The test of the eternal recurrence

Nietzsche's idea of the eternal recurrence first appears in The Gay Science:

What if some day or night a demon were to steal into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: 'This life as you now live it and have lived it you will have to live once again and innumerable times again; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unspeakably small or great in your life must return to you, all in the same succession and sequence - even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned over again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!' 

Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: 'You are a god, and never have I heard anything more divine.'

If this thought gained power over you, as you are it would transform and possibly crush you; the question in each and every thing, 'Do you want this again and innumerable times again?' would lie on your actions as the heaviest weight! (341)

Unless one has already read Thus Spoke Zarathustra and consequently had the understanding that Nietzsche's idea of the eternal recurrence is a cosmology, there is no way one would read Nietzsche as suggesting anything cosmological here. What Nietzsche presents here is, as Bernard Williams puts it, "an entirely hypothetical question, a thought-experiment" ('Introduction' to the Cambridge edition of The Gay Science). Our responses to the thought-experiment reflect our attitudes towards our lives. The thought-experiment can thus be seen as a test of whether one affirms one's life: if one answers 'yes' to Nietzsche's question ('Do you want this again and innumerable times again?'), then one passes the test of the eternal recurrence, that is, one affirms one's life. The answer 'no' may not be outright nihilistic, but it is at least unsettled and dubious.

However, even understood merely as a thought-experiment rather than a cosmological doctrine, the idea of the eternal recurrence still invites a host of questions. Will I remember 'my' past lives? The answer is presumably 'no', for otherwise the lives in the eternal recurrence will not be identical ("all in the same succession and sequence") because of the ever-increasing extra knowledge in later lives. But if I don't remember those prior lives, what makes them my lives? Or, to put it reversely, if the later person will not remember my life, what makes his life a recurrence of mine?

Even if I can put these questions aside and understand the recurring lives as all mine, I may not have reason to care about any of them except this one. Since my recurring lives have to be identical, in each of them I do not know that it is a repetition of prior lives. The lack of such knowledge in each life logically follows from the fact that in the very first life of the series I do not have such knowledge. But if in each life I do not know that it is a repetition, then what reason do I now have for minding that my life will be repeated? If my later selves won't mind, why should I mind for them? And if I don't, and won't, mind the repetitions, how can the eternal recurrence be a good test for the affirmation of life? (Note that for the thought-experiment to be coherent, if I ask the demon whether my life is already a repetition, the demon will have to either always answer 'no' or erase my memory of having met him.)

None of the above questions should be dismissed lightly, because what the test of the eternal recurrence requires is not our hasty judgments or knee-jerk psychological responses but our considering Nietzsche's question, in Williams's words, "seriously and in the fullest consciousness". Hasty judgments or knee-jerk psychological responses are not sufficient for the affirmation of life.


Nietzsche's looseness

John Searle recounts, in his engaging and entertaining article "Oxford Philosophy in the 1950s" (Philosophy 90 (2015)), what Bernard Williams told him about Nietzsche:

Bernard tended to admire philosophers who were outside the mainstream. He discovered Nietzsche when he was already well advanced in philosophy, and though he was contemptuous of Nietzsche’s looseness at first, he became as much a follower of Nietzsche as he was capable of being of any other philosopher. He once said to me about Nietzsche that he thought it was ‘about 80% true’. I cannot imagine any other philosopher of whom Bernard would say that. I think he especially liked Nietzsche’s cynicism about mainstream academic life and academic philosophy. (p.188)

What intrigues me the most is certainly Williams's claim that what Nietzsche says is "about 80% true". That's an unusually strong claim for any philosopher to make about any other philosopher. Another fascinating fact here, and a related one, is that Williams "was contemptuous of Nietzsche's looseness at first". What the phrase "at first" implies is not that Williams ceased to think Nietzsche's thinking was loose after he became a follower of Nietzsche; rather, it implies that he was not contemptuous of Nietzsche's looseness anymore. Williams admired Nietzsche in spite of his looseness.

I did not consider the possibility that Williams ceased to think Nietzsche's thinking was loose for the simple reason that Nietzsche's looseness is conspicuous. Beyond Good and Evil 267 is a perfect example:

The Chinese have a proverb that mothers even teach children: siao-sin  "make your heart small!" This is the characteristic fundamental propensity in late civilizations: I do not doubt that an ancient Greek would recognize in us Europeans of today, too, such self-diminution; this alone would suffice for us to "offend his taste." 

"Siao-sin" is presumably a transliteration of the Chinese expression "小心". Not only does it not mean "make your heart small", it is not a proverb either, and hence not "a proverb that mothers even teach children". Although "小" means "small" and "心" means "heart", "小心" does not mean "small heart"; it means "be careful", which does not seem to have anything to do with "self-diminution". Such a mistake could have been avoided easily.

But perhaps Nietzsche simply didn't care  it's just a mistaken example; he's not using it as evidence to support his view. If he was right about "the characteristic fundamental propensity in late civilizations", i.e. self-diminution, it would not be difficult for him to find correct examples. For Nietzsche, insights first, examples later.


A little knowledge

I've just come across an intriguing remark by Nietzsche in Human, All Too Human:

A little knowledge is more successful than complete knowledge: it conceives things as simpler than they are, thus resulting in opinions that are more comprehensible and persuasive. (578)

Let us put aside the question whether anyone can have complete knowledge of anything, for what Nietzsche says won't be affected much if "complete knowledge" is replaced with "adequate knowledge" or "sufficient knowledge". First of all, note the "it" in "it conceives things as simpler than they are", which refers to "a little knowledge" rather than to the knowing agent. This sounds strange, because "a little knowledge" does not have a mind and cannot think. The German original is "es kennt die Dinge einfacher, als sie sind", and the literal translation of "es kennt" should be "it knows". Of course "it knows" does not sound any less strange than "it conceives", but I think what the whole expression means is "this is knowledge of things as simpler than they are". The "it" in "it conceives" or "it knows" is a dummy pronoun.

So, a little knowledge is knowledge of things as simpler than they are. Or more precisely, a little knowledge of X is knowledge of X as simpler than X really is. But why does "a little" imply "simpler"? This is because what is involved is knowledge of X rather than knowledge of part of X. If one's knowledge of X is little in the sense of being knowledge of merely part of X, then it is not necessarily simpler --- one's knowledge of part of X can be as complex as it (i.e. the part) really is, while the knowledge is still little compared to knowledge of the whole X. However, if it is knowledge of the whole X, it cannot be both little but not simpler.

A little knowledge results in "opinions that are more comprehensible and persuasive". Here the opinions are obviously opinions of the knowing agent --- the opinions are more comprehensible and persuasive to the knowing agent. But why are the opinions more comprehensible and persuasive to him? Well, because they are based on knowledge of things as simpler than they are. It is the simplification that makes the opinions comprehensible and persuasive. If the agent sees things as they really are, the complexity involved will perplex and humble him.

Nietzsche says "[a] little knowledge is more successful than complete knowledge". Successful in what sense? I can think of only one answer: successful in the sense of being treated as knowledge. The more one knows, the more one is not sure that one knows.


Visions and arguments

In an interview Hilary Putnam was asked "What makes a good philosopher?"; his response, though vague, was candid and enlightening:

No one thing. Just as there are different sorts of poet and different sorts of scientist, there are different sorts of philosopher. What made Kierkegaard a great philosopher was not the same thing that made Carnap a great philosopher. If one has to generalize, I would agree with Myles Burnyeat who once said that philosophy needs vision and arguments. Burnyeat's point was that there is something disappointing about a philosophical work that contains arguments, however good, which are not inspired by some genuine vision, and something disappointing about a philosophical work that contains a vision, however inspiring, which is unsupported by arguments. (Andrew Pyle (ed), Key Philosophers in Conversation, p.44)

He did not elaborate on these remarks, simply adding that "'vision', 'argument', and 'support' can mean many different things". These words certainly can mean many different things, but whatever they mean, it seems that the two kinds of disappointment Putnam spoke of can still be characterized a bit further in a completely general way: Arguments not inspired by some philosophical vision are disappointing because it is not even clear why we should take them seriously in the first place; a philosophical vision not supported by arguments is disappointing because it may very well be nothing but an intellectual fantasy. To mimic Kant: Arguments without a vision are blind; a vision without arguments is empty.

The relation between philosophical visions and arguments is, to some extent, analogous to that between scientific theories and confirmatory experiments. There is, however, an important difference. A scientific theory usually carries implications for how it can be confirmed experimentally, but a philosophical vision does not carry implications for how it can be supported by arguments. If there is a theory (about some kind of natural phenomenon) such that no experiment can be designed, at least in principle, to confirm it, it is doubtful whether it should be considered scientific at all. By contrast, a philosophical vision that is not supported by arguments may not be considered any less philosophical. Another way of putting it is that philosophy is more tolerant of empty talk than science is. This may be, alas, why there is more bad philosophy than bad science.


Living forwards and changing the past

In Milan Kundera's The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, the narrator makes the following arresting remarks about the past and the future:

People are always shouting they want to create a better future. It's not true. The future is an apathetic void of no interest to anyone. The past is full of life, eager to irritate us, provoke and insult us, tempt us to destroy or repaint it. The only reason people want to be masters of the future is to change the past.

These remarks make an interesting contrast with what Kierkegaard famously says about life (in his journal for the year 1843):

It is perfectly true, as philosophers say, that life must be understood backwards. But they forget the other proposition, that it must be lived forwards.

The two passages are at least in tension, if they don't seem outright contradictory. If life "must be lived forwards", how can the future be "an apathetic void of no interest to anyone"? And if we can "change the past", doesn't that mean there is a sense in which life can be lived backwards? Both passages are insightful, and I think there is a way of understanding them so that they are not only compatible but also support each other.

First of all, we all know that the past cannot be changed, not literally. Our understanding of the past, however, can change. The past is important to us because "life must be understood backwards", and we can't help living forwards with a particular understanding of the past. It is the understanding of the past that counts, not just the past in itself. Although the same past can be understood differently, we can't change our understanding of the past at will. But we can change it indirectly, that is, by living forwards in a particular way. This is the sense in which people can "change the past" by being "masters of the future".

But why are living forwards and changing the past related this way? Because the past and the future form a narrative, and this is how we see our lives --- as stories unfolding. Different possible futures would result in different stories and hence different contexts in which the same past could be understood very differently. The past is already, as it were, written, but the future is, we believe, still open. The future in itself may be seen as an "apathetic void", but it is of great interest to us when seen as part of a continuous story.

What we want to create is not a better future (understood independently of the past), but a better life story --- better in the sense that the past can be understood in a way that makes it less likely to "irritate us, provoke and insult us, tempt us to destroy or repaint it".


Fine-tuning and Omnipotence

The fine-tuning argument is an attempt to show that the universe is designed. The basic idea of the argument is simple: the parameters of physics and the initial conditions of the universe are such that if some of them, such as the cosmological constant and the gravitational constant, were slightly different, the universe would not have existed. There might still be a universe, but a short-lived or unstable one that does not allow life chemistry, and hence no life --- the universe is intentionally fine-tuned for life.

Let us assume that the physics used in the argument is all correct. Let us even assume that there is no other explanation of the apparent fine-tuning of the universe than that the fine-tuning is actual and intentional. That is, let us assume that the universe does have a fine-tuner or designer.* Call the designer D. What attributes should we ascribe to D? It is clear that D has to be extremely intelligent and powerful (designing a whole universe is no small task!), but do we have reason to believe that D is omniscient and omnipotent?

Although D does not have to be omniscient to design the universe, D may be omniscient. We have no reason to think one way or the other as far as the fine-tuning argument is concerned. However, if D is intelligent enough to avoid doing things that are unnecessary, we do have reason to believe that D is not omnipotent. Consider the following argument:

(1) D fine-tunes the universe for life.
(2) If D is omnipotent, D does not need to fine-tune the universe for life.
(3) D is intelligent enough to avoid doing unnecessary things.
(4) Therefore, if D fine-tunes the universe for life, D needs to do it that way. [from (3)]
(5) Therefore, D needs to fine-tune the universe for life. [from (1) and (4)]
(6) Therefore, D is not omnipotent. [from (2) and (5)]

Anyone who accepts (1) and (3) has to accept the conclusion that D is not omnipotent if she also accepts (2). People who employ the fine-tuning argument certainly accept (1), and it is safe to assume that they accept (3) as well. Do they accept (2)? They have to accept it if they accept all of the following claims:

- If D is omnipotent, D is capable of creating life that is not carbon-based.
- If D is omnipotent, D is capable of creating life of some form in a universe that is utterly different from ours (with different parameters of physics and initial conditions).
- If D is omnipotent, D is capable of creating life of some form even in a short-lived and unstable universe.

They have no reason not to accept these claims because none of the consequents of the conditionals describes an ability to do something that is logically or metaphysically impossible.** So they have no reason not to accept (2).

If God is omnipotent, then D is not God. This is presumably disappointing news for those who employ the fine-tuning argument.

 * The fine-tuning argument does not give us any reason to think that there can only be one designer, but for my purposes here it's not necessary to consider the possibility that there is more than one designer.
** Some philosophers argue that 'omnipotence' is an incoherent concept. Here I assume for the sake of argument that the concept is coherent and that the only things an omnipotent being is incapable of doing are those that are logically or metaphysically impossible.


Having fun with Žižek

Let us ruminate over the following little speech by Slavoj Žižek:

You know, happiness is for me a very rebellious category. It enters the frame immediately. You have a serious ideological deviation at the very beginning of a famous proclamation of independence -- you know, happiness is overrated. If there is a point in psychoanalysis, it is that people do really want or desire happiness, and I think it’s not necessarily bad that it is like that.

For example, let’s be serious: when you are in a creative endeavor, in that wonderful fever --- “My God, I’m onto something!” and so on --- you're mimicking happiness. You are ready to relish the real thing. Sometimes scientists --- I read history of quantum physics or earlier of radiation --- were even ready to stomach the whole package, including the possibility that they will die because of some radiation and so on. Happiness is, for me, an amoral category.

And also, we may actually want to get what we think we don't want. The classical story that I like, the traditional monogamous scenario: I am married to a wife, relations with her are great, and I think I don't want a mistress, and all the time I dream, “Oh my God, how terrible if I had a mistress . . . ,” I’m not a saint, but let us say, “A new life is terrifying and a mistress would open up a new life for me.” You know what every psychoanalyst will tell you quite often happens? That then, for some reason, you have a mistress, you realize you have wanted a new life all along.

You thought, this is not what I want. When you had it there, you found out that it was a much less complex situation, where what you want is not really to love another woman but to keep her as an object of desire and nothing more. And this is not an excessive situation. I claim that this is how things function. We really want what we think we don't desire.

Pretty profound, right? Only that it is not really a speech by Žižek. The real speech is here, the content of which is almost the opposite of the above ‘speech’:

I would like to suggest a criterion for fake profundity: Any seemingly profound words have fake profundity if they still look profound after being ‘oppositized’.


Knowing the truth versus avoiding error

Normally, we want to know the truth and we want to avoid error. There is no reason why we can't achieve both. William James argues, however, that these are "two ways of looking at our duty in the matter of opinion"; not just two ways, but "ways entirely different". As he explains:

[T]hey are not two ways of stating an identical commandment, they are two separable laws. Although it may indeed happen that when we believe the truth A, we escape as an incidental consequence from believing the falsehood B, it hardly ever happens that by merely disbelieving B we necessarily believe A. We may in escaping B fall into believing other falsehoods, C or D, just as bad as B; or we may escape B by not believing anything at all, not even A. (James, 'The Will to Believe')

Avoiding error indeed does not guarantee knowing the truth, but the relation between these "two separable laws" is much closer than suggested by James's explanation. In most cases when a person acquires the true belief that p, she thereby avoids the error of believing that ~p. The avoidance of error in these cases is not just "an incidental consequence", for it has to do with the logical relation between p and ~p. Certainly we all have inconsistent beliefs, but if a person is aware of believing that p, she cannot at the same time believe that ~p (unless the belief is unconscious). This is especially so when the belief acquired is a result of rational inquiry.

James's target here is William K. Clifford, who advocates the principle that "it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence" (Clifford, 'The Ethics of Belief'). Call this Clifford's Principle. As James understands it, Clifford's Principle "treat[s] the avoidance of error as more imperative [than the chase for truth], and let[s] truth take its chance"; for James, Clifford's Principle is in effect "Better go without belief forever than believe a lie". If this was how Clifford's Principle should be understood, then we could follow the principle simply by refraining, insofar as we can do so, from acquiring new beliefs. No new beliefs, no new false beliefs.

But this understanding can't be correct, for Clifford's Principle is a principle of rational inquiry. Rational inquiry is a pursuit of truth (some would argue it is a pursuit of knowledge, but knowledge entails truth), and a principle that can be followed simply by not acquiring new beliefs is not a principle of rational inquiry. No new beliefs, no new true beliefs either.

If we follow Clifford's Principle, we won't have unjustified beliefs. Since unjustified beliefs are more likely to be false than true, we can avoid error by following Clifford's Principle. But avoiding error this way is for the sake of knowing the truth; it is a means rather than an end. What Clifford's Principle explicitly tells us is that it is wrong to have unjustified beliefs, but the implicit message is that we should have justified beliefs. And the purpose of having justified beliefs is not avoiding error, but knowing the truth.

James finds it "impossible to go with Clifford" and is "ready to be duped many times [...] rather than postpone indefinitely the chance of guessing true". He believes that "worse things than being duped may happen to a man in this world". He is right, and one of those things is being duped and thinking it is a way of knowing the truth.


"What if you're wrong?"

Richard Dawkins's answer to the question "What if you're wrong?" (asked by a Liberty University student at Randolph College in 2006) received so much attention that the short video of his rapid-fire little speech got over three and a half million hits on YouTube. Someone has made an animated collage which nicely illustrates Dawkins's points:

Although Dawkins used a lot of examples, he made his main point clearly when he said "there's no particular reason to pick on the Judeo-Christian god, in which by the sheerest accident you happen to have been brought up". His point is not:

(1)  Since you have acquired your religious beliefs in such and such a way, these beliefs are questionable (or false).

It is:

(2)  You would have acquired utterly different religious beliefs if you had been brought up in a different religious tradition, and these different sets of religious beliefs are equally unjustified. So you have no more reason to accept one of them rather than the other.

(1) is an instance of the genetic fallacy, while (2) merely points out the lack of justifying reason for preferring one religion over another. That (2) is Dawkins's main point is also supported by his last remark: "What if you're wrong about the great Juju at the bottom of the sea?"

Dawkins's main point is clear enough (which explains why it is so forceful), but it doesn't stop someone like William Lane Craig from insisting that Dawkins committed the genetic fallacy:

Craig the great strawman maker... (Sigh). Alvin Plantinga, who is a more sophisticated thinker than Craig, fails to offer a more reasonable response to Dawkins's main point. Actually, he's responding to Philip Kitcher, but Kitcher's point is the same as Dawkins's:

For all their doctrinal disagreements, Muslims, Jews, and Christians agree on many things. If, however, you had been acculturated within one of the aboriginal traditions of Australia, or within a society in central Africa, or among the Inuit, you would accept, on the basis of cultural authority, radically different ideas. You would believe in the literal truth of stories about the spirits of ancestors and about their presence in sacred places, and you would believe these things as firmly as Christians believe in the resurrection, or Jews in God's covenant, or Muslims in the revelations to the Prophet. (Living with Darwin: Evolution, Design, and the Future of Faith, p.141)

Plantinga's response sounds a bit deeper than Craig's, but is no less missing the point:

Kitcher points out, as others before him have, that most believers accept the religion in which they have been brought up. And that can be worrying: if I had been brought up in medieval China, for example, I would almost certainly not have been a Christian. Fair enough; and this can induce a certain cosmic vertigo. But doesn't the same go for Kitcher? Suppose he had been born in medieval China, or for that matter medieval Europe: in all likelihood, he would not have been skeptical of the supernatural. As I say; this can induce vertigo; but isn't it just part of the human condition? (Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism, p.62)

Again, Kitcher's (and Dawkins's) point is not that religious beliefs are questionable because believers have been brought up to accept those beliefs, but that believers have no more reason to accept the religious beliefs they have rather than some other religious beliefs. Kitcher makes the point straightforwardly this way:

The trouble with supernaturalism is that it comes in so many incompatible forms, all of which are grounded in just the same way. (p.142)

Since these incompatible forms of supernaturalism are grounded in just the same way, we have no reason to prefer one form over another. Most believers stick to their religious belief simply because they have been brought up to accept them blindly.

It is indeed part of the human condition that we have all been brought up to accept certain beliefs, but it is not part of the human condition that we should not question these beliefs. Plantinga is right that Kitcher would not have been skeptical of the supernatural if he had been born in medieval Europe, but that doesn't mean Kitcher's skepticism about the supernatural is no more justified than medieval religious beliefs --- they are not incompatible forms of the same kind of belief system that are grounded in just the same way.