Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Nietzsche's Eternal Recurrence, Scrambled Sideways

Nietzsche writes:

What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: "This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy, and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence? -- even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, a speck of dust!"
Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: "You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine." If this thought gained possession of you, it would change you as you are or perhaps crush you. The question in each and every thing, "Do you desire this once more and innumerable times more?" would lie upon your actions as the greatest weight. Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal? (Gay Science 341, Kaufmann trans.).

Unlike some readers of Nietzsche, I'm inclined to think Nietzsche intended his remarks about eternal recurrence not as a mere thought experiment but rather as a genuine cosmological possibility. His unpublished reflections on eternal recurrence suggest a view not unlike that of his contemporary, physicist Ludwig Boltzmann. In a universe of finite relevantly different combinatorial possibilities, infinite duration, and some means of avoiding permanent collapse into entropy, it is plausible to think that eventually the current configuration of the world will recur, not just once but infinitely often. And if one adds determinism to the picture (as most would have done in the 19th century), then once the current configuration recurs, the same subsequent states will follow. Voila, eternal recurrence.

Now update to the early 21st century by adding multiverse theory and randomness. What do we get? Eternal recurrence scrambled sideways! Sideways because the infinitely many duplicates of you need not exist only in your past and future (and in fact probably don't, assuming a finite or entropy-collapsing observable universe and universe-local spacetime) -- rather they exist "sideways", outside of our observable universe. And scrambled because rather than being destined always to play out the same, every finite possibility is played out, infinitely often.

So, on this view -- which is well within the range of the mainstream options in contemporary scientific cosmology -- there are infinitely many "Eric Schwitzgebel"s in infinitely many universes who have lived their lives identically to mine up to this minute. Given that there is a huge variety of highly improbable but finitely probable weird futures for these Eric Schwitzgebels, infinitely many Eric Schwitzgebels play out each of these weird outcomes. Infinitely many of my up-to-now counterparts decide to leave philosophy forever to pursue a hopeless career in football, infinitely many leap to death from the top of the tower, infinitely many spend the rest of the week stapling pages of Kant's first critique atop relevant passages of Hume's Treatise. And of course infinitely many also finish this blog post, in every possible way it might be finished.

How should I feel about these counterparts of mine, assuming such a cosmology is the correct one, as seems possible? They are oddly close to me, in a way, though universes distant. I can't quite find myself indifferent to them -- just as Nietzsche can't find himself indifferent to his future counterparts who must live out his every decision. Though it seems weird to say so, I find myself feeling sorry as I imagine their sufferings. I don't feel the heavy weight of Nietzsche's eternal recurrence, though. I'm not sure I would feel that weight even on Nietzsche's original assumptions, but definitely not now. Maybe instead there's a lightness: Even if I decide wrong, there will be infinitely many Erics who get it right! Conversely, there's an eeriness too: Infinitely many Erics bashed their cars headlong into that oncoming traffic.

Maybe I shouldn't take such reflections very seriously. The cosmology might not be correct. Even if it is correct, I'm the only Eric Schwitzgebel, UC Riverside philosopher, in this universe, and I really shouldn't care at all about what transpires in other universes, no matter how eerily similar. Should I? There are plenty of other people, right here on our own Earth, past and future, whom I should care about more, right? Because they're... well, why exactly? Because they're closer?

42 comments:

Unknown said...

Although I take the Boltzmann version of eternal recurrence very seriously, I find myself very unwilling to swallow the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. Mainly because there's no postulated mechanism driving the division of the universe. Not to mention that whole falsifiability/empirical support thing...

That said, if we were to somehow be able to prove many-worlds, it would be very interesting to me. Somehow, my consciousness ends up HERE instead of THERE (a near infinite number of times per second, since we're counting decoherence events). How is that path carved? Is it directed? Is there some kind of strange temporality to it, where in some sense I am simultaneously conscious in all these parallel worlds but not aware of it yet?

Carlos Narziss said...

I haven’t given the eternal recurrence extensive thought, usually dismissing it as a peculiar tangent in Nietzsche’s philosophy, but upon reading your article I do have some thoughts on the matter.

In the eternal return, I take Nietzsche to suggest that he’s searching for something that can ground certain norms about how we should act. Thinking about the eternal return is supposed to somehow wake us up, make us care about our lives in a certain way, and therefore influence how we act. I agree with you that it doesn’t seem convincing that we should care about our possible selves (either in parallel or in the future and past), especially when compared to other things we should care about (like other humans who are here now).

However, I don’t think Nietzsche ultimately wants us care about our alternate selves but instead to care about our self that is here and now. So although his eternal return may suggest that we should care about what we do now because it will be inscribed in what we do later (when we eternally recur), what he ultimately wants to establish (by making us care about our possible selves) is care toward our self here and now.

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Carlos Narziss said...

A lot of people seem to care about their self that is here and now (and I don’t suppose they would be searching for a way to give their life meaning; they already seem to find meaning in their lives), so I suppose Nietzsche must be addressing only the audience of pessimists and nihilists who are having trouble finding meaning in life. Perhaps he even hopes to wake up both those who believe in religious mythology and those who find hedonistic pleasures sufficient for the enjoyment of life to the triviality of their meaning and to the existential crisis that he seems to be trying to cope with.

The eternal return seems bound up both with (1) notions of our existence across time (and could possibly be extended to our existence across location, as you point out) and with (2) existential contemplation about the meaning of life (or purpose in living). Using this thought about our existence across time (and location) is somehow supposed to provide the sort of norm giving meaning about how we should act. Our attitudes about how we ought to act in this life must be somehow altered by recognition of the eternal return.

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Carlos Narziss said...

Trying to make sense of this, there is an earlier aphorism that deals with existential issues of time and meaning:

The new fundamental feeling: our permanent transitoriness. — Formerly one tried to get a feel for the majesty of human beings by pointing backward toward their divine descent: this has now become a forbidden path, because before its gate stands the ape along with other heinous beasts, grinning knowingly as if to say: no farther here in this direction. So, one has a go of it now from the opposite direction: the path humanity pursues shall serve as proof of its majesty and kinship to God. Alas, this too leads nowhere! At the end of this path stands the funeral urn of the last human and gravedigger (with the inscription “nihil humani a me alienum puto [nothing human is foreign to me]”). (Dawn 49)

Here Nietzsche tries to dispel two attempts to find existential meaning: one that looks backwards and another that looks forward. Looking backward fails, according to Nietzsche, because we descend from apes and not God (according to Darwin’s evolutionary theory and opposing the Old Testament genesis story). Looking forward fails, as well, because instead of some hidden teleology and ultimate eternal life we find ourselves with no future humanity; the impending extinction of humanity takes away meaning from our present efforts (since none will be around to either benefit from or remember our efforts). Compare despair over such fate in the book turned film Children of Men and Scheffler’s recent, related Tanner Lectures http://philosophy.fas.nyu.edu/docs/IO/4864/SchefflerTannerLectures.pdf (in which he references the former book and film).

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Carlos Narziss said...

In the face of this existential crisis, we might nevertheless become like Agathon or Rilke and try finding meaning in that our efforts will be forever inscribed in the past. Agathon, as quoted by Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics, says, “For this alone is lacking even to god, To make undone things that have once been done”. Rilke writes in his ninth Elegy, “And we, too, once. And never again. But this – having been once on earth – can it ever be undone?” Together, these poets express the immutability of things past, and Rilke seems to draw existential meaning from this.

So why doesn’t Nietzsche simply do something like this and try to find meaning in the immutability of the past? Either he overlooked this option or he believes that the past can only matter to us if it will happen again. We are supposed to be struck by a sort of conscience about our present actions because what falls in the past will somehow recur in the future. Perhaps this is Nietzsche best jab against nihilism (at least during the period from 1881-1885) which divines no purpose from the past and sees no future for humanity. Perhaps he thinks we should care about our present self because we would, through recognition of the eternal return, care about imprisoning our future self in our present choices. Because one day that future self will be us.

Perhaps our sense of self from one moment to the next should be just as attached to our well-being as our sense of self from the present self to the future, eternally recurred self? Somehow we’re supposed to identify with this projection of our eternally recurring self through, what?, some bizarre causal connection to our future self? If that connection amounted to the supporting force behind Nietzsche’s employment of the eternal return, then perhaps he wouldn’t care about our self in another universe (since we stand in no causal connection to that self). Perhaps Nietzsche wants us to care about our self here and now because one day our future self will be our here and now. I’m really not sure, and I think to myself that Nietzsche probably didn’t understand how to reason through his own intuitions on the eternal recurrence as well, and that later he looks to other means for overcoming nihilism.

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Anonymous said...

If every possibility is played out simultaneously it's unclear to me in what meaningful sense it can be still said to be "me" in the midst of all these actualisations. Doesn't the scrambling necessitate the impossibility of any connecting "me" within all these events?

The idea of the ER is first referenced by Nietzsche in the History Meditation (2) and is attributed to the Pythagoreans; and there, as later, the fundamental idea for Nietzsche is not the physics, but our capacity (or incapacity), to digest as much (or as little) of existence, as it impinges on us.

The fact that the demon in GS.341. offers this information in your "loneliest loneliness" is no accident. It already presupposes a certain kind of suffering and alienation on the part of the reader, and readers very differently disposed are unlikely to respond to the ER in the same manner.

David

clasqm said...

There are an infinite number of clasqm's who bought Apple stock when it was floating around $10 a share. If each of them transferred $1 to this universe I could *buy* this universe. But since they show no inclination to do so, and like this universe's Nobel Prize Committee, continue to feign ignorance of my existence, I shall return the compliment and not spend too much time and energy caring about them. After all, if Nietzsche was right, I will then spend an infinite number of times caring about them fruitlessly.

BTW, my learned friends, is there any reason why the sideways infinitude necessarily cancels out the longitudinal one? That seems to be an unspoken assumption here. Is it possible that there is an eternal recurrunce in each of these infinite universes? My alleged mind declares itself well and truly boggled.

Anonymous said...

I think I care about them in as far as i think about them in that way. But that that caring about them is fruitless for them and me...

GNZ

Anonymous said...

All changes are irreversibly sequential and no part of them will will never repeat themselves exactly in an indeterminate universe. Nietzsche was wrong and you are wronger.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comments, folks!

Interesting reflections, Carlos. I'm inclined to agree that Nietzsche wouldn't want to hang a lot on any profound altruistic(?) concern we have for these future selves. The *primary* function of the eternal recurrence might be as a way of bringing forward a way of thinking about whether one would say "yes" or "no" to life, if you had to live it all again. The ideal of course be to live so that you would say "yes!" If it's also simply true, cosmologically, then that "yes" is somehow amplified by being a "yes" for not only me but also on behalf of all my counterparts.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

David: I agree that they're not me, just my "counterparts", for whatever that's worth. And it's an open question how much that's worth. On the loneliness frame. It's interesting that it's there, and not I think meaningless, but other mentions of the recurrence are not similarly framed so I would prefer a light interpretative touch with it.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Clasqm: I don't think they need to cancel each other out. It's just that multiverse theory seems to get the sideways recurrence without having to commit on the future recurrence. But it could be both.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon 10:57: There's a lot of implicit physics in your assertion. Are you sure you have thought it through carefully?

Anonymous said...

Yes, because it's physics, either classical, quantum, string theoretic, etc., that tells us that sequences can be multidirectional but not reversible. And sequences that go back infinitively will not logically have come back in some exact parallel. But illogically o course, they can.

Anonymous said...

What I should have added is that when you have these examples where some parts are naturally out of sequence from some "parallel" set of changes, finding parts of those same sets to be in the exact "web" of sequence of our sets is even more bazaar, since they'd have no causative history that could account for the phenomena. The theory that "anything can happen" is essentially based on hope that impossible accidents are not impossible.

Anonymous said...

Eric: True, but the loneliness issue is practically omnipresent in Nietzsche, both personally and philosophically; in his views on language and consciousness etc, and the idea that:"For me - how should there be any outside-myself? There is no outside. But all sounds make us forget this; how lovely it is that there are sounds"(TSZ.III.13).

This is not solipsism he's affirming, but the uncrossable gap that necessarily exists between the self and any other, no matter how empathetic either may be. And this gap, I would argue, is a source of persistent suffering for Nietzsche, and hence is a significant part of the pain that the ER is trying to affirm. This separation is part of what the Dionysian myth of wholeness and unity seeks to obliterate.

Again, I'm emphasising Nietzsche's own relation to the ER and paying little attention to what others make of it.

David

T. Parent said...

I once heard something like Anonymous' point explained to me this way. (To be sure, this is an over-simplification, but it may help us non-specialists.) Suppose you take the numeral for pi, and delete all the '3's after the decimal point. Then, even though '3' occurs once before the decimal point, it never occurs again...even though the sequence after the decimal point remains infinite.

John Ayala said...

I have two views on this matter:

The eternal return is a means of clearing our creative here-now of past things in order to open more "space" to things over which our will can have an influence.

The eternal return is the willing of the indefinite repetition of the conditions that made possible the emergence of the will so that it has the possibility of emerging in the future. In a chaotic universe (sensitive to initial conditions) one would have to will the indefinite repetiton of everything in order for this to be possible.

Scott Bakker said...

If I'm remember aright, your view isn't so different from Kundera's account of Eternal Return in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Eric.

I've always read Nietzsche as attempting to chase the logic of the Enlightenment to its conclusion - nihilism - and the Eternal Return as precisely the kind of cosmological theses the Enlightenment has made possible, such as those falling out from brane theory and so on.

In this sense, he's anticipating what Freud would call the 'third great narcissistic wound' a couple of decades after, the fall of 'noocentrism' in the wake of the fall of biocentrism (Darwin) and geocentrism (Copernicus) from cognitive grace.

The enemy here is nothing less than Enlightenment reason - so the question is one of what to posit in its wake, if all it delivers is the ultimate dissolution of human value. Nietzsche offers an irrational response - (crudely) affirmation for affirmation's sake - and the Eternal Return provides him with the dramatic background he needs to convey the stakes.

It's this 'dehumanizing (decentralizing) background' that's the important thing. What does it mean to affirm value against such a background? That's the question.

It's hokey to be sure. And I can't help but think if he were around today, if he could see how thoroughly cognitive science has confirm, even surpassed his pessimistic predictions, he'd be playing online video games.

Anonymous said...

Scott Bakker: No, the "nihilistic" problem is essentially visceral, characterological, and not conceptual.

The advocates of the Last Man, the overwheliming majority of humanity, find no difficulty in affirming values and existence in a Godless universe. The enemy isn't Enlightenment Reason, this enlightenment allows them to take a pleasantly ironic view of themselves.

David

Anonymous said...

What we also have here is an apparent logical paradox:
Any alteration of sequential change prevents the changes from returning to the inevitable track of the sequence they had previously been on. Yet all changes remain on the track of inevitability..

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

On the complexity issue, anon & T Parent: That's why I phrased the post in terms of "finite relevantly different possibilities". The view, as I understand it, is that as long as epsilon is finite for all the relevant properties in the space of possibilities, then the counterpart will be relevantly similar. As long as epsilon is finite though small, there should be a finite probability.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Gotta go. More later!

Anonymous said...

"The view, as I understand it, is that as long as epsilon is finite for all the relevant properties in the space of possibilities, then the counterpart will be relevantly similar."
Wrong. Any change at all in the causal sequence will lead to a complete divergence of particulars.
If you had left your home that day one second earlier or later, you would not have had the traffic accident that changed your life. The world may have later had wars for the same or similar reasons, but your unit, if any, would not have had the same personnel or casualties. Which would apply to any other unit ou would remotely have had dealings with. And on and on.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon: You need only choose epsilon small enough not to make any relevant difference over the whole of your life. One second isn't nearly small enough. All we need is *finite*. How about one googolplexth of a second? Furthermore, since my view allows scrambling, there only needs to be a finite probability of things working out in the intended way given that recurrence plus/minus epsilon.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Scott: Thanks for the Kundera reference. I read that back in college but I didn't recall that aspect of it (or really much else at all about it at this point). Maybe it shaped some of my thoughts about this, though.

On nihilism and all that: Your interpretation seems within the space of reasonable interpretations to me.

Anonymous said...

Eric, any difference at all is relevant, that's the point. Arbitrarily choosing a second or a nanosecond makes no difference where the point is that any change at all will be reflected in the irreversible sequence of change. Or do you somehow think that sequences are perfectly reversible? And do you think causation is somehow linear as well?

Callan S. said...

How does it all reset again?

Anonymous said...

Resets are never more than close approximations. You can't unpour a cup of tea but you can pour another one.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Callan -- Boltzmann contemplated fluctuations toward low entropy by miniscule (but finite) chance. The orthodox view is that you can unpour a cup of tea; it's just very unlikely.

Anonymous said...

"The orthodox view is that you can unpour a cup of tea; it's just very unlikely."
Apparently if they didn't teach academic philosophers about the laws of sequences in philosophy courses, they have difficulty thinking about the subject on their own.
You, Eric, for example throw in some irrelevancy about entropy which again has completely missed the point.
Non-academics ask questions about the subject. Why don't you?
Do you suspect that somehow it's in the realm of the supernatural? In fact, it allows us to make some of our best arguments against such pseudoscientific malarkey.

Anonymous said...

Not to show any disrespect for Boltzmann, who in many ways was far ahead of his time, both in physics and in evolutionary philosophy.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon, this has degenerated into name-calling, and I suspect that you are the one who is in the wrong here. Please desist. If you wish to comment on future posts, I recommend that you present reasoned arguments rather than insults and pronouncements.

Anonymous said...

Eric, not once did I resort to name calling, unless any attempt to call you out is seen as name calling. You suspect I'm wrong? Is that the best you can do? I know you won't print this, but at least you'll read it.
Ordinarily I wouldn't comment here at all, but this thing about the similarities of many worlds and the seriousness with which you take these ideas was just too much. Bye bye.

Callan S. said...

Anon, I think 'malarkey' might have been taken as name calling, but not necessarily against a person. I'm sure there's some things you find dear, perhaps particular movies or books, that wouldn't sit well with being called malarky. Perhaps imagine the language by which you'd prefer your own valued ideas critiqued and use that method.

Anonymous said...

Callan,
you are being charitable...
that was all in all pretty rude of anon

GNZ

Anonymous said...

If you two look again, you'll find that malarkey was not used in reference to anything that Eric said at all, but to the supernatural that he may suspect the sequentialists propose. Being a sequentialist myself, I hope I was not self-rude. But hope is the mother of self-deception so who knows.

Anonymous said...

Anon,
shall we at least say - that if you did not intend to be rude, you are likely to achieve your intent better via presenting your arguments in a different way - at least in a civil forum like these comments.

You may have an interesting position, but you don't seem to have stated it clearly enough to be able to engage with it - or at least not added anything that can be engaged with after Nov 5 3:49.

GNZ

Anonymous said...

Oh,come on, I asked Eric several questions that he avoided answering, and if you think you can answer them instead, please do.

Anonymous said...

Anon,

You can summarize/present your argument again if you want.

dont be afraid to use references if you feel we might not have indepth knowledge in areas that you do.

GNZ

Anonymous said...

Now who's being rude?

Anonymous said...

Do you always assume the worst?

Nevermind then.