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.


  1. I do know that for Nietzsche, ethics (or good) was grounded in whatever was "life-affirming" and he specifically stated that the idea "life is worthless" is decadent. His work contains arguments against nihilism and pessimism, so it's impossible to say he denied values or thought life is valueless or pointless. I read Nietzsche as life-embracing and his searing critiques of various philosophies and values repeatedly trace back to his contempt for anything life-defeating.

    I was just thinking about Fritz the other day, and how every discussion seems to work in the observation "but of course he went mad." Bleh.

  2. I simply love this blog. The most amazing topics come up, things I haven't thought about in years. Thanks! As for FN, the worrisome bit for me in Vedral's paragraph is the implication that Nietzsche somehow designed his Ubermensch as an anodyne for the Abyss. FN was an anti-system-builder. Where, say, Spinoza started with first principles and reasoned to conclusions that were consistent with the overarching system, FN was chaotic and aphoristic. There are large, coherent ideas woven throughout his work, but they have more to do with (lowercase) revelation than intellectual engineering. To some extent the Ubermensch is an outgrowth of the Genealogy of Morals and Beyond Good and Evil--what remains when ressentiment morality is subtracted. My guess is Vedral was going on someone else's summaries.

  3. I agree that Nietzsche was not motivated by a desire the counter the meaninglessness of a world reduced to physics. I doubt that physics bothered him at all. Clearly, what bothered him most was Christian morality and all other kinds of herd morality (as he viewed them).

    I find his positive remedies for this supposed disease far worse than the disease itself. Still, he's fascinating to read, in small doses.

  4. GC, yes, that reference to his madness is a cop-out, but I still think it's important to take account of traces of it (e.g. megalomania) in his later work.

    CONSVLTVS thank you, but I'll soon be boring you I promise! I like your notion of coherence being woven throughout his work, and the way you see the Ubermensch as what remains when ressentiment is subtracted. Rings true.

    Alan, I find lots of faults in FN, but overall I find the basic ideas (or a couple of them anyway) liberating.

  5. If I'm not mistaken, doesn't his theory of eternal recurrence also involve the concept that every possibility would eventually also occur through the cycle? That would also mean that in some existences, mistakes would be corrected, regretted actions wouldn't happen, and you get to live through more possibilities than you could even dream about. Wouldn't it also imply that at one point the cycle would produce a perfect world? I don't personally buy the eternal recurrence theory, but I'm surprised at how often it is referred to as totally life-negating. I have to agree with GTChristie that Nietzsche (at least before his mental deterioration) is very life-affirming in his positions.

  6. SAM I'm not sure about Nietzsche and the every possibility notion - my recollection is that he focused on this particular life with all its imperfections and the point was that we should love it and live it (over and over!) with total conviction; which is indeed life-affirming. I don't buy the idea of eternal recurrence either and I think it came to Nietzsche fairly late, and I always wished he hadn't adopted it! I like your take on the every possibility idea - correcting mistakes, erasing regrets. If only!

  7. Eternal recurrence in Nietzsche disappointed me. It's an ancient concept but it's so metaphysical it doesn't fit the rest of Nietzsche. Some call him a metaphysical thinker given this aspect of his thought. I can't remember where I picked this up (why I'm not an academic: terrible at notes LOL) but I agree with whoever (Kaufman? MacIntyre?) said "God is dead" means "metaphysics is dead. To this day I suspect "alas" is part of the message. But Nietzsche, "alas" or no, then gets on with it and tries to envision philosophy without metaphysics -- until he comes up with eternal recurrence. That just floors me.

    I agree with the idea that his positive constructions or prescriptions (ubermensch only one example) are nowhere near as good as his criticisms. The good part is, he uses the life-affirming benchmark for his criticisms, which gives us all a valuable anchor point both in assessing him and in making our own arguments. It is extremely powerful and potentially so positive, it's amazing he is not more famous for that, than "God is dead."

  8. I'm inclined to think that people are (almost) always famous for the wrong things, GC, and (almost always) the wrong people are famous. :-)

  9. Then I should be careful what I become famous for. LOL.