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There is some confusion in my philosophy class about Nietzsche's statements on physics in section 14 of Beyond Good and Evil. The specific portion in question is below, although as with all of Nietzsche, context matters:

It is perhaps just dawning on five or six minds that physics, too, is only an interpretation and exegesis of the world (to suit us, if I may say so!) and not a world-explanation; but insofar as it is based on belief in the senses, it is regarded as more, and for a long time to come must be regarded as more—namely, as an explanation. Eyes and fingers speak in its favor, visual evidence and palpableness do, too: this strikes an age with fundamentally plebeian tastes as fascinating, persuasive, and convincing—after all, it follows instinctively the canon of truth of eternally popular sensualism. What is clear, what is "explained"? Only what can be seen and felt—every problem has to be pursued to that point.

People in my class take can only interpret this a priori primarily based on their own views and prejudices, generally either arguing that Nietzsche is making a pure relativist judgment of physics or that he is pointing out the epistemological limitations of physics as highly empiricist.

That Nietzsche is discussing empiricism is apparent in his mention of why we believe in physics and where we get our physical laws from in the first place. It's also pretty obvious that he's questioning the credibility of physics by denying it the title of "a world explanation." However, I can't figure out the details of what exactly he is saying.

So, just what is Nietzsche saying about physics in this passage? Obviously there is some historical context involved ("it is perhaps just dawning on five or six minds") and maybe Nietzsche is making some physical argument, but I'm having a hard time reading any particular argument out of it.

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From the outset, it's important to note the historical context of this quotation. It's virtually guaranteed that by "physics", Nietzsche is referring here to Aristotle's Physics, i.e. the study of all observable natural things. He's definitely not talking about theoretical physics as we know it today.

I also think it's instructive to read this passage alongside his prior work, The Gay Science. In particular, section 335, which makes clear that his defense of physics (i.e., the empirical realm) is a result of this larger aim of discrediting moral justifications:

Long live physics! — So, how many people know how to observe? And of these few, how many observe themselves? 'Everyone is farthest from himself'—every person who is expert at scrutinizing the inner life of others knows this to his own chagrin; and the saying, 'Know thyself', addressed to human beings by a god, is near malicious. That self-observation is in such a bad state, however, is most clearly confirmed by the way in which nearly everyone speaks of the nature of a moral act—that quick, willing, convinced, talkative manner, with its look, its smile, its obliging eagerness! […] So: when man judges "that is right" and infers "hence it must come about!" and then does what he thus has recognized to be right and described as necessary—then the nature of his act is moral! But, my friend, you are speaking of three acts instead of one: even the judgment 'that is right', for example, is an act. Wouldn't it be possible for a person to make a judgment in a way that would be moral or immoral? Why do you take this and specifically this to be right? […] For all that, the firmness of your moral judgment could be evidence of your personal wretchedness, of lack of a personality; your 'moral strength' might have its source in your stubbornness—or in your inability to envisage new ideals. And briefly, had you reflected more subtly, observed better, and studied more, you would never continue to call this 'duty' of yours and this 'conscience' of yours duty and conscience. Your insight into how such things as moral judgments could ever have come into existence would spoil these emotional words for you, as other emotional words, for example, 'sin', 'salvation of the soul', and 'redemption' have been spoiled for you. […] Let us therefore limit ourselves to the purification of our opinions and value judgments and to the creation of tables of what is good that are new and all our own: let us stop brooding over the 'moral value of our actions'! Yes, my friends, it is time to feel nauseous about some people's moral chatter about others. Sitting in moral judgment should offend our taste. Let us leave such chatter and such bad taste to those who have nothing to do but drag the past a few steps further through time and who never live in the present—that is, to many, the great majority! We, however, want to become who we are—human beings who are new, unique, incomparable, who give themselves laws, who create themselves! To that end we must become the best students and discoverers of everything lawful and necessary in the world: we must become physicists in order to be the creators in this sense—while hitherto all valuations and ideals have been built on ignorance of physics or in contradiction to it. So, long live physics! And even more long live what compels us to it—our honesty!
– Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, Cambridge University Press: 2001, pp. 187–189

So in the passage you quote, Nietzsche appears to be praising empirical observation of the world as a superior form of inquiry compared to Platonic idealism. In fact, recall his assertion that the "will to power" ethic permeates nature, a fact that he arrived at by observation and perspective, just like the physicists analyze the world.

But it's more complicated than that. Nietzsche doesn't consider himself to be a physicist—far from it. That's what the initial phrase regarding the "five or six minds" is referencing. He's basically saying that, of all my readers, it will probably occur to a small number of them that neither the domain of physics or philosophy is immune from turning into "an interpretation and exegesis of the world". Just like idealism and philosophy, physics is ill-suited to function as a grounded domain of inquiry because it, too, is vulnerable to regressing into mere interpretation and polemic. Even physics is all perspective, "and not a world-explanation". He wants nothing at all to do with positivism. In fact, he's rather dismissive of what he perceives as the arrogance of natural scientists in assuming that they have the answers to the world.

Ultimately, this is the nihilism for which Nietzsche is famous. If even at the fundamental nature of observation (physics), we're deluded by interpretations and descriptions of the world, as opposed to causal explanations of the events and phenomena that occur, we will be unable to separate ourselves from our description or interpretation of these events. As such, "truth" becomes simply

A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms—in short, a sum of human relations which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people: truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are; metaphors which are worn out and without sensuous power; coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer as coins.
– Friedrich Nietzsche, "On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense", 1873
(from Philosophy and Truth, ed. Daniel Breazeale, Humanities Press International: 1999, p 84)

  • I think it makes sense if Nietsche indeed speak about Newtonian physics. The mechanistic worldview and materialism was very influential at the time Nietzsche wrote this. – offroff May 1 '12 at 11:02
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I think that Nietzche is criticising the usual misreading of Kantian indirect realism. I think that Kant in himself did not believe that "things in themselves" exist merely that we can't frame the world in any other way (he ignored other states of consciousness). Most scientists however to this day tend I believe to be indirect realists. E.g. see Banks (2012) summary of Blackmore's attack on Mach.

"Blackmore contrasts [Mach's] phenomenalism with what he calls indirect realism, sometimes representative realism when he wishes to emphasize epistemology. On this view, we subscribe to a basic dualism: there is a real, mind-independent and objective external world of atoms, space and time, law and causality on which scientists can agree and of which they obtain knowledge through experiment and theorizing. On the other side are sensations, which differ from observer to observer, and are mental. We have only an indirect picture of the real world in our sensations, which, though mental, are linked somehow to external reality via a causal chain, or representative theory of perception. According to Blackmore, all scientists Descartes, Galileo, Locke, Newton, Planck, Einstein, along with all right-thinking ‘‘practical people’’(?) are partisans of indirect realism. It is true that we all fall backward into na¨ıve realism from time to time, mistaking our sensations of objects for the real objects external to our minds, but, like Empedocles, we quickly learn that what we see and taste is different from what others see and taste in the same object, and so we learn to be indirect realists instead."

Mach may be one of the five or six minds that Nietzsche refers to.

I think that Nietzsche's position is one of radical humility.

Nietzsche, F. (1873). On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense. Truth: Engagements Across Philosophical Traditions, 14–25. Retrieved from www.austincc.edu/adechene/Nietzsche%20on%20truth%20and%20... " See p.1. "Once upon a time, in some out of the way corner of that universe which is dispersed into numberless twinkling solar systems, there was a star upon which clever beasts invented knowledge. That was the most arrogant and mendacious minute of "world history," but nevertheless, it was only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths, the star cooled and congealed, and the clever beasts had to die. "

Nietzsche, F. (1968). The Will to Power. (Kaufmann, Walter & Hollingdale, Richard, Trans.). New York, NY: Vintage."to demand that our human interpretations and values should be universal and perhaps constitutive values is one of the hereditary madnesses of human pride" p. 305 (i.e. there are no things in themselves. Kant might agree, but most scientists think there is some sort of Matrix out there)

I think that with a sensible level of humility, bearing in mind our utter ^100 insignificance, the "out there" should be, and is, so beyond our ken as to be best called "chaos," but we pretend to know the maximum speed, and the beginning of the universe.

Mach may have believed in "neutral monism" that both the true world of science, and sensations exist (this is debatable). Nietzsche called bs on the true world, out there. Nietzsche said all we have are our sensations and useful rules of thumb. All we have are sensations and engineering because our formations are radically limited by our "gnat" intellect. We are no different from our "bricoleur" forebears.

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