Reading Nietzsche: The Illusion of Free Will

A correlation exists between people’s desire to punish and their belief in free will, according to this report. Countries with the highest homicide rates also tend to have larger percentages of their populations who respond in the affirmative to survey questions about having control over one’s behavior and circumstance. This connection supposedly exists because when people have a greater desire to see someone punished (as someone living in a high-crime area might), they more readily subscribe to (and are comforted by) philosophies that assign some form of personal responsibility, or as so many religious pretenders call it, a sense of universal right and wrong.

According to the authors of one of the studies mentioned in the article: “We propose that the pervasive belief in free will partially flows from a desire for moral responsibility in order to justify punishing others for their anti-social behaviors… Therefore, when there is a desire to punish, people should be motivated to believe in free will.”

Luckily, I don’t even need to interject Nietzsche, because the author of the article, Chris Mooney, has already taken the liberty, pointing out that “If you’ve read your Friedrich Nietzsche, you know that the consummate anti-philosopher had a pretty cynical take on this question.”

Pretty cynical, indeed. Mooney continues, “Nietzsche didn’t simply call free will itself ‘the foulest of all theological fictions.’ In his work Twilight of the Idols he went further, psychoanalyzing the ubiquitous belief in free will and concluding that deep down, we want to believe that people have control over their own choices so that we can justify and feel good about punishing them. ‘Whenever responsibility is assigned,’ wrote Nietzsche, ‘it is usually so that judgment and punishment may follow.'”

“Distrust those in whom the urge to punish is strong,” Nietzsche also counseled, more succinctly.

Here’s another article about the mounting scientific evidence that free will is an illusion. Paradoxically, both a deterministic (i.e. predictably causal) and a completely random (i.e. chaotic) universe rule out free will for the same reason; in neither universe would we ultimately have agency:

Indeed, historically speaking, philosophers have had plenty to say on the matter. Their ruminations have given rise to such considerations as cosmological determinism (the notion that everything proceeds over the course of time in a predictable way, making free will impossible), indeterminism (the idea that the universe and our actions within it are random, also making free will impossible), and cosmological libertarianism/compatibilism (the suggestion that free will is logically compatible with deterministic views of the universe).


4 thoughts on “Reading Nietzsche: The Illusion of Free Will

  1. Pingback: Reading Nietzsche at the RNC | Coming Soon: A Vast Desert

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