24 May 2008

Why Nietzsche was not a nihilist and why you are forever trapped in the Wizard of Oz (part one)

This is a three part series. You can find all of the parts here:
  1. Why Nietzsche was not a nihilist and why you are forever trapped in the Wizard of Oz (part one)

  2. Why Nietzsche was not a nihilist and why you are forever trapped in the Wizard of Oz (part two)

  3. Why Nietzsche was not a nihilist and why you are forever trapped in the Wizard of Oz (part three)

A brief outline of nihilism

Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche is the one philosopher whose name is synonymous with nihilism. While there are similarities between nihilism and Nietzsche's philosophy, I do not believe it is accurate to claim that Nietzsche was a nihilist. In order to motivate my viewpoint, we will have to consider brief outlines of both nihilism and the philosophy of Nietzsche. Note that these are working definitions and my citations are mostly from Wikipedia. I am not a philosophy expert.

Picture of Nietzsche
Nietzsche. Strapping young lad. Godless heathen. Nihilist, not so much.

The shocking claims of nihilism: there is no wizard behind the curtain, and even if we had a wizard it means nothing

Nihilism claims that existence itself is meaningless. It follows that there is no purpose to existence. The basic tenets of nihilism are:
  • Objective morality does not exist. One course of action is not preferable over another.

  • Since there is no objective morality, existence has no purpose.

  • There is no credible evidence of supernatural beings. Even if there are supernatural beings, we are not obliged to worship them.

The fact that Nietzsche is credited with the axiom 'God is dead.. and we killed him' is not really helping to separate the wheat from the chaff either. Before we consider Nietzsche's philosophy, we need to consider the inherent problems in the philosophy of nihilism and an outline of Nietzsche's methods, or his raison d'etre if you will.

Inherent problems with the philosophy of nihilism: but there is a land of Oz with a yellow brick road

  • Subjective morality does exist: The lack of objective morality is not reason enough to assume that there is no morality. It is not even reason enough to assume that morality is immoral, but perhaps enough reason to assume that morality is amoral. For instance, it is generally regarded that murder is wrong. This dogma does not point to objective morality, but it is consistent in virtually all cultures, and exceptions to this rule are just that – exceptions to the rule. When Dorothy kills the Wicked Witch of the East, it is reason for mirthful celebration and ponies and rainbows. No Munchkin demands Dorothy's head on a platter. There are exceptions to the rule that murder is wrong, and while it points to a lack of objective morality, it does not indicate complete lack of morality. It indicates subjective morality.

  • Existence is a purpose: 'Existence has no purpose' is an empty statement. This is akin to Dorothy seeing the yellow brick road, but deducing that it disappears over each horizon, and therefore the yellow brick road goes all around the world and ultimately leads back to this exact same spot. What is her purpose then for following the yellow brick road?

    When examining this statement critically, it first needs to be falsified. Nihilists would have to define conditions for existence to have a purpose. Further complications aside, if you define objective morality as the condition and if you fail to prove that objective morality exists, then you could deduce that existence has no purpose. Perhaps this is why a statement like 'god is dead' is so shocking to religious people. To them, god is the ultimate objective gauge of morality. No god means no objective morality. No objective morality means no purpose. Everyone without god (including Nietzsche) must therefore be nihilists, since they do not believe in the ultimate reason for existence of those with a god.

    The axiom that existence has no purpose is fallible. What if the purpose of existence is to realise that existence has no purpose, and the purpose of existence is to overcome this existential crisis? This would mean that existence does have a purpose, which refutes the axiom. To summarise, what if the meaning of life is to give meaning to life? It is thus likely that the wizard of Oz built the Emerald City and established himself as ruler in order to give meaning to his life. While this exercise is ultimately futile, it suggests the notion that any action is better than no action. Nihilism proposes no action, since any action is ultimately futile. The Wizard of Oz proposes that any action has a purpose, if only for its immediate reactions.

  • There is credible, but not conclusive evidence that there are no supernatural beings: In other words, there is not enough evidence to suggest that there is no tribe of flying monkeys. The statement 'there is no credible evidence of supernatural beings' would also have to be falsified. Nihilists would have to define conditions which would indicate evidence of supernatural beings. I for one agree with nihilists, but I can not prove conclusively that there are no supernatural beings. The lack of credible evidence supporting supernatural phenomena is also my main argument, and the natural scientific explanations of most supernatural phenomena to date are my conditions for falsifiability. If flying monkeys have a natural explanation, they aren't supernatural, but it does not mean that flying monkeys do not exist.

Nihilists and religious thinkers thus suffer from the same Achilles heel. Both ultimately rely on supernatural beings as a condition for objective morality. Both rely on objective morality is a requirement for the purpose of existence. Which side does Nietzsche take in this school yard brawl?


Kyle said...

It's unfortunate you would cite wikipedia to define such a complex subject matter as nihilism and Nietzsche. It is because of that, that your argument fails; you assume the old, outdated "Russian" version of nihilism. Nihilism by today's standards is like a strategy rather than a philosophy. In truth, it's fundamental premise is the same as Nietzsche's; do away with the old, arborescent values, and stick with the ever-adapting, rhizomic values. That is, values become life-negating, and thus useless, when they no longer accurately represent the forms they were initially meant to.

The problem with today's interpretation of nihilism is that it is outdated; much like school children reading from outdated history books. Nihilism as a metaphysical, ethical, and aesthetic standpoint is no more. Such philosophies have evolved into what is now called fatalism. Today's nihilism is instead a purely epistemological force; it is the anti-bacterial agent of mental structures; it is the douche of value systems. It is corrosive to all sedentary forms, as was Nietzsche. Nietzsche railed against the nihilism of his day, not because of what nihilism was--he actually embraced its coming--but rather what it brought. In his day, all nihilism as a premise offered were Christian and fatalistic conclusions. After Nietzsche, however, nihilism's premise bred a new set of conclusions that work in constant accordance with the things he promulgated.

petra said...

Jesus - I am gonna need an entire bottle of wine for this one.........

Garg the Unzola said...

Thanks for the comment, Kyle.

I appreciate that you claim my argument fails, but I would appreciate it more if you could offer a counter argument.

I would also greatly appreciate it if you could point me to more reliable sources, if Wikipedia is not reliable.

By my Wikipedia definitions, it is clear that both Nietzsche and myself only had the 'old, outdated "Russian" version of nihilism' to work with. Any nihilism after Nietzsche may well be influenced by Nietzsche, but not the other way around.

If Nietzsche and modern nihilism are comfortable bedfellows, it contradicts your statement that Nietzsche rallied against what nihilism brought. In my limited understanding, Nietzsche rallied against nihilism, but embraced what it brought. It seems to me that this is what you are implying.

Either way, Nietzsche was not a nihilist if he rallied against nihilism. It does not make him a nihilist if he considered the effects of nihilism beneficial any more than it makes me a doctor when I predict that ARVs will be beneficial to AIDS patients. Please correct me if I'm wrong.

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