Nietzsche: “Free Will is an Illusion”

Eddie Ejjbair
2 min readApr 14, 2023

For Nietzsche, free will is an illusion — which is an insight science is beginning to prove. As the neuroscientist Sam Harris writes:

Some moments before you are aware of what you will do next — a time in which you subjectively appear to have complete freedom to behave however you please — your brain has already determined what you will do. You then become conscious of this “decision” and believe that you are in the process of making it

Nietzsche calls this the ‘illusion of volition’, and argues that, if we were omniscient, we could calculate each individual action in advance:

if the wheel of the world were to stand still for a moment and an omniscient, calculating mind were there to take advantage of this interruption, he would be able to tell into the farthest future of each being and describe every rut that wheel will roll upon. The acting man’s delusion about himself, his assumption that free will exists, is also part of the calculable mechanism

If free will is indeed an illusion, this would affect almost every aspect of our lives, from morality and law to our feelings of remorse and guilt. Nietzsche, who was always seeking ways of keeping the ‘conscience at peace’, says that it is because man thinks he is free that he feels remorse and a guilty conscience. Moreover, the reason why we are attached to the notion of free will (despite all of the evidence against it) is because we are in the ‘habit of seeing responsibility and duty as humanity’s claim to nobility’. However, according to Nietzsche, humanity has a ‘complete lack of responsibility’ for our behaviour and our nature. Once we understand this, the conscience — which he regards as a ‘serious illness’ and a sign that ‘a man’s character is not yet equal to his deed’ — is set free:

If in the end man succeeds in convincing himself philosophically that all actions are unconditionally necessary and completely irresponsible, and if he takes this conviction into his flesh and blood, those vestiges of the pangs of conscience disappear, too

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Eddie Ejjbair

‘Gradually it’s become clear to me what every great philosophy has been: a personal confession of its author and a kind of involuntary and unconscious memoir’