The will to truth or the will to untruth


I have begun reading Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil and have been sitting with his very first section of the book, where he opens with a series of questions pertaining to the will to truth. He asks us to two main questions, why is there a supposed will to truth as opposed to untruth; and did we give birth to this issue of truth, or did fate bring it to us?

The first questions, the will to truth or the will to untruth.

From the point of view of societal development, truth is much more useful than 
untruth. Truth gives us science, technology, engineering, etc... This is of obvious
use to society. Let us consider relationships however. Suppose the truth is painful
however. This may very well be the case, perhaps the loss of a loved one, or the 
revelation of adultery of one's spouse. In such cases, perhaps we will to untruth
or would rather be ignorant of both. 

Question: Would one class ignorance in the same category as false knowledge? Does Nietzsche class these in the same category?

Question: Are there any compelling arguments for the will to untruth? In this question I have assumed untruth to mean false knowledge, not ignorance.

Question: To the readers of this question, what are your thoughts? And do you believe that we humans brought this issue to the surface, or was it fate?

Shaun Davis

Posted 2017-08-09T12:43:46.807

Reputation: 21

You can also investigate some books that may assist your reading, like Laurence Lampert's Nietzsche's Task. – Gordon – 2017-08-19T13:14:28.123

There are other guides to this book as well I feel sure. However, I do respect the fact that you are reading this book on your own, seeking to understand it etc. – Gordon – 2017-08-19T13:18:42.677



Some recent work on "agnotology" by historians and philosophers — the name is derived from "ἄgnosis", "not knowing" — distinguishes "native state" ignorance from "passive" ignorance and ignorance as a "strategic ploy." (I might be garbling the terminology slightly, but that's at least close.) Native state and passive ignorance are roughly what you call "ignorance" — ignorance on an issue due to lack of study or exploration of the issue. "Strategic ploy" ignorance is roughly what you call "false knowledge." Ideology, propaganda, and manufacturing doubt are cases where ignorance is more-or-less intentionally constructed to maintain the status quo.

So, to answer the first part of your first question, this recent work seems to fit with the distinction you're looking for between "ignorance" and "false knowledge." No one working in this area also studies Nietzsche, AFAIK; and I'm not an expert on Nietzsche myself; so I can't really answer the second part of your first question.

Now to your second question. The creators of strategic ploy ignorance generally do not present themselves in public as having a "will to untruth." Indeed, they often present themselves publicly as defenders of the truth. For example, climate skeptics — manufacturing doubt about anthropogenic climate change — claim that mainstream climate scientists have politicized science and are failing to respect "the scientific method." (Here is a fascinating paper about the ways both mainstream climate scientists and climate skeptics rhetorically appeal to Popper's falsificationism.)

It's tempting to say that, while both sides of the climate controversy present themselves as having the will to truth, one side actually has the "will to untruth." Indeed, if I remember the standard readings of Nietzsche correctly, he argues that the "will to truth" is always nothing more than convenient rhetorical cover for the will to power. So, on this reading of Nietzsche, neither climate skeptics nor climate scientists are actually interested in truth; both are pursuing power, in different ways. Note that Nietzsche doesn't present normative arguments that the will to power is somehow morally better than the will to truth. Instead, he's making descriptive arguments that in fact we are driven by the will to power rather than the will to truth.

I would argue that Nietzsche (or at least this reading of Nietzsche) commits a version of the fallacy of the single cause. ("Cause" in the sense of "explanation" rather than "efficient cause.") In other words, Nietzsche assumes that humans have exactly one motivation or goal; and so if power is our goal, truth can't be our goal. But humans have a lot of different goals, and these goals are often entangled.

Let's see how this works in the climate case. Climate scientists are probably generally motivated by desires to keep their jobs, get their students jobs, continue or expand their research funding, get social attention and acclaim, and so on. Many of them are environmentalists, and so they're also motivated by a desire to protect humanity and the environment from serious harms. And as scientists they're probably generally motivated by a desire to understand and make accurate predictions about the climate. Some of these motivations reinforce each other; some of them conflict. And some of them interact. Specifically, environmentalist and scientific motivations are probably combined for many climate scientists — they want to understand climate in order to protect the environment. And this combination will probably make them more willing to accept certain claims (about the seriousness of climate change, for example) and less willing to accept others (claims that climate change isn't happening or isn't a serious threat, for example).

Climate skeptics will also have a complex combination of motivations. Specifically, many high-profile climate skeptics have received funding from the fossil fuels industry and conservative funders, and so they have financial incentives that shape their pursuit of truth. This combination probably explains why they're more skeptical about claims that climate change is seriousness and more willing to accept claims that climate change isn't a serious threat, for example.

These complex combinations of motivations don't, by themselves, make either climate scientists or climate skeptics irrational. We're all engaged in the pursuit of many motives, including but not limited to truth. Instead, I argue, we need to consider what motivations should be shaping climate science, and in what ways. For example, which is more important, protecting human health and the environment, or protecting the profits of the fossil fuel industry? Insofar as we think the profits of the fossil fuel industry are less important, we have reason to discount the claims of the climate skeptics and accept the claims of mainstream climate scientists. (And that gives you my answer to your third question.)

Dan Hicks

Posted 2017-08-09T12:43:46.807

Reputation: 2 337

I see at "I argue" you put emphasis on "ethics". Do you think ethos vs theos, is problematic with regard to Philosophy of Science. If you want to discuss it, let me know. I want to try this website's discussion forums, because I understand discussion is not allowed here in comments. – Marquard Dirk Pienaar – 2017-09-21T11:57:01.317


1) Nature may not abhor a vacuum, but the mind does. Ignorance and false knowledge mean basically the same thing -- if you need to act, you are going to act on your lack of information as readily as you might act on real knowledge. If you don't need to act, you are going to not act on the knowledge you have as readily as you would not act on the knowledge you don't have.

Knowing that you do not know is not ignorance, it is knowledge, and restraining yourself from action because someone else knows better than you is the better alternative from many perspectives, but not from Nietzsche's. You still have a perspective, and that should still be contributed. Even if it is not factually correct, it is still a part of the overall truth. Besides, what is the best way to find out when you are wrong? And who says being correct is always the best way to have an effect?

The most powerful position is to know you are guessing, and be open to the truth, but make your guess. This will keep you scared, and once the edge wears off, your fear will become excitement instead.

2) Religion. If we make a choice, we automatically want to not be wrong. But we are always wrong, to some extent, and we know that. At that point, in the interest of comfort and stability we are exerting our will to untruth.

3) We make our own luck. These are not two different positions. Fate is the outcome of the struggle between individuals, who are actively working to control one another. Knowing things is leverage for getting your way. So we may not have decided we wanted the truth, but the natural process of life could not have led elsewhere.


Posted 2017-08-09T12:43:46.807



"Question: Would one class ignorance in the same category as false knowledge? Does Nietzsche class these in the same category?"

Ones could say ignorance is not the same as false knowledge because ignorance relates to non-existence and false knowledge relates to existence of something false. A decision based on ignorance, excluding disinformation, would be more accurate than a decision based on disinformation, because disinformation misleads. Nietzsche wrote about "ignorance":

“The will to truth, which is still going to tempt us to many a hazardous enterprise; that celebrated veracity of which all philosophers have hitherto spoken with reverence: what questions this will to truth has already set before us! What strange, wicked, questionable questions! It is already a long story – yet does it not seem as if it has only just begun? Is it any wonder we should at last grow distrustful, lose our patience, turn impatiently away? That this sphinx should teach us too to ask questions? Who really is it that here questions us? What really is it in us that wants 'the truth'? - We did indeed pause for a long time before the question of the origin of this will – until finally we came to a complete halt before an even more fundamental question. We asked after the value of this will. Granted we wanted truth: why not rather untruth? And uncertainty? Even ignorance? - The problem of the value of truth stepped before us – or was it we who stepped before this problem? Which of us is Oedipus here? Which of us sphinx? It is it seems, a rendezvous of questions and question-marks. - And, would you believe it, it has finally almost come to seem to us that this problem has never before been posed – that we have been the first to see it, to fix our eye on it, to hazard it? For there is a hazard in it and perhaps there exists no greater hazard." (Nietzsche 2003: 33)

“O sancta simplicitas! What strange simplifications and falsification mankind lives in! One can never cease to marvel once one has acquired eyes for this marvel! How we have made everything around us bright and free and easy and simple! How we have known how to bestow on our senses a passport to everything superficial, on our thoughts a divine desire for wanton gambolling and false conclusions! - how we have from the very beginning understood how to retain our ignorance so as to enjoy an almost inconceivable freedom, frivolity, impetuosity, bravery, cheerfulness of life, so as to enjoy life! And only on this now firm and granite basis of ignorance has knowledge hitherto been able to rise up, the will to knowledge on the basis of a far more powerful will, the will to nonknowledge, to the uncertain, to the untrue! Not as its antithesis but – as its refinement! For even if, here as elsewhere, language cannot get over its coarseness and continues to speak of antithesis where there are only degrees and many subtleties of gradation; even if likewise the incarnate tartuffery of morals which is now part of our invincible 'flesh and blood' twists the words in the mouths even of us men of knowledge: here and there we grasp that fact and laugh at how it is precisely the best knowledge that wants most to hold us in this simplified, altogether artificial, fabricated, falsified world, how willy-nilly in love with error because, as a living being, it is – in love with life!" (Nietzsche 2003: 55)

"Question: Are there any compelling arguments for the will to untruth? In this question I have assumed untruth to mean false knowledge, not ignorance."

There are arguments for the will to untruth, especially favoring groups only or individuals only, relating to profits and survival.

"Question: To the readers of this question, what are your thoughts?"

Thoughts about God are decisive when considering Truth, the idea, which causes honesty. Caiaphas syndrome is relevant. The idea Love, which caused social contract theory and the law is a balancing idea with regard to Truth. Only Truth or only Love can lead to despotism, therefore it is preferable to balance the ideas with the other. Dialectic inclinations and reductionist philosophy to identify essence make many people choose either only Truth or only Love, which leads to problems. Only Truth leads to problems for individuals, due to Caiaphas syndrome. Only Love leads to problems regarding sustainability, due to lacking creativity.

"And do you believe that we humans brought this issue to the surface, or was it fate?"

I do not know where it originated. Animals use deceit and true warnings, therefore it is not only humans, who use the two methodologies, for survival.


NIETZSCHE, F. 2003. Beyond Good and Evil, Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future. London: Penguin, 3rd edition.

Marquard Dirk Pienaar

Posted 2017-08-09T12:43:46.807

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