Do you have free will? In all likelihood, your late night college bull sessions failed to resolve the matter. Even today, there is not really any definitive evidence as to whether human free will does or doesn’t exist, although there are certainly plenty of reasons to doubt it: For instance, the very powerful evidence suggesting that our conscious thoughts are preceded by automatic emotional reactions, of which we are simply unaware.
But it’s one thing to gab about whether free will exists, and quite another to question why humans overwhelmingly tend to believe that it does. If you’ve read your Friedrich Nietzsche, you know that the consummate anti-philosopher had a pretty cynical take on this question. Nietzsche didn’t simply call free will itself “the foulest of all theological fictions.” In his workTwilight of the Idols he went further, psychoanalyzing the ubiquitous belief in free will and concluding that deep down, we want to believe that people have control over their own choices so that we can justify and feel good about punishing them. “Whenever responsibility is assigned,” wrote Nietzsche, “it is usually so that judgment and punishment may follow.”