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In The Gay Science, Friedrich Nietzsche critiques the shortcomings and possibilities of modern science. In this critique, Nietzsche analyzes the limits of science, the ways in which science falsifies life, and the motivation for a scientific pursuit of knowledge. Although Nietzsche does not categorically reject science’s potential, he is extremely skeptical of its modern day use. His skepticism arises from what he believes is the fundamental problem of science: that it can describe the movement of particles, but it cannot explain human behavior. To explore this problem, Nietzsche employs a unique approach that is decidedly against science. Rather than approaching concepts in literal terms or hypotheses, he uses an interrogative method and irreverent style to aggressively challenge the value of a purely scientific view of the world and offer up his own “gay science.”
Nietzsche’s critique is particularly concerned with what he believes are the limits of science. He argues that one fundamental limit of science is its limited ability to interpret. Science, Nietzsche argues, is alarming in the emphasis it places on the “external aspect of existence” (Nietzsche 335). He believes that before science, “philosophers were afraid of the senses,” but now, “all of us are believers in [them]” (332). This belief is present in modern scientists that “do research scientifically with their senses” to provide “an interpretation that permits counting, calculating, weighing, seeing, touching, and nothing more” (335). The reduction of everything to an interpretation that admits of only what one’s senses can perceive neglects what Nietzsche believes are the individual’s far greater faculties of reflection, comprehension, and understanding. He argues that a purely scientific interpretation that neglects such faculties might be “one of the most stupid of all possible interpretations of the world” in that it “would be one of the poorest in meaning” (335). He provides the example of a scientific interpretation of music to illustrate his point. Although it might be possible to “estimate the value of a piece of music according to how much of it could be counted, calculated, and expressed in formulas,” it would be an “absurd estimation” that would not have “comprehended, understood, or grasped… any of what is music in [the piece]” (336). Art, like existence, is more than numbers and calculation. It is an equivocal, ambiguous experience that resists the constraints of a single interpretation.
Nietzsche also believes that science is limited in its ability to explain. Although science tries to offer explanations, Nietzsche argues that all science provides us is better descriptions of the world around us. He points to the scientific process of cause and effect as an example. Scientists use cause and effect to infer that “this and that has to precede in order that this or that may then follow” (172). However, this process “does not involve any comprehension” (172). Although a relationship is drawn between two things in cause and effect, scientists have “merely perfected the image of becoming without reaching beyond the image or behind it” (172). For example, scientists can use cause and effect to describe how a chemical reacts with another chemical to form a reaction, but the “quality [of the reaction] appears as a miracle” (172). Scientists cannot explain why the reaction produces the effects it does without turning to things they themselves have invented — things like “lines, planes, bodies, atoms, divisible time spans, [and] divisible space” (172). All attempts at scientific explanation are therefore only attempts to “turn everything into an image[,] our image” (172). Science cannot provide a true explanation of the human experience. Rather, it allows us to “describe ourselves more and more precisely” (173).
The limitations that Nietzsche identifies in science are critical in his critique of science as something that falsifies human life. Nietzsche sees science as something that contradicts much of what it means to be human. Science attempts to create a “world of truth that can be mastered completely and forever with the aid of… reason” (335). However, such a world in Nietzsche’s mind would “permit existence to be degraded to… a mere exercise for a calculator” (335). This world would “divest existence of its rich ambiguity,” creating “an essentially meaningless world” (335). The things that Nietzsche argues make us human — our inability to know truth, the “fickleness of [our existence]” (111), our “freedom above things” (164) — are rejected by science. Science claims one truth, denies the variability of existence, and constrains itself to the study of things. Nietzsche argues that by negating these aspects of authentic existence, science falsifies life.
Nietzsche argues that science also falsifies life by negating the idea of multiple interpretations of existence. He claims that a fundamental aspect of human existence is the question of how far the “perspective character of [our] existence extends” (336). Put differently, Nietzsche questions whether there a limit to the human abilities of interpretation. He argues that this question is unanswerable, as “the human intellect cannot avoid seeing itself in its own perspectives and only in these [perspectives]” (336). We cannot separate ourselves from our existence and thus cannot define how far the perspective character of our existence extends. As a result of this inability, Nietzsche rejects the “ridiculous immodesty that… decrees that perspectives are permitted only from one corner” and claims that “we cannot reject the possibility that [the world] may include infinite interpretations” (336). Science, however, does both of these things. It decrees that only scientific interpretations are permissible and rejects the idea of multiple interpretations. Science’s claim to enable the human to separate himself from perspective and provide a single objective interpretation falsifies what Nietzsche sees as another fundamental characteristic of life: the possibility of infinite interpretations of existence.
Nietzsche argues that the final way in which science falsifies life is in its inability to consider the value of human life. Nietzsche sees human existence as something that has fundamental value, yet science cannot take account of this. Rather, it reduces life to actions and reactions and places value only in a single objective truth. Scientists claim that “nothing is needed more than truth, and in relation to it everything else has only second-rate value” (281). However, Nietzsche argues that placing value in truth is a human action — whatever has value in our world “does not have value in itself, but [has been] given value at some time” (242). Science cannot take account of the human ability to create or appraise value. It treats the human as a “spectator and listener” and denies the human the outlet to “create [his or her] life” (241). Because science cannot consider the value of human life and claims a single truth, it “affirms another world than the world of life” (282). In affirming this world, science “negates its counterpart” (283) — our world — and falsifies life.
Although Nietzsche is critical of science, he is still interested in what motivates the pursuit of knowledge in the discipline. He argues that the primary motivation behind a scientific pursuit of knowledge is the “demand for certainty” (282). Unlike philosophy, science satisfies the individual’s desire for a single correct truth. Science provides “great certainty” and takes “something strange and reduces it to something familiar” (301). It satisfies the individual’s “unconditional will to truth” and appears to prevent the individual from being deceived (281). Nietzsche asks why the individual places such value in truth. He compares this absolute faith in truth to a faith in religion. Science claims truth is right because deception is wrong, but this is only a moral claim. In this sense, science is motivated by a “metaphysical faith” in truth that is comparable to a religious faith in God.
Nietzsche argues that a scientific pursuit of knowledge is also motivated by weakness. Like a faith in religion, faith in science is “coveted most and needed most urgently where will is lacking” (289). Those who lack will do not have “sovereignty and strength” and rely on these faiths to provide a structure for how they should live their lives (289). Science satisfies those who are “mistrustful and evil” (104) by providing them what appears to be certainty. Nietzsche also suggests that the motivation to pursue science is a reaction to boredom. He claims that “those who have too much leisure do not know what to do with it except to read, collect, arrange, observe, and recount — their scientific impulse is their boredom” (179). In both cases, science satisfies those who do not have the “strength of the will” to define their own existence and satisfy their desire for certainty (179).
Nietzsche’s criticism of science is reflected in his approach to his critique. One of his overarching criticisms of science is that it lacks conviction. In a scientific approach to knowledge, a conviction is only permitted when it “descends to the modesty of hypotheses” or “a provisional experimental point of view” (280). Essentially, a conviction in scientific approach is only allowed when it “ceases to be a conviction” (280). In contrast, Nietzsche’s approach to knowledge can be seen as pure conviction. Unlike a scientific method that lacks will, Nietzsche’s method is guided by the “will to question further, more deeply, severely, harshly, evilly, and quietly than one has questioned heretofore” (36). Through this aggressively interrogative method, Nietzsche attempts to give his readers a jolting, fresh perspective on convention and propriety that forces them to look at common things in a new light. This method directly contrasts with science. Nietzsche does not feel the need to prove everything he does; rather, he avoids data, math, and proofs in favor of a “belief in forms, tones, and words” (38) and the will to question.
Nietzsche’s interrogative method manifests itself in a unique style that is also opposed to science. He stresses the need of all individuals to “give style to one’s character” (232). Individuals, he argues, should “survey all the strengths and weaknesses of their nature and then fit them into an artistic plan until every one of them appears as art and reason” (232). In other words, Nietzsche argues that we develop our style when we unify our features and integrate our traits, habits, and actions. The importance he places on developing one’s own style is evident in his unique style. Unlike other philosophers of his time, Nietzsche refuses to approach philosophical concepts in straightforward terms. He persistently questions the logic behind traditional beliefs, values, and ways of thinking through a writing style that is sardonic, hyperbolic, and frequently metaphorical. Unlike science, which emphasizes the importance of uniformity and civility in style, Nietzsche writes in a manner that disregards conformity and formality in favor of variation and passion.
Nietzsche’s interrogative method and irreverent style form an approach that challenges the usefulness of a purely scientific view of the human world. Although Nietzsche does not deny that science is effective in describing the world around us, he argues it cannot, in its current form, explain human behavior. He asks if social science is possible — a science in which “artistic energies and the practical wisdom of life will join with scientific thinking” (173). The problem with such a science is a problem that Nietzsche raises with science in general throughout the book: that we cannot understand humans the way we understand non-living particles such as electrons because humans do not respond to stimuli the same way. As a result of this impossibility, he proposes an antidote to the state of modern science-based scholarship. Rather than toil in facts and formulas and become bogged down in the murkier aspects of our existence, humans must become “superficial out of profundity” (38). We must take delight in the aesthetic aspects of our existence and learn to “stop courageously at the surface, the fold, the skin, to adore appearance and to believe in forms, tones, and words” (38). We must reject a purely scientific view of the world in favor of a subjective view that celebrates our capacity to interpret, comprehend, and experience in an infinite number of ways. Nietzsche’s antidote to the state of modern scholarship — a deliberately light-hearted “gay science” — is created through his interrogative method and irreverent style.
Nietzsche’s critique of science is a fascinating exploration of the limitations, falsifications, and motivations of modern science. In his critique, he explains how science is limited in its ability to interpret or explain, how science falsifies life by negating the authentic aspects of our existence, and how science is motivated by a metaphysical faith that is comparable to religion. He uses an interrogative method and irreverent style to challenge passionately the value of modern science in the human world and extol his own “gay” science. This antidote for modern scholarship seeks to celebrate the individual and the ambiguity of our existence. In creating a science that rests on aestheticism and subjectivity, Nietzsche rises above the role of a scientist and becomes an artist.
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