Authenticity and the Good, Expanded

“And this I believe: that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world. And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected. And this I must fight against: any idea, religion, or government which limits or destroys the individual.”

 

“He said there couldn’t be any more universal philosophers. The weight of knowledge is too great for one mind to absorb. He saw a time when one man would know only one little fragment, but he would know it well.”

-John Steinbeck, East of Eden

 

In this paper I will engage with issues pertaining to the Nietzschean theme of “the death of God.” I will delineate some of the more notable features of modern life, particularly the concept of “authenticity.” I will discuss the unique opportunities that this emphasis on authenticity presents. I will also address some of the perils of modernity, particularly its susceptibility to subjectivism. I will attempt to show that authenticity is not only compatible with but dependent on an objective good.

In section 125 of “The Gay Science,” Nietzsche tells us of a madman who causes a disturbance in the local market place. “Whither is God?” the man cries. “I will tell you. We have killed him–you and I. All of us are his murderers….Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?” The listeners who had at first jeered at the madman are reduced to a stunned silence by his piercing jeremiad. He continues: “This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men…deeds, though done, still require time to be seen and heard” (Sec. 125).

“The death of God” is a potent metaphor for modernity. The forces that gave rise to the modern world are complex and interlocking–cause and effect blur in a tableau that encompasses Luther’s Theses and laicite, the Critique of Pure Reason and the Wealth of Nations, the sexual revolution and the spirit of 1776. But one cannot fail to acknowledge that the world in which we live, move, and have our being is not the world of the medievals. Modernity is animated by a distinctive vision of human freedom, a stance in the world with implications and reverberations that are still unfolding. As Charles Taylor points out, “Modern freedom was won by our breaking loose from older moral horizons. People used to see themselves as part of a larger order. In some cases, this was a cosmic order, a ‘great chain of Being,’ in which humans figured in their proper place along with angels, heavenly bodies, and our fellow earthly creatures. This hierarchical order in the universe was reflected in the hierarchies of human society. People were often locked into a given place, a role and station that was properly theirs and from which it was almost unthinkable to deviate. Modern freedom came about through the discrediting of such orders” (3).

Prior to modernity, the course that one’s life would take was, to a great extent, dictated by one’s social status, culture, and inherited roles with very little room for flexibility or adaptation. The world was orderly and regimented and, generally speaking, there was no sense that reflection and exploration might be required to find one’s place within it. But a revolution in outlook and attitude has taken place. The characteristic feature of modernity is its emphasis on “authenticity,” the notion that one should be, in some sense, the author of one’s life rather than simply adhering to a pre-fabricated script dictated by the circumstances of one’s birth.  Nietzsche underscores this epochal shift in section 117 of ‘The Gay Science”: “Today one feels responsible only for one’s will and actions, and one finds pride in oneself….But during the longest period of the human past nothing was more terrible than to feel that one stood by oneself….While we experience law and submission as compulsion and loss, it was egoism that was formerly experienced as something painful and as real misery….There is no point on which we have learned to think and feel more differently” (sec. 117).

One might a twinge of melancholy at the demise of the ancien regime. There is an enchanting stability to its routines and rhythms, a givenness and gravitas that are not entirely without appeal. As Taylor puts it, “But at the same time as they restricted us, these orders gave meaning to the world and to the activities of social life…The discrediting of these orders has been called the ‘disenchantment’ of the world. With it, things lost some of their magic” (3). The burden of freedom sometimes feels more sisyphean than promethean.  

But if there are costs to living in modernity, there are distinctive prospects and possibilities as well. To be in some sense a self-author choosing one’s ends and aims is terrifying. It is also exhilarating. Modern life is at once more chaotic and more compliant, more permissive and more demanding. Its dynamism and fluidity are intoxicating. We may occasionally yearn for the simplicity of Eden, but we know deep down that we wouldn’t choose to return even if we could.

Nietzsche often contrasts the metaphysical and moral underpinnings of the pre-modern order with the religion of the ancient Greeks. The comparison invariably places the Judeo-Christian order that supplanted paganism in an unfavorable light. As Nietzsche explains in section 139, “People like St. Paul have an evil eye for the passions: all they know of the passions is what is dirty, disfiguring, and heartbreaking; hence their idealistic tendency aims at the annihilation of the passions, and they find perfect purity in the divine. Very differently from St. Paul and the Jews, the Greeks directed their idealistic tendency precisely toward the passions and loved, elevated, gilded, and deified them. Evidently, passion made them feel not only happier but also purer and more divine” (189-190). The multitudinous preoccupations and proclivities within the Greek pantheon confer a stamp of approval on human diversity that, in Nietzsche’s view, the Judeo-Christian tradition, with its unitary Deity and inflexible vision for humanity could never countenance. Fortunately, the death of God liberates us from this moral straitjacket to live more passionately and abundantly.

Nietzsche celebrates this vision of human freedom in section 27 of “The Gay Science,” in which he introduces the “man of renunciation,” whom he compares favorably to the “man of affirmation.” The man of renunciation breaks free of the constraints and preexisting conditions that would make a claim on him. The man of affirmation allows them to hold him back. In relinquishing all such attachments, the man of renunciation catapults himself to a higher plane than the “man of affirmation.” And in so doing, he can himself rightfully be called a “man of affirmation” in a deeper and more authentic sense than the desiccated man of affirmation that Nietzsche sets up as his foil, for his renunciation of societal restraints constitutes an affirmation of life, freedom, and creativity.

It seems to me that the modern elevation of individualism and autonomy is a genuine achievement of our civilization. The old order really was too restrictive of human freedom, too dismissive of self-actualization. It doesn’t seem to be merely coincidental that the liberation of the individual has coincided with an outpouring of innovation, prosperity, and scientific and medical progress that past ages could scarcely have imagined. The modern skepticism of institutions and authority figures can be corrosive but surely it also has something to do with the gradual uprooting of unjust relationships of dominance embedded in traditional hierarchies and relationships that would not have been questioned in less skeptical ages, from Seneca Falls to Selma to Stonewall (Obama).

We may lament the passing away of comforting certainties and clear-cut obligations, but it has made us less tribal and parochial, more tolerant of human diversity and attuned to the complexities of the cosmos. As Damon Linker puts it in a discussion of traditional religion and modern life, “the most daunting obstacle to getting the nones to treat traditional religion as a viable option is the sense that it simplifies the manifest complexity of the world. Yes, we long for a coherent account of the whole of things. But we don’t want that account to be a fairy tale. We want it to reflect and make sense of the world as it is, not as we childishly wish it to be. The tendency toward oversimplification is a perennial temptation for all forms of human thinking, but it’s especially acute in matters of religion”  (The Week). To the extent that pre-modernity imposed a single, totalizing world picture that didn’t do justice to the variability of the human condition, we should welcome its supersession.

However, we should also be aware of the unique perils of modern life, dangers that many have also detected in Nietzsche’s work. We moderns rightly look with skepticism on accounts of the good that are overly narrow and constricted–consider, for instance, Nietzsche’s derisive references to “morality.” But as a result we are perhaps more vulnerable to what Charles Taylor calls “the slide to subjectivism”–that is, the equation of the good with whatever it is that I happen to value. Subjectivism, far from fulfilling authenticity undercuts its very possibility.   

On subjectivism, all preferences are equally valid. Yet is self-evident that pushpin is not as good as poetry simply because I prefer pushpin to poetry. A life voluntarily spent in a drunken stupor and a life integrated around family relationships, the music of Chopin, and the uplift of the indigent may both be autonomously crafted, but they are not equally valuable. Clearly, some ways of life are better, because more in conformity with human flourishing, than others.

It follows that it is not the case that the object of choice becomes good in virtue of being chosen; rather, it is chosen because we perceive it to be good. So although we should tread carefully when it comes to judging other people’s choices, we should not fall into the error of simply equating genuine self-authorship with sheer self assertion. If that were truly the case, then freedom would be stripped of its dignity and drama. An authenticity reduced to subjectivism is triviality masquerading as nobility.   

To this we one might add that a vision of human freedom as entirely unconditioned, of human beings as unbound by any ties prior to consent seems more debilitating than liberating. Fortunately, it also seems to be empirically false. Even we moderns are claimed by contingent and partial attachments that rightfully press upon us prior to any act of consent on our part. After all, we are not disembodied souls or unencumbered selves floating free of all contingency. In truth, we are embodied, rational animals in particular times and places, embedded in networks of meaning and belonging not of our own making. We experience ourselves as radically situated, claimed by relationships, places, and patrimonies that are not merely encumbrances to be cast aside, but inheritances that are partially constitutive of our very identities. To be is to be in relationship to others, and these relationships are not merely instrumental.

The reality of human encumbrance has implications for how the quest for authenticity should be conducted. Elements of the good, the pursuit of which grounds our quest for authenticity by forestalling the slide to subjectivism, will be embedded in the relationships and encumbrances in which we find ourselves. Our antecedent attachments and relationships cannot dictate the precise forms our lives should take–that would be incompatible with authenticity. But they do have an integral role to play in our quest for authenticity. Our self-constitution inevitably takes place against the backdrop of a language, relationships, and culture that are given. This implies an ongoing dialogue between the self and the relationships and environments in which it is embedded–a dialogue whose course cannot be fixed beforehand but in which both participants must be allowed to say their piece.

For example, perhaps Jacqueline inherited from her parents a religion in which they raised her and which they in turn inherited from their own parents. Part of living an authentic life is to take a critical and reflective stance toward the web of beliefs, practices, and traditions into which one is born, and Jacqueline may eventually come to distance herself from her family’s religion. But she should not do so lightly or cavalierly. If she does choose to pursue some other course, she should retain a salutary and respectful awareness of her connection to the religious matrix in which she was raised. She should seek ways to remain in continuity with and to carry on the legacy of her parents and even earlier generations of her ancestors.

As Charles Taylor puts it, “We are expected to develop our own opinions, outlook, stances to things, to a considerable degree through solitary reflection. But this is not how things work with important issues, such as the definition of our identity. We define this always in dialogue with, sometimes in struggle against, the identities our significant others want to recognize in us. And even when we outgrow some of the latter–our parents, for instance–and they disappear from our lives, the conversation with them continues within us as long as we live” (33). The upshot is that to live well is to find the most creative and authentic mode of being within the contours of the existence gifted to me by forebears and fate, to put my own unique spin on the inheritances that constitute the sources of my life.

Our modern consciousness of human diversity, the varieties of religious experience, and the follies of fundamentalism should preclude any disposition on our part to oversimplify the good. As Linker puts it, “There is a whole, and it can be grasped. But it is a complex whole. A pluralistic whole. A differentiated whole shot through with contradiction and paradox” (The Week). An adequate notion of the good has to be reflective of reasonable pluralism. It cannot be infinitely open-ended, but it must be expansive. It won’t be the sort of thing that can be pinned down in a list of commandments or captured in a catechism. Its precise contours will be indeterminate, its elaboration an ongoing process.  

I believe that Nietzsche’s criticisms of herd morality and his references to the divergent experiences associated with different ways of life can be harmonized with the view of the good that I have sketched. Interpreted this way, Nietzsche is not calling for us to simply create our own values. However, as Nietzsche takes great pains to impress upon us, “Those who want to mediate between two resolute thinkers show that they are mediocre; they lack eyes for seeing what is unique” (228). There are a diversity of sometimes mutually exclusive values and each stance we might choose to occupy in the world will inevitably realize some and preclude others.

So modernity is not a moral vacuum. The error of pre-modernity was not that it had a notion of the good but that its notion of the good was too constrictive. In truth, we inhabit a world overflowing with value, teeming with permissible permutations of the good awaiting incarnation in the lives of individual self-authors. It follows that the proper stance toward the death of God is neither despair nor elation, but cautious optimism. We should embrace autonomy and authenticity, while remaining cognizant of the truth that we are not disembodied souls floating free of all contingency and therefore at liberty to latch on to whatever ends strike our fancy. We have the responsibility to use our freedom well.

In conclusion, Nietzsche clearly grasped the immensity and the opportunity of the changes afoot in our society. Wrestling with Nietzsche is thus imperative for those who live in the world that he described so clearly. If we are to navigate modernity we must chart a middle way between a unitary good that would undercut our diversity and individuality and a purely subjective good that would replace moral freedom with moral anarchy. In so doing, we can redeem the promise of modernity and avoid the slide to subjectivism.

 

Works Cited

Linker, Damon. “Why Would a Young Person Today be Religious?” The Week, http://theweek.com/articles/447742/why-young-person-today-religious. Accessed 15 April 2017.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Gay Science: With a Prelude in Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs. Translated by Walter Kauffman,Vintage, 1974.

Obama, Barack. “Inaugural Address,” 21 January 2013, West Front of the U.S. Capitol, Washington, DC.

Taylor, Charles. The Ethics of Authenticity. Harvard University Press. 1992.

Authenticity and the Good

In this paper I will engage with Nietzsche’s view of human flourishing. I will argue that he makes valid criticisms of views that denigrate the body and the passions and promote detachment from life as superior. I will also raise some concerns I have with Nietzsche’s perspective.

A recurring theme in Nietzsche’s work is his disdain for a “two-world” view that extols escape from bodily life and suppression of the passions as the path to flourishing and enlightenment. As he puts it in section 47 of “Beyond Good and Evil”: “Wherever on earth the religious neurosis has appeared we find it tied to three dangerous dietary demands: solitude, fasting, and sexual abstinence. But one cannot decide with certainty what is cause and what effect, and whether any relation of cause and effect is involved here. The final doubt seems justified because among its most regular symptoms, among both savage and tame peoples, we also find the most sudden, most extravagant voluptuousness which then, just as suddenly, changes into a penitential spasm and denial of the world and will–both perhaps to be interpreted as masked epilepsy?”

Nietzsche argues that this approach is both empirically untenable–the idea that there is some clear-cut opposition between a “ghost in the machine” capable of purely abstract deliberation and a sub-personal body just isn’t an accurate picture of human beings–and undesirable. Section 333 of “The Gay Science” expresses his attitude well: “…we suppose that intelligere must be something conciliatory, just, and good–something that stands essentially opposed to the instincts, while it is actually nothing but a certain behavior of the instincts toward one another.”

As he often does, Nietzsche contrasts the view of human flourishing offered by the Judeo-Christian tradition with that of the ancient Greeks: “What is amazing about the religiosity of the ancient Greeks is the enormous abundance of gratitude it exudes: it is a very noble type of man that confronts nature and life in this way.” The Greek valorization of the passions and celebration of experience was on the right track. The path to fulfillment is not to be found in distancing oneself from the body and the physical world but in and through them. The Judeo-Christian worldview and anthropology was not a step forward but a step back. Fortunately, the death of God frees us from this religious straitjacket to pursue an abundant life in the here and now.

I find Nietzsche’s vision compelling in many ways. It seems to me that the modern elevation of individualism and autonomy is a historic achievement. To be in some sense a self-author choosing one’s ends and aims is a sobering and invigorating opportunity. Where the old world was static, this world is dynamic and fluid. It is at once more chaotic and more compliant, more permissive and more demanding. Modernity is pregnant with possibility.

But there is also serious danger in Nietzsche’s vision. This is the danger of a collapse into pure subjectivism. We are right to valorize the passions, but we should not fall into the error of thinking that all preferences are created equal. Genuine self-authorship is not tantamount to sheer self assertion. An authenticity reduced to subjectivism is narrow and trivial rather than expansive and noble.

In other words, pushpin is not as good as poetry simply because I prefer pushpin to poetry. A life voluntarily spent in a drunken stupor and a life integrated around family relationships, the music of Chopin, and the uplift of the indigent may both be autonomously crafted, but they are not equally valuable. Clearly, some ways of life are better, because more in conformity with human flourishing, than others. Each of us has an original way of being human that we must discover. But this work of self-shaping takes place, not in a moral vacuum but within the constraints of a menu of human goods that, while variegated and expansive, is not infinitely malleable.

If I am correct, then free choice is not valuable in itself but only instrumentally as a means to participation in genuine human goods. Our identity is not simply generated ex nihilo but moulded in conversation with others and in pursuit of genuine human goods. Recognizing the claims that others make on us and the multiplicity of often incompatible human goods lends significance to our acts of autonomous choice. The choice to pursue some goods rather than others, to cling to certain relationships and allow others to attenuate is meaningful precisely because we recognize the many contending relations and pursuits that have a legitimate claim on us. By contrast, in conflating subjectivism with authenticity we lose the promise of modernity.

On Religion

In this paper I will briefly describe Nietzsche’s critique of religion. I will argue that Nietzsche’s critique is warranted, but that resources to answer it are already present both in the Judeo-Christian tradition and, to an even greater extent, in Mormonism. Nietzsche’s critique should impel us to recover those resources and resonances within our traditions, not to abandon our traditions.

Nietzsche is well-known for his scorching critique of religion, particularly of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Eminently quotable jeremiads against religion abound in his writings. He accuses the Judeo-Christian tradition of being life-denying, of promoting blind faith and mindless acceptance of conformity, of stamping out diversity and pluralism and forcing all of humanity into a stultifying moral straitjacket. Christianity denigrates human embodiment and the passions associated with that embodiment. It defers happiness and hope to an afterlife in a static, disembodied heaven, rather than affirming life and flourishing in the present. And it is obsessed with human depravity and brokenness. As Nietzsche puts it, “Sin, as it is now experienced wherever Christianity holds sway or has held sway, is a Jewish feeling and a Jewish invention….The Christian presupposes a powerful, overpowering being who enjoys revenge. His power is so great that nobody could possibly harm him, except for his honor. Every sin is a slight to his honor, a crimen laesae majestitatis divinae–and no more” (187). Furthermore, “The Christian resolve to find the world ugly and bad has made the world ugly and bad” (Nietzsche 185).

Interestingly, Nietzsche has favorable words for the religion of the ancient Greeks. Ancient Greek religion avoided some of the errors of the Judeo-Christian tradition. For instance, unlike the Judeo-Christian God, ostensibly the “unmoved mover,” an ineffable being beyond space, time, and flux, the Greek gods were subject to passions and attachments. As Nietzsche explains in section 139, “People like St. Paul have an evil eye for the passions: all they know of the passions is what is dirty, disfiguring, and heartbreaking; hence their idealistic tendency aims at the annihilation of the passions, and they find perfect purity in the divine. Very differently from St. Paul and the Jews, the Greeks directed their idealistic tendency precisely toward the passions and loved, elevated, gilded, and deified them. Evidently, passion made them feel not only happier but also purer and more divine” (189-190).  The multitudinous preoccupations and proclivities within the Greek pantheon confer a stamp of approval on human diversity that Christianity, with its unitary Deity and inflexible vision for humanity could never countenance.

The upshot is that Christianity has inflicted a dessicated, hollow form of life on humanity. The dichotomies of Christianity–temporal and spiritual, human and divine, mind and body, saved and sinner–are to blame. Moving to a different vantage point will bring into focus magnificent new vistas veiled to Christian eyes. Therefore, the death of God is reason for celebration:“Indeed we philosophers and ‘free spirits’ feel, when we hear the news that ‘the old god is dead,’ as if a new dawn shone on us; our heart overflows with gratitude, amazement, premonitions, expectation. At long last the horizon appears free to us again, even if it should not be bright; at long last our ships may venture out again, venture out to face any danger; all the daring of the lover of knowledge is permitted again; the sea. Our sea, lies open again; perhaps there has never yet been such an ‘open sea.’–”

Nietzsche’s critique of religion is surely not without merit. His foils are present among the pious at every turn both on the pages of religion history and within the walls of our churches. But is the Christianity Nietzsche has in his crosshairs the only possible interpretation of Christianity? After all, Christians worship a God who did not hesitate to call his material creation good. Biblical man is a material being who nonetheless bears the divine image, the mammalian child of a God who entered the mud and blood of history in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. The Christian hope, properly understood, is not to escape the world but to be co-workers with God in the work of redeeming it, not to put off sinful flesh and gain entry to some disembodied heaven but to rise again in a physical body continuous with one’s present body, yet transformed and perfected. The Christian can be no friend of the comfortable status quo, for she has received the Holy Spirit that like the wind blows wherever it pleases and taken up her cross to follow that foe of unjust principalities and powers, Jesus of Nazareth, in her own inimitable way.

If anything, Mormonism contains theological ideas and inclinations even more amenable to Nietzsche’s thought. Mormonism undercuts some of the more intolerable frameworks of traditional Christian theology and collapses many of its unhelpful dichotomies. Viewed from a certain angle, Joseph Smith was a perfectly Nietzschean prophet, proclaiming that there is no such thing as immaterial matter, that man is that he might have joy, that mortal life is an ascent, not a fall, a hero’s journey in which both the iron rod and the liahona have a part to play. Moreover, that same sociality that exists among us here will exist among us there, only coupled with eternal glory. The Zion to come, the resurrected body to come, the sanctified community to come, the godly activity to come, are already present in us, in our pursuits, and in our relationships with one another, if only in embryo and if only glimpsed through a glass darkly. Most arresting of all, we are under the tutelage of an embodied God, an exalted man, a passible being of parts and passions who weeps over his children and whose mode of existence consists of creative compassion, of eternal becoming, of unceasing increase in light and knowledge–a mode of existence into which he invites us.

It follows that Christianity and, especially, Mormon Christianity, needn’t be the opiate of the masses. On the contrary, at its best it is precisely the red pill we stand in need of, the urim and thummim that gives us eyes to see that the boundaries between heaven and earth, the divine and the human are blurrier than we have been led to believe. We must live in anticipation of the Kingdom, but live as if we were already in it, for in some sense we are. If justice will rush down like waters and there will be no poor among them in that good Kingdom, then there can be no truce between us and the injustice and poverty present in our world. And if the divine life is one of unending experience, growth, and creation, then we ought to prize the experiences, opportunities, and creative activities that present themselves to us in the here and now. Ironically, it may be that recognizing the force of Nietzsche’s critique should push us to be more religious rather than less, to return to the scriptures with new eyes rather than consign them to the flames, to renew our commitments to our religious communities rather than remove ourselves from them.

“The Gay Science” Continued

As usual, this week’s readings in “The Gay Science” provided an embarrassment of riches. One of the sections that stood out to me was section 228, entitled “Against mediators.” It seems to me that in this section Nietzsche is criticizing those who would dissolve differences and collapse distinctions in pursuit of a shared essence that isn’t really there–or perhaps that is in some sense there but is not the whole story. As Nietzsche puts it, “Those who want to mediate between two resolute thinkers show that they are mediocre; they lack eyes for seeing what is unique.” Though there is no doubt a time and place for this work of mediation, if we see things only through a universalizing monistic lens then we will miss the pluralism and particularity that give the world its texture. This is an important insight, and it connects in interesting ways to recurring themes in Nietzsche’s work–for instance, the vantage points and blind spots inherent in the paradigms by which we make sense of experience and the defects of a universalizing tendency that would have us abstract away from the business of life right here and now in all of its concreteness and uniqueness.

Nietzsche seems to have both of these themes in mind in section 233, “The most dangerous point of view,” in which he declares that “What I do or do not do now is as important for everything that is yet to come as is the greatest event of the past.” As the title of the section makes clear, one’s stance in the world, one’s orientation to existence, determines to a great extent what one sees and therefore how one acts. And Nietzsche’s preoccupation with purifying the present, with sanctifying the mundane, is on display here again. Each moment is infused with the sacred, imbued with the heroic. Every act is a sacrament. Meaning bubbles up from the business of living rather than descending from on high.

Reflections on the Death of God

In Section 125 of “The Gay Science,” Nietzsche introduces the haunting, enigmatic motif of the death of the God. In this paper I will briefly summarize this section and put it into conversation with some of the passages that precede it. I will identify what I take to be Nietzsche’s message. I will consider the merits of that message and what the proper response to it might be.

As he often does, in Section 125 Nietzsche makes use of an evocative short narrative as a vehicle for his observations. He tells us of a madman who causes a disturbance in the local market place. “Whither is God?” the man cries. “I will tell you. We have killed him–you and I. All of us are his murderers….Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?” The listeners who had at first jeered at the madman are reduced to a stunned silence by his piercing jeremiad. He continues: “This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men…deeds, though done, still require time to be seen and heard.”

If we are to fully grasp what Nietzsche is trying to convey here, we must read 125 in continuity with prior sections. I find section 117 particularly relevant. Here Nietzsche draws attention to a peculiar feature of our present age, a feature so pervasive that we often fail to see just how radical it is: “Today one feels responsible only for one’s will and actions, and one finds pride in oneself….But during the longest period of the human past nothing was more terrible than to feel that one stood by oneself….While we experience law and submission as compulsion and loss, it was egoism that was formerly experienced as something painful and as real misery….There is no point on which we have learned to think and feel more differently.”

As Nietzsche points out, the valorization of autonomy is a recent development. The world in which we live, move, and have our being is not the world of the ancients and medievals. Theirs was a teleological universe of antecedent ends given by nature, tribe, or Deity. In contrast, ours is a universe of unencumbered selves, self-legislators pursuing their own ends in their own ways. The ethic of community has given way to the ethic of contract, the kingdom of heaven to the kingdom of ends. We have stoned the prophets, committed the scriptures to the flames as sophistry and illusion. Our creed proceeds not from the finger of God but from the pen of Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote that “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”  

The death of God and the birth of authenticity are but two sides of the same coin. And tracing their reverberations is the work of generations. That project is inaugurated in section 108 with confidence and panache–”God is dead; but given the way of men, there may still be caves for thousands of years in which his shadow will be shown.–And we–we still have to vanquish his shadow, too.” But by 125, awareness dawns that the implications of this epochal event are as onerous as they are invigorating.

I agree with Nietzsche’s diagnosis of our predicament, but since I’m not yet familiar enough with Nietzsche to assess his prescription, I will instead try to give the beginnings of my own. It seems to me that the proper stance toward the death of God is neither despair nor elation, but cautious optimism. Whether His death is a gain, a loss, or something in between, it behooves us to see clearly the opportunities it affords us and the real costs it extracts from us if we are to grasp what is at stake in our present age. We should embrace autonomy and authenticity as genuine goods, while also recognizing that we are not disembodied souls floating free of all contingency and therefore at liberty to latch on to whatever ends strike our fancy. It may be that to live well is to find the most creative and authentic mode of being within the contours of the existence gifted to me by forebears and fate, to carry out the duties that press upon me in the way that only I can. For better or worse, we are all gods now, called to shape the lump of unorganized matter allotted to us into something that we can call good.

Personhood, Free Will, and Moral Responsibility

In Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person, Harry Frankfurt presents an intriguing take on personhood and sketches some of the implications of his view for free will and moral responsibility. In this paper I will reconstruct parts of Frankfurt’s argument. I will briefly argue that he offers a plausible account of personhood and that its implications for free will and moral responsibility are sound. I will also indicate some areas where further work needs to be done.

Frankfurt identifies the distinctive characteristic of humans and hence of persons as the capacity for what he terms “second-order desires,” as distinguished from “first-order desires.” Many animals, including humans, have first-order desires–desires to do or not to do one thing or another. But humans also, at least sometimes, are able to want to have or not to have their first-order desires. They seem to have a capacity for reflective self-evaluation, a sui generis ability to step back and assess the desirability or lack thereof of their first-order desires.

Frankfurt draws a further distinction between mere second-order desires and “second-order volitions.” One could conceivably have a second-order desire consisting of one’s wanting one of one’s first-order desires without actually wanting that first-order desire to be effective–that is, to actually move one to action. It is having second-order volitions, wanting a certain first-order desire to constitute one’s will, rather than merely wanting in some non-decisive way to want X, that is the sine qua non of being a person.

Frankfurt contrasts persons, so-defined, with “wantons.” Wantons are entities who have first-order desires but lack second-order volitions (they could conceivably have second-order desires). Nothing in the concept of a wanton entails that he cannot reason or cannot deliberate concerning how to do what he wants to do–the possession of reason per se does not distinguish the person from the wanton. But whereas wantons reflect only on the most efficient means to the ends they happen to have, persons reflect on the desirability of the ends themselves. The wanton is simply not concerned about the desirability of his desires.

Frankfurt further explicates his theory with the example of the unwilling addict. The unwilling addict has conflicting first-order desires–he wants to take the drugs and doesn’t want to take them–and in addition has a second-order volition consisting of his wanting that his desire to refrain from the drug be effective. He is therefore not neutral with regard to the conflict between his desire to take the drug and his desire to refrain from taking it. He identifies himself with one rather than the other of his conflicting first-order desires. And in virtue of this identification, accomplished through the formation of a second-order volition, the unwilling addict may legitimately say that it is not of his own free will but rather against his will that he is moved to take the drug.

This example goes some way toward clarifying the concept of freedom of the will. Freedom of the will is the power the power to bring one’s effective first-order desires into alignment with one’s second-order volitions. We rightly say that the unwilling addict’s will is not free with respect to his drug habit, for it is not within his power to overcome the discrepancy between his effective first-order desire to take the drug and his second-order volition that his desire to refrain from the drug be the effective one.

Building on these ideas, Frankfurt argues that the relation between free will and moral responsibility is not as cut and dry as sometimes thought. Counterintuitively, someone can be morally responsible for having done something even if his will wasn’t free when he did it. If he aligns himself with his action by formulating a second-order volition ratifying his effective desire to perform the action, then he can be morally responsible for the action even if his having the contrary second-order volition would have been impotent. Concomitantly, though he may lack the freedom to dislodge his desire to perform the action, in formulating a second-order volition backing his desire to refrain therefrom he could in some sense dissociate himself from an action that he unavoidably performs and thereby avoid moral censure.

Consider the willing addict. If his addiction were somehow to diminish he would attempt to reinstate it. His will is not free, for his desire to take the drug will be effective regardless of whether or not he wants this desire to constitute his will. Yet, though his will is outside his control, by his second-order volition that his desire for the drug should be effective, he makes the desire his own. Addiction notwithstanding, he may still be morally responsible for taking the drug.

I think that Frankfurt’s approach here is on the right track. The capacity to assess one’s desires and align oneself with some over others certainly seems to be an excellent candidate for a personhood-conferring property. Some might argue that he unfairly privileges mere biological humanity, but he forecloses the charge of “speciesism” by stipulating that membership in the species homo sapiens is not of ethical significance in itself. Neither non-human persons nor human non-persons are conceptually problematic, though at present humans are the only species we know of that sometimes manifest the traits constituting personhood.

His framework for freedom of the will and moral responsibility also strikes me as fundamentally correct. As Frankfurt points out, mere freedom of action is not what we are after when we speak of freedom of the will. If humans are simply receptacles for powerful impulses, buffeted this way and that by their desires without any input from a deliberative faculty, then freedom and responsibility would seem to have no role in human affairs. This view of things doesn’t seem to capture our actual lived experience of deliberation and choice.

However, it does seem true that we are fully in control of ourselves much less often than we might like to believe. We are indeed in the grip of powerful desires that we struggle to tame. But human beings are not simply bundles of unruly desires. At least some of the time and to some extent we are able to take a detached view of our desires, giving our assent to certain of them and withholding it from others. On some of these occasions our assent or lack thereof is even sufficient to move our will, but even when it is not there is something significant about it, something that I believe Frankfurt is correct to identify as relevant to moral responsibility. Whether judgments of a person’s moral responsibility can accurately be made by others, the possibility of one’s being self-deceived about one’s moral responsibility in a given case, and the relationship between moral responsibility and legal responsibility are issues for further study and reflection that Frankfurt does not address in this essay but that I hope to explore in future papers.

Mind: A Fundamental Feature of the Universe

Mind: A Fundamental Feature of the Universe

Consciousness is something of an outlier in our scientific age. To the partisans of scientific reductionism, it is an article of faith that, like so many other phenomena before it, consciousness must be susceptible of a materialist explanation. But though this view may initially appear reasonable, I believe that consciousness presents unique and insurmountable obstacles to any attempt at scientific reduction. In this paper I will argue that the persistent difficulty of accounting for mind reductively is reason to broaden our conception of the universe, not to contract our conception of consciousness.

The “hard problem” of consciousness–the source of our perplexity–is the problem of subjective experience. As Thomas Nagel points out, if a being is conscious there is “something it is like” to be that being (219). There is something it is like–a rich and incomparable inner phenomenology–to the experience of eating a delicious piece of strawberry cheesecake, gazing up in awe at a magnificent sunset, or feeling the pang of regret and loss while contemplating a past relationship. Conscious experience is clearly associated with physical processes in brains, but why and how do such physical processes give rise to consciousness?

A solution to the hard problem of consciousness requires an explanation of the relation between physical processes and conscious experience. A reductionist explanation, beloved of those committed to a materialist worldview, seeks to provide that explanation wholly on the basis of physical principles that do not themselves appeal to consciousness. However, I believe that there are formidable problems with any reductionist explanation of consciousness. Though other arguments could be adduced, space permits me to adumbrate only two of them. Following David Chalmers, I refer to them as the conceivability argument and the knowledge argument (Chalmers 247).

The conceivability argument draws our attention to the fact that we can conceive of a philosophical zombie, an organism that is physically identical to you, but that lacks consciousness. From the outside, this being would appear to be identical to a conscious being, reacting to stimuli and behaving exactly as you would. And if we could somehow look inside its head and observe its brain processes they would be identical with yours. But the zombie would be different from you in one crucial respect: It would lack phenomenal experience. While there is nothing it is like to be a zombie, there is something it is like to be you. From the conceivability of zombies, we can infer their metaphysical possibility. And if an entity could be physically and behaviorally identical to a conscious being but lack consciousness itself, then a reductive explanation of consciousness in purely physical and/or behavioral terms is untenable.

The knowledge argument makes the case that there are facts about consciousness extrinsic to the physical facts about neurobiology. Frank Jackson presented this argument in a particularly vivid and compelling way with his thought experiment about the scientist Mary (275). Mary is a brilliant neuroscientist with an exhaustive knowledge of all of the physical processes involved in seeing color. But she has spent her entire life in a black and white room without actually experiencing red. In spite of her impressive command of the physical facts with regard to vision, it seems that there is still a gap in her knowledge. When she does eventually leave the room and sees red for the first time, she learns something new. She learns “what it is like” to see red. If the Mary thought experiment is sound–and it certainly coheres with the intuitions of many people–then there are truths about consciousness not deducible from physical truths. It follows that, though the intersubjective data provided by physiology and neuroscience are certainly enlightening and useful, they are not equipped to shed much light on conscious experience. No matter how much our understanding of brain states and the physical processes that accompany them progresses, we will be no closer to knowing what it is to be a subject of consciousness.

As David Chalmers points out, both the conceivability argument and the knowledge argument demonstrate that there is an epistemic gap between the physical and the phenomenal. If one can conceive of a physical system identical to that of a conscious being but without subjectivity or know all of the physical truths about something without thereby knowing the relevant phenomenal truths as well, then conscious experience is not something that admits of a reductive physical explanation. And from there it is hardly a logical leap to infer that the physical and the mental are ontologically distinct.

Naturally, committed reductionists are resistant to this line of reasoning. One reductionist approach simply denies that there is any phenomenal experience to be puzzled by in the first place, thereby evading the epistemic gap. The other accepts the epistemic gap but denies that it entails an ontological gap. At this juncture I will briefly consider and assess each of these positions.

Those who deny that there is anything to the mental beyond behavioral and/or functional manifestations are known as eliminativists. They argue that there is no inner subjectivity, no mysterious “raw feels” or “qualia” that must be accounted for. Rather, the domain we associate with the mental can be characterized in wholly functional and/or behavioral terms. Consequently, there is no epistemic gap. The “hard problem” of consciousness is a self-imposed one that dissolves when one realizes that in reality there is no special phenomenal character of experience crying out for explanation. To explain the functional and behavioral operations that constitute the mental is itself a tall order, but science is surely up to the task.

In his article “Out of the Closet: A Qualophile Confronts Qualophobia,” the self-confessed “qualophile” Joseph Levine engages with the work of the prominent eliminativist Daniel Dennett. Dennett’s ambition is to “quine” qualia–that is, to deny resolutely their existence or importance (226). He thinks that it is is a mistake to think that we can isolate qualia or phenomenal experience from everything else that is going on in mentation, that we can strip things down to the irreducible way things look, sound, feel, taste, or smell to various individuals at various times. The original sin of qualophilia is the unfounded supposition that there is such a residual property to take seriously in the first place.

Conversely, Levine insists that we should treat qualia as a basic datum that itself requires explanation. Part of what leads to the qualophile’s and the eliminativist’s talking past each other is confusion over the relation between a state’s qualitative phenomenal character and its representational content. Acknowledging the intimate link between phenomenal character and representational content does not automatically lead to acknowledging that all there is to qualitative experience is its representational content. The divide comes down to this: the qualophile claims we have access to data in our experience that demands explanation from a theory of mind; eliminativists like Dennett claim that all we have is our propensity to make judgments (Levine 11).

To the qualophile, this is mere sleight of hand. Functionality and intentionality undoubtedly play a part in our mental life, but surely they do not exhaust it. Are we really to think that advanced robots that replicated or even exceeded the functional aspects of human mentality are conscious in the same way that we are? I suppose it ultimately comes down to intuition–if a professed eliminativist genuinely doesn’t share the intuition that we have phenomenal experience I suspect that we are at an unbridgeable impasse. Intuitions can be wrong of course, but the qualophile will stick with her intuition until she has been presented with very strong arguments against it. And she will observe that, far from making a powerful case for eliminativism, eliminativist arguments tend to simply beg the very question at issue. She may even speculate that the eliminativist denial of the manifest is driven more by a dogmatic a priori commitment to the reductionist project than by a dispassionate empiricism.

For those who see the folly of denying qualia but don’t want to abandon the materialist project, there is another approach. This approach is commonly known as identity theory. Identity theorists allow for the verisimilitude of phenomenal experience but hold that mental states can be identified with physical states in the brain. They would say that we are dealing with a single, unitary phenomenon that nonetheless can be apprehended either from the inside, through introspection, or from the outside, by observing the firing of neurons. Identity theorists often advert to the relation of identity that obtains between water and H2O or lightning and electrical discharge. These identity relations are not a priori truths; rather, they are discovered empirically. Similarly, the phenomenal and the physical may be conceptually distinct, but science will eventually show us that they are identical.

But these kinds of analogies are not as illuminating as the identity theorist thinks. The character of the epistemic gap in the case of brain states and consciousness just seems qualitatively different from the gap involved in the reductive analogies. To return to the knowledge argument, if we were in possession of the complete truth about the physical world we would know all there is to know about water and lightning. But the non-reductionist submits that one can know all there is to know about neurobiology and still be a neophyte when it comes to consciousness. And to return to the conceivability argument, it doesn’t seem that we can conceive of a world where you can have H2O without water and a certain pattern of electric discharge without lightning. Yet a philosophical zombie, an organism physically identical to you but without phenomenal experience, does seem conceivable.

Indeed, scientific reductionism is so plausible and successful when applied to just about any phenomenon apart from mind precisely because it brackets the subjective appearances of the phenomena as they present themselves to different first person points of view. As Thomas Nagel points out, in most of our attempts at reduction, moving away from the subjective first-person perspective to an objective third-person perspective brings us greater understanding. But when it comes to first-person experience itself, it is not clear that taking the third-person stance–as the the identity theorists do–is the right way to go about it. This is because the first-person point of view is the essence of the internal world and not merely a point of view on it (Nagel 222). Ergo, we cannot even begin to make sense of the view that there could be a relation of identity between mental states and brain states.

In view of the arguments thus far presented, I think that we should admit that consciousness probably cannot be given a reductive explanation. Barring a conceptual revolution of some kind, science is not even in a position to generate a “theory of everything.” It follows that, instead of implausibly denying the manifest or impotently straining to make the square peg of consciousness fit into the round hole of neurobiology, we should simply accept consciousness as a brute fact or fundamental feature of the universe. We should forthrightly embrace non-reductionism about mind.

The much-reviled dualism should not be dismissed out of hand. That said, dualism is, admittedly, incompatible with modern physics. Dualism posits causal interaction both from the physical to the mental and from the mental to the physical. This is a problem because, if the physicists are to be believed, then the microphysical realm is causally closed off. As a result, causal interaction across the ontological divide would be an impossibility. It might be replied that microphysical closure is just an a priori postulation that will be superseded eventually. And, in point of fact, developments in quantum mechanisms do open up some fascinating possibilities. But even so, the non-reductivist should be clear-eyed about the difficulties of a dualist account.  

Epiphenomenalism sidesteps this “interaction problem” by simply denying that the mental mental realm exerts any causal influence on the physical. It thus maintains some continuity with modern physics without dismissing the reality and irreducibility of phenomenal experience. Oddly enough, there doesn’t seem to be a knockdown argument against epiphenomenalism. In fact, it has had its share of sophisticated defenders, the aforementioned Frank Jackson among them. That said, there is something very counterintuitive about it. As David Chalmers points out, it seems strange to say that a sensation of pain plays no causal role in my hands moving away from a flame, that it is just some sort of extraneous byproduct (263). It is true that we only observe regular connections between phenomenal states and actions–Hume dispelled our uncritical illusions about causation long ago. Still, though this may be a coherent view, it is an inelegant one (Chalmers 264). I am willing to keep an open mind about it, but unwilling to call myself an epiphenomenalist until the evidence compels me to.

The non-reductionist approach that most intrigues me is the quasi-panpsychism of David Chalmers. This view builds upon Bertrand Russell’s observation that, while physics characterizes physical entities and properties in terms of their relations to one another, it seems that there must be some underlying intrinsic properties to ground these entities. You can’t have relations without relata, and it stands to reason that those relata would have intrinsic nature. Physics is accurate, as far as it goes, but it doesn’t tell us anything about the intrinsic nature of entities. Consequently, it doesn’t seem like much of a stretch to hypothesize that the intrinsic properties of the physical world are phenomenal. Either phenomenal properties or properties that are not themselves phenomenal but in some way constitute or generate phenomenal properties–proto-phenomenal properties, if you will–are immanent to all of physical reality. Physics emerges from the relations between entities, consciousness from their intrinsic nature.

This view will no doubt sound preposterous, even fantastical, to those who have imbibed the reductionist worldview. Some might derogatorily ask if it implies that there is something it is like to be an electron. The proto-phenomenal version of the theory would evade this reductio, but it should be conceded that the view is indeed a strange one. It stands the reductionist project on its head, infusing the entire universe with mind. But it requires no radical upending of physics, for it merely supplements physical theory with intrinsic nature–phenomenal properties play a causal role by virtue of constituting the intrinsic nature of the physical. Until we find ourselves in the possession of more incisive criteria by which to adjudicate between the non-reductionist theories, we shall likely have to settle for aesthetic considerations. On those grounds, panprotopsychism seems to me to be the clear winner.

In conclusion, my survey of the philosophical literature has led me to the belief that the project of materialist reductionism is a fool’s errand. If we grant the epistemic gap between the physical and phenomenal–and the eliminativist refusal to grant this seems to me to be risible–then we ought to embrace non-reductionism. Although there is much that we do not know and perhaps cannot know about consciousness, we can be reasonably confident of at least one thing: Mind is, in some sense, a fundamental feature of our universe.

 

Works Cited

Chalmers, David J. “Consciousness and its Place in Nature.” Philosophy of Mind: Classic and Contemporary Readings, edited by David J. Chalmers, Oxford, 2002, 247-272.

Dennett, Daniel C. “Quining Qualia.” Philosophy of Mind: Classic and Contemporary Readings, edited by David J. Chalmers, Oxford, 2002, 226-246. Print.

Jackson, Frank. “Epiphenomenal Qualia.” Philosophy of Mind: Classic and Contemporary Readings, edited by David J. Chalmers, Oxford, 2002, 273-280

Levine, Joseph. “Out of the Closet: A Qualophile Confronts Qualophobia.” Philosophical Topics,

Vol. 22, No. ½ (SPRING and FALL 1994), 107-126. Print.

Nagel, Thomas. “What is it Like to be a Bat?” Philosophy of Mind: Classic and Contemporary Readings, edited by David J. Chalmers, Oxford, 2002, 219-225.