Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Hobbes' Anticipation of Nietzsche's Critique of Science

One of the most misunderstood aphorisms of the postmodern tradition is Nietzsche's infamous slogan that God is dead. Typically this statement is taken out of the context in which was made and sawn in half to be used solely as evidence of Nietzsche's impiety and, consequently, the basis on which to condemn not only his writings, but the post-modern project in its entirety. But Nietzche's statement about the death of the Deity was less a critique of religion than a critique of science. What Nietzsche was getting at becomes more apparent if one examines the modern critique of religion in Chapter xii of Hobbes' Leviathan.

Hobbes begins his account of religion by noting the attributes that separate man from the beasts: to be inquisitive about the causes of things [¶2], to believe that everything that has a beginning has a cause [¶3], and to posit causes from imagination to those events which causes cannot be explained [¶4]. Hobbes claim that the first two of these cause anxiety because no single human being can be so well versed in the facts so as to be completely certain of the future [¶5]. That is to say, he holds that the limits of human knowledge prevent any individual human being from being able to predict the future with certainty and the price of this is a constant anxiety about what the future may hold. This anxiety then becomes a motivation which drives the third tendency above and results in the positing of all sorts of invisible powers and agents [¶6]. These imaginations are then combined with three other factors: the lack of knowledge of why things are the way they are [¶7]; high esteem for that which is feared [¶8]; and mistaking repeated correlation for causation [¶9]. And hence, the seeds for religion are laid.

Now, Hobbes would make a key distinction here between true religion (Protestant Christianity) and false religions (Paganism and those forms of Christianity he considered to be infected by Pagan practices such as Catholocism). He makes this distinction not based on matters of doctrine but in their approach to the unexplained. For Hobbes, what makes Protestantism reducible to a question of natural science is that he does not hold that Protestant Christianity posits the existence God through the imagination in the same way that imaginary invisible powers such as angels or demons are posited. He also argues that Protestant ministers do not try to use various forms of magic ritual to try to control these invisible powers. Rather, Hobbes holds that Christianity in its pure form reasons to the existence of God in the same way that scientists reason to the existence of natural laws and its adherents are marked by their conformance to the laws of nature rather than the hope of goading God into changing those factors that lie outside of the control of humankind to its benefit.

The importance of this distinction is hard to overstate. In false religion, or superstition, any number of imaginary entities are posited in order to alleviate the natural state of angst in living in an uncertain world. In true religion, or natural science, ultimate causes are posited on the basis of reasons as falsifiable scientific hypotheses. In the former, the adherent attempts to control factors outside of his or her power through appeasing the various imaginary entities thought to be in control of this or that force of nature. In the latter, mankind actually develops control of those forces of nature through coming to understand the real causes of external events. In the former, one might be convinced by others of the reality of this or that invisible entity responsible for this or that natural event. In the latter, one is only convinced through the force of a logical argument combined with empirical evidence.

This is not to say Hobbes would argue that imagination is not important to the science. Quite the contrary, the imagination is very useful in a Hobbesian conception of science. In a comparison to scientists imaginatively postulating explanations of various phenomena to Rudyard Kipling's whimsical Just So Stories, David Barash and Judith Lipton explain how this works.
When it comes to "doing" science, just-so stories are used. It's not that science ends up being such a story, but it nearly always begins as one, emerging from curiosity, questioning, and uncertainty. It then progresses to reasoned conjecture—to asking, "What if?" and "Could it be?"—and then, if the proffered story seems worth pursuing—and is, in fact, pursuable—to validation, or, as the philosopher Karl Popper and his devotees would have it, to invalidation if not true, and to further refinement if it proves productive. Throughout, the enterprise is steeped in wonder—which includes, not coincidentally, both meanings of the word: as an experience of amazement and appreciation ("the wonder of it all") and as an act of imaginative inquiry ("I wonder if the continents moved" or "I wonder if matter is actually composed of tiny, irreducible particles"). [How the Scientist Got His Ideas]
Barash and Lipton echo Hobbes. They present the difference between such though experiments in the scientific method and mere imagination as being twofold. At the psychological level, the motivation of science in its purest form stems from curiosity. At the methodological level, the thought experiments of science are followed by study and experimentation designed to either support or disprove the imagined sources of causation. In contrast, superstition as understood by Hobbes is dependent on anxiety as a motivation and seeks to definitively answer questions rather than to open the doors to future research.

But what Nietzsche explored that Hobbes did not is the idea that science can fill the role of superstition no less than religion. The positing of this or that scientific explanation for the unknown may be no less superstitious than the positing of this or that invisible entity to explain the same phenomena. To one who has not done the research, there is is no epistemic difference between positing a weakened god of the underworld bringing an unusually mild winter and blaming man made global warming. If one follows the criteria set forth by Hobbes and expanded upon by Barash and Liption, for science to be different in kind from religion, one must have personally followed the arguments and have personally examined the evidence that results in this or that scientific conclusion. If one's opinion on the reality of global warming rests entirely on popular accounts in the news, or even on the direct reports of various scientists, then one's opinion is not actually founded upon on science any more than if one were to base one's beliefs on sermons given from the pulpit. This tendency to rest one's beliefs on the suppositions of others is the foundation of Nietzsche's famous aphorism about the death of God in The Gay Science.
After Buddha was dead, his shadow was still shown for centuries in a cave--a tremendous, gruesome shadow. 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 still have to vanquish his shadow, too [§108].
The first part of this aphorism is legend. It caused an immediate sensation upon its publication much as Hobbes' Leviathan also caused a sensation upon its publication. But lost in the conservative reaction to the brute statement `God is dead' is any serious consideration of what Nietzsche meant by `his shadow.' In the popular discussions of Nietzsche, if the portion of the aphorism about the shadow of God is brought up at all, it is usually conflated with a remnant of religiosity that persists even after all belief in God has passed away. While it is true that in §125 Nietzsche puts into the mouth of his prophetic madman the question, ``What after all are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchers of God?'' It is also certain that this later aphorism may be taken to be a rhetorical device meant to imply that the trappings of belief continue even though belief in God itself does not.

But if one does follows this route, one has to ignore §109 through §124 in which Nietzsche presents an assault on the anthropomorphism of nature at the hands of scientists and philosophers in addition to religionists. Moreover, one has to neglect that §108 marks the beginning of Book III of The Gay Science and, consequently, is built on the aphorisms of Books I and II. And it is in Book I that mankind is described as being more evil In Nietzsche's day than in aeons past precisely because of the discovery of science [§33]. Further, Nietzsche describes modern science as having been built on three different errors: the hope to understand God; the hope to use science as a tool to perfect humanity; and the view of science as a value-free pursuit of knowledge [§37]. But perhaps the most relevant aphorism to the subject at hand is §46 where the amazement of modern man vis a vis science is explicitly compared to the amazement of men in ages gone by towards superstition.

To be fair to Nietzsche, he offered more than one critique of science in Book I of The Gay Science. The critique that this essay is highlighting that the distinction that Hobbes made between science and religion also applies to the acceptance of science itself. But it is also true that Nietzsche went far beyond this critique in his sustained attack on the value of science. Discussion of that further critique, while certainly important, is outside the scope of this essay. What is most relevant to this particular discussion is that, as Nietzsche so accurately observed, many people have placed science into the role that religion used to play and, consequently, those people are no better off than the hordes of the so-called `dark ages' with regards to the certainty of their beliefs.

Now, one could certainly argue that even if most people still have beliefs formed by hearing various authorities, it is a step forward if those beliefs are founded on the reports of scientists rather than the preaching of religionists. But this step forward is a chimera at best. Regardless of what one's inclination towards any particular issue might be, scientific authorities exist to which one might appeal to confirm one's beliefs. Take the issue of global warming. On one side of the debate there is an overwhelming consensus that global warming is a man made phenomena. On the other side of the debate there are allegations that the global warming consensus is manufactured. Unless a person is extensively educated on the subject, whether one believes the science of one side or the other has as much to do with the quirks of fate and the forcefulness of rhetoric as it does with the scientific method and the issue of objective truth.

The solution to this dilemma put forth by Hobbes is very clearly expressed by Malcom X in his Advice to the Youth of Mississippi:
One of the first things I think young people, especially nowadays, should learn is how to see for yourself and listen for yourself and think for yourself. Then you can come to an intelligent decision for yourself. If you form the habit of going by what you hear others say about someone, or going by what others think about someone, instead of searching that thing out for yourself and seeing for yourself, you will be walking west when you think you"re going east, and you will be walking east when you think you"re going west.
These words by the man born as Malcom Little and who died under the name El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz echo the very heart of the Hobbesian and Nietzschean projects. The first step to putting one's beliefs on a sound foundation is to learn to think for one's self and to learn how to evaluate information that comes from other sources. To blindly put one's faith in any authority, whether scientific or religious, is to effectively give that authority control over one's mind. The history of philosophy from Plato's Socrates to Nietzsche's Zarusthra is filled with various takes on this central idea and suggestions as to how best go about equipping oneself to found one's beliefs on a bedrock of certainty rather than on the shifting sands of other authorities.

But an an often overlooked proponent of this same method is Christianity. While the Christian religion is usually perceived as having an epistemology of "faith" by which each succeeding generation believes entirely because it received a tradition from the generation before, Christianity has also had a strong tradition of believers coming to believe on their own terms. The earliest depiction of the necessity of seeking out the evidence on one's own terms is in the Gospel of John which records the skepticism of Nathaniel upon Phillip's report that he had found the Christ. Nathaniel asked, ``Can anything good come out of Nazareth?'' Phillip's response was short and succinct, ``come and see'' (John 1:46). Phillip's appeal was not to an authority, a third party, or even his own witness. Rather Phillip appealed to Nathaniel to come and see for himself, to discover the facts for himself and to use his own judgment in the matter.

It is in this vein that Clement of Alexandria, writing in the early third century, pointed out that even children understand the difference between piety and superstition. Piety is something one comes to by seeking understanding. Superstition is something one adopts without critical evaluation in order to alleviate one's anxieties. In some aspects, this is not all that different than Hobbes argument that true piety reduces to the investigation of the laws of nature. Similarly, holding to what scientists say without the capacity to understand why it is that they have reached their conclusions leaves one no less superstitious than the adherents of religion who stop at receiving their faith from others without examining it for themselves. For those who receive science in this fashion, the shadow of God remains.