Tag Archives: Nietzsche

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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What is eternal?

In a recent post entitled “Everything matters or nothing matters: Original sin versus nihilism,” Bruce Charlton (whose blog has grown tremendously more interesting these days; I really can’t recommend it highly enough) makes the case that any coherent view of the world must fall under one of the two headings given in the post title.

The concept of “mattering” is a slippery one which I won’t even attempt to engage directly here, but I think I can say with some confidence that two of the necessary conditions for anything really mattering are (1) permanence and (2) consciousness. Whatever is fundamentally temporary, neither eternal in itself nor exerting any eternal influence on the cosmos, is nothing but a now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t illusion and cannot possibly matter. In the same way, nothing can possibly matter unless it matters to someone; in a world without consciousness — or with only temporary consciousness — nothing can possibly matter. These two conditions may not turn out to be sufficient, of course, but they at least give us somewhere to start. In this post I want to look at four possible answers to the question “What is eternal?”

1. Nothing

One possibility is that, as Utnapishtim told Gilgamesh, “there is no permanence” — that not even the universe itself is eternal, that everything will eventually come to an end and be as if it had never existed. Obviously, nothing could possibly matter in such a universe; nihilism would be inescapable, though I suppose we could console ourselves with the thought that, after all, it doesn’t matter that nothing matters.

2. Stuff

As Dr. Charlton puts it in a comment on the post linked above:

Of course an atheist can believe that everything is eternal, in the sense that stuff is eternal (like the steady state theory of cosmology). And most pagans also believe this – that the universe always has been always will be.

But in that world view nothing matters.

In such a world, there would be permanence but no permanent consciousness, so it would still be impossible for anything to really matter. This would, I think, be largely true even if the presence of non-permanent conscious minds were a permanent feature of the universe — that is, if the universe were such that it generated an endless succession of consciousnesses, no one of which was permanent. Did your tenth-great grandfather have a good life? Does anyone know or care anymore? Does it matter? If the line of his infinitely-great grandchildren continues for all eternity, will it matter then? The only way such a scenario could be consistent with mattering would be if each in the infinite series of transient minds cared about the same things — mind you, not corresponding things (I care about my happiness, you care about yours), but the very same things. And this they manifestly do not.

3. Souls

A world populated by deathless consciousnesses — immortal human souls and/or God — is the “everything matters” scenario Dr. Charlton has in mind. In this universe, “nothing is forgotten, we are never alone, souls are eternal, reality is endless, awareness is total.”

Would everything really matter in such a world, though? An eternal soul need not have eternal concerns, after all. Most of the things that “mattered” to me as a toddler, even as a teenager, later turned out not to have mattered at all. If my soul still exists a billion billion billion years in the future, will there be anything at all about my current life about which it will be able to look back and say, “This mattered. It matters still”? Will that soul even still be “me” in any interesting sense? Personal immortality isn’t actually so different from the endless succession of consciousnesses considered above.

God, to the extent that his course is one eternal round, would be an exception. If he exists and is the same yesterday, today and forever — if the same things have always mattered and will always matter to him — then then it is possible for everything to matter. (Of course, the very characteristic which makes God’s concerns permanent — the impossibility of anything changing or affecting him in any way — leads one to wonder what could possibly matter to him one way or the other, but I digress.)

4. Even this spider and this moonlight between the trees

The allusion is to Nietzsche’s Gay Science and the hypothesis of the eternal recurrence of the same events — not history repeating itself in some general sense, but the exact same sequence of events playing out again and again infinitely many times. If true, it means that everything has an infinite (if non-contiguous) duration — not just changeable abstractions like “the soul”, but every event, every moment, every feeling, every single component of existence. Dr. Charlton considers eternal recurrence a “nothing matters” scenario, but I’m inclined to think quite the opposite. At least it fulfills the minimal necessary conditions (permanence and consciousness) which we’re considering here.

Dr. Charlton is also of the opinion that no one has ever actually believed in eternal recurrence, least of all Nietzsche himself. This is probably correct. Nietzsche did take the idea very seriously, though, and referred to it in The Will to Power as  “the most scientific of all possible hypotheses.” According to Nietzsche, if (1) time is infinite and (2) space is finite, eternal recurrence necessarily follows. Actually, a third assumption (not recognized by Nietzsche) is also necessary: (3) that space is in some sense “digital” — that is, that there are only a finite number of positions any given particle could possibly occupy; otherwise, matter would still be able to form infinitely many non-repeating configurations even in a finite space (Georg Simmel proved this). I don’t believe in eternal recurrence myself, since I don’t think those three prerequisites are especially likely to be true, but it’s certainly possible. Physicists may yet discover that we live in such a world.

What I do believe in is eternalism — block time, McTaggart’s C-series, temporal antisolipsism. Time is just another dimension, all points in time are equally and permanently real, and the idea that time “passes” is an illusion. I reached this conclusion on my own, only to discover later that it is implied by Einsteinian physics (due to the relativity of simultaneity) and that McTaggart had also argued for it. Like Nietzschean eternal recurrence, eternalism means that everything is eternal and allows for the possibility that everything matters.

In fact, since eternalism’s implications are so similar to those of eternal recurrence, and since the latter is easier to visualize, I find Nietzsche’s hypothesis to be a useful mental hack, a tool I can use to keep myself looking at things sub specie aeternitatis. “You will live through this again and again and again, infinitely many times,” I tell myself from time to time — knowing that this is (probably) not literally true, but that what follows from it is the same as what follows from the truth. Since I am an antisolipsist in the more literal sense as well, I sometimes expand my memento aeternitatis to “You will live through this infinitely many times — as yourself, and as your wife, and as your neighbor, and as that cat over there, and as the cockroach you just killed,” and so on.

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Filed under Philosophy, Time

Nietzsche, Darwin, and man’s Sonderstellung

The following passages are from Walter Kaufmann’s Nietzsche (4th ed.), but they neatly summarize some very common (and, I think, wrong) ideas about the worth of man and the ramifications of evolution. I often encounter similar thinking from people whose thought is otherwise very far from Nietzsche’s.

If the teaching of evolution is correct and man is not essentially different from the apes; if he is, as all appearances seem to indicate, more similar to the monkeys than these are to the “lower” animals; if he is just another of the primates; then it would follow, Nietzsche thinks, that the mass of mankind lack any essential dignity or worth.

No quantitative addition, either of more and more human beings or of more and more intelligence (which man is supposed to share with the chimpanzee, though he has more of it), can give man the unique dignity which the Western tradition has generally conceded him. What is worthless to start with, cannot acquire value by multiplication. [p. 150]

Nietzsche agrees with the Christian tradition and such thinkers as Kant and Hegel that the worth of man must consist in a feature he does not share with any other animal. He believes that the worth of man , and thus the value of his life, his creations, and his acts, depends on his Sonderstellung, his unique position, in the cosmos. Darwinism, however, instead of infusing him with optimism, convinces him that empirical facts do not bear out the prevalent view that all men, as such, occupy a unique position in the cosmos. [pp. 151-152]

He accepted Darwin’s doctrine concerning the lack of any cardinal distinction between man and animals as incontrovertible empirical fact and tried to counter this “deadly” gospel with the new, Nietzschean, assertion that man can rise above the beasts. He granted that the factor of intelligence does not distinguish man from all other animals and that most men’s behavior is not essentially different from animal behavior — notions which are basic in much recent psychology. Our skills, crafts, and techniques can only raise us to the level of super-chimpanzees. Nietzsche, however, defied Darwin, as it were, to find even traces of art — which he distinguished from the crafts — or of religion or philosophy among the animals. If a technician is only a super-ape, the same cannot be said of Plato. Some pursuits are supra-animalic, and the man who engages in them is a truly human being and has unique worth. The artist, saint, and philosopher are representatives of true humanity and culture. [p. 175]

This line of reasoning goes wrong from the very beginning, when it assumes that the theory of evolution implies some special similarity between man and the apes — a similarity which we would not have to accept if evolution were not true. Actually, Linnaeus had already classified man as “just another primate” over a century before the Origin of Species. Man’s similarity to the apes is not a conclusion which follows from Darwinism, but rather one of the observable facts for which Darwinism offers an explanation. The striking similarities — and equally striking differences — between man and chimp remain what they have always been: empirical questions of comparative anatomy and psychology, to which the answers are no different after Darwin than they had been before. Disraeli, mistaking an explicandum of a theory for the conclusion of an argument (an error we will revisit below), thought that Darwinism posed the question, “Is man an ape or an angel?” and that creationists were on the side of the angels — but man remains what he is, ape-like in some ways, angelic in others, regardless of what theory we put forth to explain how he got to be that way.

There is a tendency (a fallacious one) to assume that two things which came into being by the same kind of process must therefore have the same basic nature — as Isaiah implies in his mocking description of a carpenter who cuts down a tree, burns some of the wood to cook his dinner, and then makes himself a “god” from the remainder. How absurd to think that the same sort of creative process could yield both firewood and a god! Yet one finds a ready parallel in the opening chapters of Genesis, where a single Creator uses the same raw material (dirt) to create cattle, creeping things, and a man in his own image. In a way Genesis even seems to anticipate Linnaeus, portraying the division between man and beast as less fundamental than that between fish and fowl on the one hand and land animals (including man) on the other. Darwinism doesn’t really change the fundamental picture of man — the highest of animals, but an animal nonetheless — as much as we sometimes like to think it does.

At any rate, it is a fact — irrespective of the truth of Darwin’s theory — that man is one animal species among others and that most of the faculties we think of as distinctly human can also be found, in less developed form, in other species — particularly in our closest relatives, the great apes. For Nietzsche (as interpreted by Kaufmann, anyway; assume this disclaimer throughout), it follows that those faculties — including, most importantly, intelligence — have no value, since “what is worthless to start with, cannot acquire value by multiplication.” But this only makes sense if we start with the assumption that the intelligence of lower animals is literally worthless — not just of little or even negligible value (since small numbers can acquire value by multiplication), but of no value whatsoever. It may be that some people hold this opinion, considering the mind of a dog or horse to be of no more worth than an insensate chunk of stone, but it is, to put it mildly, not exactly self-evident.

A deeper problem with this line of reasoning is its sloppy reification of intelligence, which is treated as a sort of homogeneous stuff which can be increased by “quantitative addition.” To say that the key difference between Descartes’s mind and that of a Jack Russell terrier is that one has a greater quantity of something than the other, is shallow to the point of meaninglessness. “Intelligence” is a high-order abstraction concealing fundamental qualitative differences in the ways different minds are structured and in the kinds of cognitive tasks they are able to perform. At a sufficiently high level of abstraction — employing terms like “intelligence,” “complexity,” “value” — virtually any difference can be made to seem merely quantitative. And underlying the whole issue is the unspoken assumption that “merely” quantitative differences are unimportant and really hardly qualify as differences at all — that if man differs from a chimp only quantitatively, then man essentially is a chimp. In fact, the distinction between quantitative differences (which include, let us not forget, the difference between day and night) and qualitative ones is itself quantitative, as should be clear to anyone who is familiar with the periodic table or who has observed that oceans tend to behave rather differently from drops of water.

Nietzsche’s list of what is unique to man — art, religion, and philosophy (but not intelligence or technology) — is arbitrary, an artifact of a decision to classify human activities at one particular level of abstraction rather than another. Kaufmann feels the need for a parenthesis explaining that Nietzsche distinguished the arts from the crafts, an implicit admission that such a distinction is not objectively obvious or inevitable, that others may see a “quantitative” continuum where Nietzsche saw a bright line. Similarly, philosophy could easily be seen as a special case or particularly advanced form of the kind of thinking or reasoning of which many other animals are capable. Even religion seems less qualitatively unique when we consider that other animals are certainly capable of superstition, selfless devotion, and so on.

Every action, considered in its totality, is unique. It can be considered non-unique only if some of the details are abstracted away and it is viewed as a member of a category. Since infinitely many levels of abstractions are possible, and since at a high enough level of abstraction nothing is unique, any binary classification of human activities as “unique” or “not unique” will be arbitrary. Considered in its totality, Titian’s Assumption of the Virgin is unique. Considered more abstractly as an example of representational art, it belongs to a category which includes such non-human productions as Stink Gorilla More. Classed broadly as an artifact, it is not even uniquely mammalian.

But the irrelevance of this whole line of thinking is beginning to become all too obvious. Are we really supposed to believe that the existence of a still life painted by a gorilla has any bearing on the value of the art of Titian? As I wrote in my post on Aristotle, absurd conclusions follow from the assumption (the amazingly common assumption!) that whatever is unique to man is more valuable than what is not. Nietzsche denigrates technology as the domain of mere “super-chimpanzees” — but if we exterminated all the chimps and crows and other tool-making species, or if those species had never evolved in the first place, would the technician then take his place with the artist, saint, and philosopher as a model of true humanitas? To spell the reductio out: Is the existence of chimpanzees the only thing that prevents us from considering Edison the equal of Plato?

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If the insistence on human uniqueness — Sonderstellung — is so obviously absurd, though, why have so many first-class thinkers (Kaufmann mentions Kant, Hegel, and the Christian tradition, and of course there is also Aristotle) taken it for granted? A full answer to that question would require a deeper familiarity with each of those individual thinkers than I can pretend to — but, in broad terms, I can imagine two different ways such an idea could come about.

First, there is Disraeli’s error, that of taking an explanation for an argument and an explicandum for a conclusion. (The ambiguity of the word “therefore” is evidence of how naturally this particular error comes to us.) Philosophers may have begun by assuming that man’s life has far more value and meaning than a beast’s, and the search for an explanation of that unique value — where it comes from and in what it consists — would naturally have led them to the question of which of man’s traits are unique to man — just as someone seeking to understand, say, why the Industrial Revolution began when and where it did, would naturally begin by considering what was distinctive about 18th-century England. Of course, if nothing specially (or “qualitatively”) distinctive were found, no historian would conclude that therefore the Industrial Revolution didn’t happen in England! — but somewhere along the line, the philosophers may have made a corresponding error. Nietzsche, at any rate, certainly seems to have done so. Having already fallen for Disraeli’s error in the original sense, as it applies to evolution, it is perhaps no surprise that when it comes to the question of man’s Sonderstellung, he goes on to make the same mistake.

Second, there is a sense in which purpose and value really do presuppose uniqueness: Anything which does not perform a unique function is dispensable. If anything X can do, Y can also do — if, that is, every purpose which X serves could be served just as well even if X didn’t exist — then doesn’t it follow that X has no value and no reason for existing? Well . . . an affirmative answer is possible, but it requires so many qualifications and asterisks that one should be very careful about treating it as a generally valid law and applying to recklessly to any situation that comes along. Here are a few of the many caveats to keep in mind:

  • Even the tiniest “quantitative” differences can still be relevant. Precious little distinguishes an HB pencil from an F pencil, for example, or an AA battery from a triple-A  (to say nothing of Thomas Edison and a chimpanzee!), but the two are still not always interchangeable.
  • A non-unique thing can be an essential part of a larger system. For example, neither my left eye nor my right eye is unique, but together they perform a function (binocular vision) which neither could do alone.
  • A non-unique thing can add value in a simple quantitative way. The more bricks you have, the more things you can build.
  • Two things with precisely the same range of  potential functions can still distinguish themselves by performing different actual functions. The fact that I could do any number of different jobs doesn’t make the people who actually do those jobs redundant.
  • Even something which is redundant in every possible way can still have potential value and therefore purpose. The world changes, and what is redundant and useless now may become unique and indispensable in the future. Backup CDs, for example, are created with such contingencies in mind.
  • A corresponding function shouldn’t be mistaken for a redundant one. My eyes don’t make your eyes redundant.

But perhaps the biggest thing to keep in mind is that uniqueness is a property of individuals. Unique means unique, not shared with six billion other people. The concept that “all men, as such [emphasis added!], occupy a unique position in the cosmos” — well, it sounds like something out of Life of Brian. Either uniqueness is important or it is not; the emphasis so many philosophers place on what is “unique to man as such” — that is, that which is common to all the billions of human beings in the world but (and this is deemed important!) not shared by a few thousand chimps — seems completely arbitrary.

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Filed under Evolution, Philosophy