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Faith, reason and Nietzsche

Daniel Sportiello | Thursday, March 1, 2012

Immanuel Kant, in his “Critique of Practical Reason,” argues that there are three postulates of practical reason. We should have faith in our freedom, in God and in our immortality. For only if we understand ourselves as free can we understand ourselves as rational — as acting, that is, for reasons.

If we are not to be mere machines, pushed and pulled by desire and fear, then we must ask ourselves not what we want to do but rather what we should do. We must be free to disobey our desires and fears when we have reason to do so.

And yet, even if we are not mere machines, we nonetheless learn from experience, even if somehow free, we are nonetheless bound within a mechanistic world — one in which all are determined by forces beyond our control. And so we must presuppose that God has designed the mechanistic world of experience such that it does not contradict the purposeful world of our actions. We must presuppose that God has designed us such that we can lead lives that make sense to us without thereby destroying ourselves.

And yet it is clear that, at least in this world, there will be situations in which we cannot lead rational lives without tending to our own destruction, when we cannot do what we have reason to do without getting ourselves killed. For this is what morality sometimes requires. Morality is, for Kant, just another word for rationality. If we are not to despair of practical reason altogether, if we are not to relinquish our hope of understanding ourselves as rational by nature rather than by luck, we must postulate a life after death, one in which we can work to perfect our rationality forever without fear of oblivion.

Kant, then, argues that we should have faith in our freedom, in God and in our immortality, even if his immortality looks suspiciously like purgatory.

Friedrich Nietzsche, of course, argues exactly the same thing. Of course, he also argues exactly the opposite. But bear with me.

Nietzsche argues that theoretical reason teaches us at this late hour that men are nothing more than the playthings of blind mechanism; they are born beneath an empty sky and doomed, just and unjust alike, to oblivion. And yet, Nietzsche holds, Kant was right about the postulates of practical reason.

For, in understanding ourselves as rational agents, we must indeed postulate freedom, God and immortality. We must have faith, even as we know that our faith is false.

That our striving toward rational agency forces us to postulate freedom, God and immortality means only that we are gripped by illusions. but illusions every bit as inevitable as Kant argues his postulates are. In his “On the Genealogy of Morality,” Nietzsche articulates just how these illusions are inevitable, though his explanations are rather different than those of Kant.

Regarding freedom, for example, Nietzsche writes that “to demand of strength that it not express itself as strength, that it not be a desire to overwhelm, a desire to cast down, a desire to become lord, a thirst for enemies and resistances and triumphs, is just as nonsensical as to demand of weakness that it express itself as strength.”

Nietzsche argues that the illusion of freedom comes, ultimately, from the weak — ever resentful of the strong, who exploit them. The weak insist “that the strong one is free to be weak, and the bird of prey be a lamb.” In other words, the strong one is free to disobey his will to power if he sees reason to do so.

Nonetheless, Nietzsche admits, we do sometimes disobey our will to power. We do sometimes disobey our desire to dominate one another. Yet this self-control, Nietzsche argues, comes not from freedom but rather from guilt, since the power of society checks our aggression toward one another, this aggression is suppressed and turned against itself.

For “all instincts that do not discharge themselves outwardly turn themselves inwards — this is what I call the internalizing of man. Thus first grows in man that which he later calls his ‘soul.'”

Our self-control, Nietzsche argues, is just the will to power turned against itself, that is, guilt. Self-control, then, is less a kind of freedom than a kind of slaver, albeit a slavery to oneself.

Though we can understand ourselves as rational agents, Nietzsche implies, doing so requires that we lie to ourselves. We fracture our rationality amd ourselves into theoretical and practical. We cannot actually be rational agents, for reason is at war with itself.

Understanding ourselves as rational agents forces us toward conclusions that understanding the world rationally forbids. And the harder that one works to resolve this tension, the more fully one becomes one for whom there are no reasons at all. It becomes the Last Man, who is not really a man at all.

Does reason really reveal that freedom, God and immortality are illusions? This is perhaps not as clear as Nietzsche would have us believe. Nonetheless, his question is one that each of us ought to ask himself: do we believe what we believe because we have reason to do so or only because we cannot admit to ourselves the truth? Do we live, in other words, in bad faith?.

Daniel John Sportiello is in his fourth year in the philosophy Ph.D. program. Listen to his radio show on WVFI. He can be reached at dsportie@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.