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In Beyond Good and Evil, section 21, Nietzsche writes (this is not the whole section)

The desire for “freedom of will” in the superlative, metaphysical sense, such as still holds sway, unfortunately, in the minds of the half-educated, the desire to bear the entire and ultimate responsibility for one’s actions oneself, and to absolve God, the world, ancestors, chance, and society therefrom, involves nothing less than to be precisely this CAUSA SUI, and, with more than Munchausen daring, to pull oneself up into existence by the hair, out of the slough of nothingness. If any one should find out in this manner the crass stupidity of the celebrated conception of “free will” and put it out of his head altogether, I beg of him to carry his “enlightenment” a step further, and also put out of his head the contrary of this monstrous conception of “free will”: I mean “non-free will,” which is tantamount to a misuse of cause and effect.

Nietzsche's argument against free will is that any instance of it constitutes an example of causa sui (which he considers an absurdity). He then states that "non-free will" is absurd as well (his argument is that cause and effect are not part of nature but rather concepts useful to communicate so they shouldn't be used to take a Newtonian, say, perspective of the world).

What does he believe in then? I know he then mentions he believes that there are weak and strong wills. This doesn't answer the question. How can any instance of free will be unconceivable yet "non-free will" be absurd too?

Edit: (Correction on) my understanding of Nietzche's position:

-Free will is inherently nonsensical (by causa sui)

-non-free will doesn't follow from cause-effect (deterministic) arguments.

Technically, he doesn't say that non-free will is nonsensical yet he suggests put it out of our heads.

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    Just a speculation, but given that Nietzsche at times develops a metaphysics in which reality is created by the interactions of a bunch of basic drives or power centers which he sometimes calls "machtquanta" (see p. 18-19 of this paper), perhaps his objection to "non-free will" is to the idea of everything being governed by some overarching unified theory of physics, he might have a more heterogeneous picture where each machtquanta obeys its own idiosyncratic rules, which could still possibly be deterministic ones, or w/ an element of pure randomness.
    – Hypnosifl
    Aug 10 at 15:54
  • Also perhaps fitting with the above idea of a heterogeneous idea of reality that doesn't fit with the notion of universal laws of nature, see the discussion on p. 5-6 of this pdf of "On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense", on p. 5 he talks about how each organism would have a very different way of perceiving the world and there can be no singular "correct perception", and then on p. 6 goes on to dismiss the idea that universal laws of nature could provide a truth independent of specifically human modes of perception.
    – Hypnosifl
    Aug 11 at 17:30
  • And on the idea that each power-center might have its own idiosyncratic "laws" despite the lack of any universal laws generating its behavior, iep.utm.edu/nietzsches-ethics/#SH2c discusses a quote from Beyond Good and Evil: "Every artist knows how far removed this feeling of letting go is from his ‘most natural’ state, the free ordering, placing, disposing and shaping in the moment of ‘inspiration’ – he knows how strictly and subtly he obeys thousands of laws at this very moment, laws that defy conceptual formulation precisely because of their hardness and determinateness."
    – Hypnosifl
    Aug 11 at 17:48

7 Answers 7

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He explains what he means in the next part of the section.

One should not wrongly MATERIALISE "cause" and "effect," as the natural philosophers do (and whoever like them naturalize in thinking at present), according to the prevailing mechanical doltishness which makes the cause press and push until it "effects" its end; one should use "cause" and "effect" only as pure CONCEPTIONS, that is to say, as conventional fictions for the purpose of designation and mutual understanding, - NOT for explanation. In "being-in-itself" there is nothing of "casual-connection," of "necessity," or of "psychological non-freedom"; there the effect does NOT follow the cause, there "law" does not obtain. It is WE alone who have devised cause, sequence, reciprocity, relativity, constraint, number, law, freedom, motive, and purpose; and when we interpret and intermix this symbol-world, as "being-in-itself," with things, we act once more as we have always acted - MYTHOLOGICALLY.

'Cause' and 'effect' are concepts in our mental model of a postulated noumenal world on the other side of the barrier of perception, but they are firmly on this side of the barrier. They are not part of the external world as it truly is; of "being-in-itself". Any discussion of 'cause and effect' is referring to the contents of our minds, not the content of the world. They are pieces of an imaginary scaffolding we use to try to simplify, understand, predict, and control the stream of perceptions we experience. But the important point for this discussion is that they are imaginary.

We see a number of ants crawling on the floor. We asign some to 'Red Team' and others to 'Blue Team' and take bets on which team of ants will get to the target zone first. 'Red Team' wins the race! But then an argument erupts: Did the Red Team ants run faster because Red Team is simply better? Or is Red Team better because the ants in Red Team were simply faster? Both positions are nonsense! There are no teams. There is no target zone. There was no race. The ants are entirely unaware of what all the humans are shouting about.

Even the category 'ants' isn't real! Ants would see ants of a different species as an entirely different sort of creature. Our names for things are not real, either.

Nietzsche is saying that philosophers have a tendency to do the same thing - to construct an imaginary framework to help model/predict the world, reify it, and then argue about its reality/consistency/definition/boundaries. (As an aside, I'd argue that the word "MATERIALISE" in the passage above would be better translated as "reify".) And they pick sides in those debates based on their own psychology. The 'free will' debate is mostly motivated our desired outcome on the question of moral responsibility. If we want to claim virtue or blame sin, to elevate ourselves above the morass of morally meaningless nature, we seek to support 'free will'. If we want to evade blame and tear down the moral hierarchy, we prefer positions rejecting 'free will'.

You ask: "How can any instance of free will be unconceivable yet "non-free will" be absurd too?" The answer is that both are positions in a debate about reified imaginary constructs, that we take sides on for purely psychological reasons. The concept of 'free will' is part of our concept of an 'agent', which is part of how we simplify the world by constructing narrative stories about it. We think mythologically.

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  • Nietzsche seems to understand "causality" in mechanistic terms and that's partly why he objects, but for him "will to power" plays a similar role, with different wills being able to "effect" one another. See the paper "Will to power as alternative to causality", with the comment on p. 364 on how it was a "nonmechanistic alternative to causality" and Nietzsche's quote "everywhere where 'effects' are recognized, will is effecting will". Also note the discussion on p. 365-366 on how causal thinking falsely divides objects and actions.
    – Hypnosifl
    Aug 10 at 19:02
  • @NulliusinVerba, wouldn't everything then, not only free will, be 'mythology'? The problem would then be to choose in which myths we base our beliefs. My understanding is that Nietzsche would argue that we should do this based on the utility of the belief and not on it's truth value (which we can't access). Is this right? Aug 15 at 20:08
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From a purely metaphysical perspective, Nietzsche is almost a hard determinist — there is causal order and free will is incompatible with it. The reason for "almost" is that he rejects as a distortion the deterministic model of causal order based on laws of nature ("non-free will"), "the prevailing mechanical doltishness which makes the cause press and push until it "effects" its end". Leiter in Nietzsche’s Theory of the Will gives a good discussion:

"A “person” is an arena in which the struggle of drives (type-facts) is played out; how they play out determines what he believes, what he values, what he becomes. But qua conscious self or “agent”, the person takes no active part in the process. As Nietzsche puts the same point, later, in Beyond Good and Evil: “The will to overcome an affect is, in the end, itself only the will of another, or several other, affects” (117; cf. also GM III:17). The will, in other words, or the experience of willing (in self-mastery), is itself the product of various unconscious drives or affects. Which is, in slightly different terms, exactly the theory of the will that some empirical psychologists have arrived at one hundred years after Nietzsche."

This refers to psychologists like Wegner proposing what is nicknamed willusionism. As Strawson put it, "Nietzsche’s “official” view (strange as it may seem) is that ours is a world of token necessities, not lawful necessities...". In other words, our actions are causally necessitated, but that causation is not law-governed, at least not entirely, it is all "drives or affects" a la Schopenhauer.

For the most part, we can call Nietzsche hard necessitarian. There are some passages where he entertains the possibility of what we would call indeterminism, but even that is of a pure chance sort that does not leave room for any meaningful free will. For example, "I teach that "above all things there standeth the heaven of chance, the heaven of innocence, the heaven of hazard, the heaven of wantonness", spoketh Zarathustra.

This said, all this metaphysics is a side show for Nietzsche, his rage and passion are against the uses of "free will" to erect morality:

"We no longer have any sympathy today with the concept of ‘free will’: we know only too well what it is — the most infamous of all the arts of the theologian for making mankind ‘accountable’… the doctrine of will has been invented essentially for the purpose of punishment, that is of finding guilty.”"

Hence the contrast of his vagueness on metaphysical details with the pointedness of the drive to wash out "free"/"unfree" from our vocabulary and replace it with "strong"/"weak", which helps with the task of dethroning morality.

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There is a Wikipedia article collecting different material of Nietzsche on the subject: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Friedrich_Nietzsche_and_free_will#:~:text=Nietzsche's%20analysis-,Power%20of%20will,the%20idea%20a%20crass%20stupidity.

It summarizes his positive views as so:

In The Antichrist Nietzsche argues that man should be considered no otherwise than as a machine.

In modern times Nietzsche might have used computer programs as analogy. For computer programs, we equally say they do not have free will, but we also would not say that computer programs have non-free will.

Likely Nietzsche only mentions non-free will in response to other writings of his time.

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  • By non-free will, as presented on the text, I understand a sort of determinism 'from the beginning of time' so to speak, a chain of cause and effect (is this right?). So, to see if I understood, a situation where both free will and non-free will are false, would be one in which we don't get to choose yet our decisions where not necessarily defined strictly from previous events (as in a Newtonioan physics sort of deal)? Aug 10 at 7:10
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I think the easiest way to get at this is to understand that Nietzsche isn't exactly concerned with the concept of free will. He is concerned with the uses and abuses of the concept by the 'half-educated' and 'crassly stupid'. The concept of free will (to his mind) is presented as a form of liberation, but is used as a chain to bind people to social mores. One might think about the typical religious argument: "You are free to choose between good and evil, you are fully responsible for your choice, and if you choose evil you will burn in hell for all eternity." The concept of free will is introduced merely to declare that any (improper) exercise of free will results in endless punishment.

Nietzsche must allow for some more sophisticated notion of freedom for will, because ultimately Nietzsche is engaged in moral philosophy, even if his notion of morality rejects and transcends conventional (received) wisdom. Morality does not exist in a purely deterministic universe, where any appearance of choice is mere illusion. But he would also suggest that we must exercise will to find that freedom, breaking free of the conditioning and constraints that we are bound by in human society. The free man isn't one who chooses what society dictates, but one who transcends society's dictates to choose from a wider view.

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I think Nietzsche makes a fair point altogether on free will, though he is vociferous in his language, which fair enough he is trying to shake centuries of roman thinking from his own mind and by extension his readers. Your ability to choose is a product of the Agency of Learning you have grown up with and can be ancestral, you are not just a blank slate with a completely free will, so his preference to strong and weak will is apt, ie you are more free in some things than others to choose.

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You must remember Nietzsche was not averse to contradiction or a complete reversal of the thrust of his beliefs, or whims. I viewed this passage as a sort of self-mockery, perhaps to his younger self. I wouldn't say it was part of Nietzsche's "evolution" but he was mercurial and whatever mood or obsession he currently espoused wasn't merely written down, but bellowed with all the bravado of one who held such beliefs his entire life.

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Nietzsche seems to equate free will with the concept of causa sui, the idea that an individual is the only cause of his own existence. This is indeed an absurd idea, especially as traditionally only God has been said to be causa sui.

Therefore the opposite of this, being completely caused by external causes only (causal determinism), is equally absurd.

I think Nietzsche makes a mistake here. Free will does not mean causa sui. Responsibility for what you do does not mean responsibility for what you are. We cannot choose what nature and nurture makes of us. We can only choose our actions.

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    You misunderstood Nietzsche's view. What he means by causa sui is the idea that decisions are not caused.
    – armand
    Aug 10 at 7:14
  • No. Causa sui means being the cause for one's own existence. Decisions are not caused by definition. Only physical events are caused. Aug 10 at 10:23
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    @PerttiRuismäki The problem is that hard deterministic physicalism would argue that everything inside the brain including thoughts and decisions are physical objects that follow the rules of nature and cause and effect so also decisions would be caused and not free. For that you'd need to establish a self that rest outside the physical reality and is either causa sui or subject to a different than the physical set of rules.
    – haxor789
    Aug 10 at 13:06
  • @haxor789 Thoughts and decisions are non-physical by default. They have no measurable physical properties and therefore are not governed by laws of physics. To claim otherwise is downright absurd. Aug 10 at 15:34
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    @PerttiRuismäki No time so just a quick google search: psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/finding-purpose/201902/… But practically if anything is governed by the laws of nature so are thoughts, unless again you think they exist in a different sphere but if so what's stopping them from being causa sui?
    – haxor789
    Aug 11 at 8:33

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