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“Our New Infinite”: Nietzsche’s Chaos in

Contemporary Physics”
Seth Shamon
American University
Class of 2011
seth.shamon@gmail.com
717-715-5567

Abstract:
“Our New Infinite”: Nietzsche’s Chaos in Contemporary Physics

“The violent reaction on the recent development of modern physics can


only be understood when one realizes that here the foundations of physics
have started moving; and that this motion has caused the feeling that the
ground would be cut from science…Both physics and metaphysics have
reached a point where language no longer imparts any information.”
-Werner Heisenberg, 1958 (Physics and Philosophy)

“Long live physics!”


-Friedrich Nietzsche, 1882 (The Gay Science)

Preface

Before delving into my analysis of quantum mechanics through the lens of Nietzsche’s

philosophy put forth in The Gay Science1, I feel the need to take note of the danger in even

attempting any such application of Nietzsche’s texts, especially TGS, whose aphoristic style

appears (and admittedly is) rife with contradictions. Nietzsche’s multitudes are especially

apparent in TGS, Nietzsche seems at first glance to oscillate in his assessment of science

between a fervent support and a sort of condescension. But rather than take his words at face

value and dismiss his position as inconsistent, it would serve us well to dig deeper into his

aphorisms and search for spaces between their contradictions.

In defining “gay science” and providing some inter-textual analysis, I hope to show that

the opposing sentiments toward science are in fact consistent within Nietzsche’s philosophy. I

will then compare Nietzsche’s philosophy to that of Heisenberg, thereby providing Nietzsche a

foray into the world of contemporary science, in order to then utilize his conception of chaos to

understand basic principles of quantum mechanics. My ultimate goal is to see how if at all we

can reconcile Nietzsche’s philosophy in TGS with quantum mechanics in order to gain a deeper

understanding of each and to attempt to establish an epistemological basis for the future of

science.

1
Hereafter abbreviated TGS
Part I: Nietzsche as (Gay) Scientist

Nietzsche’s project in TGS, aside from providing a poetic manifesto of his overall multi-

faceted philosophy, is to lay out the framework of his “gay science,” by defining it, explaining

why we ought to practice it, and outlining who he believes capable of harnessing it. In his

preface to the second edition, he describes his gay science as “all of a sudden attacked by hope…

the jubilation of returning strength, of a reawakened faith in tomorrow and a day after tomorrow,

of a sudden sense and anticipation of a future, of impending adventures, of reopened seas, of

goals that are permitted and believed in again.”2

In large part inspired by his own physical recovery at the time of writing, Nietzsche’s

words are nevertheless important in characterizing the text’s overall tone and larger mission.

Nietzsche is writing to ignite others to take up joyous pursuit of knowledge. The majority of

people, Nietzsche admits, are “not predestined for knowledge,” and would proclaim in the face

of discovery: “I want to see nothing that contradicts the prevalent opinion. Am I made to

discover new truths? There are already too many old ones.”3 In the very next aphorism he defines

life itself as “continually shedding something that wants to die,”4 further solidifying himself as a

supporter of progress.

While Nietzsche extols the pure pursuit of knowledge, he later displays considerable

criticism of the natural science. He first brings to light science’s questionable origins, arguing

that the promotion and pursuit of science throughout history has been “because of three errors”:

one, to try to understand God’s goodness; two, to harness science’s utility; and three, because of

2
TGS, pg. 3
3
Ibid, pg. 50
4
Ibid
science’s perceived innocence and purity.5 Despite these errors, he maintains respect for

scientists for their masculinity and courage in pursuing knowledge.6 In Book Five, however,

Nietzsche reverses turns on the scientists, asking: “Is it not the instinct of fear that bids us to

know? And isn’t the rejoicing of the person who attains knowledge just rejoicing from a regained

sense of security?”7

How can we explain this drastic shift in Nietzsche’s attitude toward science? Let us look

in his aphorism entitled Science as prejudice, where he bitingly posits his criticism in full:

The faith with which so many materialistic natural scientists rest content: the faith in a
world that is supposed to have its equivalent and measure in human thought, in human
valuations – a ‘world of truth’ that can be grasped entirely with the help of our four-
cornered little human reason – What? Do we really want to demote existence in this way
to an exercise in arithmetic and an indoor diversion for mathematicians? Above all, one
shouldn’t want to strip it of its ambiguous character: that, gentlemen, is what good taste
demands – above all, the taste of reverence for everything that lies beyond your
horizon!...Thus, a ‘scientific’ interpretation of the world, as you understand it, might still
be one of the stupidest of all possible interpretations of the world, i.e. one of those most
lacking in significance…an essentially mechanistic world would be an essentially
meaningless world! Suppose one judged the value of a piece of music according to how
much of it could be counted, calculated, and expressed in formulas – how absurd such a
‘scientific’ evaluation of music would be! What would one have comprehended,
understood, recognized? Nothing, really nothing of what is ‘music’ in it!8

A scientific explanation of the world is an oversimplification that strips the world of its

ambiguity, its beautiful, musical qualities. I still cannot help but ask: what lies beyond our

horizon? What is this music?

Part II: Nietzsche’s Chaos as Heisenberg’s Uncertainty

We must be careful here. As Nietzsche warns us against stripping the world of its

ambiguity by means of science, he is decidedly not telling us to give up questioning and pursuing
5
TGS, pg. 55
6
Ibid, pg. 166
7
Ibid, pg. 214
8
Ibid, pg. 238-239
knowledge: “To stand in the midst of this rerum concordia discors and the whole marvelous

uncertainty and ambiguity of existence without questioning, without trembling with the craving

and rapture of questioning…that is what I feel to be contemptible.”9 We therefore are justified in

pursuing knowledge and formulating a gay science, so long as we preserve the ambiguous

element of the natural world.

In 1925, Werner Heisenberg and fellow German theoretical physicists Max Born and

Pascual Jordan developed the basis of quantum mechanics by providing a mathematical model

for an electron’s quantum energy jumps based on years of rigorous experimentation.10

Interestingly, two years later Heisenberg reversed his positivistic methodology11 behind his

results and boldly asserted that “the meaning of concepts is identical with the procedure of their

measurement.”12 His mathematical formulation of this belief, now known as the Heisenberg

Uncertainty Principle, states that a simultaneous measurement of “canonically conjugate

variables”13 must necessarily contain a degree of uncertainty, even ignoring technological

9
TGS, pg. 30
10
It is worth noting here how curiously similar the conditions that gave birth to Heisenberg’s
work were to those in Nietzsche’s process of revelation. In 1925, Heisenberg, seeking rest
and recovery from hay fever, traveled to the North Sea island of Helgoland. Although he
went there to rest, he wound up becoming completely immersed in studying the problem of
hydrogen spectral lines, a phenomenon unexplained as of then. He rarely slept, spending all
of his time either working on the problem, climbing mountains, or memorizing Goethe’s
West Osticher Divan. During one late night, Heisenberg stumbled upon what became the
starting point of quantum mechanics. He described the experience as follows: “It was about
three o’ clock when the final result of the calculation lay before me. At first I was deeply
shaken. I was so excited that I could not think of sleep. So I left the house and awaited the
sunrise on the top of a rock.”
Heisenberg, "Der Teil un das Ganze“
11
Heisenberg, along with the other German physicists, sought physical laws based solely on
experimental results.
12
Routelage Encyclopedia of Philosophy
13
Variables defined to be inexorably interdependent, such as position and momentum or
time and energy
limitations. At a given time, a particle is said to occupy all possible states simultaneously; the

very act of measurement forces that particle into a given state.14

Apart from proving a major breakthrough in scientific thought, Heisenberg’s theory of

uncertainty opened up an important and multi-faceted epistemological debate in the scientific

community. First, Heisenberg argued that if we accept his uncertainty principle, that the state of

a system is inherently probabilistic, we necessarily reject the notion of causality.15 Second, our

outlook on the scope of science—and indeed our concept of reality—is significantly altered:

“The physical description, Heisenberg maintained, is no longer about the objective course of

nature. Rather than describing ‘nature in itself’, physicists only specify nature’s responses to

questions put in experimental set-ups.”16 Heisenberg takes a (self-proclaimed) neo-Platonic

position on the nature of reality, extolling mathematical forms as essence.17

Here we immediately see a direct contradiction to a central feature of Nietzsche’s

philosophy, namely his firm anti-dualism. While Heisenberg takes the physical world to be a

model of an ideal form, Nietzsche maintains that “there is only the world of nature, life, history,

becoming, and appearance…any other kind of reality is absolutely indemonstrable”18.”

Nietzsche, ever the loner, embraced his isolation from the greater philosophical community by

writing: “With the highest respect, I accept the name of Heraclitus.19 When the rest of the

philosophic folk rejected the testimony of the senses because they showed multiplicity and

14
This implies that the uncertainty lies in the state of the particle itself, not just in
the measurement. Routelage Encyclopedia of Philosophy
15
“In principle, we cannot know the present with enough precision in order to
predict the future with certainty,” Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy
16
Ibid
17
Ibid. This is further evidenced by the fact that Heisenberg’s thought experiments
always introduced a conscious observer to the physical description of a system.
18
Twilight of the Idols, qtd. in Cox pg. 196.
19
A pre-Socratic Greek philosopher who maintained that all was flux and that the only reality
is appearance. Called the “obscure” or “weeping” philosopher for his radical ideas and
professed contempt of humankind.
change, he rejected their testimony because they showed things as if they had permanence and

unity.”20 Both Nietzsche and Heraclitus deny the difference between substance and accident,

between essence and appearance21 and proclaim that ideas are secondary to, and derived from,

the physical world.22

Heisenberg’s final conclusion, however, that “the meaning of concepts is identical with

the procedure of their measurement,”23 seems very much in line with Nietzsche’s belief of

appearance as essence: that is, that the only meaning the world has is the one we ascribe to it.

“The total character of the world…is for all eternity chaos,”24 Nietzsche proclaims, and “the

reputation, name, and appearance, the worth, the measure and weight of a thing – originally

almost always something mistaken and arbitrary…has slowly grown onto and into the thing and

has become its very body: what started as appearance in the end nearly always becomes essence

and effectively acts as its essence!”25 Heisenberg has given a mathematical explanation for this

gap between man and nature.26 All science is now a creative exercise to make something out of

nothing.

Part III: The Plunge into Chaos

20
Twilight of the Idols, pg. 26
21
Cox 188
22
Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks pg. 87
23
Routelage
24
TGS pg. 109
25
Ibid pg. 70
26
Though Nietzsche would admit that mathematics is another example of a human
approximation of nature, which is inherently chaotic, this does not mean he would disagree
with Heisenberg’s use of math to explain phenomena: “Let us introduce the subtlety and
rigour of mathematics into all sciences to the extent to which that is at all possible; not in
the belief that we will come to know things this way, but in order to ascertain our human
relation to things. Mathematics is only the means to general and final knowledge of
humanity.” Math is thus the best approximation, providing us with the clearest possible
human understanding of chaos. TGS pg. 148
In the wake of God’s death and the burial of all truth, we are now faced with an infinite

number of possible interpretations of the world, which are all inherently different, since they are

all of different perspectives.27 Because nature consists entirely of these various competing

interpretations (it has no essence of itself), nature is necessarily chaotic. We are left with a

cyclical relationship between human and world: nature is meaningless because it consists of

competing valuations, which are themselves a product of (and inexorably bound to) the chaotic

world. The whole of chaos consists then of “the errant and divergent movements of both world

and world-interpretation.”28 Nietzsche’s philosophy can be described as an anti-dualism and a

sort of naturalism, akin to Spinoza’s except that for Nietzsche nature is no longer a point of

convergence we call God,29 but rather a point of divergence we call chaos.

We have seen previously that man’s impediment to fully understanding nature, manifest

in the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, can be explained by the fact that nature itself is chaos,

as it consists of the divergence of infinite perspectives. This “whole marvelous uncertainty”30

denies the possibility of a deterministic world, because determinism necessarily requires laws.31

Heisenberg would likely agree with Nietzsche that the world is indeterministic, since it does not

entirely follow pure mathematical models. But when we try to apply Nietzsche’s idea of chaos to

specific scientific problems, we will find a tension between his belief in indeterminism and the

basic aim and methodology of science.

Nietzsche’s philosophical conception of chaos has actually come to resemble physical

laws based on experiential evidence. “Chaos theory”32 has been found to describe many physical

27
TGS pg. 239
28
Cox, pg. 207
29
Ibid, pg. 208
30
TGS, pg. 30
31
Ibid, pg. 77
32
Defined simply as the study of dynamical systems that are extremely sensitive to initial
conditions
phenomena, from the structure of crystal lattices, to bound and scattering energy states of

electrons, to concert halls and the weather.33 Chaos in this context, however, describes a dynamic

system that is deterministic. It can be described by mathematical laws, yet yields results that

appear to be completely random. This seeming randomness is due to the fact that these systems,

though deterministic, are extremely sensitive to initial conditions, to a degree that is beyond even

our absolute limit of measurement given by the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.34

The concept of chaos has become even more manifest in science in recent years. This

year British Physicist Charlotte Werndl formulated a new implication of chaos, stating that in

“predicting any event at any level of precision, all sufficiently past events are approximately

probabilistically irrelevant.”35 No matter how much we know about the initial and past

conditions, some systems remain unpredictable.

A further exploration of Nietzsche’s conception of chaos will shed light on this problem

of determinism and chaos in physics. Nietzsche describes cause and effect as a false duality:

In truth a continuum faces us, from which we isolate a few pieces, just as we always
perceive a moment only as isolated points…There is an infinite number of processes that
elude us in this second of suddenness. An intellect that saw cause and effect as a
continuum, not, as we do, as arbitrary division and dismemberment – that saw the stream
of the event – would reject the concept of cause and effect and deny all determinedness.36

Rather than a lack of order, I wish to view chaos as an order of infinite complexity. If we define

reality as the complete set of all processes, we could theoretically understand all of reality if we

understand all of these processes.37 But since “there is an infinite number of processes that elude

us in this second of suddenness,” any such calculation (one of infinite degree) is by definition

33
Gutzwiller
34
Ibid
35
Werndl
36
TGS, pg. 113
37
I do not think Nietzsche would mind this sort of reductionism, but as I will soon argue,
reducing infinity into a complete and understandable human description is an impossibility.
impossible. This is how we can say that a chaotic system is neither random nor deterministic.38

We can describe the behavior of a chaotic system after observing its action, but we are at a loss

as to explain why this particular action occurred;39 Nietzsche notes, “Before the effect one

believes in causes different from those one believes in after the effect.”40 We can explain the

behavior with mathematical models, so it is not completely random; but we cannot ever predict

the outcome beforehand, because nature is not deterministic—its parts are of infinite number.

Resolution: “We as Creators”

I have compared Nietzsche’s conception of chaos against quantum mechanics to see how

well each would stand up against each other. After clarifying Nietzsche’s antagonism toward

science as antagonism toward the need for certainty that has been rampant in the natural

sciences, I compared Nietzsche’s philosophy to that of Heisenberg, one of the founders of

quantum mechanics. I showed that despite Heisenberg’s idealization of mathematics, Nietzsche

fits quite nicely in the philosophical discussion of quantum mechanics. I then redefined chaos as

an infinite sum in order to explain contemporary chaos theory. I will close this analysis by

extending my gaze to whether or not Nietzsche’s conception of chaos is limiting to future

progress.

I will argue that Nietzsche’s philosophy is not limiting to science, that it is possible to

utilize Nietzsche’s conception of chaos to reinforce the modesty of science, while still providing

it with an epistemological purpose. Jean Granier defines chaos as the being or the primitive text

38
Computer scientist Christopher Langton coined the phrase “edge of chaos” in
1990 to describe this space occupied between determinism and randomness.
39
Nietzsche makes the important distinction between “explanation” and “description” in
TGS, page 113. He argues that science has become better only at describing nature. This is
an a posteriori description as opposed to any sort of teleological explanation.
40
Ibid, 114.
behind nature, which cannot appear through masks, which Granier calls nature.41 Granier’s

definition of chaos is notably different from the one we used earlier. His chaos refers to the

nothingness that is the essence of the universe, and reserves the word “nature” for describing the

collection of masks. Masking can then be seen as art, as “the veil of beautiful appearance thrown

over the horrors of chaos.”42 Science too by this definition is a form of art, as a

phenomenological veil over chaos.

Nietzsche says that “truth,”—which would be equivalent to saying “nothingness,” or to

the human relationship to that nothingness (horror)—is appropriated to refer instead to the veils

themselves, to “metaphysics, religion, morality, science—all of them only products of [man’s]

will to art, to lie, to flight from “truth,” to negation of “truth.””43 Any form of interpretation of

being is consequently a masking of chaos.44

Based on this alone, we would be inclined to decidedly abandon Nietzsche in our quest

for a justification of the pursuit of science. But Nietzsche is large, he contains multitudes, and in

spite of this characterization of science as a false reality, a mask designed for distraction and

complacency in the face of chaos, we can find in Nietzsche motivation and justification for

continuing in our scientific endeavors. Earlier I quoted Nietzsche’s explanation of his gay

science: “a reawakened faith in tomorrow and a day after tomorrow, of a sudden sense and

anticipation of a future, of impending adventures, of reopened seas, of goals that are permitted

and believed in again.”45

Nietzsche’s criticisms against science are directed towards those who treat science as

truth. It would seem that the words “science” and “truth” are inexorably connected, but I argue

41
Granier
42
Ibid, pg. 138
43
Will to Power, #556, qtd. in Granier, pg. 140
44
Granier, pg. 140
45
TGS, pg. 3
the opposite. Using Nietzsche’s approach to math46, we can remove science from the realm of

“truth,” and harness science “not in the belief that we will come to know things this way, but in

order to ascertain our human relation to things.”47 We will not come to “know” things by means

of science, because knowledge implies truth (though he uses the world elsewhere without this

connotation), but we will close the gap between us and nature by building upon our system of

approximations or formulae.

I do not know that Nietzsche would take this final leap with us. Although he provides

motivational speech urging us to embark on a quest for knowledge,48 his larger view of history is

not progressive, but cyclical.49 I wish to end this analysis by diverging from Nietzsche and taking

science to be a progressive pursuit, while still maintaining his conception of chaos. I earlier

defined chaos as the infinite sum of all possible interpretations. Although I agree with Nietzsche

that we will never truly “understand,” I believe that progress is not only possible but inevitable.

We cannot deny the fact that, whether it be chance guiding us or not, we have discovered

fundamental characteristics of our world using quantum physics, and are discovering more all the

time. Instead of following Nietzsche who steadfastly pushes into the depths of chaos (ultimately

the cause of his downfall), I instead approach chaos methodically, cautiously but not cowardly.

There is certainly room in my science for gaiety and laughter, but none for madness. I would

argue that we scientists should incorporate the idea of chaos, thereby recognizing its own

46
See footnote 26
47
Ibid
48
Also, Nietzsche is often concerned only with self knowledge, or becoming, especially
toward the end of the text,
49
See his theory of eternal recurrence of the same, first posited in TGS, pg. 194
limits,50 while at the same time recognizing that a world of infinite possible interpretations allows

for infinite progress.

50
This limit can be more easily understood graphically as an asymptote, a line (or a curve in
higher-dimensional space) that serves as the limit of a function; as the independent variable
time approaches infinity, the distance between the dependent variable—in this case “human
progress”—and the asymptote approaches zero. In this way the function increases forever
but never actually touches the asymptote, in this case chaos.
References

Cox, Christoph. Nietzsche: Naturalism and Interpretation. Los Angeles: University of California
Press, 1999.

Granier, Jean. “Nietzsche’s Conception of Chaos,” in Allison, David B. The New Nietzsche:
Contemporary Styles of Interpretation. New York: Dell, 1977.

Gutzwiller, Martin. “Quantum Chaos.” Scholarpedia. 2007.


http://www.scholarpedia.org/article/Quantum_chaos.

Heisenberg, Werner. Physics and Philosophy: The Revolution in Modern Science. New York:
Harper & Row, Publishers, 1958.

--. “Der Teil un das Ganze“ Piper, Munich, 1969.

Langton, Christopher. "Computation at the edge of chaos." Physica D, 42, 1990.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Gay Science. 1887. (2nd ed.) ed. Bernard Williams. Trans. Josefine
Nauckhoff and Adrian Del Caro. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

--Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks. 1873. In Philosophy and Truth: Selections from
Nietzsche’s Notebooks of the Early 1870s, ed. and trans. Daniel Breazeale. Atlantic
Highlands: Humanities Press International, 1979.

--. Twilight of the Idols. 1888. In The Portable Nietzsche, ed. and trans. Walter Kaufmann. New
York: The Viking Press, 1968.

Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. “Heisenberg, Werner.”


http://www.rep.routledge.com/article/Q044?authstatuscode=202.

Werndl, Charlotte. “What are the New Implications of Chaos for Unpredictability?”2009. British
Journal for the Philosophy of Science. Vol. 60, pg. 195-220.