The Meaning of Science

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art / ascetic ideal / chaos / efficiency / history / humility / illusion / improvement / irony / meaning / Nietzsche / order / problem / religion / resentment / science / socrates / spirit / will to power

What is the Meaning of Science?
Nietzsche and the History of the Human Spirit

What is problematic about science? What does the “progress” of science mean about human beings? I believe this question turns everything which is unsettling, mysterious, and uncanny about the course of human development (and not only human); who can exhaust what is figured within the folds of this strange question — science thought as a symptom, science grasped as a problem?

What obstructs this question from being thought? How do we interpret this ‘secondary’ problem which intervenes at the critical moment to derail thought — this “problem of the problem” of the meaning of science? At any rate it is clear the difficulty we encounter in formulating this problem are manifold, altogether formidable, but taken separately…? For science itself always already understands, justifies, and regulates itself in turn upon the basis of something non-scientific. Science as such is ultimately foundationless, and furthermore, this is one of its necessary conditions. This is a warning for those who would seek to regulate philosophy by means of “scientific” protocol; for these would in turn require their own justification… Which is not to say that such justification exists or should be sought after — but rather to pause right here, so that we can open up our profoundest capabilities of insight in order to ask: what is science as a problem? What is the meaning of science?

We should stop for a moment and reflect upon this question. We are looking for a meaning specific to science, but the meaning of science as it actually operates in history (and not, for instance, an abstract image of “science” considered in isolation of real problems.) We must try to seek the meaning of science in the more general context of human development, and ask what science means for the human species; or even more pointedly, what it means about what the human species has become. This question should be read as signifying science’s concealed meaning-about-us, a partial truth about what we are becoming as a species. The meaning, if we can but attune ourselves to it, indicates something real — albeit darkly, indirectly and only with constant resistance — about the “rate” and “direction” of human development. In this sense the problem of meaning of science reveals a way to diagnose civilization itself.

So what is the meaning of science for us? The history of science is filled with saints and martyrs for some kind of “truth,” and often for relatively real and immanent truths — at least compared to what they were often opposed to (and in some senses slowly supplanted,) namely: arbitrary or theological “truths.” But what in truth are these victories, and what is the real nature of this apparent conflict? For science has come not a single inch closer to overcoming the ascetic ideal (the extreme rarity of exceptions would appear to prove the general principle.) Even today, scientists are still much closer to priests than they are to artists. Where an artist instinctively rebels against the order of the world and engages passionately with his “intoxicating” dream world, science instinctively obeys and plays “neutral subject” with his “sleeping” empirical world.

Thus the priest, the artist and the scientists all share an ascetic myth of one sort or another; while apparently opposed, they are each also opposed to themselves. Right now, their “formal” (in our language: idealized) function is besides the point: what is important is that these apparently-conflicting ideals also aid and support one another in a manner which almost everyone would claim has improved humanity, in at least some senses. But what is this “improvement” taken as a whole, as a problem or symptom? –It is not that we “must” think science in the negative. We inflect this question in this strange way simply in order to be able to think “straight” about a problem which tyrannizes us in return. In other words: why do we tend to avoid considering the “improving” of mankind to be, in some senses at least, a form of sublimated domestication? And again: what kind of living, dominant and spiritual force is indicated by this voluntary innocence?

Science is in a way just a new and more sophisticated development of the same old ideal of saints and philosophers, the “holier-than-thou’s” of all ages; and it is in this sense that “pure science” is a pretext for that highly refined asceticism which requires such an eerie kind of humility. “All scientific knowledge, natural as well as unnatural (the name I give to the self-criticism of knowledge) is nowadays keen to talk human beings out of the respect they used to have for themselves, as if that was nothing more than a bizarre arrogance about themselves.” (Genealogy of Morals, III.25) Why do scientists go on and on about the cosmos, claiming that we are “nothing” in relation to it, in relation to an image and an assemblage of concepts invented by — human beings? Not that there isn’t some “truth” in science, but this faint glimmer quickly disappears into a world of empirical appearances — scientific truth is anything but “objective,” being the illegitimate by-product of an immature psychology and a degenerate politics. In short, it is precisely in science that the ascetic ideal finds its greatest ally and highest triumph to date:

“In this matter we could even say scientific knowledge has its own pride, its characteristically acrid form of stoical ataraxia [indifference], this laboriously attained self-contempt for human beings as its ultimate, most serious demand for respect, for the right to hold itself erect on its own (and in fact, that’s justified, for the one who despises is always one more who still “has not forgotten respect”…) Does that really work against the ascetic ideal? Do people really think in all seriousness (as theologians imagined for quite a while) that somehow Kant’s victory over dogmatic theological concepts (“God,” “Soul,” “Freedom,” “Immortality”) succeeded in breaking up that ideal? [ibid.]

Science is not enough for us to break free of the shackles of the ascetic ideal; even more discouraging, it seems to have completely allied itself with the interpretation-complex of the priests, locking us deep into an ideality which we no longer are allowed to have any “real” knowledge of! Science opens onto the same black hole of resentment, though it appears as a kind of new “faith” to tackle Christianity, overthrow it and bring it to its knees; on the contrary, the movement away from being “children of God” has swung far past the mid-point of civil human existence, swiftly on past even animality towards a pure nothingness, a profound and penetrating sense of one’s non-existence — this rotten core at the heart of all scientific “objectivity” is precisely the way science relates to history and back into the old ideal.

What does science mean? Let us try and be rigorous: a science operates in one way; there is nothing else. But we ourselves are, or are ever more swiftly becoming, this “nothin g else.” And to be more precise still: we are “nothing” else but… — and have not yet even seriously suspected it. The hypothesis maintains its credibility perhaps only on account of its playfulness, its enlightening divergence from “common sense.” But — on this hypothesis that n othingness is the whole problem — why “should” we continue treat it as only an intimation, a “mere” symptom, “collateral damage”?

For the whole metaphysical weight of presence, substance, essence and objective “reality,” serve ultimately as sublime distractions, refined asceticism, shifting our resentment back upon ourselves in order to keep us from recognizing the absence that we are — or rather, are therefore now actively trying to become through all sorts of means. But finally what are these means? Always instincts for overcoming long suffering, sickness, weariness — a degeneration of the spirit is hidden beneath science, it’s “foundational” void (it is very interesting in this context to consider Alain Badiou’s contributions to ontology; among other curiously similar concepts, he claims that the Void is the ‘proper name of being.’)

So, really, what’s the problem with science? Is it just that our substantiality is an illusion? This proposition has a certain aphoristic clarity, but perhaps it is even too clear on this point. After all, it is a formula already eerily close to certain aspects of quantum mechanical systems. Is this nothingness really the essence of advanced science, a deep pesssimism and withdrawal into deserts of finer and finer specializations? The strata multiply infinitely, and it is no wonder that it is here where reason finally collapses — morally wounded — what is this, what to “name” this non-event but as some kind of epistemological break, a profound crisis of knowledges? –But what do such names conceal?

Do we understand the futility, the weariness, the desperation concealed behind this hypocritical and idealistic struggle, seeking the “basis” of science’s “own” mind — always, and what else, but some ideal form of pure function, absolute memory, the same old divine “circle” and primary “algebra” which endlessly orders and arranges lacks and surpluses — but now, redistributing the very principles of organization themselves? Who can imagine a more refined asceticism? Classical science examines a single layer of reality, but conceives of it as unified: a pure homogeneous field extracted from the flux, a fixed viewpoint on the side of the river: on this account science means “efficiency” or “convenience” — though this is putting it rather politely. Convenience, after all, for what? We must consider that advanced technology and the culture of pure automatism may in fact be the clearest sign of decline, a token of the absolute degeneration of the real human spirit — in short, a sign of weariness, decadence and hopelessness.

I have said that science is in this way the “new religion” but I want to stress that scientific inquiry has still utterly failed to supplant the old metaphysic, which is to say it has only shifted the metaphors but not the structure of resentment and sublimation. Turbulence remains castrated. The ascetic of the scientist requires a becoming-nothing which cannot be explained except by recourse to idealities, homogeneous abstract organization — no decoded fluxes except for ‘the’ one which guarantees science itself — who else? The scientist, now deluding himself into imagining he is God! Einstein pondered the mind of God; what price did he pay, what damage was done? Humility is the scientists’ most outrageous and disgusting hypocrisy. While science claims it doesn’t believe in knowledge, it still believes in God. In the Preface to the Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche writes:

“…indeed, what does all scientific enquiry in general mean considered as a symptom of life? What is the point of all that science and, even more serious, where did it come from? What about that? Is scientific scholarship perhaps only a fear and an excuse in the face of pessimism, a delicate self-defense against — the Truth? And speaking morally, something like cowardice and falsehood? Speaking unmorally, a clever trick? Oh, Socrates, Socrates, was that perhaps your secret? Oh, you secretive ironist, was that perhaps your–irony?’

Is our society is in decline? If we consider science as a symptom, where is the “real” parasite? Is it morality itself? If science is indicative but still in some way a symptom of a more general process: the decline into decadence, but also at a deeper and in some way more real level, the surging pulse of life itself, the will to power. Who can deny the vengeful will of the ascetic? This pessimism is a slipping-backwards in some ways, a self-destruction of certain “healthy” aspects of the species and the individual: a heavy price is paid, a worship which is sublimated hatred, a devotion which is the stoic cynicism of one imprisoned within the crystalline lattices of his “soul.” This degeneration is clearly accelerated by the likes of ascetic scientists and priests. The irony persists, despite the real suffering — science suffers from itself, from its inadequacy and infancy, so it adopts a distracting and hypocritical posture which redirects our attention from our suffering to a kind of stupefied wonder at the gentle harmony of the universe, or a dazzled awe at its terrifying power, grandeur — it’s Majesty.

This false humility of science, their confidence that humankind is “nothing,” is science’s ascetic ideal: the irony is that it remains a continuation of Christianity and Platonic metaphysics, which hypocritically claims to have “triumphed” over them; so this ironic and ill-gotten ‘victory’ becomes the repetitive refrains of those idiots who believe science can provide a “new will” other than the ascetic ideal. The day we long for has not yet arrived — and moreover, it is already much later than we realize (is it too late?) In short, the irony is that science has not overturned the old ideals in any significant respect — and that at least in this sense, science is far too late to “save” us.

The best hope science offers is not its formal “methods,” but the possibility of a recurrence of that stranger and more joyous kind of science altogether — minor science, nomad science, gay science: brave explorers on the edges of turbulence. Against senselessness: science is nonetheless still an expression of the will to power. Paradoxically it is precisely the self-destructive structure of the scientific “method” which gives credence to science’s innocent nihilism, their faith in absolute faithlessness. How do we rather encourage the other science, that generative celerity which could possibly push us right beyond the shackles of asceticism?

Classical science deconstructs itself, it is collapsing-device, a machine built around a black hole — it works only because there’s holes scattered throughout it, funny long names to block up real gaps in our understanding. Science is ascetic right down to its very essence: it only works by attacking and destroying itself, by tearing down and breaking apart its foundations. Science is a slow depersonalization — a hypnotism… Inevitably technology will continue to transform humanity into something it recognizes (alas, and can respect!) less and less. In a world where everything can be “controlled,” our future remains beyond our control — and thus the sublime object of our desire, the un-interpretable hard kernel of our subjectivity.

Science is the essence of this self-destructive desire, the dream of a pure line of flight. This is why it simply isn’t about our “lifestyles” — a modern hypocrisy, again a clever method of distracting from a deeper crisis, an angst more profound than the individual, a symptom of general decline…

When the future of the whole planet is at stake because of the industrial practices of the wealthiest nations, they whine about “changing lifestyles” instead of focusing on real causes and collective solutions — extruding the “underground” (e.g., petro-politics) reasons for species-threatening, transgressive overdevelopment… Not that “lifestyle” isn’t important — but we are slowly being put to sleep worrying about our “lifestyles” and whether they are “rich,” “full,” “normal,” “rewarding,” “happy,” “successful,” and so on — not that we ought not to be concerned about these things, but we simply have to ask: rich for what? Full for what? Normal for what? Why, and what do these even mean? Are these obstructions to our own desires, and if so, why do we desire them?

Why is desire made to cancel itself out — what price is paid, and what is gained? How universal is this phenomenon? If science and religion express themselves vengefully, pessimistically, with hatred and self-loathing and disgust — that is, if they remain symptoms of a general crisis of faith, of spirit, a degeneration of the species — then in yet another sense they themselves are expressions of the will to power, the surging force of life itself to preserve and expand. It is here precisely that we are called not only to think, but to grasp deeply: so I require that you grasp deeply what I mean here — why “must” we see science optimistically, as “the future” — in other words, an “escape route” from the present? What is that that doesn’t “allow” us to see science in other ways? What does science really mean about us?

The Author

mostly noise and glare


  1. Science tends to explore all that isn’t about a thing, until it eventually stumbles upon something that is what they seek… It is something like searching for a needle in a hay stack, by searching for the hay stack everywhere it isn’t, until the hay stack is the last thing to be found.. an M. O. that is extremely wasteful on all its resources…

    An alternative process, one that would be much more functional, would be to bring the intangible sciences into the equation, the cosmics, the psychics, the sorcerys, and the magics.. in order to predetermine the viability of the science item tabled, before wasting most of its resources searching and researching that which does not relate to the end result, thereby disposing of the uselessness in advance, in favor of spending resources on the true task at hand in the first place…

    Old science needs a hard meaningful boot in the rear, to force the antiques to accept the rest of the mind’s existence.. to enable the old ways to become new ways.. after cutting history’s anchor chain to the nothing…

  2. Your article has increased my personal conviction that, in the dawning space age, humankind needs both science and religion in harmony. I have become so convinced of this need that I have recently developed a website as a vehicle to join in the growing consideration of the subject. The website will soon point to this article as an important part of the consideration. The site will be updated next week. Here’s a link:

    We have been encouraged of recent by an increasing global dialogue regarding the need for concord between science and religion. Currently the subject of evolution is the meeting ground being selected by some religious groups in the United States. An article regarding this initiative in the Christian community is available on the site.

    Your article here has caused me to further consider how the *scientific attitude* might be a major obstacle in the effort of reconciliation between the social reality paradigms of science and religion in the future. It will not do to just *preach* to the religions about *Truth*, as you have pointed out, some sermons must be reserved for the scientist.

    Truly enjoyed your article and appreciate the deep thought and consideration it reflects.

  3. My first observation of your article is that science, or perhaps our thinking about what science is reflects a sort of deepened repression regarding its actual motivations. You argue, very convincingly, that in the scientific pursuit we, as a society, have reclaimed Truth, though only by once again decieving ourselves about how groundless this Truth actually is. How have we managed to do this? The progress of intellectual history has done away with faith and, I’ll say Classical science as sources of this Truth. You bring up two different possible explanations. The first, and most Nietzschean, is that the psychological engine of ressentiment has allowed us to deceptively reinvent the acetic ideal in the modern “objectivity” of the scientist. Our same vengeful and self-loathing psychological processes manifest themselves in the work of the scientist, and this is evident in how, though always in the name of seeking Truth for the betterment of mankind, ultimately self-destructive science is in the name .
    The other explanation, though, in your argument, this one seems to presuppose the first, is that capitalist, self-interested economic forces greatly benefit from our faith in scientific truth. I would argue that this line of reasoning could be taken further. What this article has forced me to consider is that how can modern science, by modern here I mean post-Einstien and more specifically post-Relativity, still through the word Truth around? Is it just historical inertia? This is me just thinking off the cuff a bit, but modern science seems to make “Truth” a meaningful notion by borrowing from the future. But now we are always only making this word meaningful by borrowing from the future; we will learn the truth tomorrow, so we can use this word meaningfully today. This seems to me to stink of the reinvestment of capital, for the sake of gaining more capital, only to reinvest for the sake of still more capital and so on.
    That said, I still think the Nietzschean interpretation is quite interesting. Your article comes back to a point which has been a topic far too long on my mind, and that is how, if it is even possible, can one free themselves from a reactive, resentful, attitude. If this ascetic ideal inadequately fills the void left by reactive, resentful attitudes, how can they be changed? Nietzsche surely doesn’t want to say that this is even possible for everyone. how can one, nevermind an entire society be changed from a reactive attitude to a creative one?
    I am interested as to what you think. I just discovered your blog and have only just begun reading your articles. I thank you for the work you have done. It is impressive and rather inspirational.

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