Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Dangerous Knowledge Documentary

n my department's list of courses, PHIL 100 is our basic Knowledge and Reality, an introduction into epistemology and metaphysics. On an introductory level, this means Descartes as the often cited introduction to the modern period, and the problems of knowledge conceptually involve some logic and problems of mind inaugurated by Descartes. In this course, they also teach Godel's incompleteness theorem and Turing's "Turing Machine." I've always thought this was a subject way beyond first-year students, and is a completely unfair way to distinguish the few from the rest. Now, I've found a really good documentary on these ideas that gives them a historical context. If you want to watch it, here's the link:


My training in philosophy passes over the importance of Godel and Turing completely. These thinkers are largely mathematicians and physicists, tackling problems I haven't even been trained to encounter. What I am linking here is a documentary that brings down to a level of comprehension as far as the consequences of their ideas, not the content of their ideas. I wanted to offer some thoughts on the documentary since the very same climate that undermined what I would call the classical narratives of order find expression in Nietzsche around the same time of these thinkers. Moreover, thinkers like Marx and Freud in their own way are also developing problems that are critical of these same orders of meaning. For Marx, it is overturning an entire system of economic power, and for Freud, he overturns the idea that we are conscious deliberators in control of our lives showing that what moves human concsiousness are unconscious drives. It is mostly with Nietzsche, the death of God, that concerns me. It is a cultural event with standing significance, mapped on to the heart of what Cantor and company are facing in the documentary.

At this time, old ideas are "slipping away." The very idea of an ordered and regulated cosmos guarantees certainty not only in the realm of predictable natural events. The same guarantee applies to an ordered moral universe. Aquinas and Augustine build a view of the world that sees order applying to both nature and morality. Reason is the power and faculty that discerns the ordered principles set forth by God. Thus, moral truth is ensured by design, and human reason in its finitude is empowered to find these out or intuit them. For the most part, morality is construed as overriding and impartial. It constrains our own wants and desires as well as applying to everyone in the same way. The story of morality, even in its secular form for Nietzsche, is given in the story of the Judeo-Christian tradition. In this way, Nietzsche's critique of morality is launched by encountering the very tradition incipient with it. He does not parse morality qua Kant or morality qua utilitarianism. The same impartiality and overridingness features of morality are birthed from the dominant tradition of the West.

Two things are important now. Not only was Nietzsche an atheist, the metaphysical thesis stating God does not exist, but also he was an anti-theist arguing that belief in God is detrimental to the believer. This comes through on the moral consequence of Christianity, the heart of the attack on God is seen as coming from morality itself. To believe in God makes one at odds with oneself. Morality is often more than not a hindrance to the pursuit of excellence in us. In religion, people are made to interpret the natural impulses of life as either something to be ashamed/repressed, or as something that one becomes alienated against. This honesty and approach to natural impulses of life are sources of value for Nietzsche. Repressing these life-affirming values represses the excellence in our humanity, and this is stated for many reasons, reasons that I won't address here. The productive work of Nietzsche's criticism is to allow for the expression of our excellence. Yet, once the moral guarantor of order is taken out of the picture, nihilism is a consequence, and while Nietzsche pronounced the cultural event of the death of God, so, too, does he wish to overcome the consequent nihilism (a huge misrepresentation of the story often left untouched by his critics, including Christian seminarians).

Like others in the documentary, Nietzsche plays on the precipice. There is much debate about what constitutes a proper interpretation of Nietzsche's provocative aphoristic writing style, yet I feel compelled to draw a further analogy to the documentary about his precipice playing. The most confusing thing about Nietzsche is that his substantive project looks to invent new myths -- the Ubermenschen for instance -- at the expense of overcoming older ones (Christianity). This looks almost religious in a way, yet I think the myth invention, if it can be called that, is at least a perspective endorsed by Nietzsche. For him, truth was perspectival, relative to the discipline or the knower in question, and through mutual contact, these perspectives would dialogue with each other somehow arriving at the truth. Yet, this is never spelled out how it is done, but only expressed as a hope. Like Godel, he thought the incompleteness theorem could be overcame somehow. Nietzsche regarded nihilism as a negative feature, and would dangerously disrupt our well-being. Like many in the documentary, he stares directly into the abyss of this disorder only to find madness at the end of his life.

The purpose of this short post is to suggest that Nietzsche views the same disorder in morality. In addition, I am showing that like others, he desires a type of unity in morality unraveled by shedding older conceptions of morality called into question. This is meant to contextualize the 30 second bit about the death of God in the film, as well as to add my own two cents to the documentary. Moreover, I think this documentary should be viewed by Jonah Goldberg. A best-friend and I have anticipated this intellectually chic work entitled Liberal Fascism. I wanted to see exactly how Goldberg, as a conservative, would interpret people like Nietzsche and Foucault. Goldberg picks up that these people question the status-quo, but I think he misses how inextricably complicated the end of the 19th century is or how nuanced Nietzsche's work is. I felt this documentary actually situates the academic climate quite nicely and perhaps, the story of order slipping away from science, art, literature and philosophy is the reason why so much of what I do in Continental philosophy is filled with what one professor at a conference called "gloppiness" to me. I hope you enjoy it. I know I did.

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