Reality is on the move, and so are we. Therefore, we are continuously challenged to characterize it, and us, anew. What is it like today? What have we become?

I believe that Nietzsche made such a renewed characterization of reality, or of what we became in the nineteenth century, when he said: God is dead.

How does such a characterization work? Is it a statement of fact? Did Nietzsche go out into the backyard and found God lying dead on the ground, as one can discover a dead bird? Hardly, Nietzsche’s characterization of reality can be contested in a way that the death of a bird cannot.

Is it an ideological position, then, one that Nietzsche invented out of the blue and tried to impose on reality? Hardly, for it is connected with numerous factual features of nineteenth-century life, such as the steam-engine, newspapers, industry, exploration expeditions, science, democracy… I’m not enough of a historian to enumerate them all.

Taking the issue to our own times: Can you imagine a Bach writing music for the glory of God alone… living in a suburban row house area, with the car parked outside, just after shopping in the mall? It is difficult to imagine such a Bach, and Nietzsche’s statement could be said to characterize that difficulty.

If we accept Nietzsche’s statement as a striking characterization of the difficulty of imagining a modern suburban Bach, it appears almost factual. It is what reality is like; what we have become. And yet, someone could contest the characterization, and that reality, and see it as a degenerated frame of mind to resist.

So what do statements of Nietzsche’s kind do? Do they describe reality or do they merely express individual perspectives?

I find the task of characterizing our characterizations of reality as one of the most challenging philosophical problems. Its urgency is obvious in bioethics, which deals with realities that certainly are on the move. New biomedical practices continuously challenge our characterizations of embryos, of stem cells, of health and disease, of research participation…

As I indicated on The Ethics Blog last week, research participation is “on the move,” due to developments in biobanking. It no longer solely means participation in specific studies. It will more and more mean also contributing to biobank infrastructures that are constructed to support future, not yet specified studies.

Is that a fact or a position? I think we need a more nuanced characterization of our continuously renewed characterizations of reality!

Pär Segerdahl

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