nihilism. Nz argues that asceticism, which was originally religious in nature, gradually evolved into science, and science’s will to truth, which ultimately ends in nihilism. So asceticism has played itself out, and it fails. Nz’s constructive project is to provide a new lens, the affirmation of life, the will to power, and the eternal recurrence, which is a new perspective in competition with the old nihilism. He argues that it has the power to succeed where ascetic religion and science have failed.
I need to read the book again. It is patiently argued, and deserves to be read carefully. Right now it seems to me extremely plausible and significant.
I recently finished the trilogy by Philip Pullman, “His Dark Materials.” It is a set of books aimed at young adults, but when I saw the film of “The Golden Compass,” I found the ideas appealing enough to give the books a try. I was not disappointed.
Most of the action takes place in a parallel universe, in which people’s souls (or daemons) walk around outside them in animal form. The relationship between a human and its daemon is complex: they need to be in close spatial proximity in order for both to survive, and they sense one another’s emotions, but they have separate consciousnesses and have conversations with one another. If the psychic link between the two is severed, the daemon dies and the human becomes listless. We learn later that when a human is killed, its daemon turns evaporates into the cosmos while the human’s own spirit is sent to the land of the dead.
We also learn that some stuff called “Dust” permeates this world, and is somehow linked to consciousness, intelligence, and creativity. Humans produce it when they think, create, and initiate. An organization known as the Church is convinced that Dust is in fact Original Sin, and is reacting against it with fear and rage. Dust dates back to the first fall in Eden, it seems, or the emergence of consciousness in early hominids. Also around that time there was a rebellion of angels against God (or the Authority), and it seems that at least some angels are plotting a second revolution.
The Authority was once an angel, but somehow ascended to greater power and ruled the universe. But he grew old, and delegated most of his authority to a mean angel, known as Metatron. By the time we meet the Authority, he’s a benign, senile old fool, and he dies without much fanfare.
(Side note: I now understand why Zarathustra claims “God is dead” rather than that God doesn’t exist. Look at history: in the early days, if you read the Bible, God is active and effective. Later, he acts only through prophets and angels. By the time of the Reformation, he’s well-nigh invisible. Zarathustra is simply confirming what everybody should have suspected: by now, surely, the old man must be dead. We haven’t heard from him in millennia.)
Our world, and a few other worlds, get caught up in the drama as well, because a boy named Will (from our own world) comes into possession of the Subtle Knife, which allows its wielder to cut passage from one world to another. The problem is that whenever this happens, some Dust (known in our world as “dark matter”) starts spilling out through the cut. So Dust, overall, is declining in quantity, and worlds start falling apart, since somehow they need intelligence, perhaps as a human in Lyra’s world needs a daemon. Lyra and Will become second-generation Adam and Eve, though it is their job to preserve the Dust and frustrate the Church’s objectives.
There is fantastic imagery throughout: iron-clad polar bears, zeppelins, witches, tiny warriors riding dragonflies, and so on. It’s a very compelling story, and I’d love to be in a group exploring its many layers of metaphor.
I recently finished two good books about Darwin. I haven’t known all that much about the man, apart from scattered biographical references and documentaries. I am embarrassed to say I have never read The Origin of the Species, expecting it to be filled with the retelling of facts about bird beaks, snail shells, etc. Nothing like the retelling of facts to spoil a good read … facts put an end to good conversation … facts kill thinking — there! That has the punch I was looking for!
Anyway, the first book is Evolution’s Captain, by Peter Nichols. It focuses on the captain of the Beagle, Robert FitzRoy, and more particularly on his decision to kidnap three native people from Tierra del Fuego. Originally he kidnapped them to use as barter for some smaller boat the natives had stolen from him. But it turns out the natives liked the boat better, so he was stuck with a preteen girl, a young teenaged boy, and a young man. He and his crew named them Fuegia Basket, Jemmy Button, and York Minster. The plan then was to acclimate them to England, embue them with civilization, and return them to their people, like living British viruses, spreading the higher virtues of Eurocentrism.
We learn then about FitzRoy’s second voyage of the Beagle, which included Darwin and the Fuegians, and how Darwin eventually came to be himself. FitzRoy’s moral experiment, of course, ended in disaster. Each of the younger kids ended up in a nowhereland between two moral worlds (Fuegia eventually prostituted herself to passing sailors), and the young man simply disappeared from view, after some raping and murder. FitzRoy’s own career, for various other reasons, began to turn downward, just as Darwin became famous and infamous. He eventually took his own life.
The second book is a short picture book by Peter Sís entitled The Tree of Life. We have another of Sís’s books, Tibet through the Red Box, which we keep on display in our home. He is a very detailed and compelling author and illustrator, creating pages that invite you in to stay for a while. You don’t want to pick up his books unless you have a couple of hours with nothing to do, even though there’re only 20 pages long. This book is a biography of Darwin which neatly fits with the picture I gained from Nichols’ book. I recommend it highly.
Maybe I’ll read something by the old man himself next.
On Rob’s recommendation, I found and read this book. I truly admire it: this is a case where an author has taken his own path toward understanding a problem that concerns him deeply. The problem is, basically, the problem of nihilism. He wants to understand how to maintain the more general feelings of religiosity while knowing full well, in our post-Nietzschean, post-Heideggerian age, that all available gods are dead.
After a brilliant introduction, he works through Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Thoreau, and Norman Maclean (whose writings have meant a lot to me, both in content and style) before arriving at his destination. That destination is best described, I think, in a passage he quotes from Maclean’s book, Young Men and Fire. In the book, Maclean, who is now an old man, has finally figured out how the tragedy transpired at the Mann Gulch fire. Maclean has lost his wife, brother, and parents, and is using up his last bit of life force climbing through the Montana hillsides and sleuthing through the deaths of young men who died several decades past:
Looking down on the worlds of the Mann Gulch fire for probably the last time, I said to myself, “Now we know, now we know.” I kept repeating this line until I recognized that, in the wide world anywhere, “Now we know, now we know” is one of its most beautiful poems. For me, for this moment, anyway, the world was changed to this one-line poem. Finding it a poem, I hoped I could next complete it as a tragedy, more exactly still as the tragedy of this whole cockeyed world that probably always makes its own kind of sense and beauty and not always ours.
Edwards’ title is the same as a great poem of Wallace Stevens, which also expresses the sort of bare-boned poetic meaning that Stevens, Maclean, and Edwards find in our experience — no god required, thank you.
I admire Edwards’ effort, though (perhaps needless to say) his path isn’t the one I would have taken. He has a greater sympathy for the more nuanced writings of continental philosophers (a nicer way of saying what I mean, which might more accurately be described as ‘muddle-headed mush’), where I need to keep my shoes on the concrete. Still, my bet is that Edwards and I would have a lot to discuss if we ever met — and that’s just the sort of feeling you want to have after reading a book, as Holden Caufield once said.
I just finished this account of a journalist’s encounter with a “lost tribe” in New Guinea, that is, a group of people who had not encountered Europeans prior to 1993.
The book is riveting, almost despite itself. Marriott strikes me as naive, foolish, and often obtuse, but, boy, can he write a story. He decides to march into a thick, deadly jungle, led by some local guides, in search of some barbaric people who are known to be cannibals in order to ask them how things are going. He encounters several drunken, disillusioned westerners along the way, who all chastise him for calling the tribe “lost” out of some bizarrely misplaced concern for political correctness. The New Guinea infrastructure appears pretty much nonexistent, certainly once you leave what passes for a city. If you break an ankle in a New Guinea rainforest, you may as well just lay down and die, or wait for the cannibals to come; no life flight will be on its way. (I know, this is an overly snobbish take on my part; I don’t deal well with societies in which I cannot find a good martini. Utah is a even a bit of a stretch for me.)
As Marriott and his guides tramp, slip, and slide their way through the heart of darkness, they come across a little pig, which the guides gleefully strangle, pack up in leaves, and later toss into a fire so that they can break apart its flesh and bones and savor the fat little strips of undercooked meat in their black teeth, grease dripping into their beards. It’s that kind of place.
They encounter the lost tribe, and guess what? They are destitute and barbaric. But this is what I found most fascinating of all. The tribe is only partly accessible, culturally and emotionally. Meaning: by Marriott’s account, you can’t safely trust any of your assumptions about what people will do or how to interact with them. It’s bewildering and disorienting. In one scene, Marriott is talking with the village men who are psyching themselves up for a hunt (more little piggies), and these guys, who had been somewhat friendly, are now starting to get scary. They brag about their cannibalistic past and start taking on fierce attitudes. Marriott starts to back away, and rightly so: there really is no telling what’s about to happen. The guys are hovering in a kind of waking dream state, where whims are not likely to be overriden by any rational or emotional commitments. Indeed, that’s the whole lost tribe for you — a group of people in a strange, impressionistic swirl of superstitions and quasi-knowledge, fed by raw emotions and desires. You can see why some people ended up calling such native people “childlike,” since children have a similar kind of impetuousness, but this is an impetuousness coupled with very violent adult passions and adapted to a harsh environment.
The first Westerner to encounter these folks gave them a smattering of gifts and appointed one of them as being in charge. This, despite the fact that there already was a chief. Marriott now finds the chief totally disoriented and aloof. He has no sense of his own place, and wanders the village silent and alone. There is also a strange man living among the tribe and trying to impart Christianity to them. He’s self-important and stupid and cruel, though Marriott finds some empathy for him and his bleak situation.
Just before Marriott and his guides are about to leave there is a terrible thunderstorm. Everyone huddles in the makeshift houses as lightning pounds down around them. One house is struck, and five women and children are killed. Marriott and his guides know they had better get out of town fast before the hunters return, since they will surely be blamed for the accident, and certainly killed. So they flee, but in their escape they encounter the tribe’s hunting party, led by a man Marriott has befriended, whose wife and children have just been killed. What do you do? Break the news to your friend that his wife and daughters have been fried by lightning? No, because if you do he and his buddies will kill you and eat you. So you lie, congratulate them on their hunt, shake hands, and off you go. You simply can’t count on reason and heartfelt emotion to carry the day.
Marriott ends up feeling guilty, as if he did indeed bring harm to the tribe. But that’s nonsense. And so far as I can see, there is no “indictment of colonialism and its lingering legacy of cultural annihilation,” as the book jacket suggests. The lost tribe, having had a taste of civilization, wants an airstrip and a hospital and a gold mine to be brought to them. But, bloody hell, they can all march out of that godforsaken place anytime they want, and make use of what little civilized amenities New Guinea has to offer. And I can’t see that anything beautiful would have been lost: these people are living at the margin of existence, shutting up women into huts and trading them for pigs and watching their children die of malaria. Nothing noble about the savagery here.
I know: spoken like a true cultural imperialist. I can’t help but feel that some forms of life are better than others, and the one ridden with superstition, malaria, and cannibalism is pretty low in the rankings.
Composing the Soul, Graham Parkes: this is the book about Nietzsche I wish I could have written. Partly biography, partly philosophical examination, with elegant and erudite connections to Plato, Emerson, Herder, Goethe, and so on. Definitely one of the top Nz books I’ve encountered.
Art of Possibility, Benjamin and Roz Zander: got turned on to it by Ben’s TED talk. It’s self-help, but actually insightful and fun to read, even challenging here and there.
Future of Freedom, Fareed Zakaria: good book on the general tension between democracy (aka mob rule) and liberty (preservation of human rights, despite mob’s misgivings). Fair and balanced, so far as I can judge, with good perspectives on current political evolutions. Seems in tune with what I’ve been reading in the Economist. I’m looking forward to reading his latest, The Post-American World.
My wife’s book club is reading The Cave by Jose Saramago. It sounded interesting, so I read it too. It takes place in some nondescript time and place, perhaps in the not-so-distant future. Most of the landscape is barren, except for some small villages, and a city, and in the city a huge complex called the Center. The Center is a huge shopping mall, living complex, entertainment center — basically, everything you need in a massive single building. Many people are trying to flee the barren landscape and gain admission to the Center, where it seems everything will be new and clean and happy. The main character, an old potter named Cipriano, makes a living by selling his pottery to the Center. His wife has died, his daughter lives with him, and her husband is a security guard in the Center. The crux of the novel is the difficulty of deciding whether to move into the Center, since Cipriano’s business is not doing well. They live a charming, romantic life in the village, and it’s easy to see that moving to the Center has all the appeal of deciding to live in a shopping mall.
What interests me is trying to connect the novel to Plato. There’s a very obvious connection at the end of the novel, but before that there are also other interesting connections. Cipriano finds a dog that turns out to be perfectly adorable, and of course we know that philosophers are supposed to be like good dogs: friendly toward what they know, and hostile toward the unfamiliar. The dialogue between Cipriano and his daughter is very elegant, like Platonic dialogue. Cipriano and his daughter start making clay figurines, which sort of recalls the overall project of the Republic. And the overall theme seems to concern what it is to live harmoniously and according to one’s nature, which is Plato’s understanding of justice.
I hope some of you other philosophers have the chance to read it, as I’m sure there are other connections I’m missing.
For whatever reason, over the last few weeks I’ve read some Vonnegut novels, including Breakfast of Champions, Timequake, and Hocus Pocus. When I read him years ago, I found him entertaining but somewhat shallow. Now I think he’s hilarious and profound. Moreover, reading him and some econversations with Mike have helped me get a bit clearer about my problem with religion.
I can’t honestly say that the fictitious (and impossible) impartial, objective, blank-slate observer can cook up some sort of argument showing that religion must be false. This is because “religion” is so slippery. If it means or entails young-earth creationism and contemporary faith-healing, well then, okay, maybe we can gather together something close to a knock-down argument. At least we can show that believing in this sort of “religion” requires either inconsistency or dubious intellectual gymnastics. But if “religion” is less specific in its falsifiable claims and keeps the miracles out of carefully documented historical times, then who’s to say?
But novelists like Vonnegut, it seems to me, paint a very compelling portrait of human psychology. According to this portrait, humans generally are (a) capable of caring for each other, (b) capable of smoking each other, and (c) inclined toward seeing monumental or divine significance in their actualizing either (a) or (b). Now it could be that there’s a divine being behind it all, or it could be that (a)-(c) are merely natural facts of human psychology, and “God” grows out of (c). As I say, I find this portrait compelling, and it seems to me that the human art of self-deception is stronger than the human arts of metaphysics and theology. I do not have an argument for this. It’s a mere “seeming.” All I can do is stare in a kind of wonder at those who know everything I know and yet aren’t pulled by the same “seeming.” This is why I enjoy Harrison’s company so much!
A quick dart into the political. In Timequake, St. Kurt recommends two further amendments to the U.S. Constitution:
28. Every newborn shall be sincerely welcomed and cared for until maturity.
29. Every adult who needs it shall be given meaningful work to do, at a living wage.
Wouldn’t be a wonderful world if these amendments were even possible candidates for debate?