Friday, May 28, 2010

Nietzsche As the Only Honest Atheist

Edward Oakes's essay "Atheism's Just So Scenarios" contrasts what he feels are the two grand narratives [GNs] worth considering; viz., "the biblical one of linear time culminating in an eschaton directed by God’s providence, and Nietzsche’s scenario of pointless humans weaving their scenarios against an unfeeling universe." Which GN does science best fit into? For "science" does not, on its own, present us with a GN. On this point Oakes cites Fred Hoyle, who believed that "lots of science is truly incontestable, but once those results are well and truly established, we are still stuck trying to make sense of them in an overarching narrative. Even the assumption that such results can be fitted into a larger narrative is itself an assumption without scientific warrant, as Hoyle himself seems to concede."

I have read tons of atheistic material over a span of 40 years, beginning with my undergraduate days in philosophy and the reading of A.J. Ayer's Language, Truth, and Logic. Who's the best among atheists? Were I an atheist, who would I be most interested in? The answer remains: Nietzsche, for his combination of brilliance and passion. Oakes seems to feel the same.

Nietzsche, in On Truth and Lying in an Extra-Moral Sense, "gives us this ultimate atheist scenario: “In some remote corner of the universe, poured out and glittering in innumerable solar systems, there once was a star on which clever animals invented knowledge. That was the highest and most mendacious minute of 'world history'—yet only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths the star grew cold, and the clever animals had to die.” He continued:

'One might invent such a fable and still not have illustrated sufficiently how wretched, how shadowy and flighty, how aimless and arbitrary, the human intellect appears in nature. There have been eternities when it did not exist; and when it is done for again, nothing will have happened. For this intellect has no further mission that would lead beyond human life. . . . There is nothing in nature so despicable or insignificant that it cannot immediately be blown up like a bag by a slight breath of this power of knowledge; and just as every porter wants an admirer, the proudest human being, the philosopher, thinks that he sees the eyes of the universe telescopically focused from all sides on his actions and thoughts.'"

Were I an atheist I'd say "Amen" to that! But note that the "Amen" utters the word "Truly" to the undermining of science itself. Oakes: "If the “knowledge” delivered up by “science” only serves to puff up a pathetic animal doomed to die in an uncaring universe, why bother with science anyway? If the search for knowledge is nothing more than a vain attempt to puff oneself up like some miles gloriosus in a Falstaffian comedy, what’s the point?"
Amen, again. Science "works." But to what end? And, so what? Nothing of "value" is gained by this. Oakes writes: "For Nietzsche—who was perhaps the only truly honest atheist in the history of philosophy—science was ultimately a moral, not an epistemological problem, a point he drove home with special force in The Gay Science (all italics are his):

'The question “Why science?” leads back to the moral problem: Why have morality at all when life, nature, and history are “not moral”? . . . [I]t is still a metaphysical faith upon which our faith in science rests—even we seekers after knowledge today, we godless anti-metaphysicians still take our fire, too, from the flame lit by a faith that is thousands of years old, that Christian faith which was also the faith of Plato, that God is the truth, that truth is divine. —But what if this should become more and more incredible, if nothing should prove to be divine any more unless it were error, blindness, the lie—if God himself should prove to be our most enduring lie?'

For Nietzsche the atheist, faith in science rests on... nothing. I agree with Oakes, who says that "the battle is still between nihilism and theism. There is no third option." He concludes: "What most fascinates me about the debate launched by the New Atheists is how resolute they are in ignoring this point. This is why I think that, rather than trying to argue the New Atheists (who are more dogmatic about God than any Thomist has ever been) out of their settled views, it seems best to take their very imperviousness as itself a sign of the human condition."