If you’ve read my About page, you know that the quasi-namesake of this blog is a collection of aphorisms by Friedrich Nietzsche. I didn’t name the blog after Nietzsche’s collection as such, the phrase just came to me when I was thinking of appropriate titles and it only occurred to me after the fact that it might be construed as a Nietzsche reference. In one of those amusing little twists of circumstance, it has now quite clearly become a retrospective Nietzsche reference, as I’m at this precise moment writing the preamble of an article discussing first the title itself (mine or Nietzsche’s?), and then an aphorism from Friedrich’s collection. Before I begin, I should probably make it clear that I make no claims to being a Nietzsche scholar, or indeed a Nietzsche fanatic. He’s just one among the many philosophers in whose works I find ideas worth thinking about and discussing. My interpretations are my own (as far as can be said of such things) and are, of course, entirely open to disagreement and refutation.
Anyway, what exactly does “man alone with himself” refer to? For me, there are at least two ways of interpreting it. One, perhaps the more obvious of the two, refers to the fact that writing is something one does “alone with oneself”. Basically, right now I’m having a “conversation” in my head and transcribing it1. Seeing that (as far as I know), “I” am the only inhabitant of my head, I must be having this conversation alone with myself. Hopefully, dear reader, you exist and are at this very moment (well, not this moment, which is mine, but that moment, which for you is “this very moment”) taking in the results of this soliloquy. The truth is though, that I don’t write for you. I write to help myself structure the otherwise chaotic stream of ideas careening around in my “teetering bulb of dread and dream”2. I contend that all writing and all creation is like this – composing music, making films and painting pictures are no different. We may hope that others will understand and value our creations, but they can only be interfaced with (read, watched, listened to) after we have created them. Fundamentally, the act of creation is something we do alone with ourselves3.
Another, perhaps more profound, way of thinking about the phrase “man alone with himself” is to think of “man” as “mankind”, which in these more enlightened times we might translate as “humankind”. As a symbolic species investigating the causes and attributes of the reality in which we find ourselves, we humans are profoundly alone. Some of the present gaps in our understanding are undoubtedly the result of the perspective bias that results from our particular size, speed, location, fragility, etc. Of course we use many fancy instruments to extend our perspective way out into the vastness of the cosmos or way down to the level of the ultra-itty-bitty-small, but our perspective bias continues to constrain what we can perceive and how we can think about it. Understandably, we find it especially difficult to be objective about ourselves. We have difficulty treating the elements of our experience as scientific objects. Consciousness, free will and death are notoriously difficult concepts to consider impartially. Perhaps if some other scientific species existed that could investigate us in the way we in turn investigate other species, they’d be able to convince us that there’s nothing mysterious about us being here or about us perceiving the world in the way we do; that we’re just another evolved species struggling to survive and understand, aided by the symbols we have invented…..OK probably not, but it might help.
Anyway, more on both those interpretations in later posts. In this “series” of articles I’m going to select an aphorism or three (or as many as I feel like selecting, OK?) from Nietzsche’s (henceforth FN) Man Alone With Himself (henceforth MAWH) and discuss it. It’s really a wonderful bunch of thoughts on a variety of subjects, and I recommend it to anyone who likes to read and think. MAWH is part of a larger collection called Human, All Too Human, and all the aphorisms are numbered in relation to the larger work. Today’s aphorism (number 635) is one of the longer ones in MAWH, so I’m going to break it up into small groups of sentences and intersperse them with my reactions (FN in italics, me, well, not). The translation of FN’s text is by Marion Faber and Stephen Lehmann.
All in all, scientific methods are at least as important as any other result of inquiry; for the scientific spirit is based on the insight into methods, and were those methods to be lost, all the results of science could not prevent a renewed triumph of superstition and nonsense. (emphasis added)
Firstly, it seems peculiar to me that the translators chose “result” in the first statement, because here FN is specifically (and crucially) differentiating between the results and the methods of science. I’ve written on this previously (here). It is as critically important today as it was in 1878 (when MAWH was first published) to understand that what differentiates scientific investigation from other modes of inquiry is not the results, not the answers (or indeed the questions), but the methods through which the results are achieved and the answers discovered.
Clever people may learn the results of science as much as they like, one still sees from their conversation, especially their hypotheses in conversation, that they lack the scientific spirit. They do not have that instinctive mistrust of the wrong ways of thinking, a mistrust which, as a consequence of long practice, has put its roots deep into the soul of every scientific man. (emphasis in original)
Depressingly, science is still taught in schools by rewarding the rote learning of facts rather than by encouraging students to develop an understanding of concepts. This may be why so many people seem not to understand what science actually is. It is not a body of knowledge or a collection of facts to be memorised.
Interestingly the “mistrust” goes both ways – mistrust of scientific ideas is as common today as mistrust of unscientific ideas. To me, both forms of mistrust stem from a lack of understanding of the way in which science operates. When Nietzsche says “mistrust” in this context, he means a healthy scepticism and the development of critical thinking faculties. On the other hand, I think “mistrust”, taken literally, might come closer to the contemporary meaning of “cynicism”, which is something like “intrinsic mistrust” – not trusting information on principle, without investigating its qualities any further. This cynicism is evident in both the anti-scientific conspiracy theorists who think anything “mainstream science” has to say is false (because corrupt) by default, and the apologists of science (including some scientists) who think anything outside the mainstream is false (because “woo”) by default. Perhaps if scientific education was a little more rigorous both of these groups could have their membership decreased. Scepticism is good; cynicism is not only not good, it is actually antithetical to science.
For them it is enough to find any one hypothesis about a matter; then they get fired up about it and think that puts an end to it. For them, to have an opinion means to get fanatical about it and cherish it in their hearts henceforth as a conviction. If a matter is unexplained, they become excited at the first notion resembling an explanation that enters their brain; this always has the worst consequences, especially in the realm of politics.
I think this speaks for itself – it’s common to crave certainty, to desire final answers. We want to know the answers to questions so we can put them in little boxes marked “solved” and get on with other things. Part of today’s mistrust of science stems from the mistaken notion that science promises certainty and then consistently fails to deliver on that promise by undermining itself with yet more answers to the same questions – “If that was certain, why do we need this?” When there is conflict in science, for example biologists debating the fine points of evolutionary theory, some people see the disagreements and think, “If even the scientists can’t agree, the whole thing must be wrong!”
Science really isn’t in the business of finalising solutions; it’s in the business of constantly refining them. Religion on the other hand…..
Therefore everyone should have come to know at least one science in its essentials; then he knows what method is, and how necessary is the most extreme circumspection. (emphasis in original)
Absolutely, Friedrich. But actually it seems to me that what we need is better education in philosophy of science – especially for our science educators! If you’re not going to work in a scientific field, you don’t need in depth knowledge about any particular scientific field, but everyone (perhaps especially politicians!) in today’s world needs to understand how science operates in general. It also seems to me that understanding the specifics of any particular field of science doesn’t necessarily mean understanding the epistemological methods/goals/limits of science. This is actually what’s important. So, what we really need is for people have a solid grounding in epistemology (i.e. to learn what knowledge is and how we can gain it).
OK, I’m only halfway through 635, but I think I’ll leave it there for now (the next bit is extremely misogynistic, anyway).
1 When Nietzsche was writing the original Man Alone With Himself, he was doing the same.
2 This charming phrase comes from a poem by Russell Edson, but I pinched it from Douglas Hofstadter’s wonderful book I Am A Strange Loop.
3 Of course in the not entirely unlikely event that no one ever reads this article it will forever remain solely a conversation I had with myself.