Monday, January 28, 2013

Part 2 of "Nietzsche's Sociobiology of Animal Morality"

I will organize my commentary around words selected from the passage I have quoted--section 26 of Nietzsche's Dawn.

In explaining human morality through the prehistoric evolution of animal morality, Nietzsche was following the lead of his good friend Paul Rée.  Like Nietzsche, Rée had once been shaped by the metaphysical idealism of Kant and Schopenhauer, but then he rejected this and adopted the evolutionary naturalism of Darwin and Lamarck.  In the Introduction to his book The Origin of the Moral Sentiments (1877), Rée rejected Kant's claim that moral consciousness manifests "a revelation from the transcendent world" or the voice of God.  He observed:
"Admittedly, before the theory of evolution appeared, many of these phenomena could not be explained by immanent causes, and a transcendent explanation is certainly far more satisfying than--none at all.  Yet today, since Lamarck and Darwin have written, moral phenomena can be traced back to natural causes just as much as physical phenomena: moral man stands no closer to the intelligible world than physical man."
"This natural explanation rests essentially on the following proposition: The higher animals have developed by natural selection from lower ones, for instance, human beings from the apes."
Like Rée, Nietzsche saw that evolutionary science dictated a move from "metaphysical philosophy" to "historical philosophy" or "scientific philosophy" (HH, 1).  The fundamental proposition for this new evolutionary philosophy would be that "man has evolved," because "everything has evolved," and therefore the human species is not eternal, because nothing is eternal (HH, 2).  Nietzsche embraced Rée's principle, while adding the word "metaphysical"--"Moral man stands no nearer to the intelligible (metaphysical) world than does physical man" (HH, 37).  He commented:
"Perhaps at some point in the future this principle, grown hard and sharp by the hammerblow of historical knowledge, can serve as the axe laid to the root of men's 'metaphysical need' (whether more as a blessing than as a curse for the general welfare, who can say?).  In any event, it is a tenet with the most weighty consequences, fruitful and frightful at the same time, and seeing into the world with that double vision which all great insights have."
Nietzsche conceded that one cannot refute the absolute possibility of a metaphysical or transcendent world beyond the natural world of our ordinary human experience.  But one can show that the belief in this transcendent world has been based on emotional errors and self-deception rather than scientific proof (HH, 9).  But notice Nietzsche's hesitancy about totally rejecting the "metaphysical need" of human beings--he is not sure whether a world without transcendent longings would be a blessing or a curse, because this seems both "fruitful and frightful at the same time."

At some points, Nietzsche speaks of the religious or metaphysical need for redemption as an "acquired need" produced in the Middle Ages that might be eliminated in the scientific civilization of the future (HH, 27, 111, 141, 222, 234, 476).  But at other points, he suggests that such transcendent longings cannot be completely extinguished, and that the culture of the future might require a "double brain, two brain chambers, as it were, one to experience science, and one to experience nonscience."  He explains: "In the one domain lies the source of strength, in the other the regulator.  Illusions, biases, passions must give heat; with the help of scientific knowledge, the pernicious and dangerous consequences of overheating must be prevented" (HH, 251).

Indeed, Nietzsche himself could not give up the transcendent longings of his early life, which reemerged in his later writings, where he used his teachings about will to power, eternal return, and redemption of life through the Ubermensch to give eternal meaning to the world.  He promoted a new religion of Dionysian frenzy.  And while in his middle period he had denied the eternality of the human species,  he later affirmed "the eternal basic text of homo natura" (BGE, 230).  Lou Salomé saw this as a reassertion of Nietzsche's deep religious longings that he had suppressed during his middle period when he embraced natural science.

One can see a similar struggle in the minds of some of those influenced by Leo Strauss and Leon Kass, who fear that affirming evolutionary science and denying the eternity of species will lead to nihilism.  It should be noted that there is no evidence that they actually believe the eternity of species to be true, but rather they believe that the illusion of eternity is needed to hide the "deadly truth" of evolution.  Significantly, these people largely ignore Nietzsche's middle writings and concentrate on the late writings.

But while the later Nietzsche turned away from a Darwinian science of morality, Darwin himself had initiated a tradition of evolutionary ethics that continues today.  Darwin in The Descent of Man had referred to the passages in Kant's writing where Kant affirmed that human beings live in "two worlds," and that the human experience of the moral ought manifests a transcendent world of pure practical reason.  By contrast, Darwin set out to explain the purely natural history of morality as rooted in animal evolution, which is what Nietzsche had done in his middle period.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Edward Westermarck elaborated and deepened this evolutionary account of morality as rooted in moral emotions or sentiments that arose from the evolution of animals.  Westermarck showed how this Darwinian science of morality build upon the tradition of Scottish moral philosophy--particularly, David Hume and Adam Smith.

Edward Wilson's sociobiology revives this Darwinian empiricist tradition of ethics as contrasted with the transcendentalist tradition of Kant and others (mostly clearly stated in Chapter 11 of Wilson's Consilience). 

But like Nietzsche, Wilson was a religious believer in his youth, and he admits that he has never shaken off the emotional power of the religious longing for redemption.  He wonders whether a purely scientific account of morality as evolved from animals can satisfy this religious yearning for eternal meaning.  In Sociobiology, he writes: "The enduring paradox of religion is that so much of its substance is demonstrably false, yet it remains a driving force in all societies.  Men would rather believe than know, have the void as purpose, as Nietzsche said,  than be void of purpose" (561).  (Here Wilson is quoting from Nietzsche's Genealogy of Morals, 3rd essay, secs. 1 & 28.)

In On Human Nature, Wilson concludes that if "the mind will always create morality, religion, and mythology and empower them with emotional force," then scientific materialism will not succeed unless it harnesses this "mythopoeic drive" to the "evolutionary epic" as "the best myth we will ever have" (200-201).  He suggests that the mental processes of religious belief are so deeply rooted by evolution in human nature that they cannot be eliminated, and so they should be seen as "a source of energies that can be shifted in new directions when scientific materialism itself is accepted as the more powerful mythology" (206-207).  "Scientific materialism," he insists, "is the only mythology that can manufacture great goals from the sustained pursuit of pure knowledge."

But isn't this blending of science and mythology incoherent?  A more reasonable response to the problem here is suggested by Nietzsche in Human, All Too Human.  The scientific "free spirits" who pursue pure knowledge will always be a small group of people, because we can expect that most human beings will not be inclined to such a life of free-spirited science and philosophy.  But in a liberal democracy with freedom of thought and speech, the "free spirits" can live their lives in peace, while most human beings are free to live the lives of practical people, where religious belief has become a private concern of individuals, families, and social groups, but without any coercive enforcement by the state of any established religion.  In contrast to Nietzsche's later writings, these "free spirits" of the middle writings do not need or wish to rule over their culture--and thus they are not tempted to tyranny--although they might expect to have some indirect influence on their culture through their freedom to speak and write.  Isn't this the kind of influence that people like Wilson can have in a liberal society?

There is more to come in future posts.


Roger Sweeny said...

To be extraordinarily cynical, "people like Wilson" don't want to have to convince people who are not as smart, educated, etc. as they are. They want to rule, because they know they are better fitted for it than anyone else.

(Perhaps as a far second-best, no one should rule.)

sykes.1 said...

Bioethicists (mostly charlatans) focus their attention on the evolution of altruism and its utility for the family and society. However, natural selection promotes anything that advances an individuals reproductive success. In many cases that means selfishness. So any society will necessarily have an ever shifting mix of altruistic and selfish individuals. Game theory allegedly has shown that societies consisting entirely of altruistic people or selfish people are vulnerable to mutations that produce the opposite behavior.

Paul said...

Perhaps I am being a bit dense, but is Arnhart arguing that a life of free-spirited science and philosophy is psychologically incompatible with the mythopoetic impulse?

I have not read HH, and seeing the quote where Nietzsche wonders (hopes?) that science will put an end to metaphysical longings puts the contrast between his middle and late period in starker relief.

I still can't shake the feeling that these arguments are not quite doing Nietzsche's late period justice. One example would be Nietzsche's supposed affirmation of the eternal nature of humanity in BGE. It is very difficult to square that quote with Nietzsche's views on the Ubermensch and humanity as a bridge to something else. I also think that Nietzsche is not the only philosopher to point out that a life of free-spirited science and philosophy is in fact quite immoderate and frenzied in its own way. The talk of two domains in HH is reminiscient of the chariot in Plato's Phaedrus.

Anonymous said...

But what if religious belief is biologically advantageous to those who have it and gives its bearers more offspring? The ones with the greatest fertility in the US are Mormons, the Amish, and Hasidic Jews. What if Darwinian beliefs actually end up being maladaptive from a Darwinian perspective?

Troy Camplin said...

I agree with Paul. Zarathustra repeatedly says that man is a bridge to the beyond-man. This is an evolutionary statement.

Further, I also agree that a scientifically-informed mythopoesis is hardly impossible. Especially given complexity, chaos, self-organization, fractals, etc. as part of that science now.

I try to create this bridge in my poetry.