Life, or knowledge of good and evil: choose one

There is a way which seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death.

— Proverbs 14:12 (and 16:25)

The upshot of my discussion (qv) of Bruce Charlton’s argument against atheism is that, yes, it is very likely a pathological belief — but that we cannot therefore write it off as a delusion. It is pathological not because it misrepresents reality, but because (like most religions) it fails to provide the artificial motives which are necessary in order to induce human populations to reproduce themselves under modern conditions. Humans, like many zoo animals, don’t breed well “in captivity” (i.e., in an unnatural and evolutionarily novel environment), and most belief systems, including all known atheistic ones, fail to cure that problem.

Only a handful of belief systems (the most prominent being Mormonism) qualify as non-pathological under modern conditions. The problem is that, by ordinary standards of evidence, these belief systems just don’t seem to be true. For Dr. Charlton, Mormonism’s effectiveness as an antidote to the modern pathology of voluntary infertility is evidence for its truth. However, the pathology is not essentially about incorrect beliefs, but about the inadequacy of evolved motives to induce reproduction under evolutionarily novel conditions. If certain forms of theism can cure that pathology, this is not evidence that they are true, but only that they are expedient under modern conditions. (The pathology will correct itself in any case, either by evolutionary changes in human nature or by the collapse of modernity — most likely the latter. However, if we want to continue to be both modern and human — and we do — it would certainly be expedient to convert to Mormonism or something similar.)

So, we find ourselves in the dilemma described in Proverbs: The beliefs that seem right lead to death; the beliefs that will save us seem wrong. If we — not we individuals, but we cultures, we nations, kindreds, tongues, and peoples — choose to die for what we believe (or disbelieve), is that heroic or just stupid? The Christian answer is clear: If your eyes cause you to fall, pluck them out; better to enter into life blind than to perish outright.


The writer who addresses this dilemma most explicitly is Friedrich Nietzsche. I hadn’t read Beyond Good and Evil since I was a child, but a couple of days ago I felt a sudden urge to reread it (in Marianne Cowan’s English translation). By “coincidence,” I found that passage after passage tied into the train of thought triggered by Dr. Charlton’s post.

Here is section 4 of Beyond Good and Evil, which states the dilemma in the clearest possible terms:

The falseness of a given judgment does not constitute an objection against it, so far as we are concerned. It is perhaps in this respect that our new language sounds strangest. The real question is how far a judgment furthers and maintains life, preserves a given type, possibly cultivates and trains a given type. We are, in fact, fundamentally inclined to maintain that the falsest judgments (to which belong the synthetic a priori judgments) are the most indispensable to us, that man cannot live without accepting the logical fictions as valid, without measuring reality against the purely invented world of the absolute, the immutable, without constantly falsifying the world by means of numeration. That getting along without false judgments would amount to getting along without life, negating life. To admit untruth as a necessary condition of life: this implies, to be sure, a perilous resistance against customary value-feelings. A philosophy that risks it nonetheless, if it did nothing else, would by this alone have taken its stand beyond good and evil.

People will call this nihilism, but of course it is not. Nietzsche is not saying that nothing matters; he is saying that life matters — that it matters more than truth itself, and that any judgment, be it never so “true,” which stands in the way of life must be sacrificed. I myself have already taken a step down the Nietzschean path by choosing to accept the doctrine of free will — despite the fact that I know it to be logically self-contradictory — because it seems pragmatically necessary for life. Nietzsche forces us to face the uncomfortable fact that to think this way — to accept untrue or probably-untrue beliefs because they “further life” — is to “take a stand beyond good and evil.”

Essentially all modern Christians do this, and will generally admit to doing it if pressed. In the faith even of one who professes to “know beyond a shadow of a doubt” there lurks an element of Pascal’s Wager, of freely choosing beliefs which seem expedient rather than being compelled by adequate evidence. No Christian thinks of this as a Nietzschean move, or as being “beyond good and evil.” (Christians generally dislike Nietzsche, perhaps because he shines too bright a light on them.)

But this choosing to accept false beliefs is not a uniquely religious phenomenon. As Nietzsche says, everyone does it — because it is literally necessary for life — but some are more honest than others about it. Atheists are generally the least honest, Christians a great deal more so — but they still fall short of the unblinking, spade-calling candor of Nietzsche himself.


But perhaps one of our necessary, life-furthering delusions is the belief that no delusion is necessary or life-furthering. There is an obvious element of paradox in being so honest about our need for self-deception, in insisting on the important truth that truth is not the most important thing. Nietzsche’s paradoxical insistence that, while truth is of secondary importance, honesty is essential, is perhaps best understood in light of the above quotation. ” The real question” is not only “how far a judgment furthers and maintains life,” but also how far it “preserves a given type.” Nietzsche is not — though he seems at first glance to be — advocating a philosophy of “better a live dog than a dead lion.” “Type” — dog or lion — matters just as much as life, and as becomes clear later in Nietzsche’s book, the human type he wishes to preserve is one characterized by courage, and by the candor which comes with courage.

What tempts us to look at all philosophers half suspiciously and half mockingly is not so much that we recognize again and again how innocent they are, how often and how easily they make mistakes and lose their way, in short their childishness and childlike-ness — but rather that they are not sufficiently candid, though they make a great virtuous noisy to-do as soon as the problem of truthfulness is even remotely touched upon. Every one of them pretends that he has discovered and reached his opinions through the self-development of cold, pure, divinely untroubled dialectic (in distinction to the mystics of every rank who, more honest and fatuous, talk about “inspiration”), whereas, at bottom, . . . a heart’s desire, made abstract and refined, is defended by them with arguments sought after the fact. They are all of them lawyers (though wanting to be called anything but that), and for the most part quite sly defenders of their prejudices, which they christen “truths” — very far removed they are from the courageous conscience which admits precisely this; very remote from the courageous good taste which makes sure that others understand. (from Beyond Good and Evil, Section 5)

The problem is that the stance Nietzsche is advocating — embracing “life-furthering” beliefs rather than true ones, expedience rather than principle — is hardly one that we would normally associate with courage. The courageous stance is the one expressed by Arthur Hugh Clough: “It fortifies my soul to know / That, though I perish, Truth is so” — compared with which Nietzsche’s own position seems more like a craven selling-out.

Truth, however, is not the only principle for which one can courageously take a stand. As becomes clear in the next (i.e., the sixth) section of Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche’s courageous man exhibits fealty not to the impersonal “truth” but to his own personal “moral intentions.”

Gradually I have come to realize what every great philosophy up to now has been: the personal confession of its originator, a type of involuntary and unaware memoirs; also that the moral (or amoral) intentions of each philosophy constitute the protoplasm from which each entire plant has grown. Indeed, one will do well (and wisely), if one wishes to explain to himself how on earth the more remote metaphysical assertions of a philosopher ever arose, to ask each time: What sort of morality is this (is he) aiming at? . . . there is nothing impersonal whatever in a philosopher. And particularly his morality testifies decidedly and decisively as to who he is — that is, what order of rank the innermost desires of his nature occupy.

The courageous man, then, is one who wishes to live a particular kind of life and who orders his beliefs so as to further that goal — both in terms of staying alive and in terms of living by that particular morality.


This is ultimately unsatisfying, though. If there is no bedrock of objective truth — or if there is, but we choose to ignore it as irrelevant — then none of these supposedly “heroic” choices people are making really mean anything. A man’s chosen morality “testifies decidedly and decisively as to who he is,” says Nietzsche, making it sound terribly momentous — but without some fixed standard of real morality grounded in actual truth, “who he is” is just a bit of meaningless trivia; preferring morality A to morality B is no more significant than preferring chocolate over strawberry ice cream. There can be no real courage or heroism without something objective in which to ground it.

Even Nietzsche seems to see this at times. Much later in Beyond Good and Evil (section 39) he appears to backtrack from his earlier position and to stress the importance of truth — truth at all costs, even if knowing the truth should result in vice, misery, and death.

No one very easily takes a doctrine as true because it makes one happy or virtuous. . . . Happiness and virtue are not arguments. But we like to forget — even sensible thinkers do — that things making for unhappiness or for evil are not counter-arguments, either. Something might be true, even though it is harmful and dangerous in the greatest degree; it might in fact belong to the basic make-up of things that one should perish from its full recognition. Then the strength of a given thinker would be measured by the amount of “the truth” that he could stand.


Ultimately, the only humanly acceptable state of affairs is one in which we don’t need to make such trade-offs — one in which truth, life, virtue, and happiness are all mutually compatible. The only acceptable way in which to live is in the faith that that is indeed true: that the Good is a unitary thing which can be pursued in its entirety, without the need to permanently sacrifice one aspect of it to another.

Even that faith cannot obviate the need to make tough choices between truth and life, though, since they often seem to be incompatible. Do we embrace beliefs that seem true, in the faith that they will ultimately turn out to be life-sustaining as well; or do we choose beliefs that seem expedient, in the faith that they will turn out to be true?


Filed under Ethics, Philosophy

2 responses to “Life, or knowledge of good and evil: choose one

  1. @Wm – I think the difference goes right back to metaphysics, including the basis of knowledge.

    I dont think this statement is right “Only a handful of belief systems (the most prominent being Mormonism) qualify as non-pathological under modern conditions. The problem is that, by ordinary standards of evidence, these belief systems just don’t seem to be true.”

    because I think the way that we believe some bit of science is true is the same, at a different level, as religion – which is that it ‘works’. Or, the way that we know science is not true is that it does not work.

    People believe science is true ‘because’ the modern world (technology etc); and that is the best and most compelling argument. But of course it does not mean that every bit of something that calls itself science is true – never has been, and certainly is not now. Religion likewise by analogy.

    Or – and this is where I got it from – in mental illness, the difference between a delusion and not-a-delusion is that the delusion is not consistent with the rest of life – it does not work.

    This means that non-psychotic delusions are not really delusions, they are simply rational inferences resulting from different assumptions (what I have called ‘theory of mind’ delusions )

    SO, this matter boils down to metaphysical assumptions. Different assumptions lead to different systems of rationality – and rationality cannot choose between the assumptions. The basis of secular modernity is to reject several of the natural spontaneous assumptions which are built into humans – things which can roughly be summarized as belief in free will, the soul and spirits, animism, the objectivity of morality etc.

    (These inbuilt assumptions are rejected because they are not rationally derived (which is true) – so the rejection is in effect a privileging of reason above metaphysical assumptions. But this privileging is itself a metaphysical assumption! It seems we cannot get away from metaphysical assumptions!)

    Once it has been decided to doubt/ reject these assumptions, we find that they cannot be restored, neither can they be replaced – indeed, we often find that the result is a Cretan liar type paradox – as with free will; when to prove by reason that free will is an illusion is to prove that reason is an illusion.

    We find, for example, that reason cannot itself justify the validity of reason.

    Anyway, the point I am trying to make here is that it is wrong to say that ‘by ordinary standards of evidence’ Mormonism is untrue – it is wrong in many ways. If we say that Mormonism is untrue because some of its details (eg in the BoM) seem to be refuted by secular knowledge then this also applies to every kind of science that has ever been known – it is indeed the conflict between the apparent wrongness of the details of science and the overall picture, which is the driver of research.

    But these matters *never* get sorted out – nothing has ever been wholly consistent at every level of analysis, at least not by prevailing standards or consistency and validity – but this does not mean nothing has ever been true.

    However, when it comes to Mormonism – or the BoM – we ask that everything be consistent at every level of analysis – according to our current standards and todays criteria – or else we reject it as flawed hence false. If we applied such standards to normal discourse, there would be nothing that survived – not even mathematics. So clearly this is a false way of analysing.

    I believe that we have gotten into this mess by ignoring the big picture and focusing on details. There are millions of details which may not be compatible with the big picture – and the evaluation system inculcated is that the default assumptions are secular.

    (This is compounded by short attention spans, and successful lying (eg in the mass media – where in practice well known counter examples to generalizations may be fictions or outright lies) – so that we are often checking for consistency between truth and lies, and when we fail to find consistency we often reject the truth.)

    My point is that the assumptions will carry the day. Once people have been induced to reject spontaneous assumptions and accept modern, secular assumptions – including the superiority of reason to any metaphysical assumptions – then from this position there can never be enough ‘evidence’ of sufficient sureness to compel anybody to abandon it. When followed through consistently and honestly, the outcome is nihilism – and this outcome instantly refutes all the reasoning which led up to it.

    Nietzsche realised this, but at the same time he paradoxically implicitly denied it by his actions – he alternated between recognizing and denying this paradox, asserting the truth of what he said then stating that there is no truth and around in circles – which is indeed the only thing that you can do with it UNLESS you go back and challenge the metaphysical assumptions that led to the paradox.

    My most useful maxim is ‘compared with what?’ So when Mormonism, or Christianity, or theism is rejected as being refuted and regarded as false according to the ‘evidence’ – I ask ‘compared with what’? What is the system compared with which M/C or T is regarded as false? And how is the falsity of that system being tested (in a way which does not simply build in the assumption of its superiority).

  2. Bruce, you and I obviously make different judgments regarding the evidence for and against Mormonism, but that’s not really my point here.

    The question I’m considering is, given that belief system A seems to me to be more expedient but less true than belief system B, which is it better to embrace? Is it better (in the moral sense of that word) to stick to what seems true and have faith that it will somehow turn out to be expedient as well, or to pursue whatever seems expedient and have faith that it will somehow turn out to be true?


    As long as “belief system A” represents Mormonism, your answer to that question is likely to be influenced by your belief that it is in fact both true and expedient, so let’s add another example to the mix.

    Take the proposition that there are biologically-based differences in intelligence and personality among different human races. There is a lot of very strong evidence that this is in fact true. There is also considerable evidence that it is a morally inexpedient thing to believe — that believing it tends (not always, but distressingly often) to lead to contempt for and dehumanization of other races. (Hence the appropriateness of the Steveosphere term “hatefact.”) Hatefacts can be embraced as true, in the belief that, despite appearances, accepting the truth cannot in the end be morally harmful; or they can be rejected as hateful, following which attempts can be made to rationalize them as untrue. (As with the BoM, rationalization is always possible, no matter how strong the countervailing evidence seems to be.) Which is the morally better course to follow?

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