Friedrich Nietzsche's Über Wahrheit Und Lüge Im Außermoralischen Sinne (On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral(Extra-moral) Sense) is a fascinating little text written in 1873 (published posthumously) during the period of transition from dissatisfied classical philologist to the revolutionary philosopher/prophet he would become. It was dictated to a friend by the already half-blind 29 year old Nietzsche a year after the appearance of his first book, Die Geburt der Tragödie, which I discuss here:
Though many of the ideas in this text would appear in his later books, the fervor, eloquence and extremity rising to the surface of this young university professor's thinking are remarkable.
The text opens with a fable:
In irgend einem abgelegenen Winkel des in zahllosen Sonnensystemen flimmernd ausgegossenen Weltalls gab es einmal ein Gestirn, auf dem kluge Tiere das Erkennen erfanden. Es war die hochmütigste und verlogenste Minute der "Weltgeschichte": aber doch nur eine Minute. Nach wenigen Atemzügen der Natur erstarrte das Gestirn, und die klugen Tiere mußten sterben.
(In some remote corner of the universe, glitteringly poured out into numberless solar systems, there once was a star on which clever animals invented knowledge. It was the most haughty and mendacious minute of "world history", but it was only a minute. After Nature had drawn a few breaths, the star turned cold and the clever animals had to die.)
Having established how trivial mankind really is in the scheme of things, Nietzsche makes the case that the primary role of reason/intellect in this trivial human life is (momentary) preservation of the individual's life and that this preservation is attained primarily through simulation/deception, both of others and of oneself.(*) He explains that the "truths" mankind operate under are actually lies we told each other in order to live together, and then we forgot they were lies.(**)
He continues: We know only sensations, not things; language is but metaphor; concepts/abstractions arise by equating non-equal things and forgetting what is actual; we can't know the actual laws of nature, we can only know reflections/manifestations of them as "sums of relations"; our science is the result of our particular manner of perception and processing abilities.
Was ist also Wahrheit? Ein bewegliches Heer von Metaphern, Metonymien, Anthropomorphismen, kurz eine Summe von menschlichen Relationen, die, poetisch und rhetorisch gesteigert, übertragen, geschmückt wurden, und die nach langem Gebrauch einem Volke fest, kanonisch und verbindlich dünken: die Wahrheiten sind Illusionen, von denen man vergessen hat, daß sie welche sind, Metaphern, die abgenutzt und sinnlich kraftlos geworden sind, Münzen, die ihr Bild verloren haben und nun als Metall, nicht mehr als Münzen, in Betracht kommen.
(What then is truth? A movable host of metaphors, metonymies, and; anthropomorphisms: in short, a sum of human relations which have been poetically and rhetorically intensified, transferred, and embellished, and which, after long usage, seem to a people to be fixed, canonical, and binding. Truths are illusions which we have forgotten are illusions- they are metaphors that have become worn out and have been drained of sensuous force, coins which have lost their embossing and are now considered as metal and no longer as coins.)
Let's face it: we do huddle together and tell ourselves comforting stories in the dark; if we didn't do that, how long would we last? Can you imagine the panic, the despair, the destruction? What has always fascinated me about Nietzsche is that he is a case study of someone who rejected all of those stories. I find every single major point made in this little text to be admissible. Very, very scary...
But as a natural scientist of long experience I know that, in fact, something "real" is being grasped by our pathetic intellects, languages and concepts. For I have seen how we poor creatures have re-shaped our world (and not always for the better); how we have predicted the manner in which nearly infinitely small particles should behave and have verified that they do precisely that; how we have sent human beings to walk on the face of the moon and have returned them safely to earth (and anyone who has a hint of physics and engineering knows the truly enormous amount of authentic understanding that undertaking required). So, yes, I am quite prepared to admit that all social/religious/moral truths are stories told in the dark. But, even if we realize that the little we know about science is negligible compared with what there is to be known, we also have clear evidence that we actually do know something. Perhaps, some day, we'll know something more.
Nonetheless, how true this is:
Der Mensch selbst aber hat einen unbesiegbaren Hang, sich täuschen zu lassen, und ist wie bezaubert vor Glück, wenn der Rhapsode ihm epische Märchen wie wahr erzählt...
(But man has an invincible inclination to allow himself to be deceived and is, as it were, enchanted with happiness when the rhapsodist tells him epic fables as if they were true...)
The original German is here:
and an English translation is here:
(*) Curiously enough, he calls man's dreams at night "lies" and reproaches him also for allowing himself to be lied to every night, when the year before in his first book he adopted the classical Greek position that dreams were the opportunity of revelation from the gods.
(**) He is thinking less of our scientific truths - which he, quite correctly, qualifies as negligible in comparison to what we don't know - than of our social/religious/moral truths.