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The Eternal Return

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aleph_0
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A quote from Nietzsche's The Gay Science:

What if, one day or night, a daemon 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...

Nietzsche's question: Would you accept that life, affirm it, relive it; or end it for fear of living out still greater pain through the endurance of eternity?

It is debatable whether the eternal return is a metaphysical reality--and it is debatable whether Nietzsche argues that it is, though it seems likely. It is my understanding that modern quantum physics affirms a version of it a la the Einstein-Minkovski 4-dimensionalization of space-time, but this might be stretching the meaning of the eternal return. Or it might not. Certain metaphysical arguments for it seem to fail or are at best ambiguous, so I wonder if anybody has any information about the matter.

But true or not, is this not the greatest model for moral understanding that we could conceive? This separates the life-affirmers from the life-deniers--boys from the men, from the louses. Every decision you make must be made as if you will suffer or enjoy it more than a million times over. There is no room for unfocused thought, no room for compromise, no room for blackening your soul in the name of expedience; the slightest moral tar sticks to you and there is nothing that will wash it from you. It is your badge of shame burned into your immortal skin. And likewise, the man who overcomes, who succeeds, who shares no guilty smile, offers no sacrifice, rejoices in no weakness, will live out his grandeur like the gods glittering from the heavens.

Is the eternal return something we should hold ourselves up to? Or is it too heavy for even Objectivists to carry?

[Editted for aesthetics]

Edited by aleph_0
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If it were true, there would be no volition, because who says that this is the FIRST TIME. Without volition, there is no morality.

And no, I don't think that it is "debatable".

Uh, I think that aleph_0 made it pretty clear that at least he didn't take the Eternal Rerun literally. I liked what he said about the lesson having that attitude teaches. He said it in a very eloquent and compelling manner that, at least for me, made me appreciate the supreme value and sacredness that my life holds for me.

I know you're metaphysical, but don't be a party pooper.

- Grant

P.S.: I like the title of this thread. Very clever :)

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If it were true, there would be no volition, because who says that this is the FIRST TIME. Without volition, there is no morality.

And no, I don't think that it is "debatable".

Well, I've never been entirely convinced about the no-volition, no-morality claim, but side-stepping that, do not Objectivists define volition as human identity in practice and so shouldn't the same identities put into the same contexts produce the same result?

Uh, I think that aleph_0 made it pretty clear that at least he didn't take the Eternal Rerun literally.

I equivocate on the matter. Whether real or false, though, I think it's a great principle to consider.

P.S.: I like the title of this thread. Very clever :)

Thank you. Likewise, I like your style. Here and on other topics.

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Notwithstanding occasional instances of deja vu (which are easy enough to explain) I don't see any evidence of an "eternal return". Isn't a better view of life one that coincides with reality? i.e. we are only on this planet for a limited period of time and we only live once. Given those circumstances, one should make the best possible use of every minute of every day. Live life to its fullest, etc....

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Uh, I think that aleph_0 made it pretty clear that at least he didn't take the Eternal Rerun literally.

It is debatable whether the eternal return is a metaphysical reality--and it is debatable whether Nietzsche argues that it is, though it seems likely.

Metaphysical reality = literal.

I'm not an expert on the field or anything, but I read about quantum physics for fun a lot, and I've never seen anyone credible take this theory seriously. From what I remember, even Stephen Hawking in A Brief History of Time is dismissive of it, although he does explain the theory-- and usually he's pretty "open minded" about far-out sounding cosmological hypotheses.

But, as far as I understand, this idea (in metaphysical terms) is an extension of the expanding/contracting universe theory, which seems to me to have some pretty fatal flaws in itself. I think it also assumes the Big Bang, which I'm skeptical of as well.

As far as the moral implications are concerned, I don't see why this would make any difference to a person's decisions. I would think that you could make just as strong an impression with, "You've only got one chance to get this right," as you would with the (imo, totally arbitrary) assertion that they're doomed/blessed to have an infinite repetition of chances that are determined, and in which they probably won't remember ever having experienced these things before. But, if it motivates you-- that's great. I doubt Nietzsche was trying to achieve much more than that.

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In fact, now that I think of it-- I bet Nietzsche probably had the "you only have one chance to get this right," theory in mind when he came up with this. It seems like it would be like him, to do a variation on this-- what if you don't have one chance.. what if you have infinite chances, but (there seems to be the implication that) this one is free, and you'll be always determined to choose the same way for the rest of eternity. Almost like taking the Christian stance that you're both free and not free. But you still come up with the same conclusion-- your life is important, and your decisions matter.

I don't have any evidence to think that was on Nietzsche's mind, but it just seems like his style, to me. : )

[edit: I haven't read The Gay Science yet, btw. Only Zarathustra and Beyond Good and Evil and some essays. But he does address this eternal return idea a little in some things I've read.]

Edited by Bold Standard
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Is the eternal return something we should hold ourselves up to? Or is it too heavy for even Objectivists to carry?

A serious problem with the eternal return, as described, is that it offers no objective standard for determining right and wrong behavior. How are you supposed to know whether you'd want to repeat an act over and over? Why shouldn't I want to successfully steal from my neighbor in countless identical lives after this one? After all, I didn't get caught doing it. So I might as well not get caught in all of my future lives.

The eternal return offers no moral guidance. It actually offers an evasion from the need to think about what is in your self-interest. Is stealing in my self-interest? No. Not because I'll have to steal in all of my future lives. It's wrong because it's not my property. I have no right to it. And if I steal it, I'm giving other people a reason to hunt me down and do bad things to me. If I value my life, then I shouldn't steal.

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Notwithstanding occasional instances of deja vu (which are easy enough to explain) I don't see any evidence of an "eternal return".

I think you miss the point. You can have no visible evidence for the eternal return any more than you can have visible evidence for mathematics or logic. Certainly it is self-evident that either a proposition is true or it is false, but you can never see truthiness in a proposition. In the eternal return, you would have no knowledge of a previous instance of having done an action X, because if you did then the current experience would differ from action X. Ex hypothesi, every time an action occurs it occurs exactly the same way. So even though you have never perceptually experienced an eternal return, evidence for it may be forthcoming.

I'm not an expert on the field or anything, but I read about quantum physics for fun a lot, and I've never seen anyone credible take this theory seriously. From what I remember, even Stephen Hawking in A Brief History of Time is dismissive of it, although he does explain the theory-- and usually he's pretty "open minded" about far-out sounding cosmological hypotheses.

I would be very surprised if Hawking rejected the notion out of hand, unless he had some direct evidence against it that I am unaware of. Otherwise, I would more likely expect him to reject Nietzsche's metaphysical arguments for the idea (and so not necessarily reject the idea itself), which are typically considered weak, though the only criticism I've seen seems itself to be weak.

But, as far as I understand, this idea (in metaphysical terms) is an extension of the expanding/contracting universe theory, which seems to me to have some pretty fatal flaws in itself.

Oh no, no, no, no, no. Totally different subject. Nietzsche wasn't even around when scientist knew that the universe was flying away from itself. For him, the cosmological idea of eternal return was more static: The universe is; the universe was; the universe will always be. Nietzsche was not a materialist and did not feel compelled to explain how the actions to come in the future would necessarily need to wrap back around to the actions that have happened before in any detail. His claim was largely based on the idea that, because beings and their order are limited while time is not, any given order throughout any give period of time must recur some time. I find this a dubious argument at best.

One person argued against it thusly: Imagine you have two wheels rotating on the same axis. Both have dots on a point at the top of them when they are in the initial position, and these dots line up. If the first wheel has diameter d and the second has diameter d(pi), then when rotated at the same speed, they will never again line up. I take this argument to be dubious as well, because I question the accuracy of irrational numbers to quantify real-world action. My argument would be more akin to: Imagine the two wheels are set up in the aforementioned way. Then imagine that the wheel-maker breaks them with a hammer and then kills himself with the very same hammer. The alignment will now never recur.

But just because this argument fails doesn't mean other ones will.

I think it also assumes the Big Bang, which I'm skeptical of as well.

I used to be as well, but now I'm more equivocal about it.

As far as the moral implications are concerned, I don't see why this would make any difference to a person's decisions. I would think that you could make just as strong an impression with, "You've only got one chance to get this right," as you would with the (imo, totally arbitrary) assertion that they're doomed/blessed to have an infinite repetition of chances that are determined, and in which they probably won't remember ever having experienced these things before.

This is definitely an argument in the right spirit. But are you sure it would not bother you to know that, in committing a wrong act, it will be emblazoned in a "time-slice" of you for the rest of eternity? Your point has a certain force behind it, but I cannot help but think, "I had better do the right thing so that, for so long as I experience this life, I feel as happy as possible."

But, if it motivates you-- that's great. I doubt Nietzsche was trying to achieve much more than that.

Scholars debate it. I could see either way being true.

[edit: I haven't read The Gay Science yet, btw. Only Zarathustra and Beyond Good and Evil and some essays. But he does address this eternal return idea a little in some things I've read.]

I don't think he's ever made a point just once. As the German saying goes, for something to happen just once is as well as if it never happened at all.

A serious problem with the eternal return, as described, is that it offers no objective standard for determining right and wrong behavior.

Perfectly right, Nietzsche always wanted people to figure out the specifics of morality on their own. Here he is simply arguing for integrity, not evading anything.

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I think you miss the point. You can have no visible evidence for the eternal return any more than you can have visible evidence for mathematics or logic. Certainly it is self-evident that either a proposition is true or it is false, but you can never see truthiness in a proposition. In the eternal return, you would have no knowledge of a previous instance of having done an action X, because if you did then the current experience would differ from action X. Ex hypothesi, every time an action occurs it occurs exactly the same way. So even though you have never perceptually experienced an eternal return, evidence for it may be forthcoming.
Actually, I think you're missing the point. It isn't a question of there being no visible evidence of an eternal return, it's a question of there being absolutely no evidence at all. You're saying that by definition, we can have no knowledge of the existence of this concept, yet at the same time you seem to be asking us to use it to guide our lives. Having spent too much time in Catholic churches when I was young, this all sounds vaguely familiar.
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Actually, I think you're missing the point. It isn't a question of there being no visible evidence of an eternal return, it's a question of there being absolutely no evidence at all. You're saying that by definition, we can have no knowledge of the existence of this concept, yet at the same time you seem to be asking us to use it to guide our lives. Having spent too much time in Catholic churches when I was young, this all sounds vaguely familiar.

Well that is why I brought up the Einstein-Minkovski four-dimensionalization of space-time which many read to be, in every essential way, the same thing as the eternal return. It is also why I put this under metaphysics and epistemology: To ask if anybody knows more about the metaphysical arguments for such an idea.

[Edit for grammar.]

Edited by aleph_0
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I would be very surprised if Hawking rejected the notion out of hand, unless he had some direct evidence against it that I am unaware of.

I didn't say he rejected the notion out of hand. I said he was dismissive of it, but that might have been an overstatement. It's been several years since I've read that..

This is definitely an argument in the right spirit. But are you sure it would not bother you to know that, in committing a wrong act, it will be emblazoned in a "time-slice" of you for the rest of eternity? Your point has a certain force behind it, but I cannot help but think, "I had better do the right thing so that, for so long as I experience this life, I feel as happy as possible."

Why would it bother me, if I never remembered it? Why would it make any difference to me at all? Maybe the reason you think "I had better do the right thing so that, for so long as I experience this life, I feel as happy as possible," because this life is real, and your actions in this life have consequences in this life; not because everything repeats itself for all of eternity.

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Why would it bother me, if I never remembered it?

Because--in some sense--it's still there. It's not as though a moment passed is a moment dead. It's always there, floating around, stamped in existence. Does it not all together seem more tragic if a person, allotted his own personal slice of space-time, spent it in misery, agony, self-inflicted pain, needless pain? Does it not all together seem more exalted if a person's joy with each accomplishment and improvement is never dead but simply--in some sense--in another place, but immortal within that place?

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Because--in some sense--it's still there. It's not as though a moment passed is a moment dead. It's always there, floating around, stamped in existence. Does it not all together seem more tragic if a person, allotted his own personal slice of space-time, spent it in misery, agony, self-inflicted pain, needless pain? Does it not all together seem more exalted if a person's joy with each accomplishment and improvement is never dead but simply--in some sense--in another place, but immortal within that place?

It's not more tragic or more exalted for that individual. Self inflicted misery is a tragedy period. The Eternal Return does nothing to increase the actual misery experienced by that person, though. It might be more significant in some esoteric or pedantic sense (and then, only assuming that it's a viable concept), but not within the context of an actual human experience.

It almost seems to me like the appeal for the Eternal Return is for those who have relegated experience to being prope nihil*. Why does it have to happen over and over again for all of eternity to be significant? Can't it be significant, if it only happens once? It's still real, even if it's a completely unique phenomenon, in all of the farthest reaches of space and time. It's still significant, no matter what.

*[edit: That's Augustine's term for the realm of experience (the material realm); it means "almost nothing." edit2: As opposed to his idea of God (which he developed largely from Plato and Plotinus), who represented the universal, eternal, spiritual realm.]

Edited by Bold Standard
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If the eternal return is the eternal recurrence, then I wrote a paper on it in college, though i've never heard it called the eternal return. If they aren't the same then disregard this post.

the eternal return describes how the journey of life is never over. we'll never get to a place in life (nor shouldn't) where we say, "Welp, good thing all my challenges are over, it's time to relax indefinitely."

It's easy to think that someday things will be fundamentally different, but what nietzsche is saying here is that they won't be. there will always be something new to struggle against.

when applied to all of humanity and history, the eternal recurrence discribes how humanity seems to be struggling with the same issues over and over for thousands of years (religion, government, love etc). So it's the ubermensch's job to overcome and fully understand those things and create new values.

Edited by Febod
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MisterSwig on Sep 2 2006 Wrote:

> A serious problem with the eternal return,

> as described, is that it offers no objective

> standard for determining right and wrong behavior.

If fact A leads to undesirable consequences that in no way proves that fact A is untrue. And a besides, I’m much more interested in a subjective standard of morality as that is the one every human being on planet Earth. I don’t give a hoot in hell what a cloud of hydrogen gas in the Virgo cluster 3 billion light years away thinks about morality, in fact I have reason to believe it doesn’t think about anything at all.

> How are you supposed to know whether

> you'd want to repeat an act over and over?

As there is no way of knowing if you’ve done the same act while you were in the same brain state once or a hundred thousand million billion trillion times there is no reason to want it and no reason not to want it. It’s a non issue.

> The eternal return offers no moral guidance.

Neither did Newton’s theory of gravity.

John K Clark

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I believe Nietzsche's point with the "eternal return" was to make one consider that every decision they make (or fail to make) has eternal consequences.

That is to say that *every* decision is supremely important.

Nietzsche holds that most people spend most of their time in sort of a haze and never really make decisions and sort of let what happens happen.

This implicitly means that everyone is holding to a philosophy that what they choose to do doesn't really matter, so why put effort into how one lives.

If, instead, one follows a Nietzschean view, then *every* decision is important (eternally important) and everything one does should be done *deliberately*.

In effect this is taking responsibility for one's living rather than evading responsibility.

The "eternal return" is intended as a metaphor to focus one's consciousness on the problem to hand.

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punk On Dec 4 2006 Wrote:

> I believe Nietzsche's point with the "eternal return"

> was to make one consider that every decision they

> make (or fail to make) has eternal consequences.

If so then Nietzsche was guilty in making a appallingly bad metaphor. Doing the exact same thing over and over again debases the idea of eternity.

> That is to say that *every* decision is supremely important.

But some decisions are more “supremely important” than others. You spent more time dedicating who to marry than you did deciding if you wanted extra cheese on you Big Mack, at least I hope you did.

By the way, I am not new to this forum although I have not posted anything in nearly 3 years. The reason I have not posted anything is that in February of 2004 I was kicked off, with ceremony, my epaulets were formally torn off as the troops watched and I was told never to darken the halls of the objectivist’s halls again. You see I had done something that was dreadful, I said something that was unforgivable, I said something that was heretical.

The only reason I am back is that to my great surprise I was invited to come back. I like to think the reason I was invited back was because the administrators have become more enlightened, but at the back of my mind I keep thinking my invitation was just a error, a computer glitch. To test I am going to repeat exactly what I said back in 2004 that got me dumped because I still believe every single word of it, and if it’s still forbidden to even hint of such forbidden things then it would save a hell of a lot of the time for everybody concerned, including me, if they’d just kick me off again right now. This is the terrible degenerate hideous immoral thing I said 3 years ago:

“We’ve suspected for 80 years and known with certainty for nearly 40 that some events have no cause and are random. I mean, I liked Atlas Shrugged as much as anyone but if Ayn Rand tells me one thing and experiment tells me another it’s no contest; I’m a rational man so I have to go with experiment. Personally I think it would be pretty neat if the universe was totally deterministic, it would be pretty neat if the sun went around the earth too, but that’s just not the way things are.”

John K Clark

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It's not more tragic or more exalted for that individual. Self inflicted misery is a tragedy period.

Though there are degrees of tragedy, and a self-disgrace that one must endure once is not so horrifying as one faced eternally.

If so then Nietzsche was guilty in making a appallingly bad metaphor. Doing the exact same thing over and over again debases the idea of eternity.

How so?

By the way, I am not new to this forum although I have not posted anything in nearly 3 years. The reason I have not posted anything is that in February of 2004 I was kicked off, with ceremony, my epaulets were formally torn off as the troops watched and I was told never to darken the halls of the objectivist’s halls again. You see I had done something that was dreadful, I said something that was unforgivable, I said something that was heretical.

The only reason I am back is that to my great surprise I was invited to come back. I like to think the reason I was invited back was because the administrators have become more enlightened, but at the back of my mind I keep thinking my invitation was just a error, a computer glitch. To test I am going to repeat exactly what I said back in 2004 that got me dumped because I still believe every single word of it, and if it’s still forbidden to even hint of such forbidden things then it would save a hell of a lot of the time for everybody concerned, including me, if they’d just kick me off again right now. This is the terrible degenerate hideous immoral thing I said 3 years ago:

“We’ve suspected for 80 years and known with certainty for nearly 40 that some events have no cause and are random. I mean, I liked Atlas Shrugged as much as anyone but if Ayn Rand tells me one thing and experiment tells me another it’s no contest; I’m a rational man so I have to go with experiment. Personally I think it would be pretty neat if the universe was totally deterministic, it would be pretty neat if the sun went around the earth too, but that’s just not the way things are.”

John K Clark

Not one for melodrama, are you?

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punk On Dec 4 2006 Wrote:

> I believe Nietzsche's point with the "eternal return"

> was to make one consider that every decision they

> make (or fail to make) has eternal consequences.

If so then Nietzsche was guilty in making a appallingly bad metaphor. Doing the exact same thing over and over again debases the idea of eternity.

John K Clark

Well Nietzsche's aim was to replace the Christian metaphor of eternal life versus eternal damnation which caused the individual to consider their actions in the light of eternal consequences with a more secular metaphor.

Nietzsche held that christianity once upon a time pushed people to consider each and every action they took as of utmost importance. Nihilism is what results when humans have lost that push and have nothing to replace it with (in effect making everyone listless sleepwalkers of sorts).

Anyway the metaphor isn't that appalling. One might look at an action as worth doing on a lark, but if one reconsiders along Nietzsche's lines and say "is this action worth doing over and over again forever through eternity", one might choose to take a more serious look at the choices.

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“We’ve suspected for 80 years and known with certainty for nearly 40 that some events have no cause and are random. I mean, I liked Atlas Shrugged as much as anyone but if Ayn Rand tells me one thing and experiment tells me another it’s no contest; I’m a rational man so I have to go with experiment. Personally I think it would be pretty neat if the universe was totally deterministic, it would be pretty neat if the sun went around the earth too, but that’s just not the way things are.”

Can you give an example of a no-cause event?

When it comes to random events - I agree but is anybody disputing that? If I happen to be crossing a street on an intersection and I get hit by a drunk driver and die - assuming the driver was not purposly there, waiting for me - that event in my life is a random occurance. But the event had a cause - my dying was caused by the irresponsiblity of this driver.

I will wait for your response in case you ment something different.

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~Sophia~ on 'Dec 5 2006 wrote:

> Can you give an example of a no-cause event?

An atom of Uranium 238 just turned into an atom of thorium-234, why did it happen at that particular moment? There is no reason, there is no cause, all we can say is that in 4.51 billion years there is a 50% chance it will happen, and in 24.1 days there is a 50% probability the thorium will decay to form protactinium-234. Yes I know, the flat earthers will say there must be a cause we just haven’t found it yet, but those troglodytes have been singing that same sad old song for nearly a century now while every modern experiment points in the exact opposite direction. Today virtually no working physicist thinks every event must have a cause and when you think about it there is no reason he should, no law of logic demands it.

I agree with a lot of Objectivists philosophy, politically and economically they are first rate, but philosophically they’re stuck in the 19’th century. The fact that you even had to ask for an example of a non caused event is proof of that.

John K Clark

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Today virtually no working physicist thinks every event must have a cause and when you think about it there is no reason he should, no law of logic demands it.

Um, how about the law of causality? Why is this in this thread? If you don't want to talk about the Eternal Return specifically, why not start your own thread? (Is it futile for me to ask "why" to someone who doesn't believe in cause and effect?)

Well Nietzsche's aim was to replace the Christian metaphor of eternal life versus eternal damnation which caused the individual to consider their actions in the light of eternal consequences with a more secular metaphor.

So do you think I'm accurate in comparing him to Augustine on this point?

Though there are degrees of tragedy, and a self-disgrace that one must endure once is not so horrifying as one faced eternally.

Why should something that makes absolutely no consequential difference to anyone whatsoever be "horrifying"? This makes about as much sense to me as people who are extremely disturbed by the prediction that in some odd million years from now (I'm not sure what the estimated time is) the sun will go supernova and consume the earth. So what? None of us will be here then!

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