Sunday, September 02, 2007

The Will to Power, Life and Parsimony

Richard Schacht’s well-regarded book “Nietzsche” does a fine job of presenting Nietzsche’s philosophy, including his cosmology of the Will to Power, in a thorough and systematic manner. In this post I want to address a possible objection to the conception of the Will to Power and Schacht’s analysis of it.

The Will to Power in it’s most fundamental form can be characterised as “quanta of force” with the disposition to extend influence over and resist diminution by other quanta. In Nietzsche’s WTP cosmology (or, as most of his writings on the subject were unpublished, perhaps it is more appropriately described as a thought experiment or hypothesis), ‘the world is Will to Power - and nothing else besides’.

Schacht considers that although N does not compellingly demonstrate the validity of this interpretation, he does succeed in making a case for its validity that is worth serious consideration. Schacht considers that the WTP satisfies the methodological requirements of parsimony, explanatory power and plausibility. To quote: “The impulse to ordering transformation it imputes to all quanta of force serves to render intelligible the existence of the world as an affair of ceaseless ‘becoming’…the most basic pervasive features of which are the emergence of various sorts of order and their dissolution.”

A preliminary point here in relation to panexperientialism is to what extent the WTP is conjectured to have a experiential, felt, or subjective character. Some commentators eschew this notion, no doubt motivated by the ubiquitous “threat of panpsychism”. To me the idea that WTP is divested of any experiential aspect is not consistent with Nietzsche’s intention to posit an “inner” character to forces (though this of course need not denote self consciousness or consciousness as experienced by humans), fails to recognise Nietzsche’s Schopenhaeurian heritage and also robs the WTP of any significant explanatory value. If, for example, hunger can be construed as a drive which motivates food seeking behaviour yet the ‘felt’ aspect of this is removed , then it seems we are back at a purely mechanistic explanation of the behaviour, which N was opposed to.

The potential objection against WTP to be dealt with here revolves around N using it as an explanatory tool for the phenomena of “life”. Nietzsche uses life as a point of departure because it is that form of existence which is nearest and most readily scrutinized. He employs this method to life examined from a third person biological objective standpoint and from a first person experiential stance. Leaving aside the experiential aspect for the moment , Nietzsche takes it as given that life cannot be supposed to originate in (in Schacht’s words) the ‘aggregation of dispositionless dynamic quanta’. Therefore, WTP is invoked as an explanation.

However, I do not think it is at all clear that the objective aspects of life cannot be explained mechanistically and in terms that are ultimately reducible to the work of natural selection on dispositionless, non-intending and non-experiential matter. Whilst it is certainly the case that there are many aspects of biology that are not fully understood at the present time (such as cellular differentiation, embryology and morphogenesis), to me there is no reason in principle to suppose that adequate mechanistic explanations of such phenomena may not be possible (fields such as evolutionary developmental biology, previously discussed on this blog here, are making strides in this regard). Therefore, it seems that Nietzsche may be unnecessarily invoking a ’vitalistic’ principle into biology which undermines his thesis and renders it unparsimonious.

However, I do not think this objection is fatal to Nietzsche thesis, although it is serious.

If it is granted that biology can ultimately be explained mechanistically then (barring any genuinely emergent laws) it is reducible, in theory at least, to the fundamental laws and properties of physics. So in applying the principles of parsimony to Nietzsche’s thesis it is instructive to explore whether positing WTP has any advantages over positing the fundamental laws of physics as the ultimate basis and ground of life. There are two areas where I think that the WTP could have advantages in this regard.

Firstly, there is one aspect of life which, in my view is not reducible to physics, which is the ‘hard problem’ of phenomenal experience. Consciousness could be explained by WTP as the developmental of the experiential aspect of the WTP whereas, arguably, it is a phenomena which stands over and above the laws of physics.

Secondly, WTP is superior in that it can explain processes occurring at the level of physics as being due to the dispositional nature of quanta, whereas physics can at the level of the most fundamental laws describe the relationships of consecutive appearances of physical events but not explain why they are as they are - at the level of fundamental laws and properties one has hit bedrock and a further physical explanation cannot be given. As Nietzsche states it; “Mechanistic theory can therefore only describes processes, not explain them”.

By imputing an intentional, dynamic, dispositional aspect to the ‘quanta of force’ N offers a potential explanation as to why the fundamental laws and properties which govern how matter acts are as they are. It could be argued here that this is merely deferring the issue of why things are as they are up another level, as the question then arises as to why the WTP is as it is. However, I think that in explaining the behaviour of fundamental entities in terms of intrinsic, internal dispositions there is some explanatory gain in moving to this level.

A ’theory of everything’ could undermine the second point above if it were shown that fundamental physical laws and properties are as they are due to a matter of mathematical or logical necessity. However, if this were the case then unless such a theory could also accommodate the presence of phenomenal experience, the first point above would remain.

Thus, at the present time at least, although N attempts to incorrectly ground the WTP in biology I do not think this is fatal to his thesis. Nietzsche's thesis is not unparsimonious because it obviates the need for further explanations of phenomenal experience and provides a potential ontological basis for fundamental laws and properties.

If it is accepted that Nietzsche’s WTP thesis is significant independent of biological grounds for its justification, then another issue which then arises is what relevance it may have for biology and the explanation of life. Here we are not interested in justifying WTP on biological grounds but in exploring , given that WTP is a viable hypothesis on other grounds, what potential applications it could have for biology and the philosophy of biology. At first blush, I see two potential areas of application here.

Firstly, WTP could serve an explanatory role over and above that of Darwinian selection acting on mechanistic processes. Whilst it is stated above that in principle the obkective aspects of biology seem to be explicable, in principle, in mechanistic terms, this is not to say that there are areas of biology where other independently justified principles could be fruitfully applied.

For instance, The WTP ontology, through allowing for the combination of quanta of force into higher level ‘wills’ could be of relevance in the explication of behaviour in complex organisms such as humans. Nietzsche’s view is that in ‘the mutual struggle of that which becomes, often with the absorption of one‘s opponent …continual transition forbids us to speak of ‘individuals’… and ‘the ‘number’ of beings is itself in flux’. WTP thus provides for the emergence of higher level quanta which could exert ‘downward causation’ on lower level quanta within the organism. This could potentially provide an explanatory role, for example, in any effect consciousness has on behaviour.

Of course, such a principle as downward causation would be anathema to most biologists. But the WTP does not posit absolute laws operating at lower levels which fully determine activity at higher levels, so such an option remains open under the WTP ontology. The action of such "downward" willing would be an additional factor on which natural selection could act in the course of evolution. That is, quanta of force which comprise gene complexes which give rise to higher level wills with beneficial adaptive effects would tend to be selected for.

These speculations of course are probably moving beyond the realm of empirically testable hypothesis. It is difficult to see how such principles could be incorporated into biological experimental work, especially as any downward causation would appear to contradict the general biological view that organism function is determined by laws operating at the micro level. Experimental evidence that human subjective consciousness does indeed impact on behaviour is possibly the most fruitful area of exploration here.

Secondly, and on a more conservative level, if it is accepted that all objective biological phenomena could be explicable in mechanistic terms ultimately in principle reducible to physics (which are taken as ‘given’), the WTP could still have an explanatory role in explaining life phenomena from the ‘inside’. Thus behaviour associated with, for example, hunger and sex and so on could be adequately explained ‘from the outside’ by biology while the WTP could provide for understanding of such phenomena in their intrinsic nature.

So while hunger may be explicable in terms of brain signals and stomach messages, the WTP could serve an explanatory function in relation to why these phenomena are accompanied by the felt sensation of hunger. This explanatory role could extend to all subjective experiences and, by analogy, to the behaviour of other organisms and organs. On this view, there is no need to invoke any ‘downward causation’ but the WTP plays a role in explaining ‘from the inside’ phenomena which are reducible to physics.

In conclusion, I think Nietzsche’s WTP, while prima facie not necessary for an explanation of life can, once accepted on other grounds, be fruitfully applied to explaining aspects of life. To be sure, to most biologists the notion would smack of speculative, unverifiable metaphysics. However, positing experience as restricted to brains and natural processes as inherently devoid of experience and intentionality is also metaphysical, only this time the metaphysics is grounded in the presupposition of given fundamental laws and processes which are somewhat hidden as they are beyond the reach of biology.

WTP has an advantage over mechanistics expanations of life in my view in that firstly, it does not take the nature of fundamental processes as brutely given but potentially explains them; secondly, it potentially explains phenomenal consciousness which biology tends to leave out; and thirdly , it could also have relevance for new biologically operative principles or, if not, in an understanding of biology from ‘the inside’.

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Michael J. Peters said...

Thank you for the article, it gave me some insight into this interesting theory.

Keep up the goodwork ;)

pharmacy said...

I still can't understand the whole philosophy of Nietzsche but I admire him so much.