Monday, September 24, 2007

"Nietzsche's Theory of the Will"

This article of mine has now been published by The Philosophers' Imprint and is available for download here. I would welcome discussion in the comments here.

Here is the abstract:

The essay offers a philosophical reconstruction of Nietzsche’s theory of the will, focusing on (1) Nietzsche’s account of the phenomenology of “willing” an action, the experience we have which leads us (causally) to conceive of ourselves as exercising our will; (2) Nietzsche’s arguments that the experiences picked out by the phenomenology are not causally connected to the resulting action (at least not in a way sufficient to underwrite ascriptions of moral responsibility); and (3) Nietzsche’s account of the actual causal genesis of action. Particular attention is given to passages from Daybreak, Beyond Good and Evil and Twilight of the Idols and a revised version of my earlier account of Nietzsche’s epiphenomenalism is defended. Finally, recent work in empirical psychology (Libet, Wegner) is shown to support Nietzsche’s skepticism that our “feeling” of will is a reliable guide to the causation of action.

In addition to Nietzsche scholars (who have been discussing these issues quite a bit lately), I hope the essay will be of interest to philosophers interested in action theory who might not otherwise be interested in Nietzsche.


Rob said...

'Now, Nietzsche, it must be conceded, simply takes for granted that free will and moral responsibility are incompatible with causal determination of the will. Why he takes this incompatibilism for granted is not hard to see, though: it is deeply embedded in ordinary moral and religious thought. As Galen Strawson has noted, the incompatibilist idea of responsibility "has for a long time been central to the Western religious, moral and cultural traditions."' (page 7)

In light of the current literature on free will (particularly its empirically-sensitive strains), is Nietzsche correct in taking the centrality of incompatibilism for granted? Does the current 'state of the art' of the aforementioned literature support Nietzsche in doing so? And, whether it does so or not, does Nietzsche have anything special to contribute to the issue as it is raised in the literature?

Anonymous said...

Dr. Leiter,

First I wanted to say "thank you" as this article has provided me with a cited authority for a similar position I've been trying to articulate in a philosophy of action class.

Second, I would say that although it seems apparent that deterministic incompatibilism eliminates the concept of "free will" as meaningful, it does not eliminate the possibility of moral sanction (or "responsibility", though I find this term more problematic, and think most concerned with this issue would allow the substitution of "sanction" or "judgment" in lieu of "responsibility").

Consider, for instance, the antagonist shark in the movie "Jaws". While it is well known and accepted that the great white shark is a "predator by its nature" and does not make meaningful "choices" to attack humans as such, it is similarly clear that its somewhat "unfree" status does not preclude the possibility that many if not most of those viewing the film assigned a level (intuitively) of "moral responsibility" to the shark insofar as many would walk away thinking/feeling that the shark was "evil" or "bad" in the moral sense, despite being well aware that the shark is not a "moral agent" in the sense humans have heretofore been considered as such.

Also, and of course Nietzsche would not have been able to anticipate this, current quantum theory suggests that "hard incompatibilism" (i.e. both free will and determinism are rejected in favor of "randomness" of sorts) is to be considered seriously as the most valid option.

Randolph Clarke said...

A brief observation on your note 21. You write that Mele (2006) "establishes only that there is an alternative interpretation [of Libet's data], not that his [Mele's] alternative is correct." In fact Mele makes a case (a convincing one, in my view) that the common interpretation of the data is incorrect. His argument undermines the view that the early rise in RP corresponds to the subject's having an intention, or having made a decision, to move.

Anonymous said...

I haven't read this latest article yet, but I'm looking forward to doing so. I have a couple questions that i was hoping you might blog about.

I was hoping you could clarify Nietzsche's relationship (or lack thereof) with the Romantics and the Existentialists.

I know that Emerson was a major influence on Nietzsche. I haven't read much about this, but I'm assuming his "Self-reliance" was very influential on Nietzsche's ideas. Now, Emerson was a Transcendentalist, and that American movement arose out of English Romanticism, if my understanding is correct. However, I recall reading passages by Nietzsche that seem quite polemically charged against the Romantics. Is my memory simply faulty? If not, why is this? It seems to me the "Romantic hero" is similar to Nietzsche's overman.

If, as Reginster argues in "The Affirmation of Life," Nietzsche's main (or one of his main) project is overcoming nihilism through self-mastery and self-creation, why does he write against the Romantics? After all, he (for a time) fairly worshiped Wagner, and later Goethe, both influential Romantic figures.

I think of Aphorism 157 in BGE: "The thought of suicide is a powerful solace: by means of it one gets through many a bad night." This seems to be reminiscent of the Romantic ideal of controlling one's destiny (perhaps a la Neil Perry in "Dead Poet's Society").

Second, what about Nietzsche's alleged proto-existentialism? You have forcefully written that Nietzsche was a naturalist, and I find your arguments convincing. However, I'm not clear why that excludes possible existentialist leanings. I am no expert on Sartre, but there seem to be at least a few striking parallels between their ideas. Perhaps I have a skewed understanding of both Nietzsche and the main existentialist currents, but it seems that self-creation is central to both. A rejection of God, religion, and traditional modes of making life meaningful are shared in common. It seems to me the main difference(albeit significant) is Nietzsche's rejection of Kantian metaphysics and Sartre's modified acceptance of it. But does this really lead to any different conclusions in terms of practical effects on how one lives?

I would very much like to see your thoughts on these issues!

John Protevi said...

Sorry for the length and unfamiliar terminology of this comment (it's an excerpt from a book ms. under review), but I think it's germane to the Libet discussion in your article.

At this point, it's necessary to address the question of intentional action. The thought of bodies politic is materialist, but not mechanistic; we want to account for the production of subjectivities via subjectivizing practices, but we do not wish to deny the reality of subjective action. Now it's no doubt true, as the situated cognition people remind us, that many of our actions are habitual and skilled and hence proceed without need for conscious control: our training has allowed a "second nature," so that consciousness is freed to plan ahead without having to direct all the details of an action (here the sports register is most clear: a skilled tennis player is thinking about what will happen in the next few strokes, not attending to weight shift, hip movement, arm extension, etc.). Nonetheless, there are case where a deliberate, conscious decision is made that directs an overall plan (even if one does not "decide" consciously to shift one's weight in striking a tennis ball, one does indeed decide to play a tennis match). Now if one adopts a linear causality (input, processing, output) framework, and concentrates on a very short temporal scale of simple muscular action, then it seems "free will" is compromised, or at least rendered problematic by some neuroscientific results. Libet 2004 summarizes a celebrated series of experiments that show that brain processes necessary for muscular activation (the "readiness potential") begin some 350 milliseconds before subjects are aware of their intention to move their arms. It seems that the true "cause" of action lies in unconscious neural processes, and that subjective consciousness merely registers the results of these processes; consciousness is thus "epiphenomenal" with regard to such action. Extending the results of these experiments can tempt some thinkers to render consciousness a completely superfluous observer in all contexts.
Two sources enable us to call this picture into question. Freeman 2000a shows how the notion of circular causality drawn from dynamic systems modeling enables us to see consciousness as a "dynamic operator," as an emergent functional structure operating in the "dynamic architecture of brain state space" (136). Importantly for our purposes in elucidating the thought of bodies politic operating above, below, and at the subjective level, Freeman puts consciousness in a nested hierarchy of emergent processes, extending "both below the level of the neuron, in the chemistry of synaptic membranes and the readout of the genome during learning, and above the global state of the hemispheres, to include self-awareness and the environment, especially the social encounters by which individual brains assimilate meaning" (136). Conscious decisions must be seen on the time-scale appropriate to intentional action, which is longer than that of readiness potentials, and involved in the ongoing life of the human as autonomous system, with its continuous history of feedback between intention and results, built up into habitual patterns of response capacities. Gallagher 2005 can be seen as picking up on Freeman's analysis at the phenomenological level. Gallagher shows that the time-scale appropriate to the analysis of intentional action is that of the act as a whole informed by consciousness, not the millisecond scale of neural processes (238-239). Focusing on the presence of feedback loops in living beings, Gallagher argues that "feedback loops that involve conscious deliberation require an extended duration equivalent to a specious present – that is, a duration that is stretched out over at least several seconds, and is experienced as such" (239; see also Varela 1999). Following Freeman and Gallagher then, we can say that a dynamic systems approach to situated cognition enables us to think the actualization phase of sense-making – the adoption of a direction for action – as sometimes encompassing deliberate intention, without compromising our commitment to a materialist, naturalistic, take on the embodied-embedded nature of bodies politic.

John Protevi said...

It occurs to me I should give the full bibliographic information for the references in my comment:

Freeman, Walter J. 2000a. How Brains Make Up Their Minds. New York: Columbia University Press.

Gallagher, Shaun. 2005. How the Body Shapes the Mind. New York: Oxford University Press.

Libet, Benjamin. 2004. Mind Time: The Temporal Factor in Consciousness. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.

Varela, Francisco J. 1999. The Specious Present: A Neurophenomenology of Time Consciousness. In Naturalizing Phenomenology: Issues in Contemporary Phenomenology and Cognitive Science, eds. Jean Petitot, Francisco J. Varela, Bernard Pachoud, and Jean-Michel Roy. Stanford CA: Stanford University Press: 266-314.

Also of interest to the issue of free will from a dynamic systems perspective is:

Juarrero, Alicia. 1999. Dynamics in Action: Intentional Behavior as a Complex System. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Leiter,

I was wondering why you didn't emphasize the reading in sec. 354 of The Gay Science as a way for Nietzsche to deal with the problem of epiphenomenalism and consciousness. I believe you indicated that it was "overreaching" in your essay..? Do you mean for Nietzsche, or for a faithful interpretation of Nietzsche?


Rob said...

On page 14 of "Episodic Ethics," an intriguing expansion upon his earlier "Against Narrativity," Galen Strawson suggests a partial parallelism between the emotional underpinnings of Diachronicity ("the Emotional Priority Thesis") and the claim that "belief in strong free will" is "perhaps best seen as a kind of conceptualized post hoc expression of the reactive attitudes, rather than as an independent element in a person's mental economy" (p.11).

He also later makes some striking claims about moral psychology -- particularly about conscience and guilt -- that may be interesting to consider in light of GM II.

Both articles are available here:

Narziss said...

I just finished this wonderful article.

I posted a reaction here:

I left with an intense eagerness to read what Katsafanas has said against ascribing epiphenomenalism to Nietzsche, and I already see that there is another post where you discuss this issue!

Narziss said...

I thought Mark Simpson's replies are interesting.

Yes, quantum mechanics would seem to reject free will and determinism in lieu of what seems like randomness, but isn't this again material determinism?---isn't this causal essentialism? (Though there many not be specific, universal laws, there is still interaction and influence between matter.) I think quantum mechanics would go with causal essentialism, a form of determinism.

Determinism doesn't say anything offensive to my somewhat significant, physiological autonomy. What determinism means to me is that the world is immanent, material, real, and lacking transcendent aspects. That is all.

However, that is not to say that there are chemicals in the brain that are isomorphic relative to the epiphenomenal sensation of consciousness, and that these chemicals begin their reaction in this region. That is to say, the source of command can begin in this region which would be ascribed to consciousness.

However, the conscious and unconscious distinction seems a bit difficult to use since there is so much that we do that we are not aware of but that we do in such a way that our consciousness would agree with and appreciates that the unconscious is doing such work in the background. See Blindsight ( where people can't consciously see in a part of their eye but they still receive input in that they know 'unconsciously' to avoid objects that are moving toward them. Sometimes, I'm not even sure what the unconscious means.

Also, I agree with Mark Simpson in that I'm not exactly sure how an individual loses responsibility by being shown to not be self-caused in any transcendent manner.

For example, if someone pleas insanity in court, wouldn't the implications of Nietzsche's epiphenomenalism and type-facts mean that the person would be condemned. The judge would say, "though you were unaware of what you did, you are not your consciousness---you are your body. Your consciousness is not on trial; your entire body is on trial! And I deem that your environment had little influence on your crime. The main culprit is your body which must be destroyed." Jaws is guilty.

Yes, as Nietzsche explains, it's incorrect to think that Jaws is choosing to act cruel under the premises that free will exists and all men are created equal, but that doesn't absolve Jaws of responsibility for his type-facts. In fact, his type-facts actually make Jaws somewhat autonomous, that is, physiologically. If it wasn't for his type-facts, he would be invisible, he wouldn't exist---he has to be made out of something.

It seems that in some light, epiphenomenalism renders consciousness redundant. But isn't consciousness useful for the body?---doesn't consciousness inform the body as to whether the "deep cause" was satisfied by monitoring whether its "deep cause" caused desire or intent was satisfied? I don't yet see anything problematic with the epiphenomenal description.

What does consciousness mean? I am aware that certain unconscious aspects compel my consciousness to want to do things, that doesn't seem to be a problem. My drives don't come out of no where. My body informs me when "I" am hungry, etc. This unconscious change in what I'm consciously focusing on changes the focused direction of my behavior.

The problem seems to be understanding the exact role of consciousness, but I'd like to find out what exactly is the problem (because at the moment, it seems like the problem, as Nietzsche might say, is that many people attribute too much to consciousness and forget that it works in tandem with unconscious process and that, nevertheless, the unconscious depends on consciousness to inform it on the result of actions). I think we identify with many physiological drives without giving them much thought as in coming from a cause outside our consciousness.

Narziss said...

In a Kantian world, as I understand it, we are responsible for what passes through our rational consciousness only. How likely is it that Nietzsche isn't absolving us of responsibility but rather showing us that if we only put consciousness on trial that we would have a hard time finding responsibility in it?

Narziss said...

I just had another thought. Perhaps the problem is that determinism implies an end, a telos (one that may have moral implications). However, I read classical determinism as implying an end, but I read causal essentialism as merely saying that the world is natural and immanent but not implying a fixed end. (It does not imply a telos because of the great amount of instability and struggle without a dependably expected result.)

Narziss said...

I thought of a good example, correct me if I'm mistaken, but classical determinism seems to me like situation 1. Causal essentialism seems like situation 2.

Situation 1: Someone says to you, "at the rate that we're going, it's going to take us 2 hours to finish cleaning." Then, we continue to work and it takes us 2 hours to finish.

Situation 2: Someone says to you, "at the rate that we're going, it's going to take us 2 hours to finish cleaning." Then, this new information, this new awareness of what is the case, allows us to reassess our behavior and, hence, modify the end. I alter what I'm doing, and then we finish cleaning in 1 hour instead.