17 July 2021

How to avoid the fatality of eternal return


How to avoid the fatality of eternal return


Topic by Sara


Essay by Lawrence


The demon thought experiment by Nietzsche introducing the idea of “Eternal Recurrence”, or Eternal return” is not supposed to be taken literary. But the idea of repeatability, which in this context is best described as “history repeating itself” is neither new nor a literal statement of fact.


Having rejected the physical or cosmological interpretation of the idea that we are bound to repeat the same mistakes (or good events) we need to understand how we come to have this idea of repeatability in the first place.


Psychologically, we’ve got personal experience from repeating the same error or thing again and again: for example misplacing the house keys or burning the toast. So there is an element of personal behaviour that gives us the idea of repeatability. But in the scheme of things, when we consider the idea of repeatability in philosophy we are not thinking of lost keys, but maybe partner selection, voting record, or support for political ideologies.


Our lives are not the same phenomenon as say eclipses of comets. These are all events that repeat themselves because they are following some cosmological laws. But what we repeat in our lives are effects of our personality and character. But we just do not, and cannot, commit the same mistake, as suggested by the Demon thought experiment or a groundhog day as shown the film by the same name. The error of the Demon thought experiment not only requires us to imaging our life repeating itself, but by implication assumes that all other people directly or indirectly involved in our lives are also repeating what they were doing at the relevant time of our life. This experiment also assumes that the cosmos also returns to the state it was in at the time in question in our life.


In other words, the same event that we repeat in our life cannot be logically identical to the original event. At best we are repeating a type of mistake: always misplacing my keys. But there is nothing deterministic or fated that I regularly misplace my keys, by virtue that is there is a first event then there ought to be a last event. The idea of being the first implies the idea that it will not be ad infinitum. The end of the world confirms this belief that a first even would not be repeated forever.


Furthermore, it makes more sense in English to speak of say “something repeating itself ad infinitum” rather than eternal return. The meaning of eternal does allow for discrete events meaning that the event (or whatever) must continue nonstop forever. Something going on ad infinitum allows of discrete events: there are gaps between the recurrence of the event or act, but does not immediately imply eternity.


So what is returning, in the eternal return? Or maybe in reincarnation, or history repeating itself? An esoteric interpretation of eternal return is to imagine we are involved in some form of time travel. We can argue that by some magical time machine we are automatically sent back to a given event in our life so by some deterministic forces we perform the same event. What is usually forgotten by time travel machine proponents is whether when we go back to time 1 in our life, do we also lose our memories we gained between T1 and T1+x, T1+x being the year we travel back in time to T1? And do we gain experiences and memories when we travel into the future?


We can even interpret experience and memory as learning and availability of knowledge. Today we are in a special position where knowledge can reside in our memory and a few keystrokes away on our mobile phone (or PC). We can therefore argue that the way to avoid committing the same mistake (or even repeat good experiences) is through knowledge.


The worst social disaster in Europe this century was the marginal win for Britain to leave the EU during the referendum of 2016. It was soon established that the level of education of the voter was a relevant factor whether the voter voted to leave or stay in the EU. These results were later “confirmed” during the 2019 Elections in the UK when voters elected the Conservative party who originally proposed brexit with a landslide. Even taking the Corona virus pandemic into account today the UK is in disaster mode both economically and politically. Knowledge does make a difference to events.


But knowledge acquisition requires that we first have an interest to acquire knowledge. And this means that we also have to know (or learn) how to acquire new knowledge and how to verify it. At the very least our degree of knowledge should help us distinguish between true information and false information.


Whilst we can safely assume that knowledge can help us from repeating some mistakes, we often forget that some people thrive on the misery and failing of others. This is also evident from the consequent events of the 2016 Referendum in the UK. Since the 2019 election the Conservative government have illegally (judgements against ministers) given out contracts to party supporters and donors, and abuse of power and human rights.


Thus if we are destined to repeat our mistakes it’s probably because we haven’t been able to learn from our earlier mistakes or even worse, we haven’t realised we’re in an evolutionary arms race and our opponents are very clever at making us fail.


Best Lawrence


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