Tagged: friedrich nietzsche

Why Dispositions Make More Sense Than Powers

By R.N. Carmona

Consider what follows some scattered thoughts after reading an excellent paper by Marius Backmann. I think he succeeds in showing how the Neo-Aristotelian notion of powers is incongruous with pretty much any theory of time of note. My issue with powers is more basic: what in the world are Neo-Aristotelians even saying when they invoke this idea and why does it seem that no one has raised the concern that powers are an elementary paraphrase of dispositions? With respect to this concern, Neo-Aristotelians do not even attempt to make sense of our experience with matter and energy. They seem to go on the assumption that something just has to underlie the physical world whereas I take it as extraneous to include metaphysical postulates where entirely physical ones make do. Dispositions are precisely the sort of physical postulates that adequately explain what we perceive as cause-effect relationships. What I will argue is that a more thorough analysis of dispositions is all that is needed to understand why a given a caused some given effect b.

My idea that powers are an elementary paraphrase is entailed in Alexander Bird’s analysis of what powers are. He states:

According to Bird, powers, or potencies, as he calls them alternatively, are a subclass of dispositions. Bird holds that not all dispositions need to be powers, since there could be dispositions that are not characterised by an essence, apart from self-identity. Powers, on the other hand, Bird (2013) holds to be properties with a dispositional essence. On this view, a power is a property that furnishes its bearer with the same dispositional character in every metaphysically possible world where the property is instantiated. If the disposition to repel negatively charged objects if there are some in the vicinity is a power in that sense, then every object that has that property does the same in every metaphysically possible world, i.e. repel negatively charged objects if there are some in the vicinity.

Marius Backmann (2019) No time for powers, Inquiry, 62:9-10, 979-1007, DOI: 10.1080/0020174X.2018.1470569

Upon closer analysis of Bird’s definition, a power just is a disposition. The issue is that Bird and the Neo-Aristotelians who complain that he has not gone far enough have isolated what they take to be a power from the properties of an electron, which is a good example of a particle that repels negatively charged objects given that some are in its vicinity. Talk of possible worlds makes no sense unless one can prove mathematically that an electron-like particle with a different mass would also repulse other negatively charged particles. However, though it can easily be shown that a slightly more massive electron-like particle will repulse other particles of negative charge, its electrical charge will be slightly higher than an electrons because according to Robert Milikan’s calculation, there seems to be a relationship between the mass of a particle and its charge. The most elementary charge is e = ~1.602 x 10^19 coulombs. The charge of a quark is measured in multiples of e/3, implying a smaller charge, which is expected given that they are sub-particles. So what is of interest is why the configuration of even an elementary particle yields predictable “behaviors.”

To see this, let us dig into an example Backmann uses: “My power to bake a cake would not bring a cake that did not exist simpliciter before into existence, but only make a cake that eternally exists simpliciter present. Every activity reduces to a change in what is present” (Ibid.). The Neo-Aristotelian is off track to say we have power to bake a cake and that the oven has power to yield this desired outcome that do not trace back to its parts or as Cartwright states of general nomological machines: “We explicate how the machine arrangement dictates what can happen – it has emergent powers which are not to be found in its components” (Cartwright, Nancy & Pemberton, John (2013). Aristotelian powers: without them, what would modern science do? In John Greco & Ruth Groff (eds.), Powers and Capacities in Philosophy: the New Aristotelianism. London, U.K.: Routledge. pp. 93-112.). Of the nomological machines in nature, Cartwright appears to bypass the role of evolution. Of such machines invented by humans, she ignores the fact that we often wrongly predict what a given invention will do. Evolution proceeds via probabilities and so, from our ad hoc point of view, it looks very much like trial and error. Humans have the advantage of being much more deliberate about what they are selecting for and therefore, our testing and re-testing of inventions and deciding when they are safe and suitable to hit the market is markedly similar to evolutionary selection.

That being said, the components of a machine do account for its function. It is only due to our understanding of other machines that we understand what should go into building a new one in order for it to accomplish a new task(s). Powers are not necessary because then we should be asking, why did we not start off with machines that have superior powers? In other words, why start with percolators if we could have just skipped straight to Keurig or Nespresso machines or whatever more advanced models that might be invented? Talk of powers seems to insinuate that objects, whether complex or simple, are predetermined to behave the way they do, even in the absence of trial runs, modifications, or outright upgrades. This analysis sets aside the cake. It does not matter what an oven or air fryer is supposed to do. If the ingredients are wrong, either because I neglected to use baking powder or did not use enough flour, the cake may not raise. The ingredients that go into baked goods play a “causal” role as well.

Dispositions, on the other hand, readily explain why one invention counts as an upgrade over a previous iteration. Take, for instance, Apple’s A14 Bionic chip. At bottom, this chip accounts for, “a 5 nanometer manufacturing process” and CPU and GPU improvements over the iPhone 11 (Truly, Alan. “A14 Bionic: Apple’s iPhone 12 Chip Benefits & Improvements Explained”. Screenrant. 14 Oct 2020. Web). Or more accurately, key differences in the way this chip was made accounts for the improvement over its predecessors. Perhaps more crucially is that critics of dispositions have mostly tended to isolate dispositions, as though a glass cup’s fragility exists in a vacuum. Did the cup free fall at 9.8m/s^2? Did it fall on a mattress or on a floor? What kind of floor? Or was the cup thrown at some velocity because Sharon was angry with her boyfriend Albert? What did she throw the cup at: a wall, the floor, Albert’s head, or did it land in a half-full hamper with Sharon and Albert’s dirty clothes?

Answering these questions solves the masking and mimicker problems. The masking problem can be framed as follows:

Another kind of counterexample to SCA, due to Johnston (1992) and Bird (1998), involves a fragile glass that is carefully protected by packing material. It is claimed that the glass is disposed to break when struck but, if struck, it wouldn’t break thanks to the work of the packing material. There is an important difference between this example and Martin’s: the packing material would prevent the breaking of the glass not by removing its disposition to break when struck but by blocking the process that would otherwise lead from striking to breaking.

Choi, Sungho and Michael Fara, “Dispositions”The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).

I would not qualify that the packing material prevents the glass from breaking by blocking the process that would result if it were exposed. The packing material has its own properties and dispositions that we have discovered through trial and error making this material good at protecting glass. Packing paper was more common, but now we have bubble wrap and heavy duty degradable stretch wrap, also capable of protecting glass, china, porcelain, and other fragile items. The dispositions of these protective materials readily explain why their encompassing of fragile objects protects them from incidental striking or drops. If I were, however, to throw a wrapped coffee mug as hard as I can toward a brick wall, the mug is likely to break. This entails that variables are important in this thing we call cause and effect.

A perfect example is simple collisions of the sort you learn about in an elementary physics course. If a truck and haul speeding down a highway in one direction at ~145 km/h, and a sedan traveling in the opposite direction at cruising speed of ~89 km/h collide, we can readily predict the outcome and that this particular collision is inelastic. The speeding truck would likely barrel through the sedan and the sedan will be pushed in the direction the truck was traveling in. The vehicles’ respective speeds and masses are extremely important in understanding what goes on here. There is no sense in which we can say that trucks just have a power to mow things down because a collision between the truck in our original example and a truck and haul driving at roughly the same speed in the opposite direction results in an entirely difficult outcome, a perfectly elastic collision in where both trucks collide and come to an immediate halt after the effects of the impact are fully realized.

Neo-Aristotelian analyses of powers give us nothing that is keeping with physics. What these explanations demand is something they imagine happening behind the veil of what science has already explained. There are just dispositions and what is needed is a more critical analysis of what is entailed across each instance of cause and effect. Power ontologies beg the question, in any case, because they require dispositions to make sense of powers. That is because powers are just a cursory analysis of cause-effect relationships, a way of paraphrasing that is overly simplistic and ultimately, not analytical enough. Power ontologies, along with talk of dynamism, which properly belongs to Nietzsche not Aristotle, severely undermine the Neo-Aristotelian project. Nietzsche’s diagnosis of causation makes this clear:

Cause and effect: such a duality probably never exists; in truth we are confronted by a continuum out of which we isolate a couple of pieces, just as we perceive motion only as isolated points and then infer it without ever actually seeing it. The suddenness with which many effects stand out misleads us; actually, it is sudden only for us. In this moment of suddenness there is an infinite number of processes that elude us. n intellect that could see cause and effect as a continuum and a flux and not, as we do, in terms of an arbitrary division and dismemberment, would repudiate the concept of cause and effect and deny all conditionality.

Nietzsche, Friedrich W, and Walter Kaufmann. The Gay Science: With a Prelude in Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs. New York: Vintage Books, 1974. 173. Print.

Nietzsche describes a continuum and a flux, in other words, a dynamism thoroughly unlike what can be attributed to Aristotle’s theory of causation. So the fact that Neo-Aristotelians even speak of a dynamism feels like a sort of plagiarism, since they are associating the idea of a dynamism with a thinker that said nothing to that effect. Nietzsche is critical of Aristotle’s causal-teleological marriage and can be seen as explicitly accusing Aristotle and also Hume of arbitrarily splicing a dynamic continuum in an ad hoc manner that does not find justification in metaphysical ideas. If Nietzsche had been properly exposed to modern science, he would probably agree that this splicing does not find justification in physical ideas either. The hard sciences confirm a continuum, preferring complex processes from which predictable results follow. There is just no sense in which we can apply any theory of causation to a chemical reaction. What features in these reactions are the properties and dispositions of the elements involved and how they are constituted explains why we get one reaction or another. Any talk of dynamisms is properly Nietzschean in spirit and as should be clear in his words, there is no invocation of powers.

Suffice to say that a deeper analysis of dispositions also explains away the mimicker problem. Styrofoam plates simply do not break in the way glass plates do and their underlying composition explains why that is. Ultimately, Neo-Aristotelians are not in a good position to get to the bottom of what we call cause and effect. Aside from the difficulties Backmann sheds light on, the notion of powers is incoherent and lacking in explanatory power, especially at levels requiring deeper analysis. Predictably, I can see Neo-Aristotelians invoking an infinite regress of sorts. In other words, is it simply the composition of the glass interacting with the composition of a hardwood floor that results in the glass shattering or is there more to the story? To that I would respond that events like these happen within a causally closed space-time system. It is then when we will be asked who or what decided that a glass cup should break on impact when landing on a hardwood floor? Well, who or what decided that a compound fracture of the tibia is expected given that it receives a strong enough blow from an equally dense or denser object? The Neo-Aristotelian will keep pushing the buck back, demanding deeper levels of analysis, effectively moving the goalposts. What will remain is that there is no intelligence that decided on these things, i.e., there is no teleological explanation involved in these cases, because then they would have to account for undesired ends like broken bones.

In the end, I think that the deepest level of analysis will involve a stochastic process in where degrees of probability encompass possible outcomes. Not every blow leads to a broken tibia. Dropping a glass cup on just any surface is not enough to crack or shatter it. There are cases in where angular momentum as a result of a human foot can change a falling glass cup’s trajectory just enough to ensure that it does not break upon hitting the ground. I have met people quite adept at breaking these kinds of falls with a simple extension of their foot. As such, probabilities will change given the circumstances on a case by case basis. This element of chance at the deepest level of analysis coheres perfectly with the universe we find ourselves in because even the fact that we are beings made of matter, as opposed to beings made of anti-matter, is due to chance. Apparently, God has always rolled dice. On this, I will let Lawrence Krauss have the last word:

Because antiparticles otherwise have the same properties as particles, a world made of antimatter would behave the same way as a world of matter, with antilovers sitting in anticars making love under an anti-Moon.  It is merely an accident of our circumstances, due, we think, to rather more profound factors…that we live in a universe that is made up of matter and not antimatter or one with equal amounts of both.

Krauss, Lawrence. A Universe From Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing. 1st ed. New York, NY: Free Press, 2012. 61. Print.

Subsuming The Irenaean Theodicy Into Atheism

For starters, I will reiterate what I wrote in my response to Hellenistic Christendom:

Both Irenaeus and Hick systematized human (Libertarian) free will.1 Arguably, there’s an inconsistency in their view of free will because they don’t focus on the origin of the human propensity for evil, i.e., original sin. If one were interested in a systematic reconciliation of the Original Sin Theodicy and Hick’s theodicy, it would be a rather simple task. The only issue would be in assuming that God allowed the Fall because he wanted human beings to ascend to moral perfection. He wanted to give us a choice and of course, a choice isn’t real unless there are alternatives. You can choose to lead an immoral life, to live in sin, or you can, per the Old Testament, keep God’s commandments or, per the New Testament, confess your sins and accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior. This sort of theodicy would run into exegetical issues, however. Human beings do not, on their own will, ascend to moral perfection. According to Ephesians 2:8, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.”

Moral perfection or perhaps better put, holiness, isn’t a summit one reaches; it is more like, especially given allusions in the Bible (e.g. Colossians 3), a garment that you are adorned with. So Irenaeus and Hicks failed at this systematization because they forgot that “he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5). As a person driven by great personal pride, I can see the allure of Irenaeus and Hicks’ point of view; we are essentially Sisyphus, but we succeed at pushing the boulder to the summit! It is, however, not a Christian point of view.

But can it be a naturalistic, atheistic point of view? There’s quite a lot to unpack if one were to entertain the pertinent and yet tangential discussion on determinism and free will. If human beings have free will, it is highly probable that it is not congruous with the Libertarian view, the notion that ceteris paribus, one could choose a different course of action. Suffice to say that a Nietzschean view is more probable: the great person is distinct from the ordinary person and it is through great people that we achieve moral nobility.2

I happen to think that Nietzsche was right in his conclusion though one would be hard pressed to find in his works anything resembling a cogent argument supporting said conclusion. Nietzsche thoroughly explains the difference between great people and the herd and these allusions are present in his treatment of master and slave morality and in his idea of the Übermensch. Nietzsche, however, does not provide us with a road map detailing how a slave becomes a master, how a member of the herd ascends to greatness. In fact, for Nietzsche, it’s not so much an ascent to greatness, but rather a descent, especially given how important suffering and solitude were to him and should be for a great person.

So I want to offer an informal argument because, to my mind, determinism is the wind at the back of every member of the herd. Even absent Irenaeus’ omniscient god, in where it would be hard to reconcile human free will with this deity’s predetermination, on naturalism, there is a sense in which most actions, moral or otherwise, are predetermined. Although I don’t think determinism applies to mundane actions (see here), I think it certainly applies to actions carrying greater consequences and moral implications. So before a person becomes great and strives for moral perfection, one must first become aware of as many determinants as possible, so that in having this awareness, one assumes control of the determinants that would otherwise determine a given decision.

Nietzsche’s great person does not leave the herd by accident, but rather by getting to know the chaos. Nietzsche describes it thus:

Cause and effect: such a duality probably never exists; in truth we are confronted by a continuum out of which we isolate a couple of pieces, just as we perceive motion only as isolated points and then infer it without ever actually seeing it. The suddenness with which many effects stand out misleads us; actually it is sudden only for us. In this moment of sudden- ness there is an infinite number of processes that elude us. An intellect that could see cause and effect as a continuum and a flux and not, as we do, in terms of an arbitrary division and dismemberment, would repudiate the concept of cause and effect and deny all conditionality.3

A great person therefore has the kind of intellect that doesn’t separate and breaks things, and categorizes them as causes and effects. Such a person would see the entire continuum and moreover, their role within that continuum. As such, this individual would not be controlled by cultural norms, societal expectations, religious tenets, and so on. This person would be able to act free from all determinants, assuming a well-placed tumor doesn’t dictate his/her behavior.4

An atheist who subsumes Irenaeus’ theodicy or perhaps more accurately, the thinking that underlies his theodicy, has to be the kind of individual that becomes great. Then s/he is free to pursue moral perfection. In keeping with Sartre’s atheistic existentialism, such an atheist would will meaning for the suffering and evil we see in the world and may take it upon themselves to help others transcend the herd mentality. This thinking is implicit on the Kardashev scale. Michio Kaku, for instance, thinks of the human race as a type 0 civilization, on the cusp of a worldwide language (English), interconnected (the Internet), and technically advanced enough to harness the energy of the planet. It is not, however, a type I civilization capable of harnessing the energy of its star (e.g. Dyson Sphere) or controlling natural disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes.5 Scientists and philosophers alike have entertained the idea that the destiny of humanity is an ascent up the Kardashev scale, but prior to doing so, what’s implied is a moral ascent, for it will take a moral species to disarm its militaries and set aside its sociopolitical and cultural differences.

So while Irenaeus’ theodicy is incongruous with Christian theology, it is not inconsistent with atheism. We do not need a god who wants us to achieve moral perfection. We can very well expect that of ourselves and of one another. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of work to be done both personally and collectively. Assuming Nietzsche was right, greatness is reserved for a select few while mediocrity awaits the herd. Perhaps then what’s needed is the right kind of master so that the subordinates have a good example to follow. I hold that Irenaeus had in mind a noble view of the human species and that regardless of the fact that his view is not in keeping with Christian theology, for an atheist to write off his theodicy either as an ineffective justification of suffering and evil or an interesting heresy is tantamount to tossing the baby out with the bath water. Irenaeus saw the great potential in the human race and he thought it possible that we could, of our own will, achieve moral perfection. It is a noble view that any atheist should adopt; it is probably the view at the heart of humanism. We are truly better without a god!

Works Cited

1 Cramer, David C. “John Hick (1922-2012)”International Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Web. ND.

2 Anderson, R. Lanier. “Friedrich Nietzsche”. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 17 Mar 2017. Web.

3 Kaufmann, Walter. “The Gay Science”. Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm, 1844-1900. The Gay Science; with a Prelude in Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs. New York :Vintage Books, 1974. p. 173.

4 Choi, Charles. “Brain tumour causes uncontrollable paedophilia”New Scientist. 21 Oct 2002. Web.

5 Creighton, Jolene. “The Kardashev Scale – Type I, II, III, IV & V Civilization”. 19 Jul 2014. Web.

Clarifying Nietzsche’s Perspectivism

By R.N. Carmona

Them who, for philosophical reasons, adopt perspectivism or them who, in the interest of preserving their beliefs, adopt perspectivism misunderstand what Nietzsche intended to achieve. Nietzsche was not arguing that all perspectives are created equal; he recognized that some were better than others. Neither was he arguing that objectivity was not possible. He wrote: “The more eyes, different eyes, we know how to bring to bear on one and the same matter, that much more complete will our ‘concept’ of this matter, our ‘objectivity’ be.”1

The truth isn’t a democratic process. Taken together, he was arguing that if we to consider all perspectives worth considering, namely those perspectives that are among the best, we can arrive at a more objective conclusion. On political, legal, moral, philosophical, and even scientific matters, informed perspectives can help us arrive at the objective truth. Nothing at all is shielding people from the facts of the matter. Our perspective may be wrong or distorted, but if we account for other perspectives, especially better ones, one can adopt a better perspective.

This take is more accurate than a take which argued that the truth is equal to opinion. Nietzsche would not have argued that. Most contemporary perspectivists miss that crucial point: objectivity is not impossible; in fact, the more complete one’s accounting of better perspectives is, the closer one gets to achieving objectivity with regards to the case in question. Opinions are not created equal; some are better than others. Opinions and perspectives are virtually interchangeable. While opinions are informed by one’s given perspective, one’s opinion would differ given that one’s perspective differed; this is to say that opinions are contingent on one’s perspective. An opinion might even be considered an iteration of one’s perspective, a way of explaining one’s perspective or putting it into words.

This isn’t necessarily a post-truth era, since truth still exists. The truth can be avoided or flat-out denied, but this doesn’t imply that we now find ourselves in an era in where there’s no truth. There are still truths, both mundane and profound–from your particular date of birth to the fact that the universe is roughly 13.8 billion years old. We are, unfortunately, free to deny these truths, but that doesn’t change their status. Contemporary perspectivists have bastardized Nietzsche’s view and presented it as an enemy of truth. In fact, perspectivism may be the only account of truth that makes sense, both philosophically and practically. If one were to consider that, for instance, arguments were needed to tell people why slavery was wrong, one will begin to see that a fuller consideration of better perspectives helps us to see reason. Arguments were also needed to show people why misogyny was wrong; arguments were needed to overturn the nonsense law that allowed men to keep the belongings of their former wives. This new Act allowed women to have rights to their inheritances and property–even the property they acquired during marriage.

In a post-God era, Nietzsche’s view makes sense. If God is truly dead, the only unity of human reality we can achieve is one that accounts for as many human perspectives as possible. Nietzsche’s perspectivism, when considered fully, is a valid theory of truth. Contemporary proponents of a more simplistic perspectivism would fool one into thinking that there’s no objectivity to be had. Nietzsche clearly didn’t argue that. His perspectivism is much more careful in how it proceeds and gives us a way to achieve objectivity — a way that is in keeping with history. This should come as no surprise coming from a philosopher who was concerned with the use and abuse of history. It is only fitting that his theory of truth is one that is supported by historical trends.

1 Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. Beyond good and evil ; and the genealogy of morals. New York: Barnes & Noble , 1996. Print.

Interpretations of Nietzsche’s Doctrine of Eternal Return

By R.N. Carmona

In approaching the doctrine of eternal return, one will find that there are three ways to interpret it. There is the cosmological interpretation (CI). There are also the ethical (EI) and existential interpretations (EXI). After an extended discussion of these interpretations, I will demonstrate that EXI is the most plausible, especially when considering Nietzsche’s philosophy as fully as possible. In other words, if one can agree that it is possible to, at the very least, attempt to consider Nietzsche’s philosophy as a whole, then one can also agree that of these interpretations, EXI is consistent with Nietzsche’s philosophy or perhaps more forcefully, EXI is what allows for there to be any talk of a consistent Nietzschean philosophy. To my mind, the more forceful point is tenable and I will endeavor to demonstrate it. To accomplish this, it is necessary to show that CI and EI are not consistent with Nietzsche’s philosophy; moreover, it must be shown that neither of these interpretations can make his philosophy consistent.

Prior to discussing the interpretations, it will be useful to consider aphorism 341 of Nietzsche’s The Gay Science:

What if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence—even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!”

Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: “You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.” If this thought gained possession of you, it would change you as you are or perhaps crush you. The question in each and every thing, “Do you desire this once more and innumerable times more?” would lie upon your actions as the greatest weight. Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal? (Nietzsche, 273)

Given this aphorism, it would seem that every interpretation is prima facie plausible. It would also seem that CI and EI are more tenable, since they’re made explicit in the passage. Prior to seeing that more clearly, it is imperative to explain what is entailed by CI and EI. It is time now to flesh out the three interpretations of eternal return.

The cosmological interpretation (CI) tells us that there is a finite set of ways in which matter can organize itself. It also states that determinism is true and that the universe is eternal. Given these premises, all events eternally recur and matter will repeatedly organize itself in a finite number of ways. On the latter, the implication is that every person that has ever existed will exist again and since determinism is true, they will live precisely the same life they lived the previous time. This is perfectly in keeping with aphorism 341, since the demon states that you will return once the eternal hourglass is turned upside down over and over again; even the spider and the moonlight between the trees will recur in precisely the same succession.

The ethical interpretation (EI) sidesteps the metaphysical commitments of the premises of CI and seems to prescribe to us an ethical principle with an unusual Kantian flavor. This is part of the reason it’s untenable once one considers Nietzsche’s philosophy as a whole. Nietzsche seems to disagree with Kant in a number of places as will be shown momentarily, so it would be curious if he employed the doctrine of eternal return to prescribe an ethical principle which sounds like a paraphrase of Kant’s categorical imperative, “will only those actions which you wish to recur for all of eternity.” It would appear to be the case given that the doctrine bears upon one’s actions as the greatest weight.

The existential interpretation (EXI) also circumvents the metaphysical commitments of CI and rather than prescribe an ethical principle as EI appears to do, it implores the great individual to live the sort of life they would approve of living an infinite amount of times over. It is as Ronald Dworkin offered, an adverbial rather than adjectival life, a life comprised of the total performance rather than what remains when the performance is subtracted. As the demon states at the end of the passage: “Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate confirmation and seal?” The life of the great individual, the Übermensch, Nietzsche believes, will crave an ultimate confirmation and seal, the ultimate acknowledgement of the life s/he led. In order to see why EXI succeeds where CI and EI fail, it is imperative to capture Nietzsche’s philosophy as fully as possible.

CI cannot counter the fact that Nietzsche doesn’t apply determinism to great people. When speaking of the equivalence of greatness and a lack of compassion, Nietzsche states that this experience is “a parable for the whole effect of great human beings on others and on their age; precisely with what is best in them, with what only they can do, they destroy many who are weak, unsure, still in the process of becoming” (Nietzsche, 101). The key is in the phrase “with what only they can do,” which would seem to attribute free will solely to great people. When coupled with Nietzsche’s analysis of herd instincts (see pp.174-175) along with the herd’s attribution of free will to bad conscience, then it would seem that Nietzsche is arguing that only great people can act out of their own volition.

To further establish the notion that only great people can exhibit free will, we can consider Nietzsche’s concept of self-creation. Nietzsche speaks of giving style to one’s character. He also implies that the great individual has the ultimate self-knowledge that is to such an extent that s/he is fully cognizant of their strengths and weaknesses (Nietzsche, 232). This knowledge enables them to build a unified character, one that affirms the good and the bad that exists within them. This self-creation, giving style to oneself, is not possible without free will, without the capacity to tear the head off the snake — a snake that can be seen as the determinism inherent in the herd instinct.

In addition to this, Nietzsche strongly disagreed with a mechanical world. He states that “an essentially mechanical world would be an essentially meaningless world” (Nietzsche, 335). He refers to such thinking as a degradation of existence and asks us to consider whether music can be reduced to calculations and formulas. He refers to the scientific view of the world as “stupid” and yet a scientific view implies a deterministic view, “ ‘a world of truth’ that can be mastered completely and forever with the aid of our square little reason” (Ibid.). Though there are other instances in where Nietzsche appears to undertake the metaphysical commitments of CI—in particular in his discussions on history and the herd instincts inherent in morality—a full consideration of his overall philosophy disabuses one of committing the error of thinking he’s confined himself to such commitments. Given this, CI is untenable and a fuller exploration of Nietzsche’s views of individuals will only further establish this.

Though EI circumvents the metaphysical commitments of CI, EI is an untenable interpretation as well. As mentioned above, Nietzsche disagreed with Kant explicitly. In his Critique of Practical Reason, Kant states that his categorical imperative “determines quite precisely what is to be done to solve a problem and does not let him miss.” Given Nietzsche’s opposition to a mechanical view of the world, one can speculate that he would be staunchly opposed to Kant’s claim. More explicitly, however, Nietzsche inverts the very values Kantian ethics rests upon. In aphorism 4, for example, he says that “the evil instincts are expedient, species-preserving, and indispensable to as high a degree as the good ones; their function is merely different” (Nietzsche, 79). In aphorism 5, Nietzsche seems to indict Kant’s categorical imperative as a quasi-religious alternative. He speaks of “talk of ‘duties,’ and actually always of duties that are supposed to be unconditional” (Nietzsche, 80). He adds that “they would lack the justification for their great pathos” in the absence of such talk and that they therefore “reach for moral philosophies that preach some categorical imperative” or “ingest a good piece of religion” (Ibid.). Given this and his lengthier disagreements with Kant specifically in Beyond Good and Evil, and given Kant’s mechanistic view of his own categorical imperative, EI must be wrong since it suggests that Nietzsche is proposing an ethical principle based on unconditional duty and that would therefore justify our great pathos. This would no doubt run counter to Nietzsche’s overall project of revaluation of values, which had till his time been based upon herd instincts.

Given what’s been surveyed above, it is clear that CI and EI do not allow Nietzsche’s philosophy to be consistent. In fact, both interpretations lead to glaring inconsistencies. Though it may be argued that Nietzsche was not a hard determinist and that thus, a modification of the premise “determinism is true” is in order, there is still no way of demonstrating that he committed himself to the other premises. Given his discussion of causality (see pp.172-173), for example, it can be argued that he believes in the sort of infinities that would cancel out the notion of a finite number of states in which matter can organize itself. EI will lead to still other inconsistencies as we’ve seen. Perhaps the most damning point to be made is that Nietzsche’s thesis involved an inversion of Christian values and an admonition for us to see evil as vital to the preservation of our species. Far from allowing for his philosophy to remain consistent, EI would make it obviously inconsistent.

EXI, to the contrary, succeeds at unifying the threads of Nietzschean philosophy. His view of individuals, especially great individuals, his revaluation of values, and his belief in a dynamic rather than mechanistic world are all encompassed in EXI. His doctrine of eternal return  is therefore telling us to live the kind of life we would approve of living over and over again for all of eternity, for in permitting this revelation to possess our thoughts and thereby bear upon our actions is the equivalent of living a great life once. This not only encompasses Nietzsche’s ideas of self-creation and greatness, but it also anticipates the Übermensch, the overman, the human ideal who prevails against the herd instinct and fully succeeds at creating both for himself and for others new values. The doctrine of eternal return connects his later projects and perhaps this is why he assigned to this idea such great importance.

Of the possible challenges EXI faces, I will deal with two. One challenge I’ll call the nihilistic challenge (NC) and the other I’ll call the inconsistency challenge (IC). On NC, one can argue that Nietzsche simply didn’t care about the life you choose to live. He did suggest that the doctrine of eternal return may crush you and perhaps this will be the common reaction to the demon’s revelation. On the basis of this, we’ll surrender our commitment to life and give up notions of meaning and purpose; we will behave as though nothing matters. On IC, one can argue that EXI leads to an inconsistency in thought. In other words, self-creation and the Übermensch are null concepts when considering that Nietzsche is prescribing to them an existential principle. Both challenges fail to adequately challenge EXI for the following reasons.

NC fails because it gives more weight to the suggestion that the doctrine of eternal return will crush people than to other suggestions, in particular the suggestion of desiring an eternally recurring life and receiving it as an ultimate confirmation. The latter suggestion encompasses EXI, but even if it didn’t, the suggestion that it would crush people to the point of nihilism ignores the human penchant for talk of meaning and purpose, and the ensuing search for them. As we saw earlier, even Nietzsche was not immune to talk of meaning; in fact, meaning is arguably the primary reason why he was opposed to a mechanistic view of the world. IC, on the other hand, fails to present an adequate challenge because the proponent of IC would have to assume that Nietzsche didn’t think we can influence one another. To the contrary, he speaks of the sort of intoxication that leads to the breaking of limbs along false paths (see p.101). To his mind, great human beings offer a drink that is too potent to them who are weak. This implies that the drink isn’t too strong for them who are ready to receive it. Nietzsche is basically borrowing Christian imagery and is saying something akin to milk is for babes and meat is for the strong (1 Corinthians 3:2), and therefore, the great can influence the great. If this holds, then there’s nothing inconsistent about EXI.

In light of what has been briefly surveyed here, EXI is not only more tenable than CI and EI, but it also succeeds where they fail with regards to either being consistent with Nietzsche’s philosophy in toto or in allowing for any talk of a consistent Nietzschean philosophy. EXI is harmed by neither NC nor IC. More importantly, it is the connective thread of Nietzsche’s works, starting with The Gay Science and ending with On the Genealogy of Morals. Perhaps a more elaborate discussion is needed, in particular one that is able to employ Nietzsche’s insights in the works mentioned above in addition to insights found in Thus Spoke Zarathustra and Beyond Good and Evil. At any rate, if Nietzsche’s philosophy is to retain its consistency, it is necessary for EXI to remain tenable across these four works. What’s been established here is that it is tenable within the purview of The Gay Science.