Unsurprisingly, the DI gets philosophy all wrong

Well, if the Discovery Institute (DI) could get philosophy right, chances are that they would be able to do science. Considering their near-total contempt for evidence, it would be a shock if they could portray philosophy intelligently.

Logan Gage comments on the DI blog regarding Steven Weinberg’s essay “Without God,” then attempts to fault atheistic philosophers such as Nietzsche with all of the ignorance that we have come to expect of the IDists’ science statements.  Here is the main portion of his incomprehension of Nietzsche:

As a young man, I was enamored with Jean-Paul Sartre and the existentialists. When I got to college, I found that Nietzsche was greater than them all. Even though by this time I had come do disagree with their metaphysics, I admired their courage to live intellectually honest, consistent, and honorable lives. 

But one day it dawned on me—as I believe it will one day dawn on Dr. Weinberg—that speaking of honesty, courage, and honor as though they were actually objectively honest, courageous, and honorable was inconsistent with naturalistic metaphysics. If you asked Nietzsche why one should forge his own way rather than follow herd morality, I believe he would have answered: “Are you kidding? Think about it. Which one would you prefer? Wouldn’t you prefer this noble enterprise of making your own way? Oh, well maybe you wouldn’t, Gage, you wretched sheep! Baaaahhhhhh!”

Or at least that’s how I imagine him speaking. But, this is simply not convincing. The whole notion of an honorable and noble existence is a residue of Christendom that Nietzsche should have recognized and rejected.  Logan Gage writing for the DI

Sartre might well be tarred with the metaphysical brush (though he, with Heidegger, would deny it), but Nietzsche was no metaphysician.  Least of all did he adhere to “naturalistic metaphysics,” for the truth is that he doubted the very meaning of “nature,” as it was used by physicists of his day:


Forgive me as an old philologist who cannot desist from the malice of putting his finger on bad modes of interpretation: but “nature’s conformity to law,” of which you physicists talk so proudly as though— —why, it exists only owing to your interpretation and bad “philology”—it is no matter of fact, no “text,” but rather only a naively humanitarian emendation and perversion of meaning, with which you make abundant concessions to the democratic instincts of the modern soul! “Everywhere equality before the law; nature is no different in that respect, no better off than we are”: a fine instance of ulterior motivation, in which the plebeian antagonism to everything privileged and autocratic as well as a second and more refined atheism are disguised once more. “Ni Dieu, ni maitre[“Neither God nor master”]—that is what you, too, want; and therefore “cheers for the law of nature”!—is it not so? But as said above, that is interpretation, not text; and somebody might come along who, with opposite intentions and modes of interpretation, could read out of the same “nature” and with regard to the same phenomena rather the tyrannically inconsiderate and relentless enforcement of claims of power—an interpreter who would picture the unexceptional and unconditional aspects of all “will to power” so vividly that almost every word, even the word “tyranny” itself, would eventually sound unsuitable, or a weakening and attenuating metaphor—being too human—but he might, nevertheless, end by asserting the same about this world as you do, namely, that it has a “necessary” and “calculable” course, not because laws obtain in it, but because they are absolutely lacking, and every power draws its ultimate consequences at every moment. Supposing that this also is only interpretation—and you will be eager enough to make this objection?—well then, so much the better. —  Beyond Good and Evil

As I understand this, Nietzsche was faulting the notion of “law” as metaphysics in the above passage, not like science generally understands “laws” to be today, as mere statements of empirically-known (and thus always to be understood according to implicit philosophical and scientific caveats) regularities.  And for anybody who understands what metaphysics is about, the above quote is recognizable as a profoundly anti-metaphysical statement, for he uses his philological skepticism to question the sense that we even experience nature as “law-like.”

As far as “honesty” goes, Nietzsche questions the “will to truth” in the same book, asking why not the will to untruth.  To be sure, Nietzsche generally praises “honesty” in a way that he would not praise “truth,” and it is unquestionable that he also has a sense of what is “true” in the non-holy, non-metaphysical sense of that word.  Nonetheless, he is questioning what “truth is,” which no doubt undermines what Gage thinks of as “honesty”.  Yet even more so he does not praise, nor really write with, consistency.  If there are constants in his writings–and there are–he does not write consistently, and probably did not live “constantly” either.  The idea of a “single self” is anathema to his teachings.

Nietzsche did, of course, praise and strive for a kind of “nobility”–which I presume he achieved to a degree–as well as an honesty of which the DI types seemingly have never conceived.  However, Nietzsche does not ascribe his sense of nobility and honesty to any kind of metaphysics, and he was quite good at explaining how these differed from the Christian sense of nobility and honesty, let alone its belief in consistency which he considered to be so unlike what we actually know and experience (never mind some fiction like “nature”).

To the degree that he did come up with a basis for the values in his teachings, these were largely psychology and pre-Socratic (consequently pre-Christian) conceptions of nobility and honesty.  A crucial fact of which Gage seems to be utterly ignorant is that Nietzsche was essentially a German Romantic, heavily influenced by Kant and Hegel (though Nietzsche reacts particularly against Hegel, and against Kant in a way that seems odd, considering how much his thought owes to Kant).  As such, he was an extreme empiricist, taking his cues from what is observed and not what is theoretical, while being ever-mindful that he himself comes to conclusions that are interpretation, and not veritable fact.  That, however, is no barrier to understanding life psychologically, and indeed, (which often looked to pre-Socratic Greek though, as did Nietzsche) in his way of viewing the world psychology becomes the primary empirical basis for thought.

So that is primarily where consistency and “truth” come in for Nietzsche, via psychology and looking to how ancient people viewed things, before Socrates and Christianity reacted against “natural morality” (he does use that term, without subscribing to “nature” as a thing in itself, however).  This is why his “nobility” and sense of “honesty” are based more on how Aristotle and people like Heraclitus understood these to be, and of course Heraclitus (one of Nietzsche’s favorites, while he does not give Aristotle much credit for his rip-off of Aristotelian “nobility”) was the philosopher who denied constancy.

I can only give the gist of what Nietzsche is about here, and I hope that it is sufficient for people to understand how Logan Gage is nearly 100% wrong about Nietzsche.  Nietzsche is about as non-Christian as a man of his time and place could be, without, that is, either rejecting science or merely reacting against Christianity. 

Heidegger does claim that Nietzsche is the last philosopher, for Nietzsche does not reject Western philosophy and science in the way that he and many of his followers (like Sartre and Derrida–I should note, however, that Derrida makes an ill-defined truce with empirical practitioners) did.  Heidegger faults Nietzsche for being the last thinker of metaphysics, since that is about all that Heidegger characterizes Western philosophy as being. 

To the contrary, I do not know anyone who is more metaphysical, if in a reasonably novel manner, than Heidegger, who mostly remodels neo-Platonic thought (see Plotinus) to make the world “knowable” in a way that Kant and Nietzsche had indeed rationally shown it not to be fundamentally knowable (while both continued to accept science as honest interpretation).  Nietzsche does remain constant as an empiricist, then, and does not throw out the considerable accomplishments of philosophers and scientists.  He more questions the “truth” that many claim to be behind science (in a philosophical sense, truth in science would definitely be a holdover from metaphysics, and, to a considerable degree, religion).  He does reject metaphysics, only he need not, and does not, reject an understanding of the world that is consistent with observation.

Nietzsche did, however, reject Darwinian evolution, which would throw a wrench into the thought of Logan, if it ever achieved a consistent and knowledgeable status.

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4 Comments on “Unsurprisingly, the DI gets philosophy all wrong”

  1. Anony Moose Says:

    You completely misunderstand Gage’s point.

    You write: “However, Nietzsche does not ascribe his sense of nobility and honesty to any kind of metaphysics….” But Gage isn’t saying Nietzsche does ascribe his sense of nobility and honesty to any sort of metaphysics.

    His point was clearly that without a solid basis for virtues like honesty and morality, there is no reason to prefer Nietzsche’s pre-Christian conceptions of these virtues to anything else. Thus, nihilism is not escaped by Nietzsche.

    I suggest that before you rant, you read carefully.

  2. glen1davidson Says:

    If you tried really hard, you might gain an inkling of what Gage actually wrote, and possibly even have gained some knowledge of Nietzsche from what I wrote. I doubt it, but it wouldn’t hurt to at least attempt to do more than deny what is true, and to repeat Gage’s worthless tripe .

  3. aaron Says:

    Some honest questions:

    If there is no metaphysics, and no truth, how does Nietzsche use language so confidently? Aren’t words simply what we make them? How do you so strongly prefer your interpretations over against someone else’s?

  4. glen1davidson Says:

    I actually did go into some of how Nietzsche can use language so confidently, namely psychology, a kind of Romantic empiricism, and the (usually unacknowledged by Nietzsche) solution that Kant, the theist, came up with to explain how science works with no privileged access to an unmediated “reality”. The frequently used term for such an understanding (not necessarily including Nietzsche’s reliance upon psychology, or the particular form of empiricism that Romanticism favored) is “intersubjectivity”.

    Nietzsche used language confidently because he understood both how language comes to have meaning, and how it is frequently shifted or basically transformed into its opposite, by humans. He was aware that people may not read the same words the same way, but he utilized contextual resources in order to minimize the distortions of his writings (which hardly prevented the problem, look what the Nazis did with him).

    And the big question really is, how does one justifiably use metaphysics or “truth” in order to found any kind of claim? Has any metaphysics, or “truth” in the absolute sense, ever been demonstrated to exist? Philosophy has had to face the fact that metaphysics and absolute concepts of “truth” simply have never been shown to inform “reality” or our perception of same. One would go back to Kant, again, to recognize that to be the case.

    We are the ones who assign truth values, albeit generally (or at least ideally) with some justification. One may strongly prefer one’s own interpretation if one is utilizing generally agreed-upon truth-values, yet has reason to believe that one’s own model of “intersubjective understanding” comes much closer to fitting the truth-values that we generally share with each other. That is essentially what is behind scientific reasoning, after all, for we really do not usually have much problem in agreeing that chlorophyll is “green,” thus assigning the value of “true” to the statement that “Chlorophyll is green.”

    Nor do we really have a problem with agreeing what inheritance and mutation causes, until somebody objects to the consequences of evolution. It isn’t the truth-values that are really in dispute, except in a particular fashion and against a particular conclusion. That is to say, an IDist simply will not treat truth-values in the same way to come to the conclusion that, like languages, life evolved–because the IDist has a truth-value not generally shared with reasonable people of most religions and of no religions–that a particular god caused life to be what it is.

    So really, agreeing on the basic words, the “basic facts,” is not much of a practical problem. The real problem is keeping preferred beliefs from throwing otherwise generally accepted inferences into the dust bin, simply to save a belief that itself cannot be shown to follow normal inductive reasoning.

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