'God is dead': What Nietzsche really meant

The death of God didn’t strike Nietzsche as an entirely good thing. Without a God, the basic belief system of Western Europe was in jeopardy.


It’s been 134 years since Friedrich Nietzsche declared: “God is Dead” (or Gott ist tot, in German), giving philosophy students a collective headache that’s lasted from the 19th century until today. It is, perhaps, one of the best known statements in all of philosophy, well known even to those who have never picked up a copy of The Gay Science, the book from which it originates. But do we know exactly what he meant? Or perhaps more importantly, what it means for us?

Nietzsche was an atheist for his adult life and didn’t mean that there was a God who had actually died, rather that our idea of one had. After the Enlightenmentthe idea of a universe that was governed by physical laws and not by divine providence was now reality. Philosophy had shown that governments no longer needed to be organized around the idea of divine right to be legitimate, but rather by the consent or rationality of the governed — that large and consistent moral theories could exist without reference to God. This was a tremendous eventEurope no longer needed God as the source for all morality, value, or order in the universe; philosophy and science were capable of doing that for us. This increasing secularization of thought in the West led the philosopher to realize that not only was God dead but that human beings had killed him with their scientific revolution, their desire to better understand the world.

The death of God didn’t strike Nietzsche as an entirely good thing. Without a God, the basic belief system of Western Europe was in jeopardy, as he put it in Twilight of the Idols: “When one gives up the Christian faith, one pulls the right to Christian morality out from under one's feet. This morality is by no means self-evident… Christianity is a system, a whole view of things thought out together. By breaking one main concept out of it, the faith in God, one breaks the whole.”

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Nietzsche thought this could be a good thing for some people, saying: “... at hearing the news that 'the old god is dead', we philosophers and 'free spirits' feel illuminated by a new dawn.” A bright morning had arrived. With the old system of meaning gone a new one could be created, but it came with risks—ones that could bring out the worst in human nature. Nietzsche believed that the removal of this system put most people at the risk of despair or meaninglessness. What could the point of life be without a God? Even if there was one, the Western world now knew that he hadn’t placed us at the centre of the universe, and it was learning of the lowly origin from which man had evolved. We finally saw the true world. The universe wasn’t made solely for human existence anymore. Nietzsche feared that this understanding of the world would lead to pessimism, “a will to nothingness” that was antithetical to the life-affirming philosophy Nietzsche prompted.

His fear of nihilism and our reaction to it was shown in The Will to Power, when he wrote that: "What I relate is the history of the next two centuries. I describe what is coming, what can no longer come differently: the advent of nihilism... For some time now our whole European culture has been moving as toward a catastrophe." He would not have been surprised by the events that plagued Europe in the 20th century. Communism, Nazism, Nationalism, and the other ideologies that made their way across the continent in the wake of World War I sought to provide man with meaning and value, as a worker, as an Aryan, or some other greater deed; in a similar way as to how Christianity could provide meaning as a child of God, and give life on Earth value by relation to heaven. While he may have rejected those ideologies, he no doubt would have acknowledged the need for the meaning they provided.

Of course, as Nietzsche saw this coming, he offered us a way out. The creation of our own values as individuals. The creation of a meaning of life by those who live it. The archetype of the individual who can do this has a name that has also reached our popular consciousness: the Übermensch. Nietzsche however, saw this as a distant goal for man and one that most would not be able to reach. The Übermensch, which he felt had yet to exist on Earth, would create meaning in life by their will alone, and understand that they are, in the end, responsible for their selection. As he put it in Thus Spoke Zarathustra"For the game of creation, my brothers, a sacred yes is needed: the spirit now wills his own will." Such a bold individual will not be able to point to dogma or popular opinion as to why they value what they do.

Having suggested the rarity and difficulty in creating the Übermensch, Nietzsche suggested an alternative response to Nihilism, and one that he saw as the more likely to be selected; The Last Man. A “most contemptible thing” who lives a quiet life of comfort, without thought for individuality or personal growth as: "'We have discovered happiness,' -- say the Last Men, and they blink." Much to the disappointment of Zarathustra, Nietzsche’s mouthpiece, the people whom he preaches to beg him for the lifestyle of The Last Man, suggesting his pessimism on our ability to handle God’s death. 

But you might ask, if God has been dead for so long and we are supposed to be suffering for knowing it, where are all the atheists? Nietzsche himself provided an answer: “God is dead; but given the way of men, there may still be caves for thousands of years in which his shadow will be shown.” Perhaps we are only now seeing the effects of Nietzsche’s declaration.

Indeed, atheism is on the march, with near majorities in many European countries and newfound growth across the United States heralding a cultural shift. But, unlike when atheism was enforced by the communist nations, there isn’t necessarily a worldview backing this new lack of God, it is only the lack. Indeed, British philosopher Bertrand Russell saw Bolshevism as nearly a religion unto itself; it was fully capable and willing to provide meaning and value to a population by itself. That source of meaning without belief is gone.

As many atheists know, to not have a god without an additional philosophical structure providing meaning can be a cause of existential dread. Are we at risk of becoming a society struggling with our own meaninglessness? Are we as a society at risk for nihilism? Are we more vulnerable now to ideologies and conmen who promise to do what God used to do for us and society? While Americans are increasingly pessimistic about the future, the non-religious are less so than the religious. It seems Nietzsche may have been wrong in the long run about our ability to deal with the idea that God is dead.

As Alain de Botton suggests about our values, it seems that we have managed to deal with the death of God better than Nietzsche had thought we would; we are not all the Last Men, nor have we descended into a situation where all morality is seen as utterly relative and meaningless. It seems that we have managed to create a world where the need for God is reduced for some people without falling into collective despair or chaos.

Are we as individuals up to the task of creating our own values? Creating meaning in life by ourselves without aid from God, dogma, or popular choice? Perhaps some of us are, and if we understand the implications of the death of God we stand a better chance of doing so. The despair of the death of God may give way to new meaning in our lives; for as Jean-Paul Sartre suggested "life begins on the other side of despair."

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Sources:

Abrams, Daniel, Haley Yaple, and Richard Wiener. "ArXiv.org Physics ArXiv:1012.1375v2." [1012.1375v2] A Mathematical Model of Social Group Competition with Application to the Growth of Religious Non-affiliation. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 Aug. 2016.

"Americans Overwhelmingly Pessimistic about Country's Path, Poll Finds." Mcclatchydc. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 Aug. 2016.

"America's Growing Pessimism." The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 10 Oct. 2015. Web. 04 Aug. 2016.

"CNN/ORC Poll: 57% Pessimistic about U.S. Future, Highest in 2 Years." CNN. Cable News Network, n.d. Web. 04 Aug. 2016.

Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm, and Walter Arnold Kaufmann. "The Meaning of Our Cheerfulness." The Gay Science: With a Prelude in Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs. New York: Vintage, 1974. N. pag. Print.

Press, Connie Cass Associated. "Gloom and Doom? Americans More Pessimistic about Future." Las Vegas Review-Journal. N.p., 03 Jan. 2014. Web. 04 Aug. 2016.

Russell, Bertrand. Bolshevism: Practice and Theory. New York: Arno, 1972. Print.

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Freud is renowned, but his ideas are ill-substantiated

The Oedipal complex, repressed memories, penis envy? Sigmund Freud's ideas are far-reaching, but few have withstood the onslaught of empirical evidence.

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  • Sigmund Freud stands alongside Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein as one of history's best-known scientists.
  • Despite his claim of creating a new science, Freud's psychoanalysis is unfalsifiable and based on scant empirical evidence.
  • Studies continue to show that Freud's ideas are unfounded, and Freud has come under scrutiny for fabricating his most famous case studies.

Few thinkers are as celebrated as Sigmund Freud, a figure as well-known as Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein. Neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis, Freud's ideas didn't simply shift the paradigms in academia and psychotherapy. They indelibly disseminated into our cultural consciousness. Ideas like transference, repression, the unconscious iceberg, and the superego are ubiquitous in today's popular discourse.

Despite this renown, Freud's ideas have proven to be ill-substantiated. Worse, it is now believed that Freud himself may have fabricated many of his results, opportunistically disregarding evidence with the conscious aim of promoting preferred beliefs.

"[Freud] really didn't test his ideas," Harold Takooshian, professor of psychology at Fordham University, told ATI. "He was just very persuasive. He said things no one said before, and said them in such a way that people actually moved from their homes to Vienna and study with him."

Unlike Darwin and Einstein, Freud's brand of psychology presents the impression of a scientific endeavor but ultimately lack two of vital scientific components: falsification and empirical evidence.

Psychoanalysis

Freud's therapeutic approach may be unfounded, but at least it was more humane than other therapies of the day. In 1903, this patient is being treated in "auto-conduction cage" as a part of his electrotherapy. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The discipline of psychotherapy is arguably Freud's greatest contribution to psychology. In the post-World War II era, psychoanalysis spread through Western academia, influencing not only psychotherapy but even fields such as literary criticism in profound ways.

The aim of psychoanalysis is to treat mental disorders housed in the patient's psyche. Proponents believe that such conflicts arise between conscious thoughts and unconscious drives and manifest as dreams, blunders, anxiety, depression, or neurosis. To help, therapists attempt to unearth unconscious desires that have been blocked by the mind's defense mechanisms. By raising repressed emotions and memories to the conscious fore, the therapist can liberate and help the patient heal.

That's the idea at least, but the psychoanalytic technique stands on shaky empirical ground. Data leans heavily on a therapist's arbitrary interpretations, offering no safe guards against presuppositions and implicit biases. And the free association method offers not buttress to the idea of unconscious motivation.

Don't get us wrong. Patients have improved and even claimed to be cured thanks to psychoanalytic therapy. However, the lack of methodological rigor means the division between effective treatment and placebo effect is ill-defined.

Repressed memories

Sigmund Freud, circa 1921. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Nor has Freud's concept of repressed memories held up. Many papers and articles have been written to dispel the confusion surrounding repressed (aka dissociated) memories. Their arguments center on two facts of the mind neurologists have become better acquainted with since Freud's day.

First, our memories are malleable, not perfect recordings of events stored on a biological hard drive. People forget things. Childhood memories fade or are revised to suit a preferred narrative. We recall blurry gists rather than clean, sharp images. Physical changes to the brain can result in loss of memory. These realities of our mental slipperiness can easily be misinterpreted under Freud's model as repression of trauma.

Second, people who face trauma and abuse often remember it. The release of stress hormones imprints the experience, strengthening neural connections and rendering it difficult to forget. It's one of the reasons victims continue to suffer long after. As the American Psychological Association points out, there is "little or no empirical support" for dissociated memory theory, and potential occurrences are a rarity, not the norm.

More worryingly, there is evidence that people are vulnerable to constructing false memories (aka pseudomemories). A 1996 study found it could use suggestion to make one-fifth of participants believe in a fictitious childhood memory in which they were lost in a mall. And a 2007 study found that a therapy-based recollection of childhood abuse "was less likely to be corroborated by other evidence than when the memories came without help."

This has led many to wonder if the expectations of psychoanalytic therapy may inadvertently become a self-fulfilling prophecy with some patients.

"The use of various dubious techniques by therapists and counselors aimed at recovering allegedly repressed memories of [trauma] can often produce detailed and horrific false memories," writes Chris French, a professor of psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London. "In fact, there is a consensus among scientists studying memory that traumatic events are more likely to be remembered than forgotten, often leading to post-traumatic stress disorder."

The Oedipal complex

The Blind Oedipus Commending His Children to the Gods by Benigne Gagneraux. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

During the phallic stage, children develop fierce erotic feelings for their opposite-sex parent. This desire, in turn, leads them to hate their same-sex parent. Boys wish to replace their father and possess their mother; girls become jealous of their mothers and desire their fathers. Since they can do neither, they repress those feelings for fear of reprisal. If unresolved, the complex can result in neurosis later in life.

That's the Oedipal complex in a nutshell. You'd think such a counterintuitive theory would require strong evidence to back it up, but that isn't the case.

Studies claiming to prove the Oedipal complex look to positive sexual imprinting — that is, the phenomenon in which people choose partners with physical characteristics matching their same-sex parent. For example, a man's wife and mother have the same eye color, or woman's husband and father sport a similar nose.

But such studies don't often show strong correlation. One study reporting "a correction of 92.8 percent between the relative jaw width of a man's mother and that of [his] mates" had to be retracted for factual errors and incorrect analysis. Studies showing causation seem absent from the literature, and as we'll see, the veracity of Freud's own case studies supporting the complex is openly questioned today.

Better supported, yet still hypothetical, is the Westermarck effect. Also called reverse sexual imprinting, the effect predicts that people develop a sexual aversion to those they grow up in close proximity with, as a mean to avoid inbreeding. The effect isn't just shown in parents and siblings; even step-siblings will grow sexual averse to each other if they grow up from early childhood.

An analysis published in Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology evaluated the literature on human mate choice. The analysis found little evidence for positive imprinting, citing study design flaws and an unwillingness of researchers to seek alternative explanations. In contrast, it found better support for negative sexual imprinting, though it did note the need for further research.

The Freudian slip

Mark notices Deborah enter the office whistling an upbeat tune. He turns to his coworker to say, "Deborah's pretty cheery this morning," but accidentally blunders, "Deborah's pretty cherry this morning." Simple slip up? Not according to Freud, who would label this a parapraxis. Today, it's colloquially known as a "Freudian slip."

"Almost invariably I discover a disturbing influence from something outside of the intended speech," Freud wrote in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. "The disturbing element is a single unconscious thought, which comes to light through the special blunder."

In the Freudian view, Mark's mistaken word choice resulted from his unconscious desire for Deborah, as evident by the sexually-charged meanings of the word "cherry." But Rob Hartsuiker, a psycholinguist from Ghent University, says that such inferences miss the mark by ignoring how our brains process language.

According to Hartsuiker, our brains organize words by similarity and meaning. First, we must select the word in that network and then process the word's sounds. In this interplay, all sorts of conditions can prevent us from grasping the proper phonemes: inattention, sleepiness, recent activation, and even age. In a study co-authored by Hartsuiker, brain scans showed our minds can recognize and correct for taboo utterances internally.

"This is very typical, and it's also something Freud rather ignored," Hartsuiker told BBC. He added that evidence for true Freudian slips is scant.

Freud's case studies

Sergej Pankejeff, known as the "Wolf Man" in Freud's case study, claimed that Freud's analysis of his condition was "propaganda."

It's worth noting that there is much debate as to the extent that Freud falsified his own case studies. One famous example is the case of the "Wolf Man," real name Sergej Pankejeff. During their sessions, Pankejeff told Freud about a dream in which he was lying in bed and saw white wolves through an open window. Freud interpreted the dream as the manifestation of a repressed trauma. Specifically, he claimed that Pankejeff must have witnessed his parents in coitus.

For Freud this was case closed. He claimed Pankejeff successfully cured and his case as evidence for psychoanalysis's merit. Pankejeff disagreed. He found Freud's interpretation implausible and said that Freud's handling of his story was "propaganda." He remained in therapy on and off for over 60 years.

Many of Freud's other case studies, such "Dora" and "the Rat Man" cases, have come under similar scrutiny.

Sigmund Freud and his legacy

Freud's ideas may not live up to scientific inquiry, but their long shelf-life in film, literature, and criticism has created some fun readings of popular stories. Sometimes a face is just a face, but that face is a murderous phallic symbol. (Photo: Flickr)

Of course, there are many ideas we've left out. Homosexuality originating from arrested sexual development in anal phase? No way. Freudian psychosexual development theory? Unfalsifiable. Women's penis envy? Unfounded and insulting. Men's castration anxiety? Not in the way Freud meant it.

If Freud's legacy is so ill-informed, so unfounded, how did he and his cigars cast such a long shadow over the 20th century? Because there was nothing better to offer at the time.

When Freud came onto the scene, neurology was engaged in a giddy free-for-all. As New Yorker writer Louis Menand points out, the era's treatments included hypnosis, cocaine, hydrotherapy, female castration, and institutionalization. By contemporary standards, it was a horror show (as evident by these "treatments" featuring so prominently in our horror movies).

Psychoanalysis offered a comparably clement and humane alternative. "Freud's theories were like a flashlight in a candle factory," anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann told Menand.

But Freud and his advocates triumph his techniques as a science, and this is wrong. The empirical evidence for his ideas is limited and arbitrary, and his conclusions are unfalsifiable. The theory that explains every possible outcome explains none of them.

With that said, one might consider Freud's ideas to be a proto-science. As astrology heralded astronomy, and alchemy preceded chemistry, so to did Freud's psychoanalysis popularize psychology, paving the way for its more rapid development as a scientific discipline. But like astrology and alchemy, we should recognize Freud's ideas as the historic artifacts they are.

Photo by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash
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