More To That

An illustrated, long-form blog that delves deeper into the things that make us who we are.

The Boundaries of Rationality

I’d like to start off today’s reflection with one of the most famous quotes in all of philosophy:

God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.

— Nietzsche

As it turns out, this quote is as misinterpreted as it is well-known. It’s often viewed as a declaration of atheism, that a world without God can stand tall on a moral foundation that has been liberated from religion. But that’s certainly not what Nietzsche meant, and the reason for this misinterpretation is simple:

The quote has been taken out of context.

The “God is dead” line is from Nietzsche’s The Gay Science, and contrary to popular belief, the line isn’t a direct statement from Nietzsche himself. Rather, it’s issued from one of the characters in the book, a madman that understands human nature so well that ironically, it makes him look mad in the minds of others. Of course, the belief is that the madman character is Nietszche (considering he did go mad later in his life), but what’s clear is that those words are spoken from a character that he created in the book.

Once you know this, the next thing is to read the couple of paragraphs that follow it. In fact, we can start with the very next sentence, which says this:

God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.

How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers?

Now, that doesn’t sound like a triumphant declaration of God’s death, but more of a lament that we were the ones that killed Him. There’s a sense of regret in what has transpired, and that now we had to face the dire consequences.

Then let’s go a few paragraphs down to this section:

Here the madman fell silent and looked again at his listeners; and they, too, were silent and stared at him in astonishment. At last he threw his lantern on the ground, and it broke into pieces and went out.

“I have come too early,” he said then; “my time is not yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder require time; the light of the stars requires time; deeds, though done, still require time to be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than most distant stars – and yet they have done it themselves.”

What Nietzsche understood was that scientific and technological progress would ultimately be the downfall of God. That the age-old institution of religion would no longer be the anchor point of civilization, but rather the innovations that drive prosperity and abundance. We see this today, where churches no longer facilitate the flow of dialogue; social media platforms do. We don’t pray to God to ask for a fruitful harvest; we just order whatever we need from Amazon.

But despite all this abundance, Nietzsche knew that we’d grow increasingly restless and ultimately tear ourselves apart. That even if all the graphs of life expectancy and global poverty were trending in the right direction, it wouldn’t be enough to occupy the void that God once filled.

That’s because reason and all its byproducts cannot satisfy one of the most crucial parts of the human condition: the search for meaning. No matter what science would offer us, we’d ultimately resort to some form of nihilism that would render all of these innovations useless. If there was no God that gave us a sense of purpose, then it didn’t matter what you owned or what you’ve achieved. In the end, it would all seem utterly meaningless.

Ultimately, Nietzsche’s claim was that we shouldn’t mistake external abundance for inward fulfillment. That science and technology cannot – and will not – give us a morality that allows us to flourish. He wouldn’t be surprised that in 2023, we have technologies that allow us to broadcast our thoughts to millions, but that the political climate across the world has never been more polarized (bringing us closer and closer to catastrophic war). Technologists love to sing the virtues of a more connected world, but do so without realizing that there is no inherent morality in any of their innovations. It’s what we do with them that makes it a force for good or evil, and that moral compass was something that God directed throughout human history.

I’ve been thinking about the “God is dead” line a lot lately because I feel like we’re fast approaching the boundaries of rationality as a species. We’re beginning to see how our usage of scientific knowledge to create “valuable products” in the name of human connection is actually having the opposite effect. That building something for the sake of being valuable is often a selfish act; one that is driven by the desire for status versus the search for something deeper.

The question one must ask, then, is what this deeper thing is. In the end, this is precisely what the role of God is – to fulfill the missing variable that simply can’t be named. Whether you call it meaning, purpose, fulfillment – these are things that can’t be derived through a series of mathematical formulas or algorithms. They are eternally elusive, and require a belief in something that transcends what we can rationally deduce.

At the same time, Nietzsche understood that there must be a better way to answer the questions of morality and meaning than through the constraints of religious ideas. Religion is a manmade story, regardless of the utility that it’s provided over the course of human history. There are far too many flaws in these narratives that make them reliable guides to follow, and Nietzsche himself spent much of his thought constructing models of morality that may prove more sufficient.

When he laments the death of God, I think what he’s really lamenting is the death of faith. Faith in something greater than the impulse to achieve because of the incentives it would yield. Faith in something that transcends the incessant striving that’s coded in our behavior.

And by lamenting this loss instead of praising it, we can wake up from the delusion that rationality will answer questions it was never meant to address.


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For more stories and reflections of this nature:

God Is a Spectrum of Being

Do You Really Believe What You Believe?

Philosophy Has Lost Its Way

"How do you find your ideas?"

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