Metaphysical naturalism asserts that nothing exists but matter, space and energy, and therefore every phenomenon is merely the product of particles in motion. Certain consequences with respect to God and ethics follow inexorably if metaphysical naturalism is a true account of reality. Perhaps Will Provine summed these up best:
1) No gods worth having exist; 2) no life after death exists; 3) no ultimate foundation for ethics exists; 4) no ultimate meaning in life exists; and 5) human free will is nonexistent.
Evolution: Free Will and Punishment and Meaning in Life, Second Annual Darwin Day Celebration Keynote Address, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, February 12, 1998 (abstract)
The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.
Richard Dawkins, River out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life, 133.
Let us assume for the sake of argument that metaphysical naturalism is a true account of reality. What if a person were able to act based on a clear-eyed and unsentimental understanding of the consequences outlined above? If that person had the courage not to be overwhelmed by the utter meaningless of existence, he would be transformed. He would be bold, self-confident, assertive, uninhibited, and unrestrained. He would consider empathy to be nothing but weak-kneed sentimentality. To him others would not be ends; they would be objects to be exploited for his own gratification. He would not mind being called cruel, because he would know that “cruelty” is an empty category, the product of mere sentiment. Is the lion being cruel to the gazelle? No, he is merely doing what lions naturally do to gazelles. In short, he would be what we call a psychopath.
Nietzsche speaks of such a one and calls him the Übermensch (from the German “Über” meaning “over” or “beyond” or “super,” and “mensch” for “man” as in “mankind”). The word has been translated into English as “superman.” Nietzsche believed the Übermensch would evolve from man just as man had evolved from the apes:
I TEACH YOU THE SUPERMAN. Man is something that is to be surpassed. What have ye done to surpass man?
All beings hitherto have created something beyond themselves: and ye want to be the ebb of that great tide, and would rather go back to the beast than surpass man?
What is the ape to man? A laughing-stock, a thing of shame. And just the same shall man be to the Superman: a laughing-stock, a thing of shame.
Ye have made your way from the worm to man, and much within you is still worm. Once were ye apes, and even yet man is more of an ape than any of the apes . . .
Man is a rope stretched between the animal and the Superman—a rope over an abyss.
A dangerous crossing, a dangerous wayfaring, a dangerous looking-back, a dangerous trembling and halting.
What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not a goal: what is lovable in man is that he is an OVER-GOING and a DOWN-GOING.
Thus Spake Zarathustra
The Übermensch holds the “slave morality” of Christianity in contempt, because it seeks to inhibit the unfettered expression of his will. Zarathustra goes on:
For today have the petty people become master: they all preach submission and humility and policy and diligence and consideration and the long et cetera of petty virtues.
Whatever is of the effeminate type, whatever originateth from the servile type, and especially the populace-mishmash:—THAT wisheth now to be master of all human destiny—O disgust! Disgust! Disgust! . . .
He hath heart who knoweth fear, but VANQUISHETH it; who seeth the abyss, but with PRIDE.
He who seeth the abyss, but with eagle’s eyes,—he who with eagle’s talons GRASPETH the abyss: he hath courage.—
“Man is evil”—so said to me for consolation, all the wisest ones. Ah, if only it be still true today! For the evil is man’s best force.
“Man must become better and eviler”—so do I teach. The evilest is necessary for the Superman’s best.
It may have been well for the preacher of the petty people to suffer and be burdened by men’s sin. I, however, rejoice in great sin as my great CONSOLATION.—
With great courage the Übermensch reflects upon the abyss – the vast, indifferent and meaningless universe – and does not lose heart. He has evolved beyond man and is therefore able to see past the empty categories of “good” and “evil” held so dear by the petty people. He becomes “eviler” and therefore better, because “better” means the successful assertion of his will to power, which the petty people consider evil.
The “psychopath as Übermensch” insight is, of course, not new and has been explored many times. Just last year the television series Dexter (a series about the eponymous psychopathic serial killer) delved into it. In the program’s final season the writers introduce us to a psychiatrist named Evelyn Vogel who specializes in treating psychopaths. In a script Nietzsche would have loved, Vogel tells Dexter that far from being evil he is an evolutionary gift to mankind:
Vogel: I believe that psychopaths are not a mistake of nature. They’re a gift.
Dexter: A gift?
Vogel: They’re Alpha wolves, who helped the human race survive long enough to become civilized. An indispensable demographic . . .
Dexter: You were wrong about me. I’m a mistake.
Vogel: You’re exactly what you need to be, Dexter. You’re perfect.
And later still:
Vogel: I’m not criticising. Selfless love is hard enough for typical people. And for psychopaths, it’s impossible.
Dexter: So why are you telling me this? So I’ll feel bad about myself?
Vogel: Quite the contrary. I want you to revel in what you are. I told you, you’re perfect.
All very theoretical Barry, but Dexter is fiction. There’s no practical application. Not so. I have personally looked into the eyes of a killer who believed he was a Nietzschean Übermensch. As the attorney for the families of six of the students killed at Columbine, I read through every single page of Eric Harris’* journals; I listened to all of the audio tapes and watched the videotapes, including the infamous “basement tapes.” As I have written before (see here), Harris was a thoroughgoing disciple of Darwin, and it was no coincidence that on the day of the killings he was wearing a shirt with the words “natural selection” emblazoned across the front. Harris had also imbibed deeply from Nietzsche, and in one of his journals he wrote, “I just love Hobbes and Nietzsche.”
In the recordings he left behind, Harris says he has “evolved,’ and in his higher state of existence he has no obligation to anyone. Because he had no obligation to the lower beings around him, he believed he had the right to kill them at a whim.
Based on my study of Harris’ writings and recordings, I can tell you that the FBI’s experts’ conclusions as reported by Dave Cullen in Slate were exactly right:
‘Psychopaths are not disoriented or out of touch with reality, nor do they experience the delusions, hallucinations, or intense subjective distress that characterize most other mental disorders,’ writes Dr. Robert Hare, in Without Conscience, the seminal book on the condition. (Hare is also one of the psychologists consulted by the FBI about Columbine and by Slate for this story.) ‘Unlike psychotic individuals, psychopaths are rational and aware of what they are doing and why. Their behavior is the result of choice, freely exercised.’ . . .
Harris’ pattern of grandiosity, glibness, contempt, lack of empathy, and superiority read like the bullet points on Hare’s Psychopathy Checklist and convinced Fuselier and the other leading psychiatrists close to the case that Harris was a psychopath.
It begins to explain Harris’ unbelievably callous behavior: his ability to shoot his classmates, then stop to taunt them while they writhed in pain, then finish them off. Because psychopaths are guided by such a different thought process than non-psychopathic humans, we tend to find their behavior inexplicable. But they’re actually much easier to predict than the rest of us once you understand them. Psychopaths follow much stricter behavior patterns than the rest of us because they are unfettered by conscience, living solely for their own aggrandizement. (The difference is so striking that Fuselier trains hostage negotiators to identify psychopaths during a standoff, and immediately reverse tactics if they think they’re facing one. It’s like flipping a switch between two alternate brain-mechanisms.)
None of his victims means anything to the psychopath. He recognizes other people only as means to obtain what he desires. Not only does he feel no guilt for destroying their lives, he doesn’t grasp what they feel. The truly hard-core psychopath doesn’t quite comprehend emotions like love or hate or fear, because he has never experienced them directly.
David Brooks summed Eric Harris up as well as anyone:
It’s clear from excerpts of Harris’s journals that he saw himself as a sort of Nietzschean Superman — someone so far above the herd of ant-like mortals he does not even have to consider their feelings. He rises above good and evil, above the contemptible slave morality of normal people. He can realize his true, heroic self, and establish his eternal glory, only through some gigantic act of will.
Which brings us back to the question we asked at the beginning. What if a person were able to act based on a clear-eyed and unsentimental understanding of the ethical consequences of metaphysical naturalism? We are repulsed by Harris, and we use words like “evil” to describe him. But if metaphysical naturalism is true, are we not engaging in mere sentimentality when we say Harris was evil? If naturalism is true, human beings are nothing but “sentient meat” (to quote Rust from True Detectives), and on what basis can we assert that one bag of sentient meat has any obligation to allow another bag of sentient meat to live? Harris believed he was a lion and his classmates had no more rights than gazelles. If naturalism is true was he wrong?
In his book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea Daniel Dennett refers to Darwinism as a “universal acid” that “eats through just about every traditional concept, and leaves in its wake a revolutionized world-view, with most of the old landmarks still recognizable, but transformed in fundamental ways . . .”
Indeed. Which brings to mind the old joke:
Reporter to inventor: “What are you working on?”
Inventor: “I am going to invent a universal acid that will eat through any known substance”
Reporter: “What are you going to store it in?”
In this post I have not argued that metaphysical naturalism is false.** In fact, I have asked my readers to assume that it is true and we have explored some of the consequences of that assumption. The fact that I personally find those consequences repugnant does not mean it is false. As a matter of strict logic my desires concerning a proposition are irrelevant as to whether it is true or false. Nor have I argued that Darwinism is false.** I have argued, however, that whether they are true or false, these ideas have consequences, and it is not hard to connect the dots between Darwin and Nietzsche. Nor it is the least bit difficult to connect the dots between Darwin/Nietzsche and Eric Harris.
Colin Patterson was the senior paleontologist at the British Natural History Museum and the author of the museum’s general text on evolution. Patterson once asked the members of the Evolutionary Morphology seminar at the University of Chicago: “Can you tell me anything you know about evolution, any one thing . . . that is true?” Patterson relates that “all I got there was silence for a long time and eventually one person said, ‘I do know one thing — it ought not to be taught in high school.’” Indeed, and neither should Nietzsche. I urge everyone reading this whose job it is to mold impressionable young minds to be very careful. When it comes to Darwin’s ideas as filtered though Nietzsche, you are holding a bottle of universal acid. Use extreme caution!
*This is all about Eric Harris. Harris was brilliant. How many 18 year-olds do you know who even know who Nietzsche was? Not only did Harris know who he was, he was deeply influenced by his philosophy. Dylan Klebold was a follower. Ochberg and Fuselier concur.
**I believe both to be false, but that is an argument for another day.