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Wriggle Room


If we are to make positive changes in our lives, to self-create, to self-overcome, we must have the facility to choose to make those changes and we must have the power to act on those choices.

And yet there is an apparent paradox in Nietzsche’s philosophy, in that he advocates cultivation of the self while denying the existence of human free will. If we are not ‘free’ to change ourselves, what use are his exhortations to personal transformation?

Free will - a philosophical conundrum unresolved since Chrysippus the stoic wrestled with it in the third century BC. If every event without exception has a cause, and each cause has a cause ad infinitum, then these causal chains are unbroken since the beginning of time. This leaves no room for human volition at all, as even each thought has its determining causes. You may want to choose pudding over pie, but isn’t this because the pudding was exceptionally good last time, or that the pie looks under-baked today? If everything is causally determined, there can be no unfettered choices, no choices ex nihilo (from nothing). And this means if all data on current circumstances were made available, with sufficient processing power, your future behaviour would be entirely and inescapably predictable. You are but a small cog in a very big, hermetically-sealed machine.

For Nietzsche free will is a fiction. Science agrees and tells us causal determinism is a fact. (At least it did until quantum mechanics muddied the waters).

But Nietzsche does not argue for scientific, so-called, hard determinism. Instead he has it that we are subject to Fate - that ontology of the ancients, known to the Greeks as Moira (plural: Moirai – the Fates). And Fate, similarly, means our futures are pre-destined, to one extent or another. But how - by an unseen force or law or divine command or, perhaps, merely a tendency built into the structural fabric of the universe?

Even the gods of Olympus were subject to Fate. But though Fate compels us, it is not at all the same as causal determinism. Unlike determinism, Fate may prescribe the end, but it allows for a multitude of paths to that end.

Oedipus was doomed to kill his father and marry his mother, but the succession of events leading to that grim outcome was open. Fate is narrative congruity rather than strict causality. It is teleological - it is purposive, rather than blindly mechanistic like causal determinism is. It has even been ridiculed as the ‘mystical and superstitious’, its only virtue being ‘the power to create creepy effects in literature’.

What does Nietzsche mean exactly by ‘Fate’? What are the grounds for his belief in it?

One of Nietzsche’s most well known aphorisms is ‘there are no facts, only interpretations’. This encapsulates his famous perspectivism. We encounter alternative perspectives or representations of the reality of our lives. For example: there is no question that in retrospect we can clearly trace the inescapable causal chains of universal determinism in our past. And yet, we quite obviously experience our lives as a series of free choices within a world of, what feels like, real personal autonomy. But these two contradictory observations are two perspectives on precisely the same phenomena.

Nietzsche identifies a similar dichotomy regarding freedom of the will in morality. In Beyond Good and Evil he writes:

‘If I have observed correctly, the “unfreedom of the will” is regarded as a problem from two entirely opposite standpoints, but always in a profoundly personal manner: some will not give up their “responsibility,” their belief in themselves, the personal right to their merits at any price… Others, on the contrary, do not wish to be answerable for anything, and owing to an inward self-contempt, seek to lay the blame for themselves somewhere else.’

What is clear from this passage is that Nietzsche shows disdain, both for those who claim to be responsible for all their actions but also those who attempt to shake off any blame for their actions. What are we to make of this?

The answer is that Nietzsche’s concept of Fate is not some kind of divine providence or metaphysical law, like karma, but our life’s actual circumstances. Our environment, our family, our wealth and health, our genes, our personal and cultural history and the instincts we have evolved as a species over the aeons. Even the weather! And on more than one occasion, Nietzsche cites digestive upsets as a trigger for certain philosophical hypotheses! All of these factors can and do pre-determine our Fates, but not in a way that is entirely inescapable - as causal determinism does.

We know that those born into poverty are more likely to die from a drug overdose or lung cancer or (in the West at least) from obesity, despite the theoretical knowledge that they are as free as anyone to choose not to become entrenched in unhealthy behaviours. We know that women will be paid less for jobs of a similar skill level to their male counterparts. We know that young black men will be stopped and searched by the police more than others in society. We know those with socially connected families and money for private education will go on to have highly remunerative jobs, even when their intellects may be no better than average. This is not a plea for social justice, merely a recognition of the obvious fact that the cards you are dealt in life strongly determine your Fate.

This goes beyond social strata. Imagine that you had been born as a peasant in the dark ages, or as the heir to an oriental potentate, or into a contemporary religious cult, or as a young man of conscription age prior to World War II – what differing Fates would you be subject to? We are all products of our circumstances.

But for Nietzsche, though fate can seal our dooms, can bless us or damn us, can make our lives fortunate or tragic, it does not have the inflexibilities of causal determinism. We have wriggle room. How can this be?

This, we will delve into in a subsequent post.

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