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).


I Can Point to Ukraine, but So What?

I’ve now seen this link posted several times by friends and strangers alike: it’s an article about how the less Americans know where Ukraine is, the more they want to intervene militarily within its borders. The ostensible reason for posting the survey is to show how uneducated (and, consequently, hawkish) the American public is (as compared to cosmopolitan Europe). But I have other problems with the survey and its implications.

The biggest problem, and the problem that begets the other problems, is well summarized in this short section:

Does it really matter whether Americans can put Ukraine on a map? Previous research would suggest yes: Information, or the absence thereof, can influence Americans’ attitudes about the kind of policies they want their government to carry out and the ability of elites to shape that agenda.

Let’s unpack these statements. The first question is the real question of this article, and so the research they mention (linked) is important. If you click on the link, you’re taken to an page for the book Public Opinion and American Foreign Policy by Ole R. Holsti, George V. Allen Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Duke University. Presumably this book offers research as to how the average American’s attitudes play out in the ability of “elites to shape that agenda.” That notion seems strange to me, since most Americans want some form of gun control, most want an affordable health care system, most want the Washington Redskins to change their name, etc. I don’t see the elites moving a muscle on these issues.

But there you go: the supposition of elites—let alone elites who give a shit about the attitudes of average Americans—is slid right in there, as if it’s completely normal and, indeed, inevitable. Could it be, rather, that Americans can’t point to Ukraine on the map because of the actions of these elites? Or, do you become an elite in this country by telling the truth?

By the way, if you click on “elites” in that section in the original article, you’re taken to a paper called “Who Influences US Foreign Policy?”, which explains in the introduction:

The results of cross-sectional and time-lagged analyses suggest that U.S. foreign policy is most heavily and consistently influenced by internationally oriented business leaders, followed by experts (who, however, may themselves be influenced by business). Labor appears to have significant but smaller impacts. The general public seems to have considerably less effect, except under particular conditions.

This is a fancy way of saying that the average person has little to no effect on foreign policy (I would also argue they have little to no effect on local public policy, but that’s a symptom of the same disease). But here are some questions to leave you with:

1. The average Ukrainian can most likely point to the US on a map, but the US is huge and takes up almost one third of an entire continent. Can the average Ukrainian point to, say, Pennsylvania? Or Idaho?

2. Can the average American point to Pennsylvania or Idaho? Even I struggle when I get to the Mid-West, and I’d like to think I’m generally well-rounded in geography, having lived in three states and travelled extensively, both domestically and abroad.

3. Could it be that people can’t point to these states or countries because in order to get through their day on a local level, there’s no reason to know this kind of information?

4. Could it be that people don’t know this kind of information because they realize it matters little when they can’t actually make any decisions about what happens in those places? After all, that’s what we have elites—er, internationally oriented business leaders—for.

5. Does knowing where Ukraine is make you a better person? More analytical? More empathetic? More caring of your ecosystem?

6. Or, is knowing where Ukraine is another factoid, to be swallowed during the “education” process to fill out bubbles on a piece of paper (made by one of our friendly internationally oriented business leaders), rather than learning how to critique, how to weigh evidence, how to get down and listen to worms, how to care for fellow beings, how to find solace, etc.?




“Humanity’s failure so far to deal with multiple crises—planet-wide ecological degradation, domination by a transnational economic elite, the deepening misery that afflicts billions in both rich and poor nations—has prompted increasing interest in local economies as less intimidating arenas where much-needed change might be more readily achieved. It’s true that in the earliest days of capitalism, the human exploitation and environmental destruction that came along with the pursuit of profit were largely local problems. Then, inevitably, those local economies grew and coalesced into an even more destructive global economy. But retreating into local issues means latching onto one of capitalism’s symptoms—the eclipsing of local economies and governments by more powerful transnational forces—and treating it as if it’s the disease itself.”

– Stan Cox

I watched the Moon around the House

A poem by Emily Dickinson:

I watched the Moon around the House
Until upon a Pane—
She stopped—a Traveller’s privilege—for Rest—
And there upon

I gazed—as at a stranger—
The Lady in the Town
Doth think no incivility
To lift her Glass—upon—

But never Stranger justified
The Curiosity
Like Mine—for not a Foot—nor Hand—
Nor Formula—had she—

But like a Head—a Guillotine
Slid carelessly away—
Did independent, Amber—
Sustain her in the sky—

Or like a Stemless Flower—
Upheld in rolling Air
By finer Gravitations—
Than bind Philosopher—

No Hunger—had she—nor an Inn—
Her Toilette—to suffice—
Nor Avocation—nor Concern
For little Mysteries

As harass us—like Life—and Death—
And Afterwards—or Nay—
But seemed engrossed to Absolute—
With shining—and the Sky—

The privilege to scrutinize
Was scarce upon my Eyes
When, with a Silver practise—
She vaulted out of Gaze—

And next—I met her on a Cloud—
Myself too far below
To follow her superior Road—
Or its advantage—Blue—