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October 24, 2004



This is a fine post (as always), but I seem to recall a passage where Uncle Fritz does try to work out a semi-physical argument for the eternal recurrence, talking about how there are only a limited number of states of energy, etc., in a way which really doesn't look metaphorical at all. (Most of my books by & on N. are in a basement in Maryland at the moment, but I'm reasonably sure the passage is quoted by Danto in his Nietzsche as Philosopher.) Which is not to say that the idea didn't function for him in the way you described, just that he also gave at least some thought to it as a non-metaphorical cosmological hypothesis.


Cosma, I know that Nietzsche did dabble with such explanations. Perhaps I am leaping to his defense over-energetically in discounting them. It is quite possible. Glad you enjoyed the post.

ben wolfson

The vocative of "fatum" is "fatum".

Before I read Cosma's comment I was going to ask if there was a good reason for thinking Nietzsche thought of eternal return, since (not that I'm what you'd call well-read in Nietzsche) it had never occurred to me that he really meant things actually happened that way. You can find the passage Cosma refers to on p. 205 of the book using Amazon's search-inside.

When I saw Eternal Sunshine I was in the grips of a Jonathan Lear–flavored class on Freud; I can't now remember what I made of it through that lens, though.

bob mcmanus

Besides the movies you mentioned, I would think Groundhog Day might be relevant, though perhaps in contrast.

I have read Nietzsche repeatedly, and have never gotten the Eternal Recurrence. Like reincarnation, if you can't remember your past lives, how can you progress? I usually considered it just an aspect of Nietzsche's particular pessimism, an attempt to simultaneously flip Schopenhauer and reject 19th century concepts of progress.

Doug M

Thanks to John and the commentators for exposing some hidden roots of an important philosophical problem. In fact, this one gets my vote for the most important problem out there. Namely:

  • It *does* seem like there is an eternally fixed catalog of possible worlds, or "Lagen" as Nietzsche puts it in the text that Cosma and Ben mention. (This would seem to follow from the hard-to-question idea that the laws of combinatorics, like all mathematical laws, are timeless.)
  • Given that, it seems impossible for us to have any freedom worthy of the name, for either all these worlds are equally real, or some are chosen arbitrarily to be real, and in neither case do we have a say in what is real.
  • You can say that freedom may be found *inside* a particular world, either as a primitive relation holding among some of its elements or as a particular "neatness" in its particle-trajectories; you hear this a lot from people like David Lewis and Dan Dennett, but to a large class of people it sounds glib, superficial, unconvincing, and even pathetic.
  • If we're not free in any important sense, then, well, screw it.

The possible-world framework is triumphant today in the world of analytic philosophy, and is also at the bottom of a lot of theoretical science. What bugs me is the incongruity between all the cleverness you see expended on the *details* of certain possible-world models and thought-experiments, and dearth of discussion on the freedom-denying consequences of the whole enterprise.

(When you ask them about this, people who work on the details tend to say: "Hey, I'm not making any metaphysical claims here, I'm just playing around with a neat conceptual apparatus." But they tend not to have any better metaphysic in mind, and the possible-world one becomes, through repeated use, their de facto metaphysic. Our choice, as someone I can't recall once said, is not between metaphysics and no metaphysics; it's between good and bad metaphysics.)

You would think that Nietzsche would be a good place to look for alternatives to the possible-world framework: he's always going on about creative will and deriding the pathetic scholars who seek a "'world of truth' that can be mastered completely and forever with the aid of our square little reason" (Gay Science, section 373). But I think John and Cosma have shown that this isn't so obvious -- the possible-world framework and its enervating consequences may be lurking even in Zarathustra. (Note that the above arguments go through even if your possible worlds' primitive elements are Wills who exert strength rather than Particles that induce force fields.) Not that Zarathustra is enervated, of course; both he and today's Dan-Dennett-type people take up say "If I have to be a robot, at least let me be a happy undeluded robot!" and set off on their various quests to make that happen. But this seems not to be a universally effective solution.

David Fiore

I agree on Groundhog Day, Bob. Was that "first step is a doozy" aside a nod to Ramis's film, John? (the line--always spoken by Tobolowski's obnoxious insurance salesman...hmm...insurance, actuarial tables, fate...--runs like a refrain through the film) Anyway, that's how I interpreted it!

And let's not forget It's A Wonderful Life, which makes an extremely strong case for loving one's fate (and one's faulty bannister fixtures!)--and also relies upon fantasy elements...

And then there's Coppola's fascinating (if deeply flawed) Peggy Sue Got Married...

Anyway, I loved Eternal Sunshine, and I really appreciated this post John--please forge on!


ben wolfson

I really don't see how it's possible to love your fate if you really do believe in a thoroughgoing fate.


If you really want to understand reocurence, just read some J.L. Borges. The Library of babel is especially good at ilustrating the idea.


Dave, thanks for the encouragement. I know you've commented before and I've never responded (unless I'm forgetting.) And I actually read your blog for the comics stuff. So that's just rude of me to pretend not to know you. Glad to meet you. And thanks also for your tip about the audio track dispute between Kaufman and Gondry.

Oh, and you are quite right that Groundhog Day belongs here. I've thought quite a lot about that one, but I don't think I was doing so last night (but maybe some seepage occurred.) Groundhog is all about Hegel, and possibly Kierkegaard. (That's why, in his stoical phase, one of the questions to the Jeopardy answers is 'What is Lake Seneca'? I think I'm remembering that detail correctly.) Another post, another post. But there is a peculiar genre going back to Bunuel's Exterminating Angel (which I just watched). Being John Malkovich is another member of the class, potentially. The arbitrary metaphysical force (as opposed to SF or fantasy) tale.

David Fiore

good to meet you too sir... I've been a pretty regular reader for a while--there's a lot of good stuff here!



The idea of eternal recurrence is addressed perhaps even more directly in an earlier draft of the screenplay.


I don't see how the notion of "thoroughgoing fate" is supposed to be actually intellectualy penetrable, even if you, in some sense, "believe in" hard determinism. I liked Eternal Sunshine a lot. I thought it was a really beautiful movie, but it's fundamentally a story that delivers a contrived and hypothetical perspective--what exactly occurs between this contrived third person perspective and "embracing your fate"? It seems to me, there's an immense amount of trippy dancing here to get to the business about "embracing your fate" from that.

RE: Doug's comment,here's an interesting thing.

William S

What about love?


"Well, my opinion is that we don't need to worry about it. Nietzsche didn't believe it." This is beside the point. Who cares if N believed it? We don't need to worry about it because the cosmological version is irrelevant. None of N's insights from the so-called "thought-experiment" (this phrase should be banned: imagine a world, let's call it "grorld," where the brains of those who use this phrase are dipped in vats of acid) version would follow from the cosmological version. An identical repetition of your life would mean you don't know it's being repeated--so one needn't react with joy or horror at the thought.

I haven't seen Sunshine. But I'm curious about how it maps on. That one would wish to erase the memory of an ugly bit of one's past is a perfect example of lack of amor fati. But that one would keep the memory hardly amounts to amor fati. To remember and to endlessly relive are tremendously different matters. Namely, many sane people would want to remember the whole of their lives, even the unpleasant aspects. But only a psychopath would want to endlessly relive the most unpleasant moments of their lives.

On "Egyptianism." This really is what's "weird" about the eternal recurrence. There's a nostalgia for being that characterizes it, and that characterizes some of N's descriptions of will to power as well (as "imprinting the character of being upon becoming"). Why would the hight of affirmation of this world involve giving it the character of not-passing-away? Isn't N's "de capo" a resentment of that there is an "it was"?

It's a Wonderful Life. I thought this film made a strong case for suicide. Not for the character's, but the audience's. What a weird cosmological accident, that we should be fated to watch a marvellous director's very worst film over and over and over. That, and not the "small man" is Zarathustra's greatest weight.

Ray Davis

Doug M., Nietzsche also derides the notion that our conscious will decides anything about our own behavior and derides the notion that boisterous Wagnerian superstition produces better results than rationality, so I wouldn't go to him for "Use the Force, Luke" maxims.

John, yours is, I think, the most likely-looking defensive tactic faced with Zarathustra's horrible thought. (It's the one I went for first, anyway.) The problem is that then the horror seems overdrawn, even given that Zarathustra's a drama queen. Nietzsche does seem to stress the importance of this being considered *literally* and love of fate being l'amour fou.

I'm afraid my current tactic is that whatever Nietzsche was trying for didn't make it through translation to me, with the faultiest link the one at the end. I might just be deficient in fou.

ben wolfson

If it's literally true, then your reaction to finding out that everything has happened before has happened before; you might turn out to love fate, but that's another predetermined fact about you, so who cares? It's not like you could do anything about your love of fate any more than you could anything else.


True, Ben. And Nietzsche actually accepts that. Except for the 'who cares' part. I think I'll try to do a follow-up post on Nietzsche and fatalism, now that I have churned up all this interest.

Doug M

The Galen Strawson interview that spacetoast linked to is excellent. Strawson thinks and writes more clearly than any living person I know of on the topic of free will. He sees that no solution proposed so far escapes the no-free-will argument we've been discussing. He doesn't retrench by saying "freedom" must therefore have meant a particularly nifty form of slavery, and he doesn't say it's easy to accept our unfreedom at a gut level. Bravo. Still, it's worth going over the anti-free-will argument to make sure that each step is airtight. Occasionally you hear denials of the very first step -- that "the laws of combinatorics, like all mathematical laws, are timeless." Henri Bergson based his philosophy on the idea that new abstract possibilities are continually being created, and that freedom is precisely this creation. This idea never got much traction because the mathematics to flesh it out didn't exist back then. The math may well exist now -- a tip for anyone interested in making an honest-to-god advance in the free-will debate!

ben wolfson

(from the linked interview) "If it's a fact that there's no free will, why do philosophers have such a hard time accepting it?"

Am I right to find this question bizarre?


Ben, I don't think "no free will" undermines that sort of a "why?". If determinism is true, I think you can still have (in a mostly ordinary sense) an old lady who swallowed a cat (why?) to catch the bird (why?) to catch the spider,etc. I guess I think there's another thing about how such a question might be "experienced" from the "Tralfamadorian perspective" or something like that, but I'm not sure that in that sense that particular question is any more bizarre than any other.

Anyway, if you think that's weird, get some philosopher to explain Donald Davidson's views about mental causation to you. If you dare.


Thanks for the Strawson link, spacetoast. It really is a very good interview. In fact, I turned around and used your link in my philosophy and film module, where we are discussing these very issues. Very handy.

ben wolfson

See, spacetoast, now you're just engaging in anthropomorphization.

(Or mythologizing.)

(Similarly, the aside in the intro to the interview in which the author concedes that it's of pragmatic value to have rewards and punishments—so did someone decide to have these? In the intro it doesn't sound as if the author's talking about responsibility-like systems arising in evolutionary fashion.)

(I'm imagining a NAND gate that, when presented with two inputs p and q, just happens always to have a good reason for outputting ~(p & q). Wow, just like last time!)

(It's true that it does look a whole lot like the woman swallowed the cat to catch the bird, but it also looks like this man killed that man in an act of premeditated aggression, and foo man killed bar man in self-defense, so if you're going to say that the woman did what she did for that reason, why not say that the this man and foo man did what they did for their respective reasons? It looks like then there'd be grounds for considering this man culpable while excusing foo man, though. I don't think that you can get by with calling it a means of talking with the vulgar, either. But now I'm going to bed because, you know, I don't really know anything about this stuff.)


"If it's a fact that there's no free will, why do philosophers have such a hard time accepting it?"

They're not free to do so.

Ray Davis

Free will: Lacking control over either acne or hiccups, what's left really doesn't seem worth arguing about. (Extended version.)


Ben, Strawson's master argument is, like he says, an a priori argument, involving a kind of tracing out of layers of decision. The old lady is like an impromptu Beavis version of that, so don't interpret it too much. I don't get what your logic gate is representing, but the stuff about foo-man and this-man probably runs together questions about freedom with questions about moral responsibility too quickly. For instance, you've probably got to go see whether there has to be some sort of capacity to have "done otherwise" for there to be moral responsibility, and, then, whether, or in what sense, one's actions need to be really deeply for-real "within one's control" for one to be morally responsible for them. If this-man and foo-man did what they did for their respective reasons, and yet couldn't have done otherwise, are they "culpable"? If that per se isn't ultimately such a problem, does it really answer the issue about the (really deeply for-real) "in control" thing? Then, looming in the background, there are various general issues about what sorts of explanations of human behavior are worthwhile, what "reasons" "do," what's "really" doing the causal work, and stuff like that, but, those kinds of issues aren't really introduced by determinism, and they won't go away just by getting rid of it, whatever that may amount to. But the philosophers have made literature in these places like nobody's business. There's a "free will" blog you can take a gander at if you're inclined to see how that particular way of talking develops.

Anyway, I'm glad people found the Strawson interview worthwhile. To me, it's nice to see indications that philosophers haven't toally lost sight of the fact that they are talking about the world people live in, and I find that Strawson's conversation in that thing is that kind of an indication.


When you say: "obviously Nietzsche's spider is an oblique reference to Rachael's implanted memories, in Blade Runner" are you demonstrating the Eternal Return of the Cycle by implying that Nietzsche is referring to Rachael in Blade Runner, and not what we would normally assume, the reverse?


Oh, I'm just being absurd, Epacris. (Pay me no mind.) I suppose I mean it in the sense that: this is how it will strike all of us, in an age in which we have all seen Blade Runner as kids, before - if ever - we read Nietzsche.

Lawrence Besserman

bernard berofsky is a philosopher at columbia who has written 2 books on determinism (fate/free will)--as he and others demonstrate, we have it, and better use it!

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