Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Rewriting history

Back in May I wrote a little piece called 'Out of my comfort zone' in which I touched on some ideas on the nature of the universe put forward by Seth Lloyd and - more recently - by Vlatko Vedral. Vedral's book, Decoding reality: the universe as a quantum computer (Oxford University Press) came out earlier this year.

In his review in New Scientist (there is a pay wall, so I can't give the link) Lloyd praises the book but also shows irritation that Vedral did not even mention Lloyd's book of several years ago on the same theme (Programming the universe). Lloyd also points out a mathematical howler which, as he saw it, was surprising in a leading researcher.

What jumped out at me in Vedral's book was an amazingly slipshod paragraph about Nietzsche which reflects badly both on the author and on Oxford University Press. It helps confirm my suspicion that books have become commodities - objects for sale - and the quality of the content is secondary. Scholarly values are out the window. (Vedral boasts of his 'streetwise' style; more worrying is the sense that he feels that historical truth doesn't matter.)

According to Vedral, Nietzsche " ... based the whole of his philosophy on the premise that physics implies that life is ultimately pointless, as eventually it must become extinct. The idea of absolute progress (the idea of progress to the point of perfection) must therefore ultimately be an illusion, in direct contrast to the ideas underpinning the evolution of life. Nietzsche thought that this conclusion is so difficult to live with that he needed to introduce the concept  of a 'superhuman' - an improved version of the human, able to come to terms with the fact that life cannot achieve absolute progress. Nietzsche, sadly, did not himself have the key attributes of his superhuman - he spent the last 11 years of his life in a lunatic asylum unable to deal with life, disillusioned and alone." (p.60)

Readers who know more about Nietzsche than I do can draw their own conclusions. I simply point out that the German thinker believed in an 'eternal return' - that life would ultimately repeat itself (in fact a scarier idea than extinction!). Also, he had an organic brain disease - he wasn't made insane by his philosophy; and he was looked after by his family after his breakdown, so did not spend the time in an asylum, and nor was he alone. He was so far gone after his breakdown that he could hardly be called 'disillusioned'.

These may be deemed unimportant errors, but they are symptomatic of an unfortunate attitude. It's a pity, because the book is worth reading. It is serving to crystallize some of my ideas, and I'll have more to say about it later.