Nietzsche versus Materialism

Marx spoke of kraft and Nietzsche spoke of macht. In English these are both translated as power, which has probably confused some people. Kraft is a material force whereas macht includes e.g. the power to influence others without direct action, like the implicit intimidation of a king or the seductive powers of a beautiful face. The superficial difference is described in terms of Hegelian dialectics as master-slave and bourgeoisie-proletariat respectively. At this level both systems are equally muddled mixes of physical and abstract power. To remedy this I will attempt to be a bit more accurate.

Marx’s theory rests on the very specific idea that material forces emanating from humans define value. Nietzsche speaks of power more generally, but they both have in common the idea of humanity as an essentially distinct part of the universe. They had both read Feuerbach and obviously Darwin’s 1859 book helped shape the zeitgeist. It is apparent to me that Nietzsche’s understanding of evolution is insufficient (and he himself admits to not trying to prove anything) but that’s easy to say in 2017 when many understand evolution a lot better.

Nietzsche’s fundamental error is the idea of the perfect human, not all that alien to Hegel’s idea of the world being designed to eventually reach the perfect society. Looking at the animal kingdom in the present gives the impression that each species is perfectly adapted to its environment.* However, this is not a static condition but a process that includes tiny molecules to combine to larger molecules to form bacteria that mutate into multicellular organisms that continuously develop through unique individuals which are sorted out of the race through circumstances particular to those individuals, a process that is still going on billions of years later. This means that every species is currently in the process of changing into something else, i.e. no species is perfect, no species has reached its final form, indeed there is no final form. Even if the environment would somehow freeze in an unchanging state forever (no wind, no sunshine, no growth, no earthquakes and so on) the competition between animals would still pose a threat to existence that forces them to keep evolving new bodies and strategies. And if electrons stopped spinning we wouldn’t even have the atoms needed to form humans.

The problem of thinking in terms of species can be illustrated by the phenomenon called ring species. Birds living on an island somewhere can interbreed with the birds on the neighbouring islands. The neighbouring population can in turn interbreed with the next group of birds and so on. Imagine a ring of these islands. However, because of their relative isolation the birds are no longer compatible with the populations that live on the opposite side of the ring. So we have both an unbroken chain of interbreeding along the ring and a break in the species across the ring, which demonstrates the failure of the concept of species. I seem to recall that Darwin was somewhat aware of this, but I couldn’t find a quote to verify that.

Nietzsche, assuming the possibility of a perfect human specimen, imagines what we today might call a “natural” human. His main beef is with the “unnatural” morality of the Vedic and Abrahamic traditions in which evolutionary losers (the sick, the weak, the perverted) have made the strong responsible for the inequality and erected courts of punishment to redress this natural state of things through artificial means. Ultimately they’ve made virtues out of the exact opposites of the qualities of the naturally strong, and thus perverted society, this he calls ressentiment and slave morality.

“(T)he problem with the other origin of the ‘good,’ of the good man, as the person of ressentiment has thought it out for himself, demands some conclusion. It is not surprising that the lambs should bear a grudge against the great birds of prey, but that is no reason for blaming the great birds of prey for taking the little lambs. And when the lambs say among themselves, ‘These birds of prey are evil, and he who least resembles a bird of prey, who is rather its opposite, a lamb,—should he not be good?’ then there is nothing to carp with in this ideal’s establishment, though the birds of prey may regard it a little mockingly, and maybe say to themselves, ‘We bear no grudge against them, these good lambs, we even love them: nothing is tastier than a tender lamb.'”

As much as Nietzsche hates on certain aspects of religion it seems he still hasn’t fully escaped the concept of original sin. He’s explicitly not a nihilist whose given up on this forsaken species, instead he believes he’s part of a movement of questioning old morals that will, in about 200 years of confusion starting from when he was writing, culminate in a better society, populated by his perfect humans, the übermensch (superhuman, above-human, high-human or top human). This ideal human isn’t well theorized, Nietzsche was foremost a critic, and it might even be unfair to extend his ideas beyond criticism and deconstruction (maybe he wanted to stop at questioning and allow for the answers to come after he was gone, I can’t be sure) but the ideal human seems to fit in the philosophical transition from idealism to materialism, where some of the ideals survive in material concepts. Stirner, Husserl or Heidegger might’ve been the first to completely break with German idealism (and by extension Plato’s idealism), if that is even possible.

My criticism of modern humanism and human rights is mainly the categorization into distinct species. Nietzsche instead opposes these rights on the basis that they shouldn’t or can’t be given to e.g. the weak, and that the strong are already in their right by definition. They act naturally, following their natural instincts, and their acts are therefore justified. The distinction between instincts and willed acts is another error in the transition from idealism. It is a false division, there is no fundamental difference between immediate decisions and long-term planning, just as there isn’t between short-term and long-term memory. It can be argued that the weak who band together against the strong are actually in their right because they have strength in number. This Nietzsche might’ve called devious or even evil scheming, but without distinguishing it from instinct he has no argument.

Nietzsche’s superman is a loner, a survivalist, who leads not by desire, but by fitness for the role. Nietzsche of course did not know about the hypothesized mirror neuron system. In the brain there are neurons which are activated when we think a thought, like when we kick a ball. This thought involves e.g. neurons in the leg muscles and the visual centre. Some of these neurons are called mirror neurons and they are activated both when we kick the ball and when we see someone else kicking the ball. In parts of the mind these two events are the same event, and by extension I am the same as you. Animals learn by mimicry and the mirror neuron system in humans is even better than that of others, allowing us to understand each other better, making us more empathetic and learning e.g. language faster.

Although Kropotkin didn’t know about mirror neurons either, he, writing at the same time as Nietzsche, having access to the same scientific discoveries, pointed out the success of symbiosis as opposed to Nietzsche’s caricature of survival of the fittest individual, which is still prevalent today. Maybe he thought organizations were successful because the sheep obeyed their masters, that is certainly how the nazis interpreted it, but I’d like to think that if Nietzsche had known more about modern biology he would’ve come to a different conclusion.

Nietzsche’s criticism of feminism is still common today, but it’s worth repeating that he was mainly a critic and didn’t elaborate on his future utopia. The man-hating feminism (as well as what can be called workerism) can certainly be described as ressentiment, but when it comes to macht it is important to note the difference between this hatred and resistance. Resistance is a superman trait, a natural instinct to defend yourself rather than attacking. It is my belief that most movements of this kind, (let’s include e.g. gay pride and anti-fascism) are mostly motivated by defense, but modern politics is occupied by this polarization. This is evident in political correctness and the accusation that homosexuals are trying to convert heterosexuals into homosexuals. The fact that Jews were industrially slaughtered just 70 years ago and that the polarization in the debate on macht is still ongoing makes Nietzsche, or at least his targeting the machtlos (powerless), extremely relevant today.

Without a conscious will and a model human we don’t get either of the prescriptive ideals of Marx or Nietzsche, just a description of material forces in general, and since the universe is energy that just results in the most general description of exactly everything. To get to value and how or whether it is desirable or possible we should, in my opinion, look at emotions instead.

Post Scriptum

A study showed that people prefer partners that look more like themselves. By digitally having 22% of their own faces added, the subjects choose those pictures over their partners’ actual pictures. Now, 22% is a bit misleading because we should assume they’ve already chosen a partner that looks a bit like themselves, so maybe the actual number should be 50% instead. However, humans are already similar to each other. for the sake of argument, let’s say all Europeans are 99.97% genetically identical, or 0.03% dissimilar; that’s about one million base pairs that are different in two persons’ DNA. Ignoring the environment, those 50% would then amount to a range between 0.015 and 0.045, or two million base pairs. A chimpanzee is 98.8% similar to humans according to which would be about three and a half million base pairs. Since it’s not specified which differences are relevant one might imagine a human being attracted to a chimpanzee and at the very least to isolated attributes out of context.

The golden ratio is 1:1.6 and a golden rectangle has two rectangles with a 3:2 ratio. Now, that might mean nothing, but the idea I’m getting at is that you want mostly the same thing, but with a smaller addition of something else. In music taste this seems too true to be a coincidence. Music as such is a balance between repetition and change of frequencies. Music needs gaps between tones; music needs silence, but it also needs to keep returning to the tone. Taste in music is formed through experience and just going by my own opinions I like music that has a melody that I recognize as a melody that constitutes most of the piece but with a small twist that I haven’t heard in comparable melodies. The same is true for recognizable instruments versus new timbres and it’s also true for my gradual path-finding through different genres of music. So, I listened to heavy metal, then melodic death metal, then post-black metal, just to name one such path, and each step followed the formula: more of the same, but with a slight change.

Small children prefer to eat food that has just one texture and one colour and that hasn’t got a complex taste, like milk or a potato. Eventually their adventurous experiences lead them to weirdly mixed stews of red, green and blue stuff of all sizes and shapes and textures and of all kinds of exotic and extreme taste combinations, they might even like bananas with brown patches. Their is no right or wrong stage to stop at here. You can keep going and develop your tastes or settle for whither you’ve gone. More complexity is not better, just as louder isn’t better, and the value of taste is purely subjective anyway.

The point of all this, besides the randomness of which difference is good, is that we are not static, we develop in a process and there can never be a persistently ideal human. On a species-level of discussion there is also no point in desiring ever-increasing complexity or to envision a specific level of complexity to be the ideal plateau to pause on. Possibly it’s objectively better for a species to have a bigger volume, mass or energy output over a longer period of time, but unless God or another objective judge exists I don’t see the point in that.

*Douglas Adams made this analogy: “Imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, ‘This is an interesting world I find myself in, an interesting hole I find myself in, fits me rather neatly, doesn’t it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!’”


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