Thursday, January 29, 2015

Notes on Nietzsche's Human, All Too Human Section 3: Religious Life

108. Misfortune can be overcome either by removing its cause or by changing its effect on our feelings. As religions and other palliatives lose influence, men are more inclined to confront reality.

109. We would happily exchange the soothing errors of religion for truths with the same effect, but there are none: "Sorrow is knowledge." With our present knowledge, one cannot engage in Christianity without soiling his intellectual conscience.

110. Opponents of the Enlightenment held sway over Schopenhauer, who should have said "Never, neither indirectly nor directly, neither as a dogma nor as an allegory, has religion yet held any truth." Philosophers often worked within the traditions of religion and so ended up with doctrines similar to religious views. In reality there is no connection whatsoever between religion and real science.

111. In the times of origins of religion, men knew nothing of natural causation and viewed all events as the result of magical influences and arbitrary acts arising from conscious beings. Religious men want to impose a law on nature, and to gain power over belongings of others; they even use physical images of gods or saints to express anger over events. Still, it is also based on more noble ideas such as goodwill and gratitude.

112. At one time the combination of farce with the sublime in ceremony and art was common; now it is disappearing.

113. Today Christianity is an anachronistic tradition; the fact that people who are otherwise strict in testing assertions still believe in the divinity of Jesus is the oldest part of this tradition. "Are we to believe that such things are still believed?"

114. The Greeks saw their gods as ideals of what humans could be, rather than as their masters, thus a greater and lesser nobility. Christianity, in contrast, crushed and shattered man, and while he was thus confused, stunned him with mercy and elicited a cry of rapture.

115. Some men are beautified by religion; others who have no expertise with any weapon, including mouth and pen, find it useful; still others have empty and monotonous lives and are to be forgiven for becoming religious, but they have no right to demand religiosity from those with full lives.

116. If Christianity were right in its tenets, then it would be a sign of stupidity and poor character not to become a priest or apostle, to lose sight of eternal deserts for temporary comfort. Thus the everyday Christian is a pitiful figure.

117. Christianity attempts to make disdain for other individuals impossible because it teaches that all men are utterly despicable and worthless; we are all of one kind.

118. "As soon as a religion comes to prevail, it has as its enemies all those who would have been its first disciples."

119. "Christianity came into existence in order to lighten the heart; but now it has to burden the heart first, in order to be able to lighten it afterward. Consequently it will perish."

120. "An agreeable opinion is accepted as true: this is the proof by pleasure."

121. If one allows any room for religious feeling, it necessarily grows, and eventually all one's judgment and feeling is befogged, overcast with religious shadows.

122. Disciples who have no eye for the weaknesses of their teaching have the greatest power. "Without blind disciples, no man or his work has ever gained great influence."

123. "There is not enough religion in the world even to destroy religions."

124. When we realize that men are not nearly as wicked as our errors of reason have led us to believe, then our mood is greatly improved and we can be content in a halo of harmlessness.

125. Many great artists, such as Homer, are so comfortable with their gods that they must have been irreligious.

126. "One of the greatest effects of men whom we call geniuses and saints is that they exact interpreters who misunderstand them, to the good of mankind."

127. It was observed that an excited state often clears the mind and produces happy ideas, leading to the false conclusion that the madman should be revered as wise and prescient.

128. "Modern science has as its goal the least pain and the longest life possible - that is, a kind of eternal happiness: to be sure, a very modest kind in comparison with the promises of religions."

129. "There is not enough love and kindness in the world to permit us to give any of it away to imaginary beings."

130. The inner world of sublime, tender, intuitive, contrite, and blissful moods that were inspired by religious practices have not been lost even after the religions are no longer believed.

131. Even in scientific philosophy, the religiously tinged sections seem better proved than others, but it is the opposite: our inner wish that what gladdens might be true misleads us into accepting bad reasons.

132. Man's need for redemption can be explained purely psychologically. Selfless actions are esteemed highly but are difficult to sustain, and men compare themselves in this regard not to other men but to an entirely selfless ideal, which creates discontent and even fear of punishment.

133. "The whole concept of 'selfless action,' if examined carefully, evaporates into thin air... How could the ego act without ego?" A man must do much for himself to be in a position to do for others, and doing for others causes immorality in the recipient, who is accepting these actions selfishly. If the idea of God is removed then we mostly remove the pangs of conscience, and seeing that actions are unconditionally necessary removes their final vestiges.

134. On occasion the Christian's self-contempt abates and he feels free and courageous and esteem for himself. But he reads divine goodness into this experience and treats it as proof that God is merciful, rather than as self-love. As he misinterpreted his actions, he now misinterprets his experiences.

135. A false psychology in interpreting motives and experiences is necessary for being a Christian and experiencing the need for redemption. Recognizing this aberration of reason causes one to cease to be a Christian.

136. Asceticism and saintliness are generally viewed as miraculous and remain unexplained, to the delight of those who admire miracles. The nature of these behaviors is complex, and we will examine them by isolating impulses in the souls of these people.

137. Asceticism is the exercise of one's power against oneself, due to lack of other objects or having otherwise failed. This scorn for one's own nature is actually a very high degree of vanity. Man takes a truly voluptuous pleasure in violating himself by exaggerated demands and then deifying this something in his soul that is so tyrannically taxing.

138. Under the influence of extreme tension and excitement, man wants to relieve the emotion and may just as well sacrifice himself as another. Insofar as self-denial is not done strictly with regard for another, it is not moral but merely an opportunity to relieve one's tense heart.

139. The ascetic is trying to make life easy for himself by complete subordination to a law or another's will. This is easier than to renounce one's will only occasionally, just as it is easier to give up a desire entirely than to moderate it.

140. Self-contempt and self-torment are a means to combat the general exhaustion of life force that comes from the dullness and boredom of subordinating one's will.

141. The ascetic or saint sees his life as a continuing battle and himself as the battlefield on which good and evil spirits struggle, with alternating results. He fights everything natural, including sensuality, and to lift this burden requires the supernatural. In the documents of Christianity, the demands have been exaggerated so that man cannot satisfy them; the intention is not that he become more moral, but rather that he feel as sinful as possible.

142. In summary, the disposition of the saint is composed of elements we know quite well. Sometimes he exercises a defiance against himself as a means of exercising power; sometimes he wants to stop tormenting feelings, and he sets a trap for his emotions to create humiliation. He attacks his self-deification with self-contempt.

143. The saint did not know himself any more than others understood him. Because no one understood the saint, he signified the miraculous and supported belief in the divine.

144 This portrait of the saint can be contradicted by certain exceptions, including Jesus who was attractive even though deluded, and also does not cover the Indian holy men.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Managing Lightness

Recently it occurred to me that my efforts to achieve a lightness of being were waning, in both temperament and internal experience. I pondered why this might be the case, and I was able to discern some insight into the question while haltingly embarking back toward the path.

Recall that lightness consists of two primary elements: a sense of unfettered choice and a disinclination to treat events and circumstances with excessive seriousness. Making and pursuing any decision of significance, therefore, impedes lightness on both accounts. Though having made a decision we remain free to change it, the costs of such a change are usually considerably higher than having made a different decision initially. For what is a decision but a commitment that has, at minimum, opportunity cost, and usually at least an emotional "restocking fee," if not actual out-of-pocket costs in time, money, and effort? Thus we feel impelled to follow through on a decision, at least to a point; our options then seem more limited, and we are not as light as before.

Often, though not always, a significant decision is also accompanied by efforts and focus directed toward obtaining a successful outcome related to the decision. Combined with the experiential reduction of choice, such efforts take on an air of heaviness, an importance that may give rise to anxiety, fear of failure, inattention to everyday pleasures, and the like. One would have to be preternaturally blithe to live to adulthood without experiencing this effect.

The obvious way to avoid the situation is simply to eschew decisions. However, though it may be wise to consider whether a commitment is necessary in each particular case, as a universal this approach has numerous flaws. First and foremost, the lack of a decision is a decision of another kind. There are many enjoyments - monogamous love, or a home, for example - in which the commitment is central to the experience. Second, and overlapping, there is an existential discomfort, "unbearable lightness," as it is sometimes called, to living every day with unrestricted choice, with no guidance from precedent. Finally, it is very common in the absence of a decision for fortune to decide for us, and only rarely does a roll of the dice expand rather than compress our options.

In cases where we have appropriately made a choice, we can confront the challenge to our lightness by consciously managing it. This initially seems contrary to the spirit of lightness: if it is consciously directed, it hardly seems carefree. But recall that this is prescribed in the aftermath of a major decision, not as an unrelenting burden. It is a way to retain, as much as possible, a light demeanor during periods when focus and effort increase and choice has evidently decreased.

The mechanics of such management are straightforward enough. Circumscribing the times and places for focus and effort enables one to more fully enjoy everyday pleasures outside those bounds. In particular, the mental state associated with effort has a tendency to engulf all of one's activities, and this overflow must be avoided. Maintaining perspective on the worst case and likely scenarios usually reduces tension associated with the possibility of undesirable outcomes. Keeping in mind the original reasons for the decision, particularly the expanded choices and experiential opportunities that were its object, mitigates the short-term feeling of loss of autonomy. Awareness of countenance can curtail unintended incivilities that might instigate a spiral of despair.

It may seem that this management is an additional onus, above and beyond the effort already required to make good on the decision itself. But this is an error arising from separation of an element that is actually part and parcel of a decision, if one wishes to live with lightness. When making a decision, and evaluating its benefits and costs, the effort of consciously managing lightness through the most challenging period is an essential part of the decision, along with whatever other efforts are anticipated. Indeed, since this is part of any major decision, it could very well be the first rather than the last thing to consider.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Predictive Positivism

Logical Positivism, which can be roughly described as the view that statements are meaningless unless they can be verified empirically, fell prey to numerous criticisms, among them that it is egregiously self-refuting. Nevertheless the importance of empiricism has not diminished, and positivism left in its wake a certain guilty conscience that we do not know exactly why empirical results have any more credence than metaphysical speculation. I will venture here to substitute a claim in the spirit of positivism that is narrower but stands on more solid footing. In particular, we will limit the statements about which we are concerned to predictions.

One can argue that a central purpose of knowledge is prediction: Francis Bacon famously said "nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed." We can briefly illustrate the point. First and most evidently, we benefit from the ability to understand the mechanisms of the natural world well enough to predict their behavior. Prediction of seasons, tides, and other such phenomena played an important role in the development of civilization. Second, invention and design require the ability to predict the mechanical, electrical, or other properties of materials to ensure that a device will consistently perform as desired. Knowledge thus has, at minimum, a practical anthropic function through its role in prediction.

A prediction is a statement that has at its core a claim of a future fact. Usually, though not always, the statement also includes conditions that must be met for the future fact to obtain. Thus, "The sun will rise tomorrow" and "If our team loses tomorrow, they will be out of the playoffs" are examples of the form. A statement need not be true or correct to constitute a prediction. However, it is important that both the conditions and the future fact be possible to verify or falsify (for readability in the remainder of this discussion, verification shall refer to both positive and negative verification). If the statement is not possible to verify, it is better described as fiction or fantasy. This is not a conclusion but rather an analytic posit:

A statement predicts only if it can be verified.

Under what circumstances might a statement be impossible to verify? One important case is when the terms in the statement have no reasonably well-defined referent. It is difficult to draw a bright line for this requirement, but statements like "when my qi is low I will perform poorly" undoubtedly qualify. More arguable would be statements concerning qualia or events outside the relativistic light cone. The point is one of burden: one who purports to make a prediction is responsible for at least outlining how it is possible that it could be verified.

Let us now make a stronger and more interesting claim:

A statement reliably predicts only if it can be repeatedly verified.

To the original posit we have added the terms "reliably" and "repeatedly," but there is also a more subtle addition. The consequent holds not only if the statement itself can be repeatedly verified, but also if it can be repeatedly verified a fortiori via a more general statement from which it is deduced. Thus from "the sun rises every day," which can be repeatedly verified, we can deduce "the sun will rise tomorrow," thus meeting the requirement.

This claim does not speak to the sufficient conditions for a reliable prediction: there are many. It only claims that repeatable verification is necessary. The reason is simple: if the stated future fact, or the future fact in the applicable general case, will only happen once, then the basis of the prediction is necessarily underdetermined. Even if we have hypothesized a mechanism and have some empirical support for it, an abductive leap was required.

One might argue that it is possible to empirically rule out all other possible mechanisms without having tested the hypothesis at issue, and thereby rely on it in a single instance. While this might very well improve our confidence, particularly in situations where it is necessary to make such a prediction and take action accordingly, this does not make the prediction reliable. Until and unless we achieve a complete and analytically solvable model of all reality, ruling out a finite set of mechanisms leaves an indeterminate remainder.

Our claim has the further benefit of being itself repeatedly verifiable. Indeed, if we look at scientific experiments as well as the world in general, it is quite rare for predictions about singleton events to be accurate. Thus, unlike Logical Positivism, our statement of Predictive Positivism at worst is not self-refuting.

We can refer to statements that do not predict as "non-predictive," or pejoratively following Wolfgang Pauli as "not even wrong." We can refer to statements that do not reliably predict as "unreliable" or perhaps "speculative." What we cannot say is that that such statements are "meaningless," as was hoped by the Logical Positivists. Indeed such statements may be quite meaningful to the speaker. The term "meaningful" has a subjective, qualitative element that makes its verification essentially impossible. Our formulation, while not eliminating all possible sources of disagreement, avoids the subjective element yet solidifies the importance of empirical grounding.