Human progress – technological, scientific, social, etc. – seeks to reduce, and ultimately totally eliminate, the aspects of life we perceive as unpleasant – loss, tragedy, suffering ... However, an argument can be made that we require a possibility for "unpleasant" aspects of life - i.e. a conflict to be overcome - in order to build an identity and construct a meaning that will transcend the state of being best described by Nietzsche's formulation of the "last man":

"The last man is tired of life, takes no risks, and seeks only comfort and security. [...] The lives of the last men are pacifist and comfortable. [...] Social conflict and challenges are minimized. Every individual lives equally and in "superficial" harmony. There are no original or flourishing social trends and ideas. Individuality and creativity are suppressed. [...] The last man is possible only by mankind's having bred an apathetic creature who has no great passion or commitment, who is unable to dream, who merely earns his living and keeps warm."

For example, consider a scientist who derives meaning from his quest to discover a cure for a horrible disease – this quest requires the disease to exist in the first place. By discovering a cure (i.e. contributing to progress), he eliminates some suffering, but he also denies this same quest to others who will come after him. Similar arguments can be made for all areas of human endeavor - even great art is usually based on conflict and some variation of suffering.

Assuming a hypothetical limit of human progress where all negative aspects of life - or perhaps all problems - have been removed, could individuals derive autonomous meaning that would objectively transcend the dystopian Brave New World, last man-like state? Or would we be forced to face existential boredom where precisely the arbitrary malleability of reality due to our omnipotence (even e.g. immortality) would force us to - as Zapffe put it - "artificially limit the content of [our] consciousness" by means of e.g. cognitive control in order to preserve sanity, and in the process transform the human condition to the level of last men?

To put it differently: if we define technological progress as an optimization problem that seeks to minimize suffering and/or conflict, is the paradox of technological progress then that the only state of being it ultimately allows is the one of induced "last men", a kind of maximum existential entropy?

  • Human progress is not a living entity, it does not seek anything, it just happens. And people who enact this "progress", if that's what it is, have all sorts of motivations, not all of them "seek to reduce, and ultimately totally eliminate, the aspects of life we perceive as unpleasant", or give any thought so such grandiosities. If we assume that technological progress is an optimization problem with a hypothetical limit then we are talking about a fairy-tale, or rather dystopia, and we can let our imagination loose. Might be the last man just as well as his opposite, the Ubermensch. – Conifold Apr 3 '16 at 2:06
  • @Conifold I agree there is a fairy-tale element to this question - the more I look at the way I formed it, the less I like it - but ultimately what I'm asking is about human cognition of meaningful experience, i.e. what is the relation between our experience of meaning and the presence or absence of conflicts and problems in our reality. While perhaps this is still not as well-defined as it should be, I believe the question is important, even if the answer may be some common knowledge taken from e.g. biology or psychology, and even if some speculative assumptions have to be made. – w128 Apr 5 '16 at 16:25
  • @w128 you could read the question of whether without tech. there is no last man, or how it makes the last man (i.e. assuming that the last man can exist, how much does technology make them?) – user6917 Apr 5 '16 at 17:39
  • I look at the biological evolution as analogy, there is no purpose, no optimization, no hypothetical limit, and I doubt that human history is any different. There is arguably growth in complexity of physiology and behavior, but we can't say that mammals' lives are "more meaningful" or that they have "less problems and conflicts" than amoebas. To the extent that such cross comparisons make any sense at all I'd say that "meaning", "problems" and "conflicts" simply morph rather than diminish, life is always pushing the edge, no matter how it happens to manifest. Dystopias are lifeless. – Conifold Apr 6 '16 at 1:50

Nietzsche introduces the last man in the prologue, chapter 5, of Nietzsche, Friedrich: Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

See http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1998/1998-h/1998-h.htm#link2H_4_0004

Zarathustra came down from the mountains to give his first sermon about SUPERMAN. But the people in town do not show any reaction to his words. Hence Zarathustra appeals to their pride:

I will speak unto them of the most contemptible thing: that, however, is THE LAST MAN!

Zarathustra mocks all cultural achievements of the LAST MAN. The last men made themselves at home in the comfort zone. There is no longer enough chaos in them "to give birth to a dancing star."

But the people in town do not understand that the LAST MAN is thought as deterrence. Instead they want to become these last men.

To answer your question: It is not human progress which reduces individuals to Nietzsche's last men. The reason is that the LAST MAN

"will no longer launch the arrow of his longing beyond man—and the string of his bow will have unlearned to whizz!"

  • 1
    while it's important to recognise that human progress, or at least that of spirit, allows for the birth of the overman, i don't think you've done well at showing that technological progress isn't a condition of the last man. it seems like you've conflated the manner of being the last man, with what creates him – user6917 Apr 3 '16 at 11:12
  • I'm not particularly satisfied with this answer, but have accepted it as my notion of "last man" appears to be problematic; the question should perhaps be stated a bit differently. Thank you anyway for your insight. – w128 Apr 3 '16 at 18:54
  • @w128 As you read from my answer I do no see a close relationship between Nietzsche's concept of LAST MAN and consequences for society from scientific or technological progress. What is the focus of your question? – Jo Wehler Apr 3 '16 at 19:55
  • @JoWehler I probably shouldn't have ascribed certain dystopian characteristics to the concept of last man, and should've defined some terms better. I was mostly thinking about the potential for meaningful existence in a technological utopia (or perhaps dystopia), i.e. whether meaning as a cognitive experience requires the existence of conflict which - through our activity to resolve it - elevates our lives beyond mere survival and comfort (perhaps in the form of Zapffe's sublimation, or by building symbolic systems as proposed by Terror management theory). I hope this makes some sense. – w128 Apr 3 '16 at 20:46
  • @w128 What about a separate post, which recalls Zapffe's main thesis, his arguments, a reference, and then adds your related question? – Jo Wehler Apr 3 '16 at 23:18

According to Politics and the Search for Common Good (Sluga, p 152), in his postwar lecture course What is Called Thinking

Heidegger had spoken vividly of Nietzsche's last man as a product of modern technology

Clearly, modern technology in the 40s was a product of social progress. I would though agree with Jo Wehler that it's not a simple or unavoidable reduction, but a matter of responsibility, specifically desire for the overman.

You also have e.g. this citation:

enter image description here

So Heidegger did think it was reasonable to ask about the relation of the last man to technology.

Assuming Heidegger was not a technological determinist, then this man is not, for him, an unavoidable product of technology; and it is not all there is to the last man.

But clearly, the use of technology is part of what makes up the life of anyone. If the concept of the "LAST MAN" is not just an abstract term (of hatred) but denotes a concrete way of life, one that it made by its contents, then clearly technology is part of what makes that life.

It is difficult for me to even guess how important technology is to the lives of this "despicable" man. But tech is obviously near inescapable today.

But it still seems relevant to ask, can the use (or disuse) of technology eliminate him?

  • @ MATHEMETICIAN Could you please give a reference for your statement concerning Heidegger? Thanks. – Jo Wehler Apr 3 '16 at 19:58
  • i did, didn't i ? i don't have access to the lecture course – user6917 Apr 3 '16 at 20:20
  • i can look for it, if it really does bother you; though it's well known that heidegger was extremely troubled by technology. just trying to be helpful – user6917 Apr 3 '16 at 20:27
  • @Heidegger's general stance concerning technology is well known. My question for a reference refers to the particular content of your statement. – Jo Wehler Apr 3 '16 at 23:08
  • @JoWehler i definitely reference the claim in the question enough. you may try p30 (p11 in the german?) of Glenn Gray's 1968 translation. as i said, i don't have access to the article, so i suggest asking a question if you need any further help – user6917 Apr 4 '16 at 0:25

Here are some disjointed ideas (they were too long to fit in a comment):

I think comparing the last messiah and the last man is on the right track, though perhaps the minimizing suffering aspect should be dropped. Zarathustra is the advocate of suffering, but that does not mean, as far as I can tell, that he wants to not minimize suffering. It's just that for him hunkering down at the 'Human' island will not suffice in regards to such a minimization (precisely because of eternal recurrence). The bridge must be crossed, the thunderstorm must be wrestled with.

In any case, I think the doctrine of eternal return must have priority. I see why you use the word "entropy", but there is some unfolding to be done for it, as entropy (as commonly understood in thermodynamics) indicates linear (and not cyclic) time, as far as I can tell.

Finally, defining technological progress as you do is I think unjustified. For instance, being able to control nuclear energy is definitely a technological progress, though depending on how one uses it the end state could be very different (ranging from "a kind of maximum existential entropy" to "a kind of maximal physical entropy").


As per request, here are a few related resources (apart from the obvious Nietzsche references):

  • Ligotti's Conspiracy against the Human Race (and the references thereof)
  • Marcolli's "Entropy and Art: the view beyond Arnheim" in her Lumen Naturae (at http://www.its.caltech.edu/~matilde/EntropyArtChapter.pdf)
  • Poundstone's The Recursive Universe: Cosmic Complexity and the Limits of Scientific Knowledge
  • Thank you for your answer. My attempt at defining progress already presupposes social optimality, i.e. a trajectory that is ultimately optimal in the sense that the hypothetical eschatological situation described in the question becomes relevant. Technological self-destruction would thus represent a regression. But you are right in that in my last paragraph I shouldn't have restricted the definition to technological progress. – w128 Aug 3 '18 at 16:08
  • I see where you are coming from, but I think in this case we should consider technological progress as something along the lines of "increase in total technical knowledge". For instance if you go down the road with Ligotti's Conspiracy (which is essentially a study based on Zapffe, more or less), you would consider self-annihilation as "progressive" as non-self-annihilation. This is precisely the greatest weight: how could one dare to opt for non-self-annihilation with eyes wide open? (enter the Overman and what have you) – Alp Uzman Aug 3 '18 at 17:03
  • Do you have any references that would give the reader more information and strengthen the points in the answer? In other words, who else has similar views that you might point the reader to? – Frank Hubeny Aug 3 '18 at 20:55

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