Thursday, 19 January 2012

An Existentialist's Homework Assignment

What does Nietzsche mean by the phrase “God is dead” as announced by his character of the “Madman” (PN pp.95-6)? (15 points)

Nietzsche’s madman as described as someone walking through the “market place” with a lantern looking for God is an allusion to Diogenes of Sinope (412-332BC). Diogenes was the founder of the School of Cynicism, and is famous for searching for a virtuous man in the market place, and espousing ascetic ideals. The God that Nietzsche refers to is the Christian notion of God because of the prevalence of this religion during his time (and location). Around this God were built meaning in life, and morality. Influential Christian thinkers espoused the idea that pursuing truth would lead to knowledge of God.

By the phrase that “God is dead”, Nietzsche is saying that “the belief in the Christian God has ceased to be believable” [The Portable Nietzsche, Pg. 447]. This statement is spoken from the madman, who is an allusion to Diogenes – a cynic ascetic who persistently, but without success searched for a virtuous man in the marketplace – who symbolized Christian ideals (he personified the ascetic ideal). The symbolism of the madman suggests that Christian ideals can’t find God anymore.

Recall that with the assumption that God existed, a meaning in life and basis for morality were built. Christian morality gave meaning to the ascetic ideal as a means to purify oneself. However, Christian ideals also led followers to pursue truth – truth and reason being the basis of the development of science. Since science undermines the existence of God, but the pursuit of science led one to search for truth, then one can say that God has thrown man into nihilism – the idea that we can't find value in morality that does not lie in God. New meaning for asceticism or any actions taken on a moral basis must be found.

What was the cause of God’s “death”? (10 points)

At base, the reason for God’s death is “Christian truthfulness”. Nietzsche is saying that from the quest for truth and ability to reason, a body of science developed that could explain the nature of reality without requiring [the Christian] God as the causa prima/causa efficiens/causa sui: “the belief in the Christian God has ceased to be believable” [The Portable Nietzsche, Pg. 447]. Religion killed the God around which it was built.

Put differently, considering the dominance of Christianity in his time (and location), “God” was posited as an explanatory metaphysical principle – an inference to the best explanation to the nature of reality. With the rise and development of exact sciences that decreasingly required invocations of the “God” concept with increasingly more reasonable explanations for the nature of reality, Nietzsche is saying that the concept of “God” as a necessity for explanation became superfluous (even if it is more accurate to say that the concept of “God” was only becoming decreasingly valuable). “We have killed him--you and I” [The Gay Science (section 125)], and in Nietzsche’s words:

““Christian morality itself, the concept of truthfulness taken more and more strictly, the confessional subtlety of the Christian conscience translated and sublimated into the scientific conscience, into intellectual cleanliness at any price.” … All great things bring about their own destruction through an act of self-overcoming. … After Christian truthfulness has drawn one inference after another, it must end by drawing its most striking inference, its inference against itself.” Genealogy of Morals, Pg. 160-161, #27

Why does Nietzsche say that “We have killed him [God] – you and I” (PN p.95); i.e., how, or in what sense, did “we” do this? (5 points)

Taking “we” as a reference to the European society within which he lived, by “We have killed him—you and I”, Nietzsche is saying that the culture turned in on itself: what drove the culture to search for truth (belief in God) was what eventually led them to the devaluation of the reason (God) that the search was first pursued.

Influential Christian thinkers found that "God" explained the nature of reality. Consider:

"Faith (in God) seeks, and understanding (reason) finds" St. Thomas Aquinas

St. Thomas Aquinas said that God gave us a sense of him, and we use the reason he gave us to find who/what God is - attempt to provide proofs of the existence and nature of God. But Nietzsche is saying that it is this “Christian conscience” (of finding truth to understand God) that “sublimated into the scientific conscience”. It is ironic: in attempting to “find” God, we killed it. (Again, it is still controversial whether the current state of science can disprove the existence of God, let alone the state of science in Nietzsche’s time. We can say with certainty that science calls into doubt the religious view of reality.) In short: we killed God by constructing science, reason, empirical measurement. Reason once led us to the ontotheological idea of God, but now undermines belief in God.

Why does Nietzsche have his Madman announce God’s “death” to atheists (i.e., “to those who do not believe in God”)? (10 points)

Nietzsche announces God’s “death” to atheists to illustrate fully the discord in society: God is abandoned and that is accepted (as there are atheists), but all that had been built around belief in God, all of the consequences of assuming God’s existence are seemingly intact:

“In the main, however, this may be said: the event itself is much too great, too distant, too far from the comprehension of the many even for the tidings of it to be thought of as having arrived yet, not to speak of the nothing that many people might know what has really happened here, and what must collapse now that this belief has been undermined-all that was built upon it, leaned on it, grew into it; for example, our whole European morality…” The Portable Nietzsche, Pg 447.

Through the use of atheists, he is pointing out that time is required before society realizes that their moral centre is gone, and that a new basis for morality and meaning of life is required. In particular, that the hand by which we killed God (i.e. science) cannot replace it as it only provides the answers to “how”, but not “why”. (Although, in Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, game theory as used in a model of explanation for altruistic behaviour at the organism-level seems sufficient to me for understanding why society wouldn’t fall into absolute chaos without a moral compass in God, even if absolute good/evil is still abandoned.) His presumption is that science doesn’t have a say in what is right/wrong, and doesn’t provide an answer to why we exist.

What is the connection between Nietzsche’s idea that “God is dead” and his idea of “nihilism”? (10 points)

Starting from the assumption that God existed, European society built (1) a meaning of life, and (2) morality. Christianity posited a heaven and a hell, and propounded values that gave meaning to (3) Ascetic ideals.

Since science undermines presumption of existence of god, all that relied on that assumption (1, 2, 3 above) is also thrown out. (That is, if they are to be retained, then it would need to be for different reasons, and on a different basis.) If nihilism is Idea that we can't find value in morality that does not lie in God, then science has thrown society into nihilism. The “highest values” are at once devaluated: god, Truth, Morality, and Divine Justice.

Nietzsche is saying that since it was the concept of God that led to the development of science, then it was God that threw society into nihilism (both active and passive forms).
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