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Philosophy of Science

Nietzsche’s Philosophy of Science

(07 October 2007)

"In some remote corner of the universe, poured out and glittering in innumerable solar systems, there once was a star on which clever animals invented knowledge."


Science is typically presented as the objective pursuit of knowledge based on observation, theorising and evidential verification. Unfortunately, this seemingly uncontroversial statement soon dissolves into a series of awkward questions, any of which might subvert our definition. What do we mean by objective? What, precisely, is knowledge? When we observe, what processes are taking place in our brains? Are these accurate and reliable? How do theories originate? To what extent are they reflections of the genetic and environmental inheritances of the individuals who create them? Can we be confident in the evidence we collect? What exactly are we verifying – solid facts, or systematic delusions? How can we tell the difference between reality ‘out there’ and reality ‘in here’ (i.e. reality constructed by the human mind)?

Perhaps no philosopher presents a greater challenge to the assumptions of science than Nietzsche, who anticipates several of the positions of Quine and Kuhn. He was arguably the first person to emphasise the importance of what is now referred to as evolutionary psychology (how evolution shaped the mind), and to invoke history as a critical factor in examining the validity of scientific, philosophical and religious hypotheses. For Nietzsche, we cannot regard the human intellect as something that popped into being at a specific moment in time, that has remained the same ever since, and is the ideal tool for allowing us to comprehend ‘the truth’. The intellect evolved; it has a definite history which has given it its particular character.

With a background in philology, Nietzsche was an expert in examining how the meanings of words may change through time, sometimes leading to a word evolving the opposite meaning to that with which it began. He was particularly fascinated by the words ‘good’, ‘bad’ and ‘evil’. In The Genealogy of Morals, he investigates how the meanings of these words have altered through history, and how the moral systems that rely on them have changed accordingly. Through this technique, he demonstrates that morality is not something fixed and absolute, but is the creation of historical/evolutionary forces. Morality wasn’t discovered by humanity, or handed down by ‘God’; it was designed for specific reasons, to satisfy specific agendas. Nietzsche concluded that morality was created by the weak as a means of inhibiting and controlling the strong. Viewed in these terms, morality isn’t moral; it’s a weapon of psychological warfare. But if morality is a fiction, what about philosophy and science?

Nietzsche speculated that human intelligence evolved as a means of preserving individuals who were otherwise highly vulnerable to attack by predators. If this is so, how can we assume it’s a neutral, objective tool for evaluating ‘truth’? As Nietzsche observes, ‘We simply lack any organ for knowledge, for "truth”: we "know” (or believe or imagine) just as much as may be useful in the interests of the human herd, the species…’ Also, ‘Our apparatus for acquiring knowledge is not designed for "knowledge.”’ But if the brain isn’t constructed for apprehending the truth, doesn’t that make our search for truth futile? Nietzsche says, ‘…almost nothing is more incomprehensible than how an honest and pure urge for truth could make its appearance among men.’ Additionally, ‘What really is it in us that wants "the truth”?...why not rather untruth?’ This is a crucial point because it raises the possibility that if lies and delusions are more useful to survival than truth then our brains may be actively configured to deceive us. Nietzsche states, ‘truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are…’

Many people believe it is true that God exists while others contend there is no evidence of God’s existence. Is truth then merely a matter of opinion, of belief? Even to say that we could all agree on something uncontroversial such as an object being coloured red is not unproblematic. How can we be confident that we aren’t using the same label for a very different visual experience? My red might be another person’s blue, but if he has been taught to say ‘red’ every time he sees blue, he will agree with me even though his experience is different; and what of the colour-blind?

Nietzsche makes a number of assertions that radically undermine the foundations of science and traditional philosophy: 1) ‘There are no facts, only interpretations.’ 2) ‘What, ultimately, are man’s truths? Merely his irrefutable errors.’ 3) ‘Truth is the kind of error without which a certain species of life could not live. The value for life is ultimately decisive.’

These observations might be said to reflect a Matrix-like attitude towards the truth, but the designer of the fake world need not be a hostile supercomputer: it could just as easily be ourselves. Is it possible that science probes the brain’s internal systems for ‘usefully’ modelling reality rather than exploring ‘reality’ itself?

In the context of his historicising method and his invocation of evolutionary considerations, Nietzsche raises many awkward issues:

1) ‘…how can something originate in its opposite, for example rationality in irrationality, the sentient in the dead, logic in illogic, disinterested contemplation in covetous desire, living for others in egoism, truth in errors?’

2) ‘Throughout tremendous periods of time the intellect begot nothing but errors; some of them proved useful and preservative of the species: he who came upon them or inherited them fought his fight for himself and his posterity with greater fortune.’

3) ‘…we have senses for only a selection of perceptions – those with which we have to concern ourselves in order to preserve ourselves.’

4) ‘Whence did logic come into existence in the human head? Certainly out of illogic, whose realm must initially have been tremendous. But countless creatures who reasoned differently from the way we now reason have perished: they could always have been better reasoners. He, for example, who did not know how to discover the "identical” sufficiently in regard to food or to animals hostile to him, he who was thus too slow to subsume, too cautious in subsuming, had a smaller probability of survival than he who in every case of similarity at once conjectured identity. But it was the prevailing tendency to treat the similar at once as identical, an illogical tendency – for nothing is identical – which first created all the foundations of logic…the creatures who did not see accurately had an advantage over those who saw everything "in flux”…The course of logical thinking and concluding in our present brain corresponds to a process and struggle of drives which in themselves individually are all very illogical and unjust; we usually experience only the outcome of that struggle, so rapidly and secretly does that primeval mechanism now work in us.

5) ‘We call it "explanation”, but it is "description” which distinguishes us from earlier stages of knowledge and science. We describe better – we explain just as little who came before us…We operate with nothing but things which do not exist, with lines, planes, bodies, atoms, divisible time, divisible space – how should explanation even be possible when we first make everything into an image, into our image! It is sufficient to regard science as the most fruitful possible humanization of things, we learn to describe ourselves more and more exactly by describing things and the succession of things. Cause and effect: such a duality probably never occurs – in reality there stands before us a continuum of which we isolate a couple of pieces…An intellect which saw cause and effect as a continuum and not, as we do, as a capricious division and fragmentation, which saw the flux of events – would reject the concept cause and effect and deny all conditionality.’

6) ‘It is perhaps just dawning on five or six minds that physics too is only an interpretation and arrangement of the world…and not an explanation of the world: but insofar as it is founded on belief in the senses it passes for more than that…’

7) ‘We have arranged for ourselves a world in which we are able to live – with the postulation of bodies, lines, surfaces, causes and effects, motion and rest, form and content: without these articles of faith nobody could now endure to live! But that does not mean they are something proved and demonstrated. Life is no argument; among the conditions of life could be error.’

Quantum Mechanics and General Relativity are yet to be reconciled. Both theories are highly counterintuitive. Quantum Mechanics in particular defies all attempts to account for what it reveals about reality. We may define the relevant experiments, gather the results and do useful things by accepting that the Quantum world is a probabilistic one, but we have no clear idea of what is actually going on.

Is it possible we have simply run out of road? As Nietzsche says, ‘It is improbable that our "knowledge” should extend further than is strictly necessary for the preservation of life.’ If the human brain has evolved in a way that allows us to flourish in this world (the world we can detect with our limited senses), why do we assume it should be able to cope with things that are literally beyond our senses – the incomprehensibly small, the incomprehensibly fast, things that are simultaneously both particle and wave, things whose momentum and position can’t be simultaneously measured, things that flicker in and out of existence so rapidly that we describe them as ‘virtual’; things that have the opposite properties to other things (matter/anti-matter); things that might be said to travel backwards in time compared with their counterparts (positrons versus electrons).

Have we reached a level where our logic, conferred on us by evolution, is simply no longer up to the task? It’s almost as if we’ve escaped Kant’s phenomenal world and penetrated his noumenal world where nothing makes any sense. Cause and effect, time and space, substance and void have dissolved. Some sort of order exists in this new world, but it’s entirely probabilistic. ‘God does not play dice,’ Einstein declared in exasperation. Even today, many philosophers and scientists believe the Quantum Mechanical world will one day yield meaning. Are they deluding themselves?  Nietzsche would certainly have asked what meaning existed prior to Quantum Mechanics. Has there ever been meaning? Did we ever get close to the truth? Science has proved useful, but that doesn’t make it true. It may simply be a workable fiction.

To use modern terminology, Nietzsche’s stance is supportive of constructivism, though he would prefer the term perspectivism. This is the view that we perceive the world according to our perspective, which is under no obligation to reflect how the world actually is. Nietzsche is also said to advocate a pragmatic theory of truth whereby practical and workable ‘truths’, such as those of science, are deemed worthwhile. To this extent, he is an instrumentalist. One position he would certainly oppose is scientific realism. For Nietzsche, there is no Truth with a capital ‘T’.