Nietzche’s Truth-Loving Test

In this blog, I have kept a running list of tests for telling whether you love the truth, including:

Today, let’s add one from Friedrich Nietzche:

Something might be true, even if it were also harmful and dangerous in the highest degree; indeed, it might be part of the essential nature of existence that to understand it completely would lead to our own destruction. The strength of a person’s spirit would then be measured by how much ‘truth’ he could tolerate, or more precisely, to what extent he needs to have it diluted, disguised, sweetened, muted, falsified.

Friedrich Nietzche, Beyond Good and Evil, paragraph 39, translation by Marion Faber

I credit Jordan Peterson for bringing this to my attention. Riffing on Nietzche’s idea, Peterson said, “The pathway to who you could be if you were completely who you [are] is through the truth. …And so the truth does set you free but the problem is that it destroys everything that isn’t worthy in you as it sets you free” and that is often painful.

I can attest to the truth of what these gentlemen have said. It took me four decades of growing up before I was finally ready to squarely face some difficult questions about my own beliefs, and then it took four more years of study and critical thinking before I was ready to abandon those beliefs. It was very painful but it did set me free.

In my experience, Nietzche’s description of the weak-spirited person as one who needs to have the truth “diluted, disguised, sweetened, muted, [and] falsified” does not so much refer to the outer truth being examined (i.e., a belief system) as to inner the truth about the person himself: the fact that he harbors confirmation bias, and why he does; his willingness to go along to get along; his fear of life falling apart if he allows his beliefs to change; his attachment to the positive outcomes of his belief system; his need for life to make perfect sense; and many other counter-productive traits.

Until those character defects are exposed and rectified, the project of correcting the outer falsehoods is hopeless.

Are you facing the unpleasant truths about yourself? Take this handy homemade quiz and find out! Every “Yes” answer says you are on the right track.

  • When someone corrects your behavior, or an argument you are making, are you grateful rather than defensive?
  • Do you help your ideological opponents fashion the strongest possible argument for their position before you attempt a rebuttal?
  • Do you refrain from attributing bad motives to others unless you have incontrovertible evidence?
  • Have you given as much thought to your method of arriving at truth as to whatever you have concluded is the truth?
  • Do you often catch yourself believing what someone says because they are good-looking, or of your race? (We all do this, so if you’re at least catching yourself, that’s a good thing.)
  • Do you often catch yourself reflexively believing someone is “bad” because they disagree with your political or religious convictions? (Also something we all do, so the more you catch yourself, the better.)
  • And one more for these days of COVID-19: Do you respect the conclusions of acknowledged experts more than the opinions of your friends or conspiracy theorists?

The Real Lord of the Flies

Scene from the movie adaptation of The Lord of the Flies

Although I somehow got away without reading it, a large percentage of high-schoolers read The Lord of the Flies, the story of a pack of adolescent boys stranded on an island. It starts off optimistically enough, with a democratic assembly and three rules: (1) have fun; (2) survive; and (3) keep a fire going to alert any passing ships. By the end of the book, the island is in ruins, the boys have devolved into warring tribes, and three of them are dead.

The novel’s dark view of human nature is the default view in Western culture. It is as old and pervasive as, well, original sin.

Fortunately, the book is only a work of fiction. This week, I learned what happened when a pack of boys was shipwrecked in real life. The outcome was quite different, as you can read here: The real Lord of the Flies. In a nutshell, the boys form a cooperative society. They start and end each day with a song and a prayer. (The Catholic school from which they had escaped would be pleased!) They fashion a guitar out of a coconut and salvaged wire, which they play to cheer themselves up. They allocate duties fairly and with a buddy system. When a quarrel does break out, they solve it with a “time out” rather than violence. When they are finally rescued after 15 months, they are astonishingly healthy and sane. I commend the whole article to you; read it and let your spirits be lifted!

Some people are real villains, but most of us want to do the right thing, even if we struggle at times.

Appendix: While rooting around the Internet for this post, I came across this account of a researcher who tried to construct a Lord of the Flies scenario artificially: A real-life Lord of the Flies: the troubling legacy of the Robbers Cave Experiment. Psychologist Mufazer Sherif manipulated some boys at a summer camp to try to make them fight each other. The first experiment did not go well — for the experimenters. The second experiment produced the result that Sherif desired and became standard reading in the field but, these days, should make us skeptical of all such experiments.

Zarathustra Speaks to the Stream

I’ve been away from this blog for a while but recently a few people have encouraged me to return to it. I thought I’d start with the big event that occurred during the haitus, which was to get remarried!

Long-time readers may remember a little piece of existential philosohy I wrote called Zarathustra Speaks to the Trees. Borrowing the main character of Nietzche’s famous work, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, it explicated my outlook on life at the time. For my wedding, I borrowed the wise man again to talk about love, marriage, and my relationship with my bride-to-be.

* * * * *

As Zarathustra was descending the mountain that borders the Lake of Blue and Silver, he heard a stream tumbling and playing down a rocky bed. It was such a joyous sound that he decided to visit the stream. 

Approaching, he called out, “Hail, friends!”  

“You call us friends,” replied the stream. “but most who come this way see only me, and not my companion. Perhaps you are the sage, Zarathustra, who is rumored to travel this land from time to time.” 

“I am,” said he, “but as for there being two of you–stream and stream-bed–it could not be more obvious. Stream, I could hear your laughter at a hundred paces, and there are few who laugh alone. I might even say that I hear the unique notes of love in your laughter.”  

“You are right about that, too” said the stream-bed. “In fact, we are to be married next week.” And then, after a pause, “Perhaps you would favor us with some advice for our life together, and pronounce your blessing?” 

“Tell me about yourselves first,” said the wise man. “Why do you love each other? And what does love mean to you?” 

The stream-bed spoke first. “She is my reason for being. Without her, I would only be a dry home for lizards and the insects they hunt.” 

“Without him, I would be a swamp,” she laughed. 

“Not so, my dear. You would find your way down the mountainside without me. But it is my joy to carry you to the Lake of Blue and Silver, where the sun dances by day and the stars are doubled at night.” 

“And carry me he does. He holds me so close that there is no space between us, yet I am always free to leap and play as I please.” 

“She fits me so perfectly and covers me so completely that I want for nothing, yet she is so clear that I can always see the sky.” 

“I am not always clear,” she said to Zarathustra. “Sometimes I carry sediment that falls into him like slow tears. He receives it in a quiet, peaceful place and I am able to leave it behind.” 

“When I am down,” he said, “when I plunge most steeply, she becomes more beautiful, sometimes even becoming a misty rainbow. Invariably, I recover soon after.” 

“But most of the time,” said the stream, “we just enjoy life together, as we were doing when you arrived.”   

“You seem well-matched,” said Zarathustra. “What do you see in your distant future?” 

“I am going to the Lake of Blue and Silver,” said the stream. “There is a star that we have chosen together, and when I have come to the place of my resting, I will hold the reflection of our star in my heart forever.” 

“I do not know how my journey ends,” said the stream-bed. “It is not my nature to move as easily as my love, nor is my destination as well-determined. Whatever happens, it is enough for me that she holds our star. 

“And now, Zarathustra, perhaps you would give us your counsel and your blessing?” 

“I shall address you first, my rocky friend. You have great strength, but a stream-bed without a stream is just an obstacle. You have well said that the stream is your reason for being. As long as you act from that principle, you will bless not only her, but everyone who travels this way–yourself, too, for her lovelines and clarity will become the lens through which you see the world. 

“Stream, your task is easier. Your nature is to refresh everyone you touch, and at this you will succeed without any effort at all. However, if your husband is wise, he will offer spaces in which you may multiply your loveliness: cool, shady pools in which you can become deeper; rocky, winding courses where you can frolic; and tranquil expanses where you can spread out and reflect the sun. Enjoy them all without fear, for he loves you.  

“My blessing for your marriage is this: May rock guide water so gently, and may water carve rock so tenderly, that your growing harmony will seem at once miraculous and inevitable.” 

Thus spoke Zarathustra. 

* * * * *

For our first anniversary, in August of 2019, I commissioned this painting. Zarathustra was from Persia, which was centered in what is now Iran, so I was thrilled to find the Iranian artist Sahar Ghavimi living in a town near me. She painted it in the style of a traditional Iranian miniature.

The caption is a translation into Farsi of a line from the story: her loveliness will become the lens through which you see the world.

Racially Profiled in His Own Driveway?

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A Tudor-Style Home in Hartford, CT

When I was a baby-faced teenaged boy, I was in a department store and a sales clerk asked, “Can I help you, ma’am?” Talk about humiliating! When I responded in my teenaged-boy voice, the clerk realized his mistake and was as embarrassed as I was.

I was recently in a jewelry store where I wanted to buy a semi-custom item. I described what I wanted and asked the woman behind the counter, “Would you be the one to help me with that?”  I cringed because I knew she was probably thinking, “He would not ask a man that question. It’s only because I’m a woman that it enters his head that I might not know what I’m talking about.” Of course, that was not the case. I didn’t know if she was a sales clerk or an actual jeweler, so I had to ask the question before I rambled on and wasted both our time.

Now imagine that for your whole life people have assumed you are less than you are, just because of your race. That was the case for retired professional Major League Baseball player Doug Glanville, who is African-American.

As a successful man with a full career after 15 years as a baseball player, he had plenty of money and lived in one of the “nicer” neighborhoods in Hartford, Connecticut. One day he was shoveling snow in his driveway. Here is his account of what happened next:

A police officer from West Hartford had pulled up across the street, exited his vehicle, and begun walking in my direction. I noted the strangeness of his being in Hartford—an entirely separate town with its own police force—so I thought he needed help. He approached me with purpose, and then, without any introduction or explanation he asked, “So, you trying to make a few extra bucks, shoveling people’s driveways around here?”

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Morality vs Accountability

Last month, a commenter dropped this interesting nugget:

God’s existence implies accountability’s existence…

More broadly, our discussion was about whether morality can be grounded in a non-theistic framework. I thought yes; he thought no. For him, God is what makes the “moral code” real, objective, absolute and authoritative. Fair enough, and his position has been the position of most people throughout recorded history.

But let’s look at recorded history. I will argue that my commenter hit the nail on the head when he said, “God’s existence implies accountability’s existence,” but accountability is not the same thing as morality — at least not what most of us mean by morality.

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The Morality of the Invisible Hand

There is a story that a high-level Russian official visited America during the Reagan presidency and was shown the abundance of goods in American stores. He was astonished at the bountiful display and how it compared to the meager offerings in his home country.

“Who planned all this production?” he asked.

“Nobody,” his hosts replied. “People just decide for themselves what they want to produce and sell.”

He thought they must be concealing something. “No, seriously. Tell me: what authority is behind all this?”

“We assure you, this did not come from a central plan. People are free to go into business as they like and produce what they want, and what you see on the shelves is the result.”

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The Intuitions of Artificial Intelligence

Does your intuition tell you that computers can’t develop intuition? If so, then you might want to reconsider in light of this week’s news.

Computers have been better at chess since Deep Blue beat Garry Kasparov in 1997, but this week Google’s AlphaZero, a general-purpose artificial intelligence (AI) absolutely crushed the reigning computer champion, winning 28 games out of 100 and drawing the rest (no losses at all). It did not win because it computed faster or with a better brute-force algorithm. It won by having better chess intuition than any human. And it developed this intuition all on its own.

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