Thinking about Nietzsche: does truth matter?

One thing that the religious fundamentalist and the secular scientist agree on is this: what is actually true matters. Or, as they say on the X Files, “The truth is out there.”

I’m not interested in denying that the world really has an objective way of being that is independent of human consciousness. In fact, I think that it does. But in lately reading and thinking about Nietzsche, it has dawned on me that there is, nevertheless, an interesting middle position between:

  1. “postmodern subjectivity” (truth does not exist; it is relative); and
  2. “objectivism” (truth exists, and it is each rational individual’s moral obligation to find out what that truth is, and get in accord with it).

Here’s the third possibility (and I think it was Nietzsche’s):

  • The truth may be out there, but—pragmatically—it doesn’t matter. What you do with your life is open. It is coherent to live in self-deception—or absorbed in an imaginative project, Don Quixote-like—and as far from the “Real” (whatever that is) as you can get away with.

In other words, if God (or the universe) isn’t talking on the matters that concern us most—such as whether God exists or not, and who (objectively) we are and where we are—then it is a completely coherent position to will your life:  live it aesthetically and absent metaphysics (no big Truths, no big Shoulds, no predestined big Future to align yourself with). Put yet another way: if we are not in the midst of a practical project—like, say, building a house—and so trying to shape nature (Francis Bacon: “Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed”), then we needn’t spend our time worried and obsessing about truth (in the big sense of how the universe really is). We might, rather, spend our time making an aesthetic project of whatever contingent materials are at hand to us and leave large metaphysical quests alone.

Here’s a perfect illustration: the below clip, from a Twilight Zone  episode, depicts a man who is obsessed with trying to find out the truth concerning his existence—where he has been flung. He has been cast into a world with some other people, and he wants to know what is going on. Nietzsche, I think, would say this to the man:

There is an objective answer to your flungness, but since the answer is not forthcoming and is intractable to you, you might use your time otherwise (perhaps, for instance, in “getting it on” with the pretty ballerina).

Here’s the clip:

Now here’s the spoiler: They are dolls in a barrel, and they are waiting to be distributed to poor children at Christmas time. The dolls were flung in the barrel by random donators (and there just aren’t many people walking past the barrel and giving, so there are only five dolls in there).

In short, the truth was very specifically “out there,” and yet it would have been thoroughly coherent for the dolls, in the short time that they had together, to have ignored the search for Truth and relished in constructing with one another their own reality. They might, for instance, have removed their essentialist clothing markers (I’m a clown, I’m a soldier, I’m a ballerina) and had an orgy—or done something else with their lives. Each of them was free to make of their individual lives: 

  1. an aesthetic project (“I will); or
  2. a metaphysical/moral project (“The truth is out there; I will find it, and align my life to it”).

Nietzsche said, at the beginning of Beyond Good and Evil, that “Christianity is Platonism for the masses,” and he thought that Platonism was the great mistake of Western cultural history. For Nietzsche, Platonic-style metaphysics—with its truths, its shoulds, its eschatologies—needn’t get in the way of our Promethean freedom and imaginative creativity: our I wills

Is Nietzsche right? Does making our way to truth—to our metaphysical “home”—matter?

Nietzsche loved music. Perhaps the hint is there:

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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9 Responses to Thinking about Nietzsche: does truth matter?

  1. andrewclunn says:

    Though I intend to leave a response later that deals with the questions raised here, the more immediate response that I’ve had has been to realize that I must purchase the following:

    http://www.amazon.com/Twilight-Zone-Complete-Definitive-Collection/dp/B000H5U5EE/

  2. santitafarella says:

    Andrew:

    That would be a nice Twilight Zone full box set to have, no doubt. I have a Twilight Zone box collection, but it doesn’t have every episode (and, unfortunately, not the one above).

    My six year old loves Twilight Zones and I’ve been watching them with her and talking to her about them. Watching them again, I’m surprised at how interesting they are (and at many levels). I think I may be raising a philosopher.

    —Santi

  3. andrewclunn says:

    To give my serious response, you seem to be arguing that the truth might be potentially useless for three reasons: it’s not always comforting, its not always useful, our fates are sealed (we die) anyways.

    1) Instead of trying to lie to make what is comforting appear true, it’s important to know that people will find comfort in whatever they think they know. So just teach the truth to your children and they will find it comforting even if you cannot.

    2) there is no situation where (other than the comfort argument, which I already addressed) a lie can be more useful than the truth. Though there are circumstances where it’s possible to know just enough to get you in trouble, the solution is always to learn the rest of the truth to rectify the situation. Replacing the limited knowledge you do have with a lie will simply create many more situations where your faulty knowledge might lead you astray.

    3) “…the only philosophical question that matters is whether or not to commit suicide.” If you assume that, yes, you do have something to live for then you have the basis of your values and you’re starting premises around which to build your life and values.

    This was a big distinction between Rand and Nietzsche. Rand assumed that one had something to live for, and given that the truth clearly does matter. If you don’t care if you live or die, then sure, the truth means nothing to you, but then nothing else should either. I’ve met plenty of self proclaimed Nihilists, but they all seemed to value things and care about whether they lived or died, so I guess they really didn’t understand Nihilism (which sadly is the case for most people who claim to follow some philosophy or religion, but have no clue what it really is.)

  4. santitafarella says:

    Andrew:

    There are lots of things that may be true—matters of fact—that we will never have access to (such as whether God exists or not; or whether light is a particle, a wave, both, or neither).

    This fact—existence’s indefinite and plural meanings—makes it possible to live one’s life with self-selected values and imagination in the foreground. We are free. The things that bring ultimate meaning, and our ways of being in the world, are completely up to us. How we perceive the world may not match what actually, in an ultimate sense, is, but since it makes no practical difference to us now, in our limited life experience at this moment, then we can be pragmatic Protagoreans and agree with Protagoras that “man is the measure of all things.” With that foregrounded, we can really groove.

    Why not?

    Why make reality conceived in one way the bound for our lives and imagination?

    Who, for example, made Ayn Rand god? Fuck Ayn Rand. I don’t care what Ayn Rand said or thought reality was. Ayn Rand is dead. Ayn Rand had a great and mesmerizing narrative that she made, and it goes on catching the imagination of people (mostly people who are not themselves imaginative—they outsource their imagination to Rand) but it was no more in contact with reality than any other proscriptive imaginative system. You and I, Andrew, are alive. We can be enslaved to Ayn Rand’s reality, or make our own.

    And that goes for Nietzsche as well. Fuck his sexism. And his pitiless Zarathustra.

    Why, for instance, doesn’t the soldier in the above video get it on with the ballerina? Isn’t he a fool for, as it were, being obsessed with “thinking outside the box” (and missing what—and who—is in it)?

    I’m just questioning why we should heed the whistle of anyone else’s metaphysics—or metaphysics generally (as opposed to making for ourselves—and of ourselves—our own aesthetic project). Let metaphysics and ethics whistle. What happens if, like Thoreau hearing a distant train, we don’t respond, but have our own imaginative project?

    While the train whistled past Walden Pond, Thoreau created Walden. Who was deeper in reality—the train conductor or Thoreau?

    What happens when we make our aesthetic imagination important—even central—to our life’s project?

    William Blake said, “I must make a system, or be enslaved to another’s.”

    The difficult part is creation. Making “getting to the ultimate truth” a life project is the bubble gum we idly chew as a replacement for the hard work of self-creation. It is an excuse not to begin.

    —Santi

  5. andrewclunn says:

    Be prepared for the Islamic fundamentalist to use your own justification to say that a society that degrades women is just as true and viable a strategy for a society as any other.

    If we make value judgments they have to come from somewhere. Why have dogs as pets and not alligators? Why care more about your own children then other people’s kids? You want to say it’s emotions, that you don’t have to justify yourself to others, only to yourself? That’s fine, but then you’ve made the assertion that you as an individual have a right to act on your own preferences.

    There are people who want to: control what I can say, the deals I can make, the places I can live, the people I can have sex with, the rules I must live my life by, the property I can own, if and how I can defend myself, who I can associate with, and everything else. What good is it to live free to form your own morality if society imposes it’s own ethics on you through laws?

    You say fuck Ayn Rand and fuck Nietzsche. I look forward to the day when I can scream “Fuck Jesus! Fuck Allah! Fuck My fellow man! Fuck myself!” Not because I hate my fellow man or myself, but because I should have the freedom not not give a shit about either if I don’t want to. The world is free to you because it allows for all the freedoms that you personally desire. For some of us though the battle is not yet won.

    You can curse Rand all you want but I am still not free to live by her system of ethics if I wanted to, and there is no good reason I shouldn’t be able to. I am not merely content to free thought. I demand free free speech (which is constantly being infringed upon these days) and the freedom to live my life for its own sake if I so desire.

    When people are free to live by their own standards, then you may have a point, but it’s not that way now, not even close.

  6. santitafarella says:

    Andrew:

    You wrote: “If we make value judgments they have to come from somewhere. Why have dogs as pets and not alligators?”

    Values have never come from anywhere outside of the human framing imagination. Where else could they reside but in the mind of humans? I’m simply suggesting that Nietzsche, via a serious focus on Darwinian contingency, pulled back the curtain on our collective spell, our Wizard of Oz.

    This is what I mean by saying that Nietzsche is profoundly dangerous and risky. Every atheist and agnostic, unless they are closing their eyes tight and whistling in the dark, has to wrestle with Nietzsche.

    I love both Nietzsche and Ayn Rand—as poetry, as imaginative system builders. But their systems will not save us. They’ve deconstructed Plato—and Plato for the masses (Christianity)—but they have nothing stable or coherent on which to build external justifications for values on. They cast us onto the self, and the self is contingent and subjective. If reality yeilded answers concerning the things that worry us most, it would be different. But it doesn’t. It is silent. It is a sphinx. Nature does not speak. The self speaks.

    You are right that Nietzsche’s position is dangerous—but it is exactly where we are in the 21st century after the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment derails at nihilism—at a failure of any ultimate justification for values. Nietzsche saw this.

    We are at sea. And in a barrel in that sea (as in the above Twilight Zone). Every move is risky because it lacks justification outside of ourselves. Every future utopian vision has within it the seeds of a Holocaust. But it has always been thus. In the past, we could get away with bamboozling one another, pretending there was an external justification to ourselves—something to point to. Fundamentalist religion still plays the trick. The rest of us, because we’ve, for whatever reason, been jarred from sleep, find it difficult to go back to sleep.

    As for living by Rand’s system, in a libertarian world—and not a mixed economy democracy—you are right. Taxes would be voluntary. But you can still live on a commune with other Randians and show the rest of us how it is done. Or you can, like Thoreau, not pay your taxes and live on Rand’s principles in the face of the outside world’s prosecution of you for tax evasion. In other words, you can face the contingencies of your existence squarely and not wish that they were different and easier. If they are values that you have, and they are absolute for you, then I you can practice them (come hell or high water).

    I’ve often thought of Ayn Rand’s “Galt’s Gulch” as a curious version of Thoreau’s Walden: she wants to retreat from society and get it right (even if only in her imagination—in a novel). If you thought this valuable, you could make it your life project to persuade a hyper-wealthy Randian to start a commune on a purchased island. That’s what I mean by a creative project based on openness.

    —Santi

  7. santitafarella says:

    Andrew:

    I like this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-EpvRvaki-E

    —Santi

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