All That Glisters


Friedrich Nietzsche said that gold was highly valued because it was uncommon and useless and shiny. Of course, it’s important that it be shiny. Useless things, no matter how rare they are, are not likely to be sought after. But if they’re shiny, now that’s a big deal. Nietszche said that gold’s virtue was self-bestowing. It gives of itself, he says.

Gold, therefore, is a symbol of the highest virtues. He meant this as an analogy for humans as well. The highest virtue that a human can aspire to is necessarily useless and uncommon. I always assumed, and I might have been reading too far into it, that he was talking about pure knowledge. Knowledge that has no consequences outside of itself. This could be, for instance, the knowledge that at the center of our galaxy a super-massive black hole exists that keeps the Milky Way together. The fact that we know this beyond a reasonable doubt has very little bearing on our day to day lives.

As far as our normal interactions with our world and our friends are concerned, it doesn’t matter in the slightest that there is a super-massive black hole at the center of anything. Or that the universe we live in followed Einstein more than Newton. Newton makes more sense in our normal context, but Einstein was far more correct.

What about Euclid? Even he was wrong about the way the world looks. We can’t directly perceive non-Euclidean geometries, but the fascinating thing is, the universe that we inhabit is much more non-Euclidean than we might initially suspect.

None of these affect us except in a sort of behind-the-scenes sense. If the world didn’t work that way, then the world would be very different. If the speed of light were not 300,000 kilometers per second and was say, fifty miles per hour, then things like time and space would be dramatically different. The fact remains, however, that these things don’t affect us directly. The have little bearing on our relationship with the world. We can get along just fine without that knowledge. And thus, it is useless.

There are some technologies that are inspired by some of these bits of knowledge, but there is a lot that we know about the universe that doesn’t affect us directly at all. This is what Nietzsche was talking about. He said that this kind of knowledge, this knowledge that is utterly without consequence, also possesses the highest virtue of gold.

Of course, culture sometimes even resists this. Why don’t we try and tell Galileo how inconsequential the Copernican Principle is. And now, almost four hundred years after he died under house arrest for “vehement suspicion of heresy,” what if we could tell him that the Copernican Principle might be wrong after all?

As the inaugural post for this new blog, I’d like to pose some of these questions and more as a sort of guiding force for the future of this work. For the time being, consider this blog a sequel to some of my other work. Here, we’ll have a narrowed focus and a clearer statement of purpose. And I hope you’ll join me in exploring some of the bizarre and beautiful things that the world has to offer.

Auf wiedersehen.


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  1. Pingback: Spin One Half » The US Dollar is proof that Americans are Stupid

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