Is Freedom Misunderstood? Spinoza, Nietzsche, and the Error of Free Will

As modern science confirms the hunches of those who denied the existence of free will, the latter might help us reconsider the debate altogether.

Detail of Michelangelo’s “The Fall and Expulsion from the Garden of Eden”

All of us experience freedom. When you choose a drink from the menu, you experience this choice as an act of free will. And when you consent to, say, being filmed for a documentary, you do it out of freedom to choose whether or not you want to be in that documentary. Such basic categories as “choice” or “consent”, but also “responsibility” or “guilt” presuppose at least some amount of freedom to act. But what if you’re told that freedom is but an illusion?

A recent article published in The Guardian puts the problem just that way and astutely explores contemporary views on free will from the perspectives of both the natural sciences and philosophy. The author amusingly identifies the problem of free will as the “ultimate” problem of “armchair philosophy”. He might be onto something: if the experience of freedom is so basic and fundamental to our everyday existence, does problematizing it have any sense or benefit at all? Is it not a direct denial of given experience, not to mention a dangerous, indirect rebuttal of moral responsibility? While the author does a great job at fleshing out the problem, its inception and history is somewhat sidestepped. Let us start with that.

The problem of ‘free will’ — of whether we are the agents and causes of our own actions and thoughts — has plagued Western civilization for centuries. It didn’t always take the form of a discussion of our freedom to act. The great Attic tragedians, for instance, were keen on showing us precisely the reverse side of the problem when they recounted the narratives of great heroes and nations crushed by their inevitable fates. In what is perhaps the most famous of the surviving tragedies, Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, we are, more than in any play of 5th century BC Athens, implicitly confronted with the problem of free will. As we follow Oedipus in his quest to avoid at all cost the terrible Delphic prophecies cast on him — that he’d kill his father and marry his mother — we see our hero fulfilling precisely those most terrible transgressions.

While the problem of free will as we understand it would be unintelligible for those who attended the great festivals where these plays were performed, Sophocles might have agreed with the conclusion of many contemporary scientists and philosophers: that even when you think you’re acting freely, you’re not.

Intellectual historians and philosophers alike often credit the origins of the concept of free will to a later source, namely, the Judaeo-Christian tradition. It remains undisputed that a monumental casting of the problem was staged by the 5th century AD sanctified Christian thinker Augustine of Hippo in his ‘theory’ of original sin, which remains to this day one of the principal references of the problems of evil and theodicy. This infamous moment in intellectual history arose from the need to conciliate two seemingly incompatible Christian theological doctrines: that God is omnibenevolent(or all-good) and omnipotent (or all-powerful).

Now, if God is capable of being both all good and all powerful, why was the world of antiquity (and ours) so ripe with atrocities and cruelty? Why were even Christians persecuted, humiliated, and left to bleed to death in public squares? Augustine takes it that God didn’t create evil Himself, but rather gave its first human creations — Adam and Eve — the one thing that no Greek tragedian had granted their tragic heroes: free will. It is only out of that will, out of the possibility to choose the apple, that evil entered the world. Our capacity for evil is then but a genetic trait that has been recreated and passed down to us all the way since the fall from Edenic grace.

This argument — that God preferred endowing us with freedom rather than making us slaves to fate — is still spectacularly prominent among Christian theologians. And while it might appear flimsy for some and it certainly verges on the absurd for others, its influence has been so colossal that even today’s atheists — not least those who stress agency as a foundation for liberalism, especially of the economic type — who uncritically accept free will might in fact be indebted to Augustine.

However much we may want to ignore Augustine’s tale, life without free will seems to most of us so utterly impossible and absurd that we’re simply unwilling to accept it. Wouldn’t a society that simply denies free will collapse under the darkest of terrors? What of moral responsibility, which we, as heirs to Immanuel Kant, believe to be intrinsically associated with the power to discern, through a free act of the will, the right course of action? What would happen to criminal law if one of the, if not the central philosophical presupposition of that practice— that we act with a certain extent of willingness and can be judged on our freedom to act— were to be eroded?

It’s approximately from this angle that the 19th century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, in notoriously poignant and polemical style, once approached the problem of free will:

“We no longer have any sympathy today with the concept of ‘free will’: we know only too well what is is — the most infamous of all the arts of the theologian for making mankind ‘accountable’. . . Everywhere accountability is sought, it is usually the instinct for punishing and judging which seeks it… the doctrine of will has been invented essentially for the purpose of punishment, that is of finding guilty.” (Twilight of the Idols: ‘The Four Great Errors’, 7.)

This is one of many passages where Nietzsche expresses the idea that free will is but a human, all-too-human invention. In particular, he adopts the psychological view that the concept was reproduced so as to reinforce those who were in positions of power, including theologians. In other words, free will finds itself as an instrumental doctrine for the discharge of cruel instincts to punish and the ensuing feeling of power. The view seems to be merely descriptive — he’s certainly not demanding the abolition of courts and prisons — but it stands as one of many examples of Nietzsche’s thesis that many concepts emerge from surprising, even opposite motivations, often linked to a psycho-physiological venting of power.

Nietzsche is but one stroke in the free will-denying painting that has tinted Western thought in the past few centuries, and perhaps no discipline has lent more epistemic force to the idea that free will is an illusion than physics. With the success of Newtonian physics in the 17th century, the mechanistic picture of the world which we know from the likes of Spinoza and Hobbes became deeply entrenched in Western thought. The idea is that all things are contingent on something which has caused it, and that these things themselves will be causes to new effects. It would violate both the laws of physics and logic to remove, say, my choosing a Moscow Mule over a Negroni from the endless chain of events that compose existence. With the exception of quantum physics, which has identified events at the atomic and subatomic level that are, like the atoms of Lucretius, truly random rather than necessary — events so miniscule that they have no bearing in practical life and the concept of free will — physicalist accounts of the world and scientific inquiry are forced to deny free will in the face of evidence and the logical rules set out by philosophers and logicians of past ages.

Contemporary scientists of all fields also seem to point in the same direction. In neuroscience, experiments which identified corresponding neural stimuli in our brain before a choice is made painted a bleak picture for free will apologists, and today psychology and studies in behavioural genetics, which have sometimes identified up to 60% of variance in behaviour from genetic makeup, also offer a troubling case for free will.

One may respond that such accounts are only valid if we accept their ontological exclusion of the experience of freedom which necessarily follows from a reductionist, physicalist account of things (these also tend to emphatically relegate the existence of the subjective theatre of consciousness to a mere illusion). But the physicalist may retort that the burden of proof rests on non-physicalists to be able to demonstrate how free will exists beyond experience, or even how its experience may actually amount to something like its reality.

In contemporary philosophy, which, lacking the instruments of empirical science, has to both draw on empirical findings and find its answer through logic and the problematization of language and its presuppositions, the debate divides those who, like many scientists, deny the existence of free will altogether, and those “compatibilists” who believe determinism and free will are compatible to a certain extent. For them, the kind of necessity that determines my choice of a Moscow Mule over a Negroni isn’t exactly the same as having my partner choose a Moscow Mule on my behalf because she dislikes the smell of Negroni, or, even worse, of having the barman announce they’re out of ingredients to prepare a Negroni after I ordered it, forcing me to go for the Moscow Mule.

Such examples show just how marred in logical and linguistic controversy the whole discussion can be, and the view that the whole problem is but an intellectual confusion is in fact another, rather underrepresented voice of contemporary philosophy. It is perhaps from this assumption — that discussions of free will tend to verge on confusion — that two thinkers already mentioned above, Spinoza and Nietzsche, may help us reconsider the problem as a whole. There are important divergences in these two thinkers, and yet they construe a consistent picture of freedom that is actually understood as power, as power of acting.

The preliminary step is — forget about free will (Ethica II, P49D). Spinoza himself begins with the mechanistic picture of the world: apart from his anti-Abrahamic, merely ontological God which is free in that it acts from the necessity of its nature, all physical and mental phenomena are unfree in that they’re determined by some other cause to act in such a way so as to produce new effects. In this complex universe of causes and effects one may find a human as just another link in the complex causal network. A human being whose power is minimized by its passive relation to other causes — namely to affects, opinions, and passions (Ethica IV, P66S) — is no better than an apple the existence of which is determined by its tree, and its falling partly by its being subject to gravity. In fact, a passion —pathos in Greek and passio in Latin — is precisely something we passively undergo. A greater degree of freedom, however, is attributed to those who have greater causal power: those who are able to determine more effects than those who are simply constantly reproducing effects of other causes. Knowledge plays a big part in Spinozian causal power: it is those who adequately discern the workings of external forces that are better able to express causal power. Or, in other words, a limited freedom necessarily predicated on our finitude in the midst of other causal forces.

For Spinoza, then, a person that has cultivated a greater knowledge of external forces is in fact more powerful, has a greater power of action than someone who is bound by opinion, ignorance or destructive passions. Knowing increases the power of our minds and ultimately advances both our preservation and joy or laetitia (Ethica III, P11S). There is no free will but a certain amount of autonomy qua self-determination is possible.

This picture of an essentially limited freedom, which presents freedom qua power of acting causally through increased knowledge, is shared by Nietzsche. While the latter discards in Humean fashion the whole edifice of causes and effects as metaphysical mumbo jumbo (Gay Science 109; cf. Beyond Good and Evil 21; Twilight of the Idols, “Errors”, 3–4), he essentially agrees with Spinoza in that free will is a mistake and yet that freedom can be experienced in limited self-determination.

A “sovereign” individual, for Nietzsche, showcases a degree of autonomy and independence from opinions, custom or morality, it “experiences itself as determining values” (Beyond Good and Evil, 260) and, like Spinoza’s man of knowledge, seeks to understand external forces — whether they be physical or historical, biological or linguistic — and find in this knowledge the source of its own self-determination. This explains why Nietzsche once wrote, in a letter to a friend, that “[Spinoza’s] overall tendency is like mine — namely, to make knowledge the most powerful affect”: knowledge equates to power, namely, to power of acting and self-determination.

So clearly for them the problem is better put in terms of power of acting rather than in terms of free will, which at best entered our vocabulary only incidentally and poisoned much of the stream of philosophical discussion. This is perhaps how contemporary scientists and philosophers alike should begin to consider the problem, with the care to distinguish modes of power which are themselves linked to a passive reception of established values or undergoing of destructive emotions — a petty dictator may express “power” in such a way — , from what Spinoza or Nietzsche would define as true expressions of power understood as adequate knowledge of external forces which translates into power of acting and self-determination.

A final and perhaps tragic consideration that deserves our attention is that the type of power of acting that Nietzsche mentions is, in some interpretations at least, essentially fated or inherited: even our convictions are only “signposts to the problem we are — … to our spiritual fatum, to what is unteachable” (Beyond Good and Evil, 231). The amount of power of action and self-determination that we are able to produce is not down to ourselves, which is why the problem of freedom is essentially out of the picture and what we can really look for is power as given by nature (or genes). This explains Nietzsche’s fascination with great “sovereign” individuals like Napoleon, Beethoven or Goethe, in whom a spectacular orchestration of drives and affects gives rise to extraordinary individuals. If power of acting is understood as fated then even “the “unfree will” is mythology: in real life it is a matter of strong and weak wills.” (Beyond Good and Evil, 21).

For Nietzsche, then, the only freedom one can extract from such fated circumstances is an affirmation of the necessary nature of all things or amor fati. For Spinoza, this is the alignment of our will and mind with the divine and necessary order of things. On the more dreary side of things, if power of acting is inherently fated (or, in modern terms, inherited), this goes against what is most common to our every day experience of free will and our modern moral taste which dictates that anyone can, provided some basic circumstances, be individually responsible for flourishing and succeeding in life. To this abyssal hiatus between modern liberal taste and Nietzsche’s (and perhaps even Spinoza’s) fatalism, shared by much recent empirical research in psychology, one can only say, with the German philosopher: “The truth is terrible”.


Further reading:

PhD Philosophy Candidate, Nova University of Lisbon

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