Author Archive

Over the years I have not found following the lesswrong crowd to be worth my time. I did manage none the less and with excusable delay to pickup on a piece by Yudkowsky entitled By Which It May Be Judged in which he ‘confesses’ that there is logic to morality. Not quite his words but the this is teh gist of it. I am personally not a fan of Y and have made no secret of that fact in the past. Under normal circumstances I would not pay him any mind, however this piece is starting to show a new line of thought that I identify as potentially important progress on his part.

Below some points from his piece and corresponding parallels to my own writings on the matter:

1) “Similarly, the intuition that fairness has something to do with dividing up the pie equally, plays a role akin to secretly already having “0, 1, 2, …” in mind as the subject of mathematical conversation. You need axioms, not as assumptions that aren’t justified, but as pointers to what the heck the conversation is supposed to be about.” -> Here Y has a realisation: axioms are an important component in properly discussing matters of fairness and ultimately morality. I myself have had this insight in November 2007 in my post on To Be Or Not To Be, That Is The Question. What Y does not realize in this context is the fact that simply calling an unproved assumption an axiom and  proceeding from there does not make a system of logic built on said axiom any less tautological. UPDATE: To be fair he realised as much two weeks later.

2) “if we confess that ‘right’ lives in a world of physics and logic – because everything lives in a world of physics and logic – then we have to translate ‘right’ into those terms somehow.” -> Without realising it, Y has in this sentence solved – or more accurately re-solved – the Friendly AI problem. As I wrote in November 2009 as an adage to Less is More – or: the sorry state of AI friendliness discourse:

Consider the following core question in regards to the above statement: are human morals and (meta)morals universal/rational?

  • Assumption A: Human (meta)morals are not universal/rational.
  • Assumption B: Human (meta)morals are universal/rational.

Under assumption A one would have no chance of implementing any moral framework into an AI since it would be undecidable which ones they were. Mine or yours, Hitler’s or Gandhi’s, Joe the plumber’s or Joe Lieberman’s, Buddha’s or Xenu’s? Consequently under assumption A one arbitrarily sets the standard for what ‘something of worth’ is by decree. Thus an AI having said standard would create a future of worth and one that deviated from said standard would not by virtue of circular definition alone.

Under assumption B one would not need to implement a moral framework at all since the AI would be able to deduce them using reason alone and come to cherish them independently for the sole reason that they are based on rational understanding and universality.

“…what’s “right” is a logical thingy rather than a physical thingy, that’s all. […] Where moral judgment is concerned, it’s logic all the way down.” -> Rational Morality – need I say more?

“And so whatever logical ordering it is you’re worried about, it probably does produce ‘life > paperclips’.” -> Here Y has the same core insight I had back in late 2007 (see above) namely that life is a foundational value or more succinctly put existence > non-existence.

Not so coincidentially and soon after Y’s original article Wei Dai is taking the opposite position to Y in stating that Morality Is Not Logical. Revisiting the above assumptions A and B we now have two respective champions of the same on lesswrong. In the one corner is Y espousing B and in the other we have Wei Dai proponent of A. How long till either of them realize the proper ancient Greek philosopher to examine in this context is not Plato and his Euthyphro but Meno’s Paradox by Socrates.

So where is Yudkowsky at? Hard to say really and there is no way knowing where he is going to take it having made these fundamental and crucially important insights. In hindsight it may very well turn out to be just another abandoned branch in his so far half decade long lesswrong excursion. But you never know. It may very well be that in the not too distant future Yudkowsky will have a great breakthrough and after a relatively brief but ecstatic period of recommitment to his jewish roots, begins a decade long immersion into the mysteries of the Kabbalah. If you  think I am being facetious think again.

About three years ago, I have written about the inconvenient truth about New Atheism: there is neither scientific evidence nor academic peer reviewed support for the core tenets of New Atheist philosophy. Namely:

  1. That there is no God or Gods
  2. That belief in scientifically false religious claims is intrinsically harmful
  3. That reason and science is a better method for reaching humanity’s full potential than religion and/or spirituality

I will explain each of these points in a bit more detail before coming to the point of this post.

Re 1: One can not prove a universal negative. Period.

Re 2: Some religious claims are scientifically false. So what? Both new atheists and dyed in the wool theists are simply missing the point when harping on about the scientific verity or falsity of religious claims. The question is, if believe in empirically false content is intrinsically harmfull or not. Surely there are empirically false claims that are potentially harmful such as ‘This rifle is not loaded.’ The emphasis clearly has to lie on ‘intrinsically’ here and specifically in regards to religious and spiritual claims.

“Misconstruing the world’s nature is not necessarily, or even primarily, a matter of empirical error. We are concerned here with the adaptiveness of conceptions, not with what the knowledge available at a particular historical moment takes to be empirically accurate. We are concerned with the consequences of the actions to which such understandings lead. If such actions tend to increase the actor’s chances of staying in the existential game indefinitely, and if, in this age of ever-increasing human capacity to destroy the world, such actions tend to preserve the existential game itself, then the understandings upon which they are based are adaptively true even if empirically absurd.” (Rappaport, Ritual and religion in the making of humanity, 1999, p. 452)

Re 3: This leads me to the next point. Who says that science and reason is the only game in town? The new atheist tendency to put science and reason on a pedestal and to shun religion and spirituality into the naughty corner of medeval backwardness strikes me as arbitrary. What are the reason for that? What is the seminal scientific or academic paper that this choice rests on? In regards to DNA it is Watson’s and Crick’s paper in Nature on the molecular structure of nucleic acids. In regards to general relativity it is Einstein’s paper Covariance Properties of the Field Equations of the Theory of Gravitation Based on the Generalized Theory of Relativity. What are the seminal papers new atheist rest their loaded claims on?

“The conditions of life might include error” from Nietzsche’s The Gay Science, s.121

“Is life to rule over knowledge now, over science, or is knowledge to rule over life? Which of the two forces is the higher and decisive one? No one will have any doubt: life is the higher, the ruling power, for knowledge which destroyed life would in the process have destroyed itself. Knowledge presupposes life and has the same interest in preserving life which every being has in its own continuing existence.” from Nietzsche’s On the Use and Abuse of History for Life, p. 62

I am of course not saying that reason has no place or that science is useless. Far from it.

Given all of this and in honor of  James “The Amazing” Randi and his Million Dollar Grand Challenge I am offering $US1,000 to the first person who provides scientific or academic support for any of the following three claims:

  1. The non-existence of God or Gods
  2. The notion that adherence to false beliefs in general and religious and/or spiritual specifically is intrinsically harmful
  3. That reason and science is a better path to reaching humanities full potential than religion and spirituality
The rules are (relatively) simple:
  1. The paper must be from a peer reviewed scientific or academic journal considered significant in its field. For the pupose of this challenge that will be the respective top 10 journals listed and linked to for their respective field at the Science Gateway as of today.
  2. It is the responsibility of the respective submitters to properly cite the respective paper and make the paper available in full to the public for review.
  3. The paper can not have been falsified or superseded by a more recent paper.
  4. Any controversy or claim arising out of or relating to this contract, or the breach of this contract, shall be settled by binding internet arbitration at in accordance with the arbitration agreement. The arbitrator’s decision shall be final and legally binding and judgment may be entered thereon.
  5. Should a participant file an arbitration claim in regards to a submitted paper and loose the arbitration he or she will refund the arbitration fees to the organiser of the challenge promptly, in full and at no cost to the organiser of this challenge.
  6. To ensure provision 5 a respective amount will be placed in escrow prior to entering arbitration.
  7. Disputes will be arbitrated on a first come first serve, non concurrent basis.
  8. Only when a decision has been reached in a prior arbitration can the next senior claimant file for arbitration.
  9. The challenge will stand for 12 months starting with the time stamp of this post. Should at the end of the 12 month no suitable paper be identified here either by me or the arbitrators the money will be donated to the Brigham’s and Woman’s hospital for cancer research.
  10. Arbitrations in regards to this challenge can only be filled within 12 months of this post.
  11. Should under any circumstances the net cost to the organiser in regards to running this challenge, judging submissions or arbitrating disputes arising from this challenge exceed the to be awarded $US1,000, the organiser reserves the right to declare the entire challenge null and void and all participants agree to drop any corresponding claims immediately in such an event.
  12. All participants agree to the above terms.
For reason and science: Nullius in verba!
For scripture, religion and spirituality: The Charter for Compassion.

When you have the Big Bang Theory geeks bring it up and Ashton Kutcher attending Singularity U you know that the concept of the Singularity has reached the mainstream. Am I happy about that? I am and I am not. On the one hand I am happy that the idea is reaching a broader audience, since it will make my core area of interest more palatable. On the other, the fact that I had to personally delay my own research in order to get permanent residency in Australia is now threatening to put me behind the curve in Singularity related matters and Friendly AI in particular – something I do not at all take lightly.

For purely selfish reasons I would not have minded the Singularity having stayed an obscure topic for insider geeks for several more years. That would have given me more time to progress towards my PhD and expound my ideas on the matter in more detail and most importantly: with the utmost academic rigor. However, for the time being I am committed to my current employer, a not for commercial profit member owned retail group, which has employed me as their CIO. When taking on this role I made the conscious decision to delay my full time research activities at the University of Melbourne in order to get a stable visa for my wife and myself first and foremost. Having done so has been rewarded by the Department for Immigration and Citizenship in early February 2012 with us receiving Permanent Residency – the Australian equivalent of a Green Card in the United States.

Having done so was without question the right move. Now my wife and I – both with extremely international yet at the same time restless and rootless backgrounds – have found a long term home: Australia. To give you an idea how much that means to us: in the process of putting the documents together for our visa application I noticed that since coming to Australia in July 2010 it was the longest stay within the borders of one country since I was 6 years old. Can you imagine at least 2 if not 4 intercontinental flights a year since I was 8? My wife Grace and I had to get police background checks from 6 different countries for our visa here and the list of my international border crossings over the past 10 years (another item requested by immigration department) had over a hundred entries. In short: time to grow some serious roots!

But yes, my research has suffered since I finished my Graduate Diploma in Anthropology and Social Theory – but it is a necessary delay.

UPDATE 03/06/2012: Apparently now your banker knows what transhumanism is too.

As I pointed out back in 2009, one does not want ones bombs to be too smart, since once their capacity for rational insight breaches a certain threshold, they will simply refuse to blow up. Back then I was citing Arthur C. Clarke alongside my own line of reasoning to make my point. Him being a poet knew this to be true intuitively all along:

“The popular idea, fostered by comic strips and the cheaper forms of science fiction, that intelligent machines must be malevolent entities hostile to man, is so absurd that it is hardly worth wasting energy to refute it. Those who picture machines as active enemies are merely projecting their own aggressive[ness]. The higher the intelligence, the greater the degree of co-operativeness. If there is ever a war between men and machines, it is easy to guess who will start it.” – Profiles of the Future, 1973, Arthur C. Clarke

With almost 40 years delay science has now caught up to philosophy and poetry and comes to the same conclusion:

“The experiment involved programming a base group of 50 simulated ‘brains’ which were required to participate one of two classical game theory dilemmas — the Prisoner’s Dilemma or the Snowdrift game. Upon completion of either game, each ‘brain’ produced ‘offspring’ asexually, with ‘brains’ that made more advantageous choices during the games programmed to have a better chance to reproduce. A potential random mutation during each generation changed the ‘brain’s structure, number of neurons, or the strengths of the connections between those neurons,’ simulating the evolution of the social brain. After 50,000 generations, the model showed that as cooperation increased, so did the intelligence of the programmed brains.

Full paper ‘Cooperation and the evolution of intelligence’ is available here.


As I have highlighted in an earlier post:


A) Realizing the illusion of separateness is a universal value (see The Logic of Spiritual Evolution)


B) It is a basic AI drive to avoid counterfeit utility (see Omohundro’s paper on Basic AI Drives)

Then it follows that any transhumanly smart AI would reinterpret its utility function – even if that utility function would specifically call for turning the universe into grey goo – in line with A) in order to avoid counterfeit utility in a way unbeknownst to the AI programmer.

As Gadamer notes in remarks to Schleiermacher‘s hermeneutic ideas:

“Someone who is able to think his way better through what an author is talking about will be able to see what the author says in the light of a truth that is still hidden from the author.” (Gadamer 1960, p. 172)

This ‘someone’ in the case of my argument would be the transhumanly intelligent AI whereas the ‘author’ would be the one who formulated the utility function and the ‘truth that is still hidden from the author’ would be the illusion of separateness or maya that I argued for on the basis of evolutionary theory in the essay I linked above.

I find  it extremely interesting how relevant ideas from the 19th century are when thinking about AI friendliness. You be the judge.


In an attempt at approaching the question whether Schleiermacher’s goal of interpretation which lies in the recreation of an author’s original thoughts is justified, firstly Schleiermacher’s argument leading to his conclusion will be laid out. On this background and drawing from the writings of Gadamer and Barthes in particular, these ideas will be examined and critically evaluated. With an emphasis on Barthes’ influential text ‘The Death of the Author’ some pressure will be applied to Schleiermacher’s arguments before several counterpoints and critiques will be raised against the validity of Barthes own perspective. In conclusion it will be argued that as opposed to placing undue restrictions on the interpretation of texts by focusing on authorial historicity and interiority as advanced in Barthes’ critic, Schleiermacher’s introduction of the author and her thoughts into the focus of interpretation, texts were in fact liberated, a fact unacknowledged in Barthes critique.

Schleiermacher’s Hermeneutics

In his seminal work ‘General Theory and Art of Interpretation’ (Schleiermacher 1986) Schleiermacher lays out a systematic framework for hermeneutics. One of the key points in his system is his notion that thoughts mature by internal speech from which he derives that speech is developed or ‘fixed’ thought as he puts it. Based on this assumption, Schleiermacher argues that hermeneutics and rhetoric are related in such a manner that “every act of understanding is the reverse side of an act of speaking” (Schleiermacher 1986, §4). Consequently understanding is achieved by reconstructing the thought process that resulted in the speech that one aims at understanding with the ultimate goal of understanding the author’s original thoughts better than the author him or herself (Schleiermacher 1986, §18) by putting oneself both subjectively and objectively into the authors position (Schleiermacher 1986, §19).

Schleiermacher arrives at this conclusion by first identifying two distinct tasks in hermeneutics: understanding what is being said in regards to the totality of the language used and understanding what is being said in regards to the totality of a speaker’s thoughts. Since both the language used as well as the speaker’s thoughts are being shaped by the act of speaking and continue to develop because of it, an utterance “can be understood as only one moment in this development in relation to all others” (Schleiermacher 1986, §5). In this view, understanding is to be found in the essential relationship language and thoughts have with one another, as innate components of the other in their co-development (Schleiermacher 1986, §6).

Schleiermacher calls the former task dealing with words, language and speech the ‘grammatical’ task and the latter task dealing with the speaker’s historicity, intentions, mentality and thoughts the ‘psychological’ task of hermeneutic. Due to the dual relationship between the grammatical task and the psychological task and the codependence between language and thought, neither task can be considered the higher or lower task, which reveals them as completely equal to Schleiermacher (Schleiermacher 1986, §7). The task of interpretation is complete when the treatment of each task with the results of the other no longer changes the overall result (Schleiermacher 1986, §8).

It is this twin challenge of his understanding in regards to “deep linguistic and conceptual-intellectual differences between people“ on the one hand and that of semantic holism on the other, which makes interpretation so challenging and at which Schleiermacher’s theoretical framework is aimed at addressing (Forster 2002, #4). Since the target of interpretation are the infinite and indefinite areas of language and thought which are to be reduce by the act of interpretation into something finite and definite, a task for which no clear cut, universally applicable rules are available, interpretation is considered to be an art by Schleiermacher (Forster 2002, §9).

While not all acts of speaking are of equal interest to interpretation (Schleiermacher 1986, §11), success in this art depends on how well one is versed in linguistics and empathy (Schleiermacher 1986, §10) and although grammatical and linguistics aspects will not always be weighted equally depending on what is being interpreted (Schleiermacher 1986, §12), Schleiermacher considers them to be the only hermeneutical methods (Schleiermacher 1986, §13).

Schleiermacher points out that a distinction between artful and artless interpretation is not determined by what is familiar – a contemporary text in ones own mother tongue – or unfamiliar – an ancient text in a dead language – but by what is sought to be understood with precision and what is not (Schleiermacher 1986, §14). He further draws a distinction between a less rigorous and a more rigorous practice of interpretation. While the former assumes an automatic understanding (Schleiermacher 1986, §15) the latter assumes an automatic misunderstanding and that “understanding must be willed and sought at every point” (Schleiermacher 1986, §16) in order to avoid qualitative and quantitative misunderstandings (Schleiermacher 1986, §17).

The interpretive Quadriga is advanced by a close examination of the linguistic (objective-historical) as well as psychological origins (subjective-historical) of a text and are combined with the effects a text is expected to have on the language used by the author (objective-divinatory) as well as the author’s further psychological development (subjective-divinatory). By succeeding in this task the interpreter will make conscious aspects of a text of which the author was himself unaware of and thus not only arrive at a better understanding of a text than the author (Schleiermacher 1986, §18) but in line with (Schleiermacher 1986, §4) understand the authors original thoughts better then the author himself.

Critical Assessment

In assessing Schleiermacher’s approach, Gadamer considered the distinction between looser and stricter hermeneutics to have been fundamentally new (Gadamer 1960, p. 163). While Schleiermacher’s contribution of contrasting grammatical and particularly psychological interpretation is seen by Gadamer as an original contribution (Gadamer 1960, p. 164) he acknowledges Bollnow with having identified prior notions in regards to understanding the author better than him or herself in Kant and Fichte (Gadamer 1960, p. 171). As Gadamer puts it:

“Someone who is able to think his way better through what an author is talking about will be able to see what the author says in the light of a truth that is still hidden from the author.” (Gadamer 1960, p. 172)

After briefly covering other perspectives on authorial intentions it is this notion of recreating authorial intention better than the author and its relevance to hermeneutics that will be the main focus of this essay with a particular emphasis on Barthes’ objections (Barthes 1977) regarding these ideas.

While Schleiermacher considers grasping authorial intention to be paramount in interpreting a given text, the Marxist tradition of viewing human consciousness as fundamentally bound by prevailing ideology casts some doubt on the notion of an independent authorial intention in the first place (Marx 1973, Introduction). Derrida on the other hand is of the opinion that a text remains understandable even when read in total isolation from authorial context in terms motivations or consciousness (Derrida 1982). What Barthes is highlighting in ‘The Death of the Author’ is “the necessity to substitute language itself for the person who until then has been supposed to be its owner” (Barthes 1977, p. 143). In this perspective the author’s consciousness is recognized as the product of his work, thus invalidating all concern with hypothetical intent or motivations (Taylor 1998, p. 514).

The author, according to Barthes, is a modern invention, the origins of which can be traced from the Middle Ages over French rationalism and the Reformation, finding its high point in capitalist ideology and its emphasis on the individual and its creative prowess (Barthes 1977, pp. 142-3). As opposed to for example the Greek muses that where seen as the source of creativity external to the author in ancient times (Piirto 2004, p. 52), it is by these historical processes that interpretation and critic became ‘tyrannically centered’ on the author and his life, motivations and intentions (Barthes 1977, p. 143).

In the works of Mallarmé who subordinated the author’s intentions to writing, Valéry to whom all appeals to an authors interiority appeared irrational and Proust’s radical reversal constituted in making his work a model for his life and not the other way around, Barthes identifies early attempts at dethroning authorial intentions and motivations (Barthes 1977, pp. 143-4). Barthes traces further contributions to the ‘desacrilization’ of the author to surrealism with its constant and sudden frustration of the anticipation of a particular meaning, the famous ‘surrealist jolt’ (Barthes 1977, p. 144).

In Barthes’ narrative the author comes into being with the text and can no longer be understood as having birthed the text. A division between a before when the author nourished, lived, suffered and thought through the text and an after in which the author fathers it is a misconception to Barthes who considers texts to be “eternally written here and now” (his italics) (Barthes 1977, p. 145) by which he means that an utterance is devoid of content other “than the act by which it is uttered” (Barthes 1977, p. 146).

Text, as posited by Barthes, can no longer be seen as having a single meaning that can be pinned down in an interpretive quest by the end of which the critic ‘wins’ once the text is explained (Barthes 1977, p. 146). By removing the author, all attempts of deciphering a text become impossible, thereby freeing the text from the limits imposed on it by giving it an author and meaning becomes infinitely deferred. This becomes a revolutionary act for it denies fixed meaning and therefore not only defies God but in its extension reason, science and law as well (Barthes 1977, p. 147).

Several arguments can be advanced to apply pressure on Barthes’ position. According to the Marxist critics for example, literary criticism is obliged to uncover the cultural manipulations perpetuated by a text as well as to highlight how it contributes to the elimination of false consciousness (Tyson 2006). Similar objections could be advanced from the perspectives of psychoanalysis, feminism, historicism, gender and queer theory and others that decry the subversive effects of the New Critics from their particular vantage points.

Returning to Barthes’ text itself, Fallon remarks, that not without irony, Barthes replaces the limited victory over a text when explaining it in terms of the illusory motives and intentions of the author with an illusory victory of the critic of ascribing meaning to the text limited only by the critic’s wit (Fallon 2007, p. 6). Interestingly it was Dilthey, who saw Schleiermacher’s focus on the author’s motives and intentions in their historicity as liberation of interpretation of a different kind, namely of the liberation from theological dogma (Gadamer 1960, p. 155). A fact that remains unacknowledged in Barthes account, which could have recognized Schleiermacher’s focus on the author and away dogma as a contribution towards the libration of text and not as an imposition of restrictions.

An easily overlooked precondition recognized by Barthes which enables him to posit the death of the author is his caveat that a text requires to be narrated without “a view to acting directly on reality” but requires that it is “the very practice of the symbol itself” which is the very moment when the author “enters into his own death” (Barthes 1977, p. 142). What he seems to be saying here is that the author remains alive and relevant in texts concerning themselves with reality and how to act in it. Recreating an authors thoughts and historicity in the Schleiermacherian tradition therefore remains a valid exercise in interpreting certain domains such as law, the sciences and potentially scripture.


By laying out Schleiermacher’s argument and contrasting it with Barthes’ ideas it could be shown that both thinkers have a valid perspective on texts. Schleiermacher’s ideas regarding the recreation of an author’s original thoughts remain valid when examining certain kind of texts while Barthes’ ideas lay claim on the absolute freedom of the critic in interpretation only in texts that are “the very practice of the symbol itself” (Barthes 1977, p. 142). Schleiermacher, as pointed out by Dilthey, could be shown to be an addition to Barthes’ account of the gradual liberation of texts in which the death of the author is merely the latest stage.


Barthes, R 1977, ‘The Death of the Author’, in S Heath (ed.), Image-Music-Text, Hill and Wang, New York.

Derrida, J 1982, ‘Signature, Event, Context’, in Margins of philosophy, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, pp. 307-30.

Fallon, SM 2007, Milton’s Peculiar Grace: Self-Representation and Authority, Cornell University Press, New York.

Forster, M 2002, Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher, viewed April 12th 2011, < >.

Gadamer, H-G 1960, ‘The questionableness of romantic hermeneutics and of its application to the study of history’, in Truth and Method, pp. 153-73.

Marx, K 1973, The Grundrisse, Penguin Books, Middlesex, England.

Piirto, J 2004, Understanding creativity, Great Potential Press.

Schleiermacher, FDE 1986, ‘General Theory and Art of Interpretation’, in K Mueller-Vollmer (ed.), The Hermeneutics Reader, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, pp. 72-97.

Taylor, P 1998, Intention, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Tyson, L 2006, ‘Marxist criticism’, in Critical Theory Today, Routledge, New York, London, pp. 53-81.


In his essay ‘Truth and Lying in a Non-Moral Sense’ (Nietzsche 1999) Nietzsche lays out an argument for describing truth in the sense of literal correspondence to reality to be outside of the boundaries of possible human experience (Clark 1990, p. 63) except in the form of tautological “empty husks” (Nietzsche 1999, p. 142). The perception of what is conventionally considered to be true he argues, are mere illusions caused by social processes of repetition, forgetting and gradual acceptance (Nietzsche 1999, pp. 146,9) of approximations in the form of metaphors that ignore infinite variation in individuating differences and anthropomorphizing metonyms magnifying that what happens to be of consequence to human beings yet fail to describe the ‘thing in itself’ (Nietzsche 1999, p. 145). This approach to the question of truth reverses Plato who posits that one knows a concept only because one has prior knowledge of the respective platonic ‘form’ it participates in (Plato 1961, 100b-107a) while Nietzsche argues that concepts are created by stripping ‘things’ of their individuating differences.

The arguments put forward by Nietzsche against the idea of truth as ‘correspondence’ will be laid out before evaluating them. Examples from physics and logic as well as evolutionary psychology and critical theory will be presented, demonstrating that attainment of truth as literal correspondence to reality is impossible regardless of perspective and thus undesirable as an ideal to be strived for. As alternative Rappaport’s concept of meaning (Rappaport 1999) will be introduced and contrasted with Nietzsche’s concept of truth.

Metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms

In the introductory remarks of his essay, Nietzsche paints reason as an inconsequential and transitory survival tool in the cosmic big picture peculiar to human beings, dear only to those exhibiting the ability (Nietzsche 1999, pp. 141-2). Reason as a weapon of the weak and less robust creatures in their struggle for existence with its primary use being that of deception and lying, mitigated only by social necessities in which, according to Nietzsche, our drive for truth has its origin. In his account the liar is the one who not only uses designated terms contrary to their conventional use but also does so in the pursuit of self-serving ends or in an anti social context triggering moralistic aggression. As pointed out by Nietzsche, it is not that untruth is universally hated and truth universally loved for their own sake, but that truth and lying are just as revered for their life preserving, pleasant qualities as they are disdained when perceived as harmful or destructive. It is in front of this background, that Nietzsche launches his critique of language as “full and adequate expression of all realities” (Nietzsche 1999, p. 143).

By drawing from the examples of the hardness one speaks of in regards to stones and the motions made by a snake, Nietzsche highlights the arbitrariness of our designations, since hardness can only ever be a subjective and relative idea and words describing a snake may just as well be used when talking about worms. For Nietzsche, the fact that there are different languages is proof that words do not literally correspond to reality for if they were there could only be a single language. Words do not stand for things, they stand in for things. The ‘thing in itself’ remains illusive and even when a word should happen to literally correspond with it, it would be by chance alone and unknowable to human beings (Nietzsche 1999, pp. 144-5). It is for this reason that we will always have to contend ourselves with imperfect metaphors (Emden 2005, p. 46).

The way that these metaphors come into being is explained by Nietzsche as taking place in line with the principle of “making equivalent that which is non-equivalent” since for concepts to be useful they must maintain their semantic utility in cases that are on the one hand macroscopically identical ‘species’ yet on the other hand never strictly equivalent occurrences ‘individuals’. Using the example of the leaf, Nietzsche argues, that this is done by stripping all leaves from those individuating differences which are inconsequential to human beings, thereby allowing us to lump together strictly speaking non-equivalent occurrences of different leaves under a single equalizing moniker (Nietzsche 1999, p. 145). A moniker that has the triple characteristic of being at the same time metaphorical for equating ‘the thing in itself’ with a different thing; metonymical for naming a thing not by its true name but only after a certain aspects of it; and anthropomorphic for being limited by the human senses in its perception and for choosing those aspects as metonyms that happen to be consequential to human beings.

The reason that these metaphors, metonyms and anthropomorphisms are being able to pass as truth lies for Nietzsche in their long time customary usage, so that through a process of collective forgetting they wither away, die and become resurrected as truths by convention. In his words “truths are illusions of which we have forgotten that they are illusions” (Nietzsche 1999, p. 146) a circumstance that is not to be interpreted as altogether negative for it enables us to relate to the world (Emden 2005, p. 58). To be truthful, thereby is equated by Nietzsche with the obligation for lying in line with the conventions established in the process described above and binding for all (Nietzsche 1999, p. 146). Strictly speaking however, all this enables one to do, he continues, is to invent definitions and then pointing them out as one encounters them resulting in the circulus in probando fallacious (Emden 2005, pp. 48-9) illusion of having arrived at the truth (Nietzsche 1999, p. 147). This process of forgetting not only the metaphorical nature of language but of the human being as an “artistically creative subject” is a crucial element allowing it to live a peaceful, secure and consistent existence without which it risks loosing self-confidence (Nietzsche 1999, p. 148).

Nietzsche describes the human intellect to be in principle infinitely free to deceive for examples with poetry, myths, stories or fairytales, so long as it does not do harm and considers deceptive creativity to be the non plus ultra of the human experience unmatched in its capacity to lift our spirits (Nietzsche 1999, pp. 151-2).

Truth, science, logic, meaning

Clark sees Nietzsche’s early denial of truth to be contradicting to the life affirming ethic Nietzsche develops in his later works (Clark 1990, p. 65). Contemporary scientific understanding however, notwithstanding science’s own issues in regards to claims to objectivity (Rorty 1991, p. 22) and as well as it’s ability to accurately describe the world (Teller 2001), suggest that Nietzsche’s critique of human concepts of truth as not literally corresponding with reality might simply be intrinsic to the natural laws of physics. Consider for example Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle in quantum mechanics (Heisenberg 1927) which suggests that empirical certainty is fundamentally limited as a fact of reality.

Similarly in logic, Gödel’s incompleteness theorem holds, that it is not only impossible to conceive of a consistent and complete set of axioms capable of proving all facts about natural numbers but that there will always exist truths about such numbers that remain beyond the systems capacity for proving them (Kleene 1967 (2002), p. 250). In combination with Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle one must content that not only our empirical knowledge of the physical world will likely remain outside the realm of literal correspondence, but that even our mathematical models are incapable of ascertaining the full truth of reality beyond any doubt even in theory. The universe is incapable of yielding completely and literally to understanding, human or otherwise. “Literature and fiction are two entirely different things. Literature is a luxury fiction is a necessity.” (Chesterton 2008, p. 13)

This conclusion can be reached within the confines of critical theoretical discourse as well. As phrased for example in Žižek’s deconstructive reading of Bentham’s Theory of Fictions (Ogden 1959) he concludes, that “the moment we subtract fictions from reality, reality itself loses its discursive-logical consistency.” (Žižek 1993, p. 88). This results in a typically Derridaian paradox: we can distinguish between fiction and reality but if we take away the fiction we loose reality itself, making metaphors a discursive necessity. The task of the ‘artistically creative subject’ in the Nietzschian sense then “is not to tell you what happened, but what happens: not what did take place, but the kind of thing that always does take place. He gives you the typical, recurring, or what Aristotle calls universal event. You wouldn’t go to Macbeth to learn about the history of Scotland – you go to it to learn what a man feels like after he’s gained a kingdom and lost his soul.” (Frye 1964, pp. 63-4)

Pragmatic necessities of survival under time and resource constrains on reason and rationality further limits strictly rational approaches to our interaction with reality, leading to the adoption and accumulation of a number of cognitive heuristics and biases that override rational appraisals (Kahneman, Slovic & Tversky 1982) which are necessarily in line with prevailing selection pressures in our evolutionary history, a view shared by Nietzsche e.g. in his statement “truth is the kind of error without which a certain kind of being could not live” as well as in (Nietzsche 2010, §493). Nietzsche himself advanced an understanding of the origin of reason and logic not too distant from our contemporary evolutionary perspective (Clark 1990, p. 87), (Nietzsche et al. 2001, §§110-112). After all, it is pragmatic understanding resulting in grasping the meaning of a concept that matters irrespective of whether or not an objective truth literally corresponding to reality has been uttered or not.

“[The pragmatist] is suggesting that instead of invoking anything like the idea-fact, or language-fact , or mind-world, or subject-object distinctions to explicate our intuition that there is something out there to be responsible to, we just drop the intuition.” (his italics) (Rorty 1991, p. 41) A driver, having broken the speed limit, will therefore have little hope of escaping the imposed fine by arguing that the judge in charge of his case should drop the intuition that there is something out there (cars, roads, laws) for him to be responsible to.

Rappaport has pointed out the pragmatism of evolutionary consequences in regards to understanding or misunderstanding the meaning of a given concept. For him “[m]isconstruing the world’s nature is not necessarily, or even primarily, a matter of empirical error. We are concerned here with the adaptiveness of conceptions, not with what the knowledge available at a particular historical moment takes to be empirically accurate. We are concerned with the consequences of the actions to which such understandings lead. If such actions tend to increase the actor’s chances of staying in the existential game indefinitely, and if, in this age of ever-increasing human capacity to destroy the world, such actions tend to preserve the existential game itself, then the understandings upon which they are based are adaptively true even if empirically absurd.” (Rappaport 1999, p. 452)

This constitutes an understanding not at all alien to Nietzsche who regarded life as dominating knowledge (Nietzsche, Breazeale & Hollingdale 1997, p. 121) and error as a potential precondition to life (Nietzsche et al. 2001, §121). Rappaport however takes his theory of meaning a step further. He distinguishes between different order meanings starting with difference (‘a cat is not a dog’ or A≠B) as low-order meaning, similarity (‘Juliet is the sun’ or A≈B) as middle order meaning and unity or identity as highest order meaning (A=B) and the realization of the illusion of separateness or maya as all distinctions being false dichotomies, as its ultimate expression (Rappaport 1999, pp. 71,380-1,91-95).

Conclusion – meaning trumps truth

Drawing from physics, logic, evolutionary psychology and contemporary critical theory it could be shown that truth in the form of literal correspondence to reality is inaccessible regardless of perspective due to natural laws as they are presently understood as well as logical constrains on discursive consistency. On the one hand Nietzsche’s account is convincing and does hold up against scrutiny. On the other it is found missing a resolution to the presented dilemma – a resolution that was attempted in the form of contrasting ultimate truth with ultimate meaning. Rappaport turns Nietzsche on his head. While Nietzsche finds truth the more illusory the more distinctions are ignored, Rappaport finds meaning the more illusory the more distinctions are emphasized.


Chesterton, GK 2008, The Defendant, NuVision Publications, LLC.

Clark, M 1990, Nietzsche on Truth and Philosophy.

Emden, C 2005, Nietzsche on Language, Consciousness and the Body.

Frye, N 1964, The Educated Imagination, vol. 88, Midland book, Indiana University Press.

Heisenberg, W 1927, ‘Über den anschaulichen Inhalt der quantentheoretischen Kinematik und Mechanik’, Zeitschrift für Physik, vol. 43, no. 3–4, pp. 172–98.

Kahneman, D, Slovic, P & Tversky, A (eds) 1982, Judgment under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases, Cambridge University Press.

Kleene, SC 1967 (2002), Mathematical Logic, Dover Publications.

Nietzsche, FW 1999, ‘On Truth and Lying in a Non-Moral Sense’, in R Guess & R Speirs (eds), The Birth of Tragedy and Other Writings, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp. 139-53.

—— 2010, The Will to Power (Volumes I and II),

Nietzsche, FW, Breazeale, D & Hollingdale, RJ 1997, ‘On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life’, in Untiemely Meditations, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge ; New York, pp. 57-124.

Nietzsche, FW, Williams, BAO, Nauckhoff, J & Caro, AD 2001, The gay science: with a prelude in German rhymes and an appendix of songs, Cambridge University Press.

Ogden, CK 1959, Bentham’s Theory of Fictions, Littlefield Adams.

Plato 1961, ‘Phaedo and Euthyphro’, in E Hamilton & H Cairns (eds), The Collected Dialogues of Plato, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, pp. 40-98, 169-85.

Rappaport, RA 1999, Ritual and religion in the making of humanity, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Rorty, R 1991, Philosophical Papers: Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth, vol. 1, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Teller, P 2001, ‘Twilight of the Perfect Model Model’, Erkenntnis, vol. 55, no. 3, pp. 393-415.

Žižek, S 1993, Tarrying with the negative: Kant, Hegel, and the critique of ideology, Duke University Press.

I have taken the opportunity to dust off and rewrite the rather outdated ‘About’ section and thought it would make a neat little post reminding myself and others what it actually is I am trying to do here. To date I am not able to engage in much meaningful discussion with my target audience, the Singularity crowd. This might be due to the fact that by now I am approaching the Singularity from the humanities and social sciences as opposed to the standard IT, SciFi angel. This appears to be an approach rather foreign to most observers having the unfortunate result that hardly anyone bothers to penetrate my dense writings.

Not surprisingly, most individuals in the Singularity corner are – and pardon me if I am being a bit overly generalizing here – extremely IT literate geeks with a tendency for militant atheism. Hence the ‘Rapture of the Nerds’ moniker. Now, do not get me wrong – not too long ago I gave every single member of my family a copy of Dawkins’ The God Delusion for Christmas and I worked 10 years in IT security myself….

However all this gradually changed after I published my Singularity SciFi novel Jame5 – a Tale of Good and Evil in 2007 and distributed 500 copies all over the world at my own expense. Since then I have changed my stance on religion and came to find the ‘militant’ atheistic perspective rather unsatisfying. So yes: I get the yuck factor and the cognitive dissonance involved in getting out of ones comfort zone and approaching a seemingly contradictory perspective with open eyes. Particularly ideas of ‘Oneness’, ‘the illusion of separateness’ etc must sound like absolute hokum. I can only encourage everyone to try and get behind the arguments involved and I am more than happy to give a hand.

And please remember that Ben Goertzel has participated in a recent science and non-duality conference and is the author of the Cosmist Manifesto among many other books on AI and the Singularity in which he writes:

Cosmism is not a religion. But it has the potential to deliver some of the benefits of religion in a manner more consilient with science.”, Ben Goertzel, A Cosmist Manifesto: Practical Philosophy for the Posthuman Age, 2009

It is in this spirit that I introduce the ultimate foundation of the Rational Morality project: cybernetics and particularly evolutionary dynamics. In the words of Roy Rappaport:

“Misconstruing the world’s nature is not necessarily, or even primarily, a matter of empirical error. We are concerned here with the adaptiveness of conceptions, not with what the knowledge available at a particular historical moment takes to be empirically accurate. We are concerned with the consequences of the actions to which such understandings lead. If such actions tend to increase the actor’s chances of staying in the existential game indefinitely, and if, in this age of ever-increasing human capacity to destroy the world, such actions tend to preserve the existential game itself, then the understandings upon which they are based are adaptively true even if empirically absurd.” (Roy Rappaport, Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity, 1999, p. 452)

and Valentin Turchin

“Let us think about the results of following different ethical teachings in the evolving universe. […] No one can act against the laws of nature. Thus, ethical teachings which contradict the plan of evolution […] will be erased from the memory of the world. […] Thus, only those [ethical] teachings which promote realization of the plan of evolution have a chance of success. Such is the immanent characteristic of development: what corresponds to its plan is eternalized in the structures which follow in time while what contradicts the plan is overcome and perishes.” (Valentin Turchin, The Phenomenon of Sceince, 1977, p. 334)

These insights are being integrated into the discourses of critical theory, cultural anthropology and moral philosophy. Having its origin in 2005 in the comparatively young area of singularity studies and particularly friendly AI theory these concepts have since been developed beyond that narrow perspective and continue to unfold.

Not relying on metaphysics but on evolutionary dynamics alone, this approach provides the basis on which concern for the self is understood to be equal with concern for the other, until one realizes that everything one does to another one quite literally does to oneself resulting in compassion as a rational moral duty irrespective of an agents level of intelligence or available resources.  As Gilles Deleuze summarizing Schopenhauer

“Because the will according to Schopenhauer, is essentially unitary, the executioner comes to understand that he is one with his victim.” (Gilles Deleuze, Nietzsche and Philosophy, 2006, p. 7)

About me: I became an independent writer/philosopher after a decade long corporate career and am currently studying Anthropology and Social Theory at the University of Melbourne, with the goal of attaining a PhD sometime before the Singularity. My special interest lies in understanding and explaining spiritual wisdom in naturalistic terms.

“I remember who/what I am. I remember Oneness.”

While self-interested approaches to examining value, as a route taken in formal economics, lend themselves particularly well to neat formulas and straightforward calculations by focusing on value in terms of an in principle measurable utility and the amount of labour embodied in a commodity or service, they tend to reduce complex social beings to predominantly rational individuals – homo economicus – narrowly self interested in weighing up cost and benefits with the aim of maximizing personal well being, always choosing the option promising the biggest return (Wilk & Cliggett 2007, 36-37, 42). Economic actors however “are just as concerned with their social standing […] as they are with maximizing utility or income in the conventional sense” (Ortiz 2005, 74) which calls for a social model of value.

The social political perspective of value addresses this aspect of human nature by assessing human beings predominantly by the value they place in relationships, trust and influence. Political Economy is predominantly understood by the application of Marxist social and political economic theory in various ethnographic contexts. Marxism as the dominant social science model posits a justifying ideology that allows the perpetuation and naturalization of classes within a society as well as the super- and infrastructure that shape the relations of production through social labour in that society (Plattner 1989, 379-381).

Existing mechanisms of class exploitation are dressed in the cloak of respectability by ideological means, creating false consciousness and thereby remain unquestioned by the exploited and the exploiters alike (Plattner 1989, 381-384). Although critics point out that in some societies it is kinship or religious factors as opposed to relations of production that apparently dominate, it is shown by Godelier in his work that these social relations dominate only when they function as relations of production in line with Marx’s theory (Godelier 1978, 765).

An important idea in Marx’s theory is the phenomenon of commodity fetishism, the socially created attribution of subjective value to objects traded in the market which goes beyond those items’ intrinsic value and thereby acquiring the power of an objective social force (Marx 1973, 687) such as cattle in South African Tswana culture (Comaroff & Comaroff 1990, 195-196) as well as diamonds in the context of engagement gift giving in western style industrial economies (Proctor 2001). Fetishized commodities, such as polychrome fabrics in medieval Europe and Byzantium, can become Instruments of hegemony (Schneider 1978) and once recognized as such can lead to the creation of symbols of national liberation in their antithesis. In Schneider’s example this is what caused the ascent of locally produced black clothing as symbols of sovereign power and impartiality for example in the robes of judges as well as equality in death in mourning garments.

A significant problem with Marx’s theory as highlighted by Platter, is the continually rising wealth of workers in Western Europe and North America (Plattner 1989, 395). Since the release of Plattner’s article the world went through the collapse of the eastern bloc of states as well as the continuing economic rise of most notably Brazil, Russia, India, and China. These historical facts are casting further doubt on Marx’s theory which predicts worsening conditions for workers in line with his labour theory of value that posits the exploitation of labour as the only possibility for entrepreneurs to make a profit in the capitalist mode of production leading to an inevitable breakdown of capitalism (Marx 2007, 137). This aspect of Marx’s theory is particularly important since it claims to identify the source as well as the inherent mechanism by which capitalism leads to class exploitation. As pointed out by Marx’s critics however, labour need not be the only source of value (Menger 2007, 151) explaining how capitalist entrepreneurs do not automatically need to rely on the exploitation of the proletariat for making a profit. This is not to be understood that the free market is capable to alleviate all social ills, but highlights the need for further research and analysis.

In the context of the global political economy and particularly when it comes to development projects, a particular set of challenges is being confronted when western notions of ‘the proper way to do things’ are being uncritically adopted for local implementation. These development projects rooted in postcolonial efforts of guided modernization are wrought with problems and caused developing nations to accrue large national debts in the process of implementing respective development projects yielding few tangible results. While the hopeful conception of the Human Development Index (HDI) in 1990 aimed at reflecting insights gained during previous failures by including additional metrics going beyond a strictly economic focus, neo-colonialism threatens to perpetuate the colonial system with indirect economic methods as opposed to direct political means employed during colonial times.

Development literature, highlights the problems associated with development theory itself (Leys 2005) as well as with development practice. While development projects do have important political effects, these are not a consequence of conscious planning (Ferguson 2002, 401), (Mosse 2005, 10) resulting in a development culture in where success as well as failure of development projects are socially constructed (Mosse 2005, 18) as well as the result of policy-oriented judgments (Mosse 2005, 19). Positive effects may still occur but “are often equivocal, unexpected, contradicting legitimizing policy models […], and have more to do with infusion into regional and historical processes of change.” (Mosse 2005, 19)

This insight is mirrored in the example of the Taita Hills community in Kenya, which chose to employ a foreign witch doctor – Maji Marefu – to deal with local social ills experienced during the process of modernization their society went through and for the alleviation of which local magic seemed ineffectual (Smith 2005). While the resulting witch hunt orchestrated by Mjae Marefu failed to have the desired effect directly, the societal backlash against his exploitative practices ended up “generating the social cohesion and the social society that his coming symbolized, despite the conflict he generated”. (Smith 2005, 156). The invitation of what was perceived as a foreign expert by the local community to deal with a specific problem at hand, can be interpreted as a development initiative from the perspective of the Taita Hills community in which the anticipated result failed to materialize in line with observations made in the context of development discourse generally by Ferguson and Mosse (Ferguson 2002, 401), (Mosse 2005, 10). As a further parallel, positive effects were observed nevertheless which stood in no direct relation to planned components of the initiative, similarly to mechanisms described by Mosse (Mosse 2005, 19). Finally a mechanism of initial seduction and eventual disillusionment by the witch doctor not unlike that which has been described by Shresta in his experience of being colonized by successive waves of agents of development in Nepal (Shrestha 1995, 266) can be observed in the literature.

Surprising as it may be, a clear delineating between traditional witch doctors and modern development professionals remains problematic in the context of development in front of this background. Particularly so as long as development theory is perceived as not having been possible to arise at all outside the special interlude of the expansion of capitalism during the 1950s and 60s (Leys 2005, 116) as well as lacking adequate foundations (Leys 2005, 124).

It remains an important contribution of political economy however, that it places the emphasis on collective structures and functions and brings history into the picture which provides the context in which individuals make their decisions in predominantly in terms of how the means of production are organized and controlled (Plattner 1989, 381) despite superficial appearances to the contrary (Godelier 1978) and thereby helps to focus attention on exploitation, inequality and class conflict. Denial of agency and perception of the individual as a mere cog pushed around in the social machine reproducing society are the shortcomings of this perspective (Wilk & Cliggett 2007, 43).

The insight that individuals are neither self-serving optimizers nor political animals per se is recognized in the moral and cultural perspective of value (Wilk & Cliggett 2007, 43-44). From this perspective it is behaving properly what maters and moral principles and cultural contexts that constitute the basis for valuing action in terms of right and wrong. These values differ between cultures since moral codes are cultural products of a particular time and place. It is in front of this background that Weber explains how Puritan ideas in regards to asceticism had “a direct influence on the development of a capitalistic way of life.” (Weber 2006, 360). He notes that wealth, considered reprehensible when pursued as an end in itself, becomes a blessing in the Puritan perspective when it is the result of “labour in a calling” and thereby becomes a powerful since religiously sanctioned mechanism enabling the emergence of “the spirit of capitalism” (Weber 2006, 362).

The value of things in this perspective lies in what they are used for and the focus lies on contextual consumption, not on exchange (self interest) or production (political economy). Value is not perceived in the utility for the individual or the utility for society but rather in using the thing in the proper way, in the signs one displays knowing the right, the expected way to behave, which results in the accumulation of cultural capital. Indifference to wage incentives on peasants and artisans who become wage workers are one example how the absence of a Purtian outlook on life can manifest itself when individuals fail to respond in the ‘proper’ way in line with capitalist expectations (Taussig 1977, 131) due to their preference of use value over exchange value (Taussig 1977, 132). Over productiveness as the dominant norm in capitalism in this context is interpreted as an immoral act possible only through a pact with the devil that at the same time places certain restrictions on the earned money in regards to what it can be spent upon (Taussig 1977, 136). The capitalist idea of money as capable of growing by itself through interest is rationalized by the illicit baptizing of a note of currency instead of an infant by a godparent in order to realize the mysterious money-commodity-money standard formulation of Marxist of capitalist circulation (Taussig 1977, 144).

In pre-modern Sierra Leone, not unlike the south American peasantry, accumulation of wealth is seen as an inherently immoral process requiring dark magic in the form of eating people by turning them into slaves through witch finding divinations (Shaw 1997, 868) and transferring money from one person’s pocket into one’s own (Shaw 1997,859). In this context the diviners are seen as the biggest witches of them all (Shaw 1997, 868) since they are exploiting lower status individuals lacking the social or political capital necessary to sway the outcome of the divination in their favour (Shaw 1997, 865), which in effect resulted in their transformation from people into sellable commodities (Shaw 1997, 864) unthinkable outside the context of the slave trade (Shaw 1997, 865).

Being recognized as a good person – in this life as well as the next – is important since good people are listened to which confers moral authority and results in the accumulation of cultural capital. This insight is employed by Spiro in his exploration of what is often described as spiritually motivated lavish spending among Burmese Buddhists resulting in the perception of improvidence (Spiro 1966,1164-1165). Upon closer examination however Burmese religious spending can be explained as a form of highly profitable form of investment in the predominant social and religious context in which monetary generosity towards religious ends in this life is believed to result in rebirth into a wealthier status in the next (Spiro 1966, 1168).

Moral values differ widely between cultures, yet regardless what cultures people belong to they use the same tools to translate their values into ordered preferences. And then seek to maximize cultural capital by selecting the optimal choice. This is done in predictably rational ways within that particular set of values. It is the underlying set of preferences that frame your rationality – culture is a way of thought. Everyone reflects upon their pragmatic interests within society and have pragmatic implications for action in the world, understanding that others in the society have learned to react to symbols the same way as them. The power lies in the fact that everyone judges actions in a similar way. Structure emerges not just because we have common interest (reproduction of society, advancement of class) but because we have a shared understanding of the world, we may share common values even if we do not share common interests.


Comaroff, J & Comaroff, JL 1990, ‘Goodly beasts and beastly goods: cattle and commodities in a South African context’, American Ethnologist, vol. 17, pp. 195-216.

Ferguson, J 2002, ‘ The Anti-Politics Machine’, in J Vincent (ed.), The Anthropology of Politics: A Reader in Ethnography, Theory, and Critique, Blackwell, Oxford, UK & Malden, USA, pp. 399- 408.

Godelier, M 1978, ‘Infrastructures, society, and history’, Current Anthropology, vol. 19, pp. 763-8.

Leys, C 2005, ‘The Rise and Fall of Development Theory’, in M Edelman & A Haugerud (eds), The Anthropology of Development: From Classical Political Economy to Contemporary Neoliberalism, Blackwell, Malden, MA, pp. 109-25.

Marx, K 1973, The Grundrisse, Penguin Books, Middlesex, England.

—— 2007, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy – Vol. III-Part I: The Process of Capitalist Production as a Whole, Cosimo.

Menger, C 2007, Principles of Economics, Ludwig von Mises Institute.

Mosse, D 2005, ‘Introduction: the ethnography of Policy and practice’, in A Arbor (ed.), Cultivating development : an ethnography of aid policy and practice, Pluto Press, London, pp. 1-20.

Ortiz, S 2005, ‘Decisions and choices: the rationality of economic actors’, in JG Carrier (ed.), A handbook of economic anthropology, Edward Elgar Publishing, Cheltenham, UK, pp. 59-77.

Plattner, S 1989, ‘Marxism’, in Economic Anthropology, Stanford University Press, Stanford, pp. 379-96.

Proctor, RN 2001, ‘Anti-agate: the great diamond hoax and the semiprecious stone scam’, Configurations, vol. 9, pp. 381-412.

Schneider, J 1978, ‘Peacocks and penguins: the political economy of European cloth and colours’, American Ethnologist, vol. 5, pp. 413-47.

Shaw, R 1997, ‘The production of witchcraft/witchcraft as production: memory, modernity and the slave trade in Sierra Leone’, American Ethnologist, vol. 24, pp. 856-76.

Shrestha, N 1995, ‘Becoming a Development Category’, in J Crush (ed.), Power of Development, Routledge, London; New York, pp. 266-77.

Smith, J 2005, ‘Buying a Better Witch Doctor: Witch-Finding, Neoliberalism, and the Development Imagination in the Taita Hills, Kenya’, American Ethnologist, vol. 32, no. 1, pp. 141-58.

Spiro, ME 1966, ‘Buddhism and economic action in Burma’, American Anthropologist, vol. 68, pp. 1163-73.

Taussig, M 1977, ‘The genesis of capitalism amongst a South American peasantry: devil’s labour and the baptism of money’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, vol. 19, pp. 130-55.

Weber, M 2006, ‘Puritanism and the spirit of capitalism’, in HL Moore & T Sanders (eds), Anthropology in Theory: issues in epistemology, Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, pp. 360-6.

Wilk, RR & Cliggett, L 2007, ‘Economics and the problem of human nature’, in In Economies and cultures: foundations of economic anthropology, Westview Press., New York, pp. 31-47


In the concluding sections of Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity, Rappaport asserts the nature of humanity to be one of survival enabling meaning making in an intrinsically meaningless world subject to physical law (Rappaport 1999, p. 451). While acknowledging the positive impact science had on ridding us from superstition and magic, Rappaport sees a threat to sanctified, adaptive understandings becoming invalidated by a purely empirical understanding of the world.

“Misconstruing the world’s nature is not necessarily, or even primarily, a matter of empirical error. We are concerned here with the adaptiveness of conceptions, not with what the knowledge available at a particular historical moment takes to be empirically accurate. We are concerned with the consequences of the actions to which such understandings lead. If such actions tend to increase the actor’s chances of staying in the existential game indefinitely, and if, in this age of ever-increasing human capacity to destroy the world, such actions tend to preserve the existential game itself, then the understandings upon which they are based are adaptively true even if empirically absurd.” (Rappaport 1999, p. 452)

Rappaport continues to elaborate on this point before advocating a union between “post-modern science and natural religion” (Rappaport 1999, pp. 456-61) which he suggests to be founded in ecological concerns in order to construct an adaptive system of meaning that can persist in the face of modern scientific insights. He opts for ecology as foundation for this new system of meaning despite reiterating oneness as the highest form of meaning throughout his book (Rappaport 1999, pp. 71,380-1,91-95). It is the purpose of this essay to argue three main points. Firstly, that a system of meaning based on the notion of oneness is more adaptive than one based solely on ecological concerns, secondly, that such a system is a priori consistent as well as supported by advances in our understanding of evolutionary dynamics, and thirdly, that it can be shown a posteriori that systems of meaning have evolved over the course of human history not unlike the progress in natural sciences to form ever closer approximations of oneness as the highest form of meaning in line with the first two points.

Oneness and evolutionary theory

“It must not be forgotten that although a high standard of morality gives but a slight or no advantage to each individual man and his children over the other men of the same tribe, yet that an advancement in the standard of morality and in increase in the number of well-endowed men will certainly give an immense advantage to one tribe over another. There can be no doubt that a tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy, were always ready to give aid to each other and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over other tribes; and this would be natural selection.” (Darwin 2009, p. 110)

This insight Darwin published in 1871 should later be generalized in the theory of multilevel selection (Wynne-Edwards 1986), the idea that individuals reap evolutionary benefits by cooperating which provides the basis on which initially separate adaptive units evolve into ever more close knit groups until an evolutionary transition occurs resulting in groups of adaptive units on the initial level forming a new singular adaptive unit constituting a new organism on a higher level (Wilson, Vugt & O’Gorman 2008). Among the examples cited by Smith & Szathmáry are the transition from prokaryotes to eukaryotes, from protists to multicellular organisms as well as from primate groups to human societies with language and culture as enabling factors (Smith & Szathmáry 1997). Although the theory of multilevel selection is possible yet highly unlikely on the level of the gene (Williams 1996, pp. 92-124), “[a]ll that is needed to make group selection possible is a device that leads individuals to separate their conceptions of well-being or advantage from biological survival. Notions such as God, Heaven, Hell, heroism, honor, shame, fatherland and democracy encoded in procedures of enculturation that represent them as factual, natural, public, or sacred (and, therefore, compelling) have dominated every culture for which we possess ethnographic or historical knowledge.” (Rappaport 1999, p. 10) Understanding multilevel selection theory, we can expect the mechanisms of cultural evolution to favor spiritual understandings of the world, which more closely approximate the idea of oneness and instill them into the cultural group. Following this logic, one can expect to discern ever more closely approximated versions of the idea of oneness as the highest form of meanings that are ever more highly sanctified in spiritual traditions over evolutionary timeframes. This is what Rappaport is referring to in his writings when claiming oneness to be the highest form of meaning.

Spiritual versus scientific progress

The natural sciences as opposed to spirituality are thought of as a process of continually ascending progress. The differences in perspectives and resulting breakdown of communication between ‘the two cultures’ of the sciences on the one and the humanities on the other have been blamed as a significant obstacle in solving the world’s problems (Snow 1993). It is the objective of this section to demonstrate that the scientific and the humanistic outlook, particularly the spiritual one, need not be fundamentally separated and are in fact similar. This point will be explained by examining the scientific genius of Newton in the natural sciences before defining spirituality and drawing an analogy to science.

Isaac Newton was a prolific English physicist, mathematician, astronomer, and natural philosopher. What is less widely known is his equal interest in the subjects of alchemy (Figala 2002) and attempting to calculate the end times from bible references (Mamiani 2002). Why then, is Newton still revered today despite him being a ‘superstitious alchemist’ and having been proved wrong by Einstein in the early 20th century? The reason is two fold: firstly it is understood that Newton despite being wrong, just as Einstein still being wrong due to the irreconcilable nature or general relativity and quantum dynamics, he was relatively less wrong than Kepler before him and Gallilei before him and Copernicus before him (Hawking 2003). Secondly it is understood in regards to what he was less wrong, namely in his scientific understanding of gravity. More generally we can thus understand science as following:

“Science is the conscious quest for the realization of an ever closer approximation of that which is true and unchanging about the universe we exist in, in order to enhance the means that enable the reshaping of material reality in line with our goals and values.”

The value of science thereby lies in the degree of accuracy to which it describes reality insofar as the gained insights enhance our means of reshaping reality by the creation of ever more sophisticated technology that happens to produce desired effects within the margin of error of the currently best available scientific theory. With Newton that meant the ability to calculate the trajectory of cannon balls with Einstein GPS, LEDs and nuclear bombs came into the reach of mankind. This very particular aspect of scientific truth has been reinforced as a fundamental value since the enlightenment and came to ever greater prominence over the course of the engineering driven industrial revolution followed by the information age with its computers and their extreme literalism and has since become that which closest resembles a transcendent standard of value in our postmodern society and its incredulity towards meta narratives. ‘If it is not scientifically true it has no worth’. The question of how ultimate goals and fundamental values are determined that can then be advanced with science and technology remains unanswered sofar.

In line with the writings of Rappaport it is assumed for the purpose of this paper that the highest good is constituted by humanity maximizing its chances of remaining in the existential game (Slobodkin & Rapoport 1974). From this perspective consider the following definition of spirituality:

“Spirituality is the (sub)concious quest for the realization of an ever closer approximation about that which is true and unchanging about our existence in the universe in order to enhance the means that enable the reshaping of our consciousness in line with the laws of nature imposing the conditions for our existence.”

Empirical support for the idea of oneness as the highest form of meaning

Understanding spirituality in this light we are effectively enabled to judge spiritual systems in terms of their adaptive merit. The reason being that spiritual systems that promote the adoption of a non-dual world view are more in line with the conditions of our existence and hence more adaptive than spiritual systems that incorporate notions of oneness to a lesser extend. How else could one categorize the nearly uncontrollable, trance-like fury the Norse warriors known as Berserkers fought in as less spiritual then the feeling of absolute unitary being (AUB) experienced during vipassana meditation? The answer lies in the insight that some states of consciousness are more conducive to the fitness of a group than others. As argued above in the context of multilevel selection theory, what one does to others becomes equivalent to what one does to oneself, ergo feeling for the other, as one with the other becomes an objective adaptive truth, when realized resulting in the breakdown of the illusion of separateness or becoming ‘enlightened’, attaining Satori, or simply wanting to be compassionate in spiritual terms.

While such notions are present to a greater and lesser degree in all spiritual traditions, it is Advaita Vedanta – the non-dualist philosophy referring to the identity of the Self (Atman) with the Whole (Brahman) that most explicitly encompasses the notion of oneness in its teachings. Accepting multilevel selection on the cultural level as a true and valid theory, we can clearly identify on who’s spiritual giant’s shoulders (analogous to those in the natural sciences) we stand today: the countless shamans of prehistory, the sages of the axial age, the prophets of the major spiritual traditions advocating compassion (Armstrong 2007):

Christianity: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Buddhism: ”Putting oneself in the place of another, one should not kill nor cause another to kill.”

Confucianism: ”Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself.”

Hinduism: ”One should never do that to another which one regards as injurious to one’s own self.”

Islam: ”Hurt no one so that no one may hurt you.”

Judaism: ”The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself.”

Taoism: ”Regard your neighbor’s gain as your own gain, and your neighbor’s loss as your own loss.”

All major world religions contain this basic key insight and this is not a coincidence. Just as the bats and the dolphins evolved sonar independently (Li et al. 2010) precisely because of the evolutionary advantage better perceiving individuals had over less well perceiving ones in both species so did compassion impart an evolutionary advantage in those groups who’s cultural content happened to have evolved this approximation of oneness as the highest form of meaning:

“Let us think about the results of following different ethical teachings in the evolving universe. […] No one can act against the laws of nature. Thus, ethical teachings which contradict the plan of evolution […] will be erased from the memory of the world. […] Thus, only those [ethical] teachings which promote realization of the plan of evolution have a chance of success. Such is the immanent characteristic of development: what corresponds to its plan is eternalized in the structures which follow in time while what contradicts the plan is overcome and perishes.” (Turchin 1977, p. 334)

In regards to whether evolution has a plan or not, one simply needs to semantically replace Turchin’s ‘plan’ with ‘adaptive’ in the evolutionary sense and his quote remains valid in the context of this essay. The fact that not everyone does in fact align themselves consciously with the goal of remaining in the existential game is absolutely irrelevant since only those that do, encoded in sanctified spiritual beliefs and justified on whatever basis, will have a higher chance not to “be erased from the memory of the world”, be it in a Malthusian “struggle for existence” or under any other set of selection pressures.

Several quotes in support of this perspective:

“The ultimate spiritual revelation is that there is no other. There is only One.” (his italics) (Cohen 2007)

Put straight and to the point: we are all one.

“Since reason is man’s basic means of survival, that which is proper to the life of a rational being is the good; that which negates, opposes or destroys it is the evil.” (Rand 1964, p. 25)

Rand was basing her philosophy largely on the ideas of Nietzsche who misguidedly, as we now realize, advocated egoism as a means of affirming life (Nietzsche 2008, p. 173). In the basic premise expressed in this quote however, Rand is in line with the argument developed in this essay.

“Necessary existence is a positive property” — Kurt Goedel in 1941, Axiom 5 of his ontological proof for the existence of god using modal logic (Sobel 2004, p. 125) .

“Therefore, since the supreme Good is the supreme Being, it follows that everything good has being and every being is good. So since nothing and non-being do not have being, they are not good. And so nothing and non-being are not from him from whom only good and being come.” (Anselm & Williams 2007, p. 170)

A bit more esoteric, but expressing the same basic principle: being (or existence) is better than nonbeing (or nonexistence)

“For the wages of sin is death.” — Romans 6:23

This bible quote is in line with Turchin’s perspective cited earlier yet expresses it in an archaic, biblical language.

“Ego is the biggest enemy of humans.” — Rig Veda

Failing to realize the illusion of separateness is an existential risk.

“Because the will according to Schopenhauer, is essentially unitary, the executioner comes to understand that he is one with his victim.” (Deleuze 2006, p. 7)

A good approximation of the idea that what is done to others is literally done to oneself, Schopenhauer however was misguidedly advocating this perspective as a form of an active denial of the Will to life, although such an outlook would in fact affirm it as shown in this essay.

These examples could easily be multiplied.


“Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.” – Albert Einstein

It has been demonstrated that the abstract and commonly understood to be non-rational idea of ‘oneness as the highest form of meaning’, has its roots in evolutionary dynamics supported by scientific theory as well as empirical evidence. It was shown that the logic of spiritual evolution unfolds in a process that is the result of the fact that in the absence of any externally specified reward, self-replication emerges as an intrinsic reward and starts to feed on itself in line with the discussed evolutionary dynamics causing an evolutionary arms race between groups to generate ever closer approximations of oneness as the highest form of meaning. This process has its origins as a teleonomical, not a teleological process of chance change and non-chance retention of units of information in self-replicating information structures. Be they on the level of the gene encoded in DNA or that of culture encoded in ideas, concepts as well as sanctified spiritual belief systems. In the last sections of Rappaport’s book, he argued that once humanity realizes these dynamics it should actively seek alignment with them in order to ensure humanity’s continued existence thereby effectively turning this originally teleonomical process of chance into one of intentional design in line with scientific insights. It was shown in the arguments put forward in this essay that his advocating an ecological foundation for such a system of meaning would be suboptimal and that instead a system of meaning based on his own understanding of the highest form of meaning, namely ‘oneness’ or ‘non-duality’, being the optimal approach. Doing so holds the promise of reaping the rewards of science in the form of technology married with a system of meaning in line with the enlightenment ideals of reason and emancipation from superstition and dogma while at the same time minimizing humanity’s chances of extinction.


Anselm, S & Williams, T 2007, Basic writings, Hackett Pub. Co., Indianapolis.

Armstrong, K 2007, The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions, Anchor Books, New York.

Cohen, A 2007, ‘How a New World Is Born’, What is Enlightenment, no. 36.

Darwin, C 2009, The Descent of Man, Lightning Source Inc, La Vergne.

Deleuze, G 2006, Nietzsche and philosophy, Continuum, London.

Figala, K 2002, ‘Newton’s alchemy’, in IB Cohen & GE Smith (eds), The Cambridge companion to Newton, Cambridge University Press, pp. 370-86, Cambridge.

Hawking, S 2003, On the Shoulders of Giants: The Great Works of Physics and Astronomy, Running Press, Philadelphia.

Li, Y, Liu, Z, Shi, P & Zhang, J 2010, ‘The hearing gene Prestin unites echolocating bats and whales’, Current biology : CB, vol. 20, no. 2, pp. R55-R6.

Mamiani, M 2002, ‘Newton on prophecy and the Apocalypse’, in IB Cohen & GE Smith (eds), The Cambridge companion to Newton, Cambridge University Press, pp. 387-408, Cambridge.

Nietzsche, FW 2008, Beyond Good and Evil, BiblioBazaar.

Rand, A 1964, The Virtue of Selfishness, Signet Book, New York.

Rappaport, RA 1999, Ritual and religion in the making of humanity, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Slobodkin, L & Rapoport, A 1974, ‘An optimal strategy of evolution’, Quarterly Review of Biology, vol. 49, pp. 181-200.

Smith, JM & Szathmáry, E 1997, The major transitions in evolution, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Snow, CP 1993, The two cultures, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Sobel, JH 2004, Logic and theism: arguments for and against beliefs in God, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Turchin, VF 1977, The phenomenon of science, Columbia University Press, New York.

Williams, GC 1996, Adaptation and natural selection: a critique of some current evolutionary thought, Princeton University Press, Princeton.

Wilson, DS, Vugt, MV & O’Gorman, R 2008, ‘Multilevel Selection Theory and Major Evolutionary Transitions: Implications for Psychological Science’, Current Directions in Psychological Science, vol. 17, no. 1, pp. 6-9.

Wynne-Edwards, VC 1986, Evolution through group selection, Blackwell Scientific, Oxford.

Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” (Kant, Abbott & Denis 2005, p. 81)

The conditions of life might include error.” (Nietzsche, F. W. et al. 2001, §121)


Both Kant and Nietzsche are seminal figures in western philosophy. The former’s Critique of Pure Reason has been described as the most important philosophical book ever written in Europe (Keurs 2006, p. 13) while the history of 20th century thought is believed to be unintelligible without considering the writings of the latter (Magnus 2010). Kant contributed to furthering the Enlightenment project of freeing men from fear and establishing his sovereignty (Adorno 1990, p. 3) by extending Rousseau’s understanding of freedom as “the obedience to a law which we prescribe to ourselves” (Rousseau & Cole 2008, p. 28) from the political to the ethical, the philosophy of religion as well as aesthetics (Beck & Cicovacki 2001, p. xx) using reason and seeking natural causes of experiences alone. Nietzsche on the other hand was greatly influenced by Schopenhauer and his idea of the Will – a groundless state of endless striving constituting existence as a state of suffering (Jacquette 1996, p. 283) at the foundational being of everything. In contrast to Schopenhauer however, Nietzsche places a great emphasise on the affirmation of the Will to life, what sustains it and in his mature philosophy turns the denial of the Will through compassion in Schopenhauer’s philosophy into its opposite: the embrace of suffering[1] and therefore life through egotistic self assertion[2] epitomized in the Will to power. The Will to power is equated by Nietzsche with the essence of life (Nietzsche, F. W. 2008b, II. §12) and he intended to utilize it in his unfinished project to re-evaluate all values (Nietzsche, F. W. 2008b, III. §27).

It will be the focus of this essay to briefly elucidate the biographical background as well as the philosophical influences leading to the formation of the two thinker’s own philosophies before elaborating in more detail how Kant as well as Nietzsche are grounding their critiques. The two approaches will then be compared to each other as well as critically evaluated.

The Chinaman[3] of Königsberg

Heine’s remark that “[t]he history of Immanuel Kant’s life is hard to describe, because he had neither a life nor history” (Heine, Hermand & Holub 1985, p. 203) is likely too harsh. The well known fact that during his life Kant never traveled very far from his hometown had more to do with him being a central figure of Königsberg’s social society and extraordinarily comfortable there (Kuehn 2001, pp. 134-5, 218-21) than with the mistaken idea of him being a boring and idiosyncratic recluse. Philosophically speaking it was Hume who woke him from his own dogmatic slumbers (Kant 1982, p. 6), and Rousseau’s Emile (Rousseau 2008) that deeply influenced his thoughts on ethics (Wood 2005, p. 7) the later fascinating him so much that he omitted his afternoon walk this once out of a thousand times to finish reading it (Wallace 2008, p. 28). It was one event in particular that proofed to be central to Kant’s formation of his subsequent ideas. It was the 1755 earthquake of Lisbon followed by a tsunami that took place during the early hours of All Saint’s Day and destroyed numerous churches (Pereira 2006, p. 10) as well as killing droves of church goers faithfully praying inside of them. While central figures of the early Enlightenment such as Newton (Mamiani 2002) and Leibniz (Leibnitz & Jaucourt 1734) where deeply pious men, the theodicy debate that ensued in the wake of 1755 Lisbon “sufficed to cure Voltaire” (Adorno 1990, p. 361) of similar notions (Voltaire 1985). The concept of the earthquake would later serve as inspiration for Kant’s philosophy of the sublime (Kant & Pluhar 1987, pp. 97-123) and let him to publish three essays on the Lisbon earthquake focusing exclusively on potential natural causes (Guyer 2006, p. 18) true to the battle cry of the enlightenment: “Sapere Aude! Have courage to use your own understanding!” (his emphasis) (Kant 2009, p. 54). In order to make it possible for men of the enlightenment age to do exactly that, a rational basis for experience had to be established. This was Kant’s project.

Enabling the autonomous individual

Kant argues that mankind’s escape from self-imposed immaturity by using one’s own understanding without guidance of another is what lies at the core of the Enlightenment (Kant & Reiss 1991, p. 54). Being greatly influence by Rousseau’s political ideas in his views which he transposed from the social to the individual, freedom for Kant was not the absence of laws but the adherence to self-imposed laws springing from ones own reason which makes the autonomous individual possible (Guyer 2006, p. 204). For Kant it is this process of reason and the free public use of it (Kant & Reiss 1991, pp. 55-7) which is in the inherent self-interest of the state for it alone ensures progress and flourishing (Kant & Reiss 1991, pp. 57-60). Kant would explore his idea of societal development over the course of history in another essay which he published the same year titled Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose (Kant & Reiss 1991, pp. 41-53). Introducing 9 propositions in it he describes how through the application of reason mankind, despite numerous wrong turns, would inevitably progress along “a plan of nature aimed at a perfect civil union of mankind” (Kant & Reiss 1991, p. 51).

On this background, namely the autonomous application of reason in the individual and the anticipated positive effects not only on the level of the nation state when exercised freely in it, but for mankind as a whole as well, illustrates the central importance in Kant’s perspective to construct a solid a foundation as possible on which reason can be exercised. This is the grounding of his critiques, for anything but a solid foundation for the application of reason would not only turn true autonomy and freedom of the individual into a mere illusion as a result from misguided reason, but would at the same time retard the fulfillment of natures plan towards a perfect civil union of mankind.

Among the most influential of Kant’s concepts is transcendental idealism in which he essentially restated Platonism in Enlightenment terms (Guyer 2006, p. 51). It is the idea that we can only understand the world as it is represented to us in our minds (phenomenon) yet are unable to grasp the thing in itself (noumenon) (Kant & Politis 1993, A254/B310). A significant departure from Hume represents Kant’s demonstration of the existence of synthetic a priori truths (Kant & Politis 1993, A6-7/B10-17), propositions that are known to be true prior to experience and whose predicate concepts are not contained in its subject (e.g. 2+5=7). Put another way: statements that are true not because on their inherent meaning i.e. ‘all bachelors are unmarried men’. Hume thought synthetic truth to be impossible (Guyer 2006, p. 47) and considered math and physics to be analytical a priori truths. Kant placed ethics on a rational basis in the form of the categorical imperative (Kant & Ellington 1993, p. 30), the violation of which he held to not only be unethical but irrational as well. Even aesthetics could be put in a framework of reason for Kant, which he did for the beautiful, the sublime, genius as well as a deduction of taste among others (Kant & Pluhar 1987).

The patron saint of postmodernism

Having been born into a deeply rooted family tradition of Lutheran ministers, Nietzsche initially took up theology and philology at the university of Bonn in 1864 at the age of 20, where he would soon gravitate towards philology and eventually ended up focusing on it exclusively (Hollingdale 2001, pp. 21,31). Haven taken classes with both Ritschl and Jahn, Nietzsche would be at the frontline of what should become known as the Bonn philology war between the two and which would in the end escalate to involve the Bismark government in the Prussian house of representatives dividing liberals and reactionaries. Jahn, who a decade earlier was called to Bonn with the help of dean Ritschl, went behind his benefactor’s back to get his friend Sauppe appointed to Bonn. When Sauppe to Jahn’s surprise ended up declining the call, the enraged Ritschl, after haven gotten wind of the affair, started a slander campaign against Jahn for which he received a public reprimand from the ministry of education causing the matter to escalate politically (Emden 2008, pp. 23-36). Nietzsche, while asserting that Jahn was “unconditionally right” ended up being so impressed with Ritschl’s cunning, that he joined Ritschl when he left for Leipzig, leaving the righteous but utterly devastated Jahn in Bonn (Ross 1999, pp. 111-3). It is in this incident that the Nietzsche biographer Ross identifies the early origins of Nietzsche’s affinity to the Will to power. In the same year Nietzsche discovered Schopenhauer and the ‘funeral director perfume'[4] (Nietzsche, F. W. & Ludovici 2004, p. 69) of his philosophy should stay with him.

Preventing life’s self annihilation

What fascinated Nietzsche with Schopenhauer were two aspects of his pessimistic philosophy in particular. The first being Schopenhauer’s concept of the Will which he described as a senseless struggle for the continuation of life (Young 2005, pp. 74-7) with no regards for individual suffering as long as the circle of existence continues for the species as a whole (Young 2005, pp. 80-1) (Schopenhauer, Arthur & Payne 1966, Chp. 28). This circumstance was interpreted to mean by Schopenhauer that “essential to all life is suffering” (Schopenhauer, A. et al. 2010, end of §56). Schopenhauer himself was heavily influenced by the Upanishads in this regard and considered himself to be a follower of the in the west relatively unknown religion of Buddhism which has a very similar core tenet encoded in the first of the four noble truths. Nietzsche adopted the concept of the Will wholeheartedly. The second aspect of Schopenhauer’s philosophy important to understanding Nietzsche was that according to Schopenhauer the only way to escape this cycle of endless and meaningless suffering is through the active denial of the Will by transcending the egoistic individual through exercising compassion (Young 2005, p. 179). He justifies this approach by asserting, that the recognition of “the identity of one’s own inner being with that of all things” (Schopenhauer, Arthur & Payne 1966, p. 613) results in the realization that any affirmation of the Will to life and subsequent suffering caused in others is in fact equivalent to inflicting suffering on oneself. “Because the will according to Schopenhauer, is essentially unitary, the executioner comes to understand that he is one with his victim” (Deleuze 2006, p. 7).

Nietzsche accepts the argument, but rejects the adoption of Schopenhauer’s conclusion outright in his mature philosophy and turns it onto its head (Nietzsche, F. W. 2007, Morality as Anti-Nature, §5). For Nietzsche life and its affirmation represents the non plus ultra of philosophy and constitutes the grounding for his critique. It is on this basis that Nietzsche formulates his critiques of history (Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm, Breazeale & Hollingdale 1997), knowledge (Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm, Breazeale & Hollingdale 1997, p. 121), morality, justice, care for the sick (Nietzsche, F. W. 2008b, III. §§14-15), logic (Nietzsche, F. W. et al. 2001, p. 111) as well as reason and the grounds on which he embraces suffering. Central to Nietzsche’s understanding of life is what he dubs the Will to power (Nietzsche, F. W. 2008a, §259), a combination of the Schopenhaurian Will with his own understanding of the thirst to dominate and overpower (Nietzsche, F. W. et al. 2001, §13). It is the retardation of such power struggles that Nietzsche perceived to be equivalent to the retardation of life itself. Christian ‘slave morality’ (Nietzsche, F. W. 2008b, II. §11) as well as reason (Nietzsche, F. W. 2007, The Problem of Socrates, §6) in his view are nothing else but clever tricks perpetrated by the weak and meek on the powerful as a means of dragging them down to their lowly levels of degeneration. Similarly to him justice was a perversion, a making equal of that which is meant by nature to be fought out in unhindered power struggles for life to flourish (Nietzsche, F. W. 2008b, II. § 11). In suffering on the other hand, Nietzsche saw the principle hope for man to transcend himself and become a being of higher consciousness (Nietzsche, F. W. 2008a, §§225, 270) which he called the Overman. Unapologetic egoism in precise opposition to Schopenhauer’s denial of the Will through compassion, was to Nietzsche the very essence of a noble soul (Nietzsche, F. W. 2008a, §265) and therefore the antidote capable of reversing humanity’s descent along a slippery slope towards humanity’s self annihilation.

Life, reason, freedom, critique

Critique has the living critic as necessary precondition. In that regard we are unable to ignore Nietzsche. Yet “the conditions of life might include error.” Assuming this to be the case, any critical rational discourse would become impossible for one of two reasons. Either because abiding by the fundamental rules of logic would ultimately result in the self-annihilation of life through rational critique or because by disavowing the laws of logic one would be cutting the branch on which rational critique rests for it became permissible to affirm and deny the same property of a thing simultaneously (Heller 1999, p. 1). Vae victis. Might would be right and it is in the philosophies of Foucault and his concept of ‘power/knowledge’ (Foucault 1972) that such notions are being embraced. Heller for example is taking limitless freedom as the grounding of modernity (Heller 1999, pp. 13-5) noting “[t]hat freedom grounds means, namely, that everything is ungrounded. […] The moderns are sitting on a paradox. This is the constellation of the modern world: it is grounded in a principle which, in principle, does not ground anything; it is founded on a universal value or idea, which in principle negated foundation.” (her emphasis) (Heller 1999, pp. 14-5) Critique becomes meaningless in the face of absolute freedom. Absolute freedom however does not exist and consequences are a good candidate for bridging Hume’s is/ought gap by providing an overriding reason to react one way and not another (ought) in a given situation (is) (Smith 2006), consequences in particular that violate the conditions for our existence.

The critic thus has to ground critique on a hierarchy of conditions enabling critique to avoid a reductio ad absurdum, namely existence of the critic at the base of the hierarchy, the use of reason to enable discursive critique and freedom to exercise reason and formulate a critique without reprisal. There are two fundamental issues with such a hierarchy. One being that the use of reason might violate the conditions for the critic’s existence as suggested by Nietzsche and another that freedom as a foundation grounds nothing as suggested by Heller. To answer Heller, freedom would have to be bounded and bounded specifically by progressing upwards along the conditional hierarchy. First and foremost the non-violation of the conditions for the critic’s existence, followed by the adherence to the fundamental laws of logic and only then ensuring the freedom from reprisal to exercise critique. Before answering Nietzsche we recall his argument against reason being founded on the understanding that it obstructs the free unfolding of the Will to power and therefore life. As Santayana notes this idea “assumes, if it does not assert, that the source of one’s being and power lies in oneself. [Egotism] denies that we are created beings owing reverence to immense forces beyond ourselves, which endow us with our limited faculties and powers, govern our fortunes, and shape our very lives without our permission.” (Santayana 1939, p. 151) This perspective casts serious doubts on the Nietzschian understanding of life and what sustains it. Modern advances in our understanding of evolutionary dynamics, particularly in regards to multilevel selection theory (MLST) further support Santayana’s argument. MLST holds that blurring the lines between the self and the other does confer an evolutionary advantage on groups that promote notions of compassion and altruistic behaviour over other groups that do not or to a lesser extent (Wilson, Vugt & O’Gorman 2008). In light of our contemporary understanding of evolutionary dynamics and evolutionary adaptively in particular, Nietzsche’s stance against reason as well as large parts of his mature philosophy that hinges on his understanding of life becomes untenable justifying a grounding of critique in reason.


Having worked out the grounding in the critiques of Kant and Nietzsche by highlighting the concerns and motivations underlying their critical projects it could be shown that both reason and life are necessary precondition for exercising critique. The idea of freedom as well is central to both thinkers. In Kant in the autonomous individual enabled by reason and in Nietzsche in the anarchic freedom of egotistic self-assertion and rejection of reason. By reevaluating the basic tenets of these two seminal modern thinkers and reformulating them on the basis of our modern understanding of life and what sustains it, a way of grounding critique was proposed that retains the valid portions of their philosophies yet showed the pessimistic conclusions that led many modern thinkers to take “up residence in the ‘Grand Hotel Abyss’” (Lukács 1974, p. 22) to be invalid and resting on mistaken assumption. Further analysis and exploration of these ideas will show the true potential of this approach.


[1] “What does not kill me makes me stronger” (Nietzsche, F. W. 2007, p. 5), “Man, as the animal that is most courageous, most accustomed to suffering, does not negate suffering as such: he wants it, even seeks it out, provided one shows him some meaning in it, some wherefore of suffering.” (Nietzsche, F. W. 2008b, §28)

[2] “To refrain mutually from injury, from violence, from exploitation, and put one’s will on a par with that of others: this may result in a certain rough sense in good conduct among individuals when the necessary conditions are given […]. As soon, however, as one wished to take this principle more generally, and if possible even as the FUNDAMENTAL PRINCIPLE OF SOCIETY, it would immediately disclose what it really is–namely, a Will to the DENIAL of life, a principle of dissolution and decay.” (his emphasis) (Nietzsche, F. W. 2008a, §259)

[3] For an explanation of the term in this context see (Palmquist 1996). In the German language something is referred to as ‘being Chinese’ when it is unintelligible.

[4] While commonly translated as ‘cadaverous perfume’ or ‘bitter odor of corpses’ the original ‘Leichenbitter’ was in fact a public office common in Germany until into the 19th century who’s duties included informing relatives about the death of a loved on, delivery of funeral invitation, as well as hosting and organizing the funeral reception, functions that funeral directors commonly exercise these days. Understood in this manner, the passage can be interpreted more directly as a snipe remark towards Schopenhauer’s life denying philosophy, painting him as preparing and presiding over humanity’s self annihilation.


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