Four Great Errors: Nietzsche’s Critique of Causation

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Friedrich Nietzsche in his late work Twilight of the Idols proposes what he calls the four great errors. Though Nietzsche offers no introduction to this section of the Twilight, he seems to want to do two things: one, loosely criticize the Aristotelian metaphysics that proposes four causes of being; two, identify the intellectual dimensions of self-deception as a psychological lifestyle. These errors are epistemic claims—faulty on Nietzsche’s view—about the way the world is, claims that at times bleed together and are difficult to distinguish. He lists them as follows:

  1. of confusing cause and effect.
  2. of false causation.
  3. of imaginary causes.
  4. of free will.

Again, these errors are the intellectual dimension of what Nietzsche sees as the psychologically sick, disordered, manipulative human bodies that ejaculate the moral precepts in the form of “You Shoulds“. Recall that Nietzsche is a naturalist, a Darwinian, who believes that the organism only ever wants to gratify its perceptual self. Systems of thought like Buddhism and Christianity function no differently despite that they claim to reject the perceptual sphere. Sick bodies produce sick ideas, and those ideas become entrenched habits. Nietzsche’s critique of Aristotelian causation turns on an analysis of the psychological and emotional dimensions of knowledge claims. Let me now treat to the four great errors in turn…

  1. Error of confusing cause and effect. This is the shortest and easiest of the four. Nietzsche focuses in this section on a Venetian nobleman named Alvise Cornaro. In that book Cornaro claims that his meager diet (cause) has contributed to his long life (effect). Nietzsche says:

    There is no doubt in my mind that few books (except of course The Bible) have wreaked as much havoc, have shortened as many lives as this well-meaning curiosity has done… This conscientious Italian thought that his diet was the cause of his longevity…

    Nietzsche thinks that not Cornaro’s diet but the preconditions that caused his diet—a slow metabolism and a minimal level of consumption—caused his longevity. Cornaro’s genetic makeup predisposed him to habits of the sort that would allow him to live a long life. For Nietzsche, the genes that predispose Cornaro to longevity caused his selection of a meager diet—an exact inversion of the actual causal relationship. Cornaro’s temperance arises from a environment felicitous enough to support a strong body’s development; he does not accede to a strong body because of what he eats or doesn’t.

  2. Error of false causation. Nietzsche invokes this error because he wants to track the history of social conceptions of human consciousness as the subject of ethical actions. People used to ground knowledge about causes in the realm of three ‘inner facts’: the mind, the ego, and most of all the will, which causally ‘underlies’ every deed. Without the notion of a ‘will’ that ‘wills a deed’ the punitive morality that Nietzsche despises would not be possible. Now, he says, philosophers would like to move away from the idea of will as the metaphysical ground of causation. In denying that the will is a causal agent, empirical claims about the world that had been grounded in those ‘inner facts’ no longer have any sound basis.
    I have asked myself a few times: what is Nietzsche up to in this section? The last few lines offer an answer. One approach might be: the concept of an “object” consists in a “reflex of the belief in the I as cause . . .” For Nietzsche, Kant has offered an absurd degree of agency to the individual will. The Kantian concept of ‘thing-in-itself’ amounts to the view that the mind effects nothing less than reality itself. The Kantian view objectifies that reality in such a way that is trapped within a narrow conception of causal agency. Its ramifications? That it obsesses itself with punishing the infinite transgressions that are made by individual wills—a method that diddles itself with notions of good and evil without ever so much as flirting with an environmental solution to a problem of which the individual is a symptom. Under all that is nothing more than a desire to realize oneself through the domination and punishment of other human organisms.
  3. Error of imaginary causes. This error is the most important of this chapter. He sums up what happens with the error of imaginary causes as follows:

    ‘The ideas that were created by a certain physical condition [are] mistaken for the cause of that condition.’ (179)

    But what does he mean by this? The mind has some mental experience—a sensation, emotion, or thought. Its desire to explain this mental experience to itself in terms that it can understand forces it to search for a cause of that mental experience. That search for a cause leads the mind to conclude that something it understands and can manage has caused the (usually unpleasant) mental experience. The following diagram should elucidate the process:nietzsche four great errors

    This seems like a strange way of thinking about mental experiences. Nietzsche does not want to criticize any quest for the cause of pain or pleasure. He instead points out that a fear of the unfamiliar determines the mind 1) to attempt to explain a perhaps inexplicable feeling in causal terms and 2) to search only among the range of manageable, comforting, and familiar causes that the person already knows, understands, and feels in control of. ‘This forecloses the possibility that anything novel, alien, or previously unencountered can be a cause.’ (180)

    Nietzsche has in mind a critique of morality and religion, but the implications extend beyond that critique. The religious morals that ascribe responsibility to the subject as a moral agent really consist in a comforting lie that a subject tells himself in order to feel ‘in control’. The thinking goes: if I am (or some other manageable feature of my life is) the cause of these feelings, then perhaps I must only change my behavior in order to change my feelings. Blaming one’s own ‘sinfulness’ or ‘error’ both masks the pain and precludes the possibility of the subject’s actually confronting that pain.

    This ascription of causality to a certain real or imagined feature of existence becomes ‘increasingly prevalent, gets concentrated into a system, and finally emerges as dominant, which is to say it completely rules out other causes and explanations.’ (180) This criticism fits with any lazy etiology. The mind is always prone to allow beliefs in a certain kind of cause to become so habitual as to obscure a genuine inquiry. Much about modern psychology confirms itself from within its own ideas in the same manner, though this topic belongs elsewhere.

  4. Error of free will. For Nietzsche, the concept of free will is used to justify punishment and judgment. He says that “Christianity is a hangman’s metaphysics.” (182) But Christianity is also a Pardoner’s metaphysics because it has the power to forgive the ὀφειλήματα—the debts, the ‘trespasses’ in the Lord’s Prayer—that it has imposed on human behavior in the first place. But I also showed in the last section that, apart from being an absurdly egoistic conception of the world, the concept of free will offers the comfort of being fully in charge of how shitty one’s life is.

After such knowledge, what forgiveness? Nietzsche thinks that the beginning of a solution consists in absolving ‘individuals’ of responsibility for their actions. A person only exists in relation to a greater whole that determines him, and that person cannot be condemned without likewise condemning the ‘whole’. Moreover, Nietzsche rejects any reduction of that ‘whole’ to a unified spirit or essence that would render the ‘whole’ intelligible by an analysis of the part. Difference, not identity, marks the world, and thus “[t]he will to a system shows a lack of integrity.” (156) That lack of integrity arises from the laziness and fear that makes it appealing to lean on familiar causal explanations rather than to ‘do philosophy’ in the Socratic sense of genuinely admitting to oneself the limits of what one knows.

Four Great Errors: Nietzche's Twilight of the Idols
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Four Great Errors: Nietzche's Twilight of the Idols
Nietzsche names 'four great errors' in Twilight. The title plays on Aristotle's four causes of being and marks a loose critique of Aristotelian metaphysics.
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