Nietzsche: Long Live Physics!

By Sean Carroll | February 10, 2009 12:31 pm

Henri Poincaré proved his “recurrence theorem” in 1890: in a mechanical system with bound orbits (particles can’t just run off to infinity), any state through which the system passes will be approached (to arbitrary accuracy) an infinite number of times in the future. That was eight years after Friedrich Nietzsche, in The Gay Science, asked us to imagine exactly such a scenario, in his notion of eternal return:

What if, some day or night, a demon were to steal after you in your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to 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 upside down again and again—and you with it, speck of dust!”

This is the kind of thing you come across when you’re writing a book about time. Nietzsche wanted to suggest that a well-lived life was one you wouldn’t mind knowing would recur throughout eternity, while the prospect would cause gnashing of teeth for most of us. Poincaré’s concerns were somewhat different.

While looking up this passage, I stumbled across one of my favorite Nietzsche quotes, just a few aphorisms prior:

Yes, my friends, regarding all the moral chatter of some about others it is time to feel nauseous! Sitting in moral judgment should offend our taste! Let us leave such chatter and such bad taste to those who have nothing else to do but drag the past a few steps further through time and who never live in the present,—which is to say the many, the great majority! We, however, want to become who we are,—the new, unique, incomparable ones, who give themselves their own laws, who create themselves! And to that end we must become the best learners and discoverers of everything that is lawful and necessary in the world: we must become physicists in order to be able to be creators in this sense,—while hitherto all valuations and ideals have been based on ignorance of physics or were constructed so as to contradict it. Therefore: long live physics! And even more so that which compels us to turn to physics,—our honesty!

A quote which engenders, as you might imagine, swift elaborations on the part of Nietzsche scholars that he certainly wasn’t talking about what we ordinarily mean by “physics.” But I’m not so sure. The substance of physics (experimental results, theoretical understandings) is of no help whatsoever in leading a moral life. But the method of physics — open-minded hypothesis testing and scrupulous honesty in confronting what Nature has to tell us — is a pretty good model for other aspects of our lives.

Not that physicists are, as a matter of empirical fact, any better at being good human beings on average than anyone else. Even we physicists could learn to be better physicists.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Philosophy, Science and Society
  • gyokusai

    Thank you, Sean, for this and all your other wonderful entries that cross the various divides between philosophy, literature, and science!

    And yes, I’ve also always envisioned that Nietzsche, to a certain extent at least, indeed means physicists and physics, as such and as a stand-in for the scientific method.


  • Matt

    Man, has anyone else noticed what a downer that guy is? Why couldn’t Nietzsche have written about like, puppies, or how terrible airline food is or something.

  • Arun

    But the method of physics — open-minded hypothesis testing and scrupulous honesty in confronting what Nature has to tell us — is a pretty good model for other aspects of our lives.

    “Honey, how do I look in this dress?”

    Scrupulous honesty in confronting what you see is needed :)

    “She loves me, she loves me not….. I need to do a controlled experiment here….”

  • tyler

    Arun, a wise man once said that a true diplomat is he who always remembers a woman’s birthday but never her age. In the example you give, a diplomatic approach may be more apropos than a scientific one.

  • Chris W.

    Not entirely off-topic: The Really Hard Problem: Meaning in a Material World, by Owen Flanagan. (See reviews on Amazon.)

  • tyler

    “eudaimonics” is a terrible word – though perhaps a decent Radiohead album title – but that book looks interesting, thanks

  • James

    I always thought that the most interesting comments by Nietzsche were about music – certainly Wagner and Beethoven.

    As for the message of doomed life repetition given by the demen – well, persumably, this is the million zilliionth time this has happened to you already – so why care?

    “So stop worrying and enjoy your life” to quote a topical cockney rhyme.

  • Flavio

    I just saw this interesting quote in Wikipedia under “Eternal Return”:

    “Walter Kaufmann suggests that Nietzsche may have encountered this idea in the works of Heinrich Heine, who once wrote:

    [T]ime is infinite, but the things in time, the concrete bodies, are finite. They may indeed disperse into the smallest particles; but these particles, the atoms, have their determinate numbers, and the numbers of the configurations which, all of themselves, are formed out of them is also determinate. Now, however long a time may pass, according to the eternal laws governing the combinations of this eternal play of repetition, all configurations which have previously existed on this earth must yet meet, attract, repulse, kiss, and corrupt each other again.”

    Scaring… :-)

  • Interested

    To or on Nietzsche-

    I have not read Nietsche, nor Schopenhauer, but reading the eternal return link and Sean’s post above, and by being human, where as humans we should have many experiences that are common to humans, even if they take different shades, that I comment on Nietsche’s thoughts.

    Link- “Eternal return (also known as “eternal recurrence”) is a concept which posits that the universe has been recurring, and will continue to recur in a self-similar form an infinite number of times. The concept has roots in ancient Egypt, and was subsequently taken up by the Pythagoreans and Stoics. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the notion is supported in the book of Ecclesiastes.[1][2][3] With the decline of antiquity and the spread of Christianity, the concept fell into disuse, though Friedrich Nietzsche resurrected it on the grounds that it provides a reason for affirming life after the decline of theism.”

    1) Is Nietzsche the first western philosopher to have resurrected the eternal recurrence?

    2) If he is, or even if he did not, but did adopt or popularise eternal recurrence, how much evidence of Nietsche role in popularising eternal recurrence is evident in academic and/or contemporary and/or popular writing or awareness today?

    Link- “In addition, the philosophical concept of eternal recurrence was addressed by Arthur Schopenhauer. It is a purely physical concept, involving no “reincarnation”, but the return of beings in the same bodies. Time is viewed as being not linear but cyclical.”

    3) In a more technical way in Buddhism, there is no being, but everything is subject to dependent origination ( the crux of Buddhism), which is something like because this exists that exists, and like a candle flame exists when conditions exist, and when the flame goes out, where has the flame gone? Yet reincarnation is in Buddhism like God is in Christianity, where eternal heaven or hell, encourages the Christian to live a good life to go to heaven, & where Buddhists seek not to be reborn as a dog in the next rebirth and prefer a better rebirth as a human.
    Link- “The concept of cyclical patterns is very prominent in Indian religions, including Hinduism and Buddhism among others. The Wheel of life represents an endless cycle of birth, life, and death from which one seeks liberation. In Tantric Buddhism, a wheel of time concept known as the Kalachakra expresses the idea of an endless cycle of existence and knowledge.[5]”

    4) How can we seek liberation from endless cycle of life and death, when we do not know what the state of liberation is. It is a thought process that is like a raft that we get into, but it is the canoeing or paddling of the raft as we wade through life.

    Link- “Nietzsche calls the idea “horrifying and paralyzing”, and says that its burden is the “heaviest weight” (“das schwerste Gewicht”)[11] imaginable. The wish for the eternal return of all events would mark the ultimate affirmation of life:”

    5) Maybe when Nietzsche dropped God that was in earlier popular culture and if he grew up in it himself, immersed in it socially and personally, then it was break from his conditioning, a God consciousness that underwrote the way he viewed his existence and all existence, that, to him then it would be “”horrifying and paralyzing”,” or at least at first at the point of his conscious and subconscious departure from the depth of his being from his God consciousness. And then it would also be “burden is the “heaviest weight” (“das schwerste Gewicht”)[11] imaginable.” as he had to reconstruct a new conscious and subconscious & unconscious consciousness.

    6) If he had foregone the societal offer of ‘one life and live the Christian life, accept Christ as your personal savior and you are saved and when you die you will go to eternal heaven’ or been unable to believe in it, and thus forefeited the personal worldview then he would have to reconstruct or synthesize another personal worldview, and maybe thus, “The wish for the eternal return of all events would mark the ultimate affirmation of life:” that Nietzsche saw that he affirmed life MORE when he wished for eternal return than for eternal heaven after one earthly life.

    Link- “What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you 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 more and innumerable times more’ … 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.’ [The Gay Science, §341]”

    7) There are a lot of blanks and spaces in “you will have to live once more and innumerable times more’ .” and that ties too with the further blanks and spaces “by Arthur Schopenhauer. It is a purely physical concept, involving no “reincarnation”, but the return of beings in the same bodies. Time is viewed as being not linear but cyclical.” We know from experience, we encounter events in our life, and we do well, or fail, or barely pass by and then when it comes back again, we either do well, or fail, or barely pass but they are never the same, but it is like life is a learning itself, and so, it is more likely than not, we do not return in same bodies but in different bodies, and that even if or when we live innumerable times more, it would have shades of difference for us to learn and know who we are or really are or can be.

    Link- “To comprehend eternal recurrence in his thought, and to not merely come to peace with it but to embrace it, requires amor fati, “love of fate”:[12] My formula for human greatness is amor fati: that one wants to have nothing different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely to bear the necessary, still less to conceal it–all idealism is mendaciousness before the necessary–but to love it.[12]”

    8) In attitude, it sounds like seeking and fully embracing ‘acceptance’, the Christian (attitude) who says” God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.”

  • Jim Harrison

    In the days when I read Nietzsche very closely indeed, I came to the conclusion that he never really took his own little theorem about the eternal return literally. For the most part he doesn’t treat the idea of the return as a proposition that is either true or false but rather presents it as a way of forcing us to come to terms with our own existence. That’s why he calls it a trial. You might also say the return stages the thought that the everyday world is, in fact, eternity and makes us consider the reverberating consequences of that possibility. I know from my own experience that a teacher who presents the return successfully can give a whole room full of twenty year olds the willies.

  • Aidan C

    Aye, I agree with Jim – I always thought he put it out there as a means to get you to confront yourself.

    I also think he does refer to science when he mentions physics :)

  • Pope Maledict XVI

    “Yes, my friends, regarding all the moral chatter of some about others it is time to feel nauseous! Sitting in moral judgment should offend our taste!….”

    So Nietzsche foresaw the rise of political correctness.

  • celestial toymaker

    The legend of Ouroboros is similar to the Nietschean view.
    It’s quite widely used in popular culture.
    For example, it featured in an episode of the British sci-fi comedy TV show “Red Dwarf”. In it, Lister discovers that he is his own father, who’d left himself in a cardboard box underneath the pool table at a pub!
    More time paradox than recurrence, perhaps?

    Leonard Cohen song “Last Year’s Man” makes allegorical reference to the legend in this verse:-

    “I came upon a wedding that old families had contrived;
    Bethlehem the bridegroom,
    Babylon the bride.
    Great Babylon was naked, oh she stood there trembling for me,
    and Bethlehem inflamed us both
    like the shy one at some orgy.
    And when we fell together all our flesh was like a veil
    that I had to draw aside to see
    the serpent eat its tail.”

    But of course, Nietsche and the Stoics didn’t know about Quantum Theory.

  • Peter Morgan

    Nice Nietsche. Your account of Henri Poincaré’s “recurrence theorem” includes the significant cosmological caveat that the mechanical system must have “bound orbits (particles can’t just run off to infinity)”. Supposing that only part of the system is bound, how well does the theorem work? If the only galaxies left in a few thousand billion years are the remnants of our local group, will you develop the same cosmological theories as you have done this time around? How much difference would it make to you personally that the physical evidence on large scales will be completely different?
    There are cosmological assumptions that we could make that would salvage the recurrence theorem, particularly an endlessly repeated big bang scenario, if we want to put faith in such things. I’m not clear, however, that we could experimentally verify that enough of the orbits in the system are bound to ensure recurrence.
    There is also the caveat that each recurrence is only arbitrarily close to this occurrence, so that in almost all recurrences there is at least one very significant event that doesn’t happen (Caesar gets to Brutus first, Lincoln isn’t mortally wounded, Franz Ferdinand survives, JFK survives, to name only the deaths of famous men, …). Any of these single events may make my life completely different or fail to happen. Of course infinity is a lot of recurrences.
    There are also assumptions that you don’t mention. The constants of Nature had better be perfectly invariant over time. The gravitational constant changing very slowly, say by 1% every 1000 billion years, probably messes everything up nicely. What about field theories in their various forms? The list of caveats seems to me quite lengthy.

  • Davis

    For example, it featured in an episode of the British sci-fi comedy TV show “Red Dwarf”. In it, Lister discovers that he is his own father, who’d left himself in a cardboard box underneath the pool table at a pub!

    This sounds suspiciously like an homage to the Heinlein short story “All You Zombies.”

  • Interested

    Jim Harrison,

    As you have read Nietzsche closely once, can I run this by you?

    1) Vaguely I recall reading short account (2nd or third hand or even 100th hand account) of Nietzsche being a convicted Christian who had a deep intimate personal relationship with Jesus Christ in his college days.

    2) I am not checking (1) out and if yes, and if I recall Nietzsche having a cartoon Zarathustra ? Running through the street , yelling, “God is dead” was this book, a portrayal of Nietzsche life journey? That God had become dead to Nietzsche?

    3) If the recurrent theme deals with eternal recurrence, same life same body repeated infinite times, then yes, it would be a method of focusing awareness of and need for meaning in life, in an absurd world, for would it not be absurd to have a world that runs to infinity where we do the same thing again and again infinite times? Then whether it is conclusion that Nietzsche makes the world is absurd and yet he has to find meaning in it, and [ per link — once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: ‘You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.’- ] such every moment of his life is imbued with meaning.

    Might it not be that if in his days of personal relationship with Jesus Christ he found meaning in every moment of his waking life, and maybe even dream state, then, even without such a personal relationship, he did not think he should forefeit a meaningful life, and maybe he employed this method of eternal recurrence ( not as a substitute of religious outlook of rebirth or reincarnation) as a method to find meaning in his life.

    4) So if the eternal recurrence theme personally enabled Nietzsche to find personal meaning in life, where “

    [ Link- What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you 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 more and innumerable times more’ … 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.’ [The Gay Science, §341]”

    he once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: ‘You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.’ then it is a tool that he is talking about where he did use and did find meaning in his life. Then one would look closely to see how he employed this tool eternal recurrence and if any western philosopher has referred to it, whether they have referred to the idea without understanding the tool, or they did understood the tool or method and also employed it. Then it would be pertinent to see what survives of Nietzsche understanding of this tool of eternal recurrence.

    5) Niezsche is counted as one of the existentialist philosophers ( dealing with meaning of human existence) , as is also Soren Kierkegaard, where Kierkegaard sought and found meaning through Jesus Christ, so, it seems that existentialist, are not confined to those who have no or cease to have a relationship with Jesus Christ.

    6) So if meaning of life, where one can stand doing the same thing same body infinite times, is so imbued that we can say our life is 100% or 101% meaningful based on 100% as the baseline maximum, per Nietzsche tool of eternal recurrence, or per Kierkegaard’s tool of personal commitment to Jesus Christ, then whatever happened to Nietzsche and Kierkegaard after they died or the second before each of them died, they can at least say, “Wherever I go after this, I have lived a meaningful life”.

    7) If parents when they die leave and transfer their wealth (however big or little) to their loved ones or the next generation, then, Nietzsche and Kierkegaard have transferred their wealth to us, about the meaning of life, and we should look at the asset and property they have bequeathed us, so that we can then transfer the collective wealth to the future generations down the far far far road, so that one day, maybe , we will reach Omega Point.

  • Jim Harrison

    Interested wonders whether Nietzsche were ever a fervent Christian. His youthful writings don’t support that idea event though his father, who died while Nietzsche was still quite young, had been a Lutheran pastor. Nietzsche recalled that he had early on decided that religious beliefs were culture bound and not to be taken seriously as objective truth. If you’re born in Baghdad, Islam is obviously self-evidently correct: if you’re born in Sri Lanka, you don’t think any reasonable person could deny the truth of what the Buddha said; and, as for Christianity, it’s the sort of thing that’s a priori in Christendom.

    Nietzsche’s famous statement that God is Dead is pretty obviously not aimed at traditional religion. Nietzsche is making note of what he takes to be a mere fact: all systems that insist on ultimate values have lost their credibility, dogmatic atheism and positivism just as much (or more) than Christianity.

    I’m sure it would have amused Nietzsche to know that his ideas would have a powerful influence among certain influential 20th Century theologians. Nobody gets quoted by Karl Barth more often than Nietzsche, with the possible exception of St. Paul. It’s true that Nietzsche didn’t have any animus against what he imagined as the real Christ, though, of course, he also thought that the real Christ had nothing to do with the little guy on the dashboard or the Son of God of the catechism: “There was only one Christian and he died on the cross.”

  • Interested

    1) I was thinking of poems along this line ( but of an even more intimate nature). Like this written by Nietzsche and translated as his works are in German. This is the English translation.

    To the Unknown God (1864)
    Once more, before I wander on
    And turn my glance forward,
    I lift up my hands to you in loneliness —
    You, to whom I flee,
    To whom in the deepest depths of my heart
    I have solemnly consecrated altars
    So that
    Your voice might summon me again.

    On them glows, deeply inscribed, the words:
    To the unknown god.
    I am his, although until this hour
    I’ve remained in the wicked horde:
    I am his—and I feel the bonds
    That pull me down in my struggle
    And, would I flee,
    Force me into his service.

    I want to know you, Unknown One,
    You who have reached deep into my soul,
    Into my life like the gust of a storm,
    You incomprehensible yet related one!
    I want to know you, even serve you.
    (—Translation by Philip Grundlerhner)

    2) As Nietzsche is a towering Western philosopher, I was wondering about more contemporary western philosophers. Maybe something like this –

    “Nevertheless, Nietzsche is a giant in literature. His posthumous reputation is secured because of his influence on postmodernism. Thinkers like Foucault, Richard Rorty and Don Cupitt have developed ideas in relation to Nietzsche, and thus his ideas are central among leading Intellectuals today. His phrase “there is no truth, only interpretation”, may be a heading for postmodernism.
    3) I wonder whether eternal recurrence is a critical component of Nietzsche thinking and outlook, and the theme of same body same life for infinite times, can make one conclude it is an absurd position, and whether he had independently concluded life is absurd and yet the human effort has to be find meaning in the midst of absurdity. If it were so, then, one would have to look more closely at his method of rising above absurdity as he saw it, and how he did it, and whether any western philosopher that cites or refers to him, noticed that or not, when they developed ideas in relation to his.
    4) Sri Lanka Buddhist who are ethnically Sinhalese are seen to be in conflict with Sri Lanka Tamils who are ethnically Tamil. So growing up in Sri Lanka, one could be Buddhist or Hindu, and for some reason, there, they are in conflict.

    5) What is ‘objective truth’? By your definition, paradigm, and framework, then would the analysis and conclusion be drawn what is objective truth. I think the Dalai Lama has a lot to say of what is objectively true, just as you may too.

    6) Mother Theresa , Ignatius of Loyola to name a few might not agree or their followers might not share Nietzsche view.

  • Pope Maledict XVI

    I hesitate to write this because I don’t want Sean C to take it the wrong way. So let me begin by saying that I am genuinely looking forward to reading [ie, buying!] his book on time and I’m sure it will be wonderful.

    That said, SC surely knows that Nietzsche had nothing of interest to say about the physics of time. The fact that one can come up with cute *apparently* relevant quotes does not change this fact. I had an uncle who used to say, “history just repeats itself!”; the fact that he used to repeat this banal phrase with roughly predictable regularity shows that he was a true disciple of Nietzsche. So what? He [my uncle] was a good guy; but no Boltzmann.

    There are many reasons for not reading New Scientist, but for me the principal one is the tendency of their writers to drag in cute but irrelevant arty-farty allusions to pre-scientific literature [which is what the writings of Nietzsche are]. In the days when I could still stand to read it, they would regularly declare that some idea or other had or had not “leaped forth from his brain, like Minerva from the forehead of Jove, fully matured and wearing a complete suit of armor….” To which I can only say: Groan!

    Face it: Lucretius, Schopenhauer, etc etc etc may have said amusing things, but the relationship of their teachings with actual science is, to use a favourite Dawkins phrase, “profoundly superficial”. Basically these poor guys didn’t understand Boltzmann’s explanation of the passing of time any better than my uncle, or indeed my cat. I know that Sean is or will be under pressure from liberal-arts-trained publishing people, but many of us would be deeply grateful if he deletes as much as possible of this kind of drek. The story is fascinating enough without it.

    Sorry. But I had to say it.

  • Jim Harrison

    One can only agree that Lucretius didn’t understand Boltzmann’s explanation of the passing of time. Neither did Schopenhauer, who died when Boltzmann was 16.

    I have my doubts that the Pontiff has ever actually read Lucretius since anybody who has read the Nature of Things knows that the old Roman poet thought pretty deeply about time and change. Schopenhauer was not a fool, either, though he also wasn’t a physicist.

    By the way, Nietzsche’s work isn’t prescientific. It’s nonscientific, which doesn’t mean it is therefore irrelevant, even to scientists. Professional physics profs have no monopoly on serious ways of thinking about things as most of the physic profs I’ve met would agree. Younger folks may have narrower, even drastically narrower perspectives due to their unfamiliarity with the breadth of the world and its possibilities.

  • Interested

    Jim Harrison,

    I am not sure how culture is used or how you used it. “ In the twentieth century, “culture” emerged as a concept central to anthropology, encompassing all human phenomena that are not purely results of human genetics. Specifically, the term “culture” in American anthropology had two meanings: (1) the evolved human capacity to classify and represent experiences with symbols, and to act imaginatively and creatively; and (2) the distinct ways that people living in different parts of the world classified and represented their experiences, and acted creatively. Following World War II, the term became important, albeit with different meanings, in other disciplines such as sociology, cultural studies, organizational psychology and management studies.”

    If culture is used very widely as all human phenomena that is not result of genetics, then that is a very wide definition.

    What is objective truth, is it the sole domain of science, and recent past 100 years fields of knowledge? Does it include religion which spanned a longer time frame?

    Does objective truth need to have a utilitarian end of securing peace, harmony with earth ( no global warming or destruction or degradation) harmony with all life ( human and other sentient life).

    Does objective truth need to have a development that secures those ends?
    Its cheaper to get a new printer than keep the old one given low cost of printer and high cost of the useable drum and toner. The discard printer than has to go land waste or take long time to decay or take energy to convert it to useable parts.

    Is Jesus advice of forgiving another 49 times (?) is that an objective truth?

    What defines an objective truth ?
    What is the use of objective truth?
    Why do we need objective truth?
    What is the purpose of objective truth?

    Why do we label it ‘objective’ such that we place it on a pedestal?
    Does objective truth depend foremost on whether the conceptualiser is an idealist ( not ordinary sense but philosophical sense of idealist) or a realist?

    In the field of physics with the differing rules in 2 areas QM and the other, what is objective truth? Does objective truth need a parameter? That it is objectively true within this parameter? And it ceases to be objectively true outside these parameters?

    Are there objective truths in or for or governing the start and growth of small businesses, one of the foundation of economy, of old and new?
    Or are objective truths limited to only certain fields?

    Jim, I would like to understand your notion of objective truth and your idea or definition of culture.

  • Jim Harrison

    Gee, I wasn’t signing up to put out an entire epistemology. I was simply attempting to report what I know or think I know about Nietzsche’s early ideas. Anyhow, I don’t think a serious treatment of concepts such as “objectivity” or “culture” would fit very comfortably in this little box I’m typing in. Clyde Kluckhohn once wrote an entire book consisting of the various definitions that social scientists and philosophers have come up with over the years. I’m not up to following in his footsteps, especially after midnight.

    My version of the thinking of Nietzsche as a young man was an attempt to paraphrase from memory some of his early letters. In a letter he wrote to his sister in 1865, when he was 21, he wrote: “If we had believed since youth that all salvation came not from Jesus but from another–say, from Mohammed–is it not certain that we would have enjoyed the same blessings? …Every true faith is indeed infallible; it performs what the believing person hopes to find in it, but it does not offer the least support for the establishment of an objective truth.” As you can see, I’m the one who put the word “culture” in play, though I don’t think it’s out of place if we think of belonging to a culture as a matter of (among many other things) operating with the specific Bayesian priors we inherit at a particular place on the globe and time in history.

    Speaking of loaded words: According to the important book Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison published in 2007–its’ actually titled Objectivity–the term “objectivity,” at least in its modern meaning, wasn’t used very much before the beginning of the 19th Century and needs to be understood in its historical context. Daston and Galison explain what a pragmatist might call the cash value of the word by showing how objectivity became a very specific value for people putting together scientific atlases. (And no, trying to figure out how scientists and others construct concepts to make their points is not the same thing as suggesting that everything is relative, just a matter of opinion, etc.)

  • Interested

    Jim Harrison,

    you: Nietzsche recalled that he had early on decided that [religious beliefs were culture bound ] and [not to be taken seriously as objective truth.] ( I added the brackets and matters within for emphasis)

    With all due respect, after looking at a review of your cited Objectivity and part online book by Peter Gaston with another Caroline Jones ‘Picturing Science and Producing Art’, I submit you started with one concept on culture [ religious beliefs are culture bound] and applied it in a different context where the concept of [objective truth] was not meant to be [ in culture].

    Going by “Objectivity” [the book] it appears to me to refer to science, from mid 19th century to time of writing /publication. Nieztsche lived from 1844 to 1900. He lived through the mid 19th century period, where ideas of objective truth or objectivity would have gained ascendancy.
    Strangely a family psychologist Tom Strong wrote the review (absent my ordering it from the inter library loan if any and given severe time constraint) Tom Strong where he outlined the shifting human ideal of objectivity in science, from
    (i) artistic re-presentation of snowflakes to
    (ii) camera pictures of nature [ what he calls the era of mechanical objectivity] to
    (iii) structural objectivity focussing on measurements logic replicable empirical sequences …. ( having not read the book I can only catch an idea or surmise that is what the book talks of on objectivity).
    Objectivity is then about peer review, replicable methods and scrutinised by peer scientists.

    Thus objective truth if it is equated with objectivity, is limited to science. It is not with reference to other human fields, though it is odd that Tom Strong mentions in one breadth , “Thus to become objective required being steeped in particular ways of training one’s objectivity to see the structures a science requires. By this logic a cellular biologist, a geneticist, an anthropologist, and a psychologist can each look at a human being and come up with different structural accounts of the same person – all objectively one should add.” I am not too clear about what anthropology is about but it seems odd to me to speak of psychology as a science. So why the objective label for it?

    If you reference religious beliefs, which is a field outside science , then the yardstick of objectivity should not be used in the same sleigh of your hand.

    Would we or should we exclude management, business development from objectivity as used in science? After all if you apply your Bayesian priors, to small business development,

    “1. Literature and hypotheses
    Phillips and Kirchhoff (1989) mentioned the myth
    of 9 out of 10 new businesses closing in their first
    year. But using Dun & Bradstreet data they found
    that 76 percent of new firms were open after two
    years, 47 percent after four years and 38 percent
    after six years. These rates are substantially different
    than what is still commonly believed; more
    than ten years after the publication of their article,
    individuals still call the U.S. Small Business
    Administration looking for the unknown source of
    the alarming sound byte that 9 out of 10 businesses
    close in their first year. This myth may still exist
    because of the problems Williams (1993) details
    in using Dun & Bradstreet as a data source for
    business survival.

    It is not hypothesized that current survival
    figures differ too much from Phillips and
    Kirchoff ’s findings, although an argument could
    be made for a faster pace of life today leading to
    quicker business closings. Other studies have
    focused on business survival, but they have
    generally looked at all businesses, not just new
    businesses or just a few industries, not the entire

    it is hard to duplicate business for peer review given that it is a Bayesian prior that less than 50% of small businesses succeed.
    Should we live alone by objective truth if same as objectivity and in science only, for then all of us must be scientists and apply period changing notions of objectivity? Do scientists employing objectivity in their science work, deduce that, scientific objectivity itself suffices to live a meaningful productive life?

    This goes back to the question of why the primer on objectivity and in which field does it apply? And who determines what is the method of ascertaining objective truth ?

  • Jim Harrison

    I have no idea what Interested is trying to say, but he or she seems to be attributing to me all sorts of metaphysical or epistemological positions, even though I didn’t take any stands on such matters in this thread. I’m not selling cultural relativism. And it beats me what management science has to do with the opinions of the young Nietzsche, which, by the way, I was paraphrasing, not endorsing.

    That said, parochialism is a real problem for the great historical religions to the extent that they claim universal validity. “There is neither Jew nor Greek.”

  • Interested

    Jim Harrison,

    My apologies if that be your perception.

    I am female, named Bella. Thus a she. I have mentioned that somewhere here on an earlier post maybe 1-2 months ago.

    My apologies too, when I first wrote in a hurry as I am busy starting a business, “1) Vaguely I recall reading short account (2nd or third hand or even 100th hand account) of Nietzsche being a convicted Christian who had a deep intimate personal relationship with Jesus Christ in his college days.” I had in mind a personal poem he had written in his college days, but did not have the time to check the place I had seen. I have since done so, and reproduce the one in mind.

    What is relevant is that Nietzsche in a short span of 3 years, moved quickly from

    (i) Being moved by a personal savior (that we can assume he was referring to Jesus Christ) … age 18 ( see below)

    (ii) Being moved by an unknown God …. Age 20 ( see above)

    (iii) Being moved by other religion(s) and using (I presume) scientific method of objectivity on religious beliefs. # Here I think a distinction should be made between (a) objectivity as employed in science and (b) insights as may be drawn from religious beliefs or practices .

    Thus your quote of Nietzsche, I have added in parenthesis the missing parts for fuller grasp though there are not necessary for the point you make, but they are good to have to get the context- and to evaluate it –

    “If we had believed since youth that all salvation came not from Jesus but from another–say, from Mohammed–is it not certain that we would have enjoyed the same blessings? [ To be sure, faith alone gives blessings, not the objective which stands behind the faith. I write this to you dear Lisbeth, only in order to counter the most usual proof of believing people, who invoke the evidence of their experiences and deduce from it the infallibility of their faith. ] Every true faith is indeed infallible; it performs what the believing person hopes to find in it, but it does not offer the least support for the establishment of an objective truth. [ Here the ways of men divide. If you want to achieve peace of mind and happiness, then have faith; if you want to be a disciple of truth, then search (so forsche) Between, there are many half way positions . But it all depends on the principal aim.”]

    a) Nietzsche is countering the “most usual proof of believing people, who invoke the evidence of their experiences and deduce from it the infallibility of their faith”. It begs the question would Nietzsche remark be apt, if it was not the “most usual proof of believing people”? That I think is fair comment and fair observation. I would like to know what you think.

    b) If mid 19th Century is the time of scientific objectivity, than, Nietzsche might have used “objective truth” in the scientific context, and thus considered religious beliefs as lacking any objectivity or objective truth. Until the march of time, when we get the theory of everything, it would be difficult to imagine comparing apples to oranges, where the world is seen from idealist philosophical perspective as well as realist or materialist philosophical perspective. The theory of everything offers to merge the two philosophical perspectives, I contend. I would like to know what you think.

    (c)Referring to [ Here the ways of men divide. If you want to achieve peace of mind and happiness, then have faith; if you want to be a disciple of truth, then search (so forsche) Between, there are many half way positions . But it all depends on the principal aim.”] could suggest that it is not entirely an either or proposition, and given the many possible permutations as well as the consideration of what is the overarching or principal aim.

    (d) The matter seems more complicated by Nietzsche departure from other existentialists who give meaning through ‘a” commitment and work through that, for here , one says , [ ]

    (i) “The idea of an unconditional commitment is abhorrent to Nietzsche insofar as it represents the opposite of a brief habit. In the first sentence of the passage above, we see that Nietzsche believes that convictions have to be like brief habits; they have to be “used up”. The term “used up” indicates that the conviction had a purpose in helping the believer grow, but that its purpose did not extend beyond that. In other words, once this purpose is fulfilled, the conviction is no longer useful.”

    (ii) “This is why Nietzsche proclaims that the “death of God”, or the fact that Christianity is no longer an option in our age, is only an unhappy occurrence for those who are stuck in unconditional commitments (or those who require convictions as backbones). For those who are used to brief habits, on the other hand, the news is good–it represents the possibility of new opportunities for growth, something that Christianity has halted for too long. It is important to note, as Heidegger does, that “‘God is Dead’ has nothing in common with the opinions of those who are merely standing about and talking confusedly, who ‘do not believe in God’” The death of god means the end of an era of unconditional commitment and the birth of a time when brief habits are allowed.”

    { This is no substitute for actual reference of Nietzsche but due to severe time constrain and attempting to understand Nietzsche legacy to us }

    (e) Considering the paths ( see (c ) above) that Nieztsche mapped out and the one he took, and given the span of time he had available to think research and write, and the area in which he wrote in (of the path he undertook) his competency is necessarily limited to his chosen path. Of that path, going by (again some second hand recounting or analysis) his prediction of nihilistic worldview if accurate shows the conditions with which we work with this era.

    NIetzsche’s Poem at late 18 (age)

    Thou hast called me:
    Lord, I hasten to thy throne and there remain.
    Blazing with love to thy compassionate eyes
    Gaze sorrowfully into my heart:
    Lord, I come.
    I was lost, perplexed and dejected,
    Destined for Hell and torment.
    But I saw thee from afar,
    And thy glance, intense with life,
    Lighted constantly upon me:
    Now I come gladly to thee.
    I am filled with horror at the dark power of sin,
    And I cannot look back.
    I must not lose thee,
    At night, terrified and oppressed, I see thee,
    I see thee and I cannot let thee go.
    Thou art so gentle, true and kind,
    So loving, thou dear Saviour of sinners!
    Appease my longing,
    Let my soul and my thoughts rest in thy love
    And remain forever with thee.

    (From Nietzsche’s Wereke und Briefe: Historisch-kiritsche Gesamtausgabe, volume II, p. 80.)

  • Nick

    This is a rather timely post (pun intended), considering that the 2nd of February was groundhog’s day, and that Nietzche’s idea of eternal return is an underpinning of the movie titled Groundhog’s Day, in which Bill Murray’s character is doomed to repeat his day until he finally transforms into a genuinely selfless and caring person.

  • Jim Harrison

    Returning (eternally?) to the narrow question of Nietzsche’s early beliefs: the poem Interested (aka Bella) quotes is certainly relevant. I probably read it before at some point; but, if so, I had forgotten it, probably because the expression of routine evangelical sentiments by an 18-year old pastor’s son didn’t seem any more noteworthy than the tone of vague and somewhat hackneyed idealism he sometimes fell into in his early years at Basel. I apparently forgave him his adolescence in the hope of absolution from my own. But I’m not sure that Nietzsche’s overcoming of his own faith, if that’s what it was, amounts to very much or needs a complicated explanation. Young people try on outlooks like shirts and often change their wardrobe entirely when they change schools. In particular, I don’t think that one can ascribe the young Nietzsche’s dismissal of traditional religious ideas to some sort of scientism on his part. After he wrote the Birth of Tragedy and left Basel, Nietzsche did go through a period of reaction to Wagner, Schopenhauer, and heavy breathing that can be described, with some accuracy, as positivist; but he had noticed the bankruptcy of received religion long before that. And the Birth of Tragedy is not exactly an ode to scientific objectivity!

  • Samuel A. (Sam) Cox

    A fine post, Sean. I appreciated the Poincaire/Nietzsche tandem ideas. You imply, correctly I believe, that physics, mathematics, engineering and philosophy are inextricably linked in a correct cosmology. You really KNOW Einstein! That which is cosmologically correct is emperically verifiable. We may not like what we learn about the universe, but whether we find the universe is to our liking or not (as we confirm it emperically to exist) in no way changes what is.

    Best Wishes, Sam Cox

  • Pingback: Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence : Mormon Metaphysics()

  • Anthony Peake

    I have obviously come across this thread a little late. However I hope that maybe somebody my pick up my addition to what has been a fascinating series of comments.

    I am an author based in the UK and I think that I am right in saying that I am one of the few, if any, writers, who have attempted to update Nietzsche’s “eternal reccurence” in the light (pun unintended) of modern particle physics, neurology, psychiatry and consciousness studies.

    In my two books I have suggested that the concept of the etenal return may have a basis in science. Without going into great detail my theory (called “Cheating The Ferryman”) proposes that at the moment of death the subject re-lives their life in a literal moment-by-moment recreation of that life from birth to the final second of their (second) life. I term this hallucinatory existence the “Bohmian IMAX” (referencing the influence of the great philosopher-scientist David Bohm on my theory). Indeed I suggest that an underlying weltgeist is taking place as this philosophy is a curiously popular theme in many modern movies such as “The Matrix”, “Vanilla Sky” and “Jacob’s Ladder”. Indeed the opening and final sequences of “American Beauty” reiterate this concept…and of course the ultimate eternal return movie, “Groundhog Day” cannot be left out of the discussion.

    And just as the central character of “Groundhog Day”, Phil Conners, lives the same day over and over again so it is that the dying person, in the final seconds of their second life, goes back and does it again , and again!!

    Sounds really crazy doesn’t it? But the science presented in my books seems to work – and en-route it also suggests a possible explaination for deja vu and precognition!!

    Indeed if anybody is interested I will be discussing the eternal return and time perception with particle physicist Professor Jeff Forshaw at The National Theatre in London at 1830 on July 23rd 2009. This will be before a performance of “Time And The Conways” written by J.B. Priestley.

    This has particular relevance to “Eternal Reccurence” because Priestley was influenced by that other great writer on the subject, Russian philosopher Peter Ouspensky. One of Priestley’s other ‘time plays’, is entitled “I Have Been Here Before”, an amazing exposition of Ouspensky’s ideas. Indeed it can be argued that Ouspensky wrote the ultimate novel on the subject – “The Curious Life of Ivan Osokin”.

    But please remember …. my idea is simply that; a theory!

    Best Wishes

    Anthony Peake

  • darryl

    this is from nietzsches notes “will to power”.

    has anyone understood the universe any better? the universe is plasma and field. forget the bigbang and other stupidities and you are left with this. a man well beyond his time..perhaps beyond any time.

    And do you know what “the world” is to me? Shall I show it to you in my mirror? This world: a monster of energy, without beginning, without end; a firm, iron magnitude of force that does not grow bigger or smaller, that does not expend itself but only transforms itself; as a whole, of unalterable size, a household without expenses or losses, but likewise without increase or income; enclosed by “nothingness” as by a boundary; not something blurry or wasted, not something endlessly extended, but set in a definite space as a definite force, and not a sphere that might be “empty” here or there, but rather as force throughout, as a play of forces and waves of forces, at the same time one and many, increasing here and at the same time decreasing there; a sea of forces flowing and rushing together, eternally changing, eternally flooding back, with tremendous years of recurrence, with an ebb and a flood of its forms; out of the simplest forms striving toward the most complex, out of the stillest, most rigid, coldest forms toward the hottest, most turbulent, most self-contradictory, and then again returning home to the simple out of this abundance, out of the play of contradictions back to the joy of concord, still affirming itself in this uniformity of its courses and its years, blessing itself as that which must return eternally, as a becoming that knows no satiety, no disgust, no weariness: this, my Dionysian world of the eternally self-creating, the eternally self-destroying, this mystery world of the twofold voluptuous delight, my “beyond good and evil,” without goal, unless the joy of the circle is itself a goal; without will, unless a ring feels good will toward itself–do you want a name for this world? A solution for all its riddles? A light for you, too, you best-concealed, strongest, most intrepid, most midnightly men?– This world is the will to power–and nothing besides! And you yourselves are also this will to power–and nothing besides!


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Cosmic Variance

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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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