Monday, May 6, 2013

Whenever Babylon Conquers Assyria

Frederick Nietzsche, no friend of Christianity, once performed an immaculate reductio ad absurdum of scientific materialism in his essay, On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense. The essay purports to uncover man's "will to truth," by analyzing the origins of language in man's quest to understand the world. The underlying premise upon which Nietzsche builds his argument is that of scientific materialism, that the world is no more than a collection of brute particulars subject to the irrational (i.e. purposeless) forces of nature, which are observable in their effects, but are otherwise inscrutable.

He asserts that any vocalization of a proposition, say, "This is a leaf," depends upon three levels of metaphorical translation: 1st, the nerve impulse that is the sensation of seeing the object, which in turn becomes and image in the mind (seeing and perceiving the object to be called "leaf"); 2nd the formulation of a sound to express the sensation and its image (saying the word "leaf"); 3rd, the categorizing of other similar sensations and images into a form that purports to express a definite class of objects (formulating a concept of "leaf" by which similar sensations are classified).

Nietzsche's criticism of this natural human process is that there is no rational basis for these metaphorical translations--it is simply human beings acting according to their purposeless nature, the same as any animal might react to nerve stimuli. There is no reason to think that man's thinking about objects in the world expresses anything generally true about the world anymore than a gnat's experience  of objects in the world expresses anything generally true about the world. All that human thinking expresses is human experience, which possesses no verisimilitude with the world of nature as it is in itself. Rather, human beings poetize their own experience and regulate one another upon the basis of collective, stipulated designations (which are designed to be productive of pleasure and reductive of pain). Thus, to "tell a lie" is to inflict undesirable or painful consequences according to the herd's stipulated designations, and to "tell the truth" is to produce desirable and pleasurable consequences by the same standard.

Nietzsche goes on to explain where the will to truth originates, that is, what led humans to enforce their designations upon one another in the first place. Nietzsche then concludes by separating two kinds of human expressions for the will to truth, one rational and the other intuitive (he does not say so, but one is the philosopher and the other is the poet, it seems to me).

Nietzsche's aim, one may suspect, is to open up to his age realization of the unfettered possibilities of poetizing the world according to one's own fancy and in one's own image. There are, of course, limitations upon what one can do--one is only human after all--but one need not follow the conventions of the herd, or should one follow the conventions of the herd, one can do so knowing that they are simply conveniences, without rational force. In either case, one may choose to be an overman, the individual who forges his own way apart from or among the herd, though it bring about his own ostracizing from the herd, and even great pain according to his all-too-human frailties. Whatever his hopes, the Christian can recognize in Nietzsche's remarks the intellectual conquest of an "Assyrian captor" by an equivalently dangerous "Babylonian force." That is, the replacement of trust in scientific observation as a guaranty of Truth by anarchical freedom to express one's power in whatever way one is able and willing. In one breath we may be thankful for the removal of an intellectual oppressor, but in the next we may pray for deliverance from the tyrannous idea that has been its demise.

The Church, grounded neither in the brute particulars of nature, nor the anarchical fancies of man, may justly laugh with her Bridegroom at both of these evils, yet only for a moment, since laughter is but the respite to take courage in one's own epistemological self-consciousness under the Sovereign Christ before marching once more to the front, where such vain ideas produce their devastating consequences upon men and things. The Church should not necessarily be opposed to settle down and grow strong in the midst of Babylon, but she should ever be wary of becoming Babylon herself. The quest for wisdom that liberates one from evil and the despair of present pain still begins, continues, and ends where it ever has begun, continued, and will end: with the fear of the Lord. Looking out for oneself and one's neighbor never involves looking to oneself or one's neighbor, but rather to the King, whose Word heralds in peace for all who will abide in its eternal Truth.

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