Category Archives: Pessimism

The concept of “agency” is inherently reactionary.

I have written an entry about the three categories of explanation of human behavior, which I called anti-causalism (human behavior is caused by “free will”), adaptationism (human behavior is genetic) and social constructionism (human behavior is motivated by social constructs). I make no secret that I find the last kind of explanation to be the most rational.

It may seem pointless to bring this up on an entry about “agency,” and yet I think it is very much relevant to the topic. For one thing, it tells us that an issue which seems as abstract as human action is actually very much an ideological issue, with ethical, political and religious implications. Therefore, any term used to explain decision-making is an ideological term, and must be analyzed as such.

The term “agency” is assumed to be a technical, neutral term; questioning its validity or neutrality is seen as laughable and non-credible. But what does it really mean to say that someone has agency?

Human agency is the capacity for human beings to make choices and to impose those choices on the world.

As I’ve discussed before, there is no such thing as “choice,” that is to say, selecting from different alternatives: because our minds are determined by the laws of nature, like any other entity that is part of nature, there can only be one alternative “selected.” We do not have the capacity to make “choices” or to “impose” them. The belief in “choice” is clearly anti-causal, and therefore betrays allegiance to anti-causalism.

The ability of people to change the institutions in which they live.

While an interesting definition, it tells us nothing about why individuals act. I do intend to discuss this issue later.

Agency- self-determination, volition, or free will; it is the power of individuals to act independently of the determining constraints of social structure.

In general, agency is contrasted with structure, agency being that part of human action which is not the result of the influence of social structures. But social constructionism is precisely the belief that our actions are the result of the influence of social structures; therefore by definition agency assumes the falsity of social constructionism.

It is impossible for any human being who lives in society to act “independently of the determining constraints of social structure.” Consider some of the social structures and social constructs which most preoccupy us: the family structure, religion, government, Patriarchy, the education system, the legal system, capitalism and class, race, gender, nationality, language, money. Can we honestly say that there is any human being living in a modern Western society whose actions are not affected by all of these things?

So I don’t believe there is such a thing as agency, because there is no such thing as “choice,” “free will” or some magical ability to change social structures; but besides that, my main point here is that the term “agency” is a Trojan horse smuggling anti-causalism into a discussion or debate, and no one’s the wiser because, like “choice,” which is part of everyday language, “agency” is part of everyday sociological language and few people think anything of it.

From a constructionist standpoint, the use of the word “agency” is nothing more than a roundabout way of blaming the victims. They do this by denying that the victims are actually victims, stating instead that they gain power (what kind of power? economic? social? relational?) from their own “choices.” Here is a typical academic example of such gymnastics (and again, just so you don’t think I’m cherry-picking the stupidest example, this is the very first result I got on a search for “prostitution agency sociology”):

Bell (1994) analyses the narratives of Pateman and MacKinnon and concludes that these writings and perspectives which became dominant in the 1980s, actually reproduce ‘the prostitute body’. Bell argues that this line of thinking which locates the prostitute as a powerless victim within a masculine discourse actually silences the voices of women, refuses to acknowledge women’s agency and results in the reproduction of ‘the prostitute body’. Equally, as Maher (2000: 1) notes, taking the position that woman who sell sex are only victims, powerless and not in control of their circumstances leaves women ‘devoid of choice, responsibility, or accountability’.

Consider carefully what is being said here. Stating that a prostitute is a victim of a structure of gendered exploitation “silences the voices of women.” Never mind that the anti-prostitution movement is made of women and bases its premises on the voices of ex-prostitutes as well as sociological studies of prostitutes.

Now consider the proposition that saying prostitutes are victims means they are “devoid of choice, responsibility or accountability.” Doesn’t that sound like people who say rape victims should be held accountable for what they did to provoke the crime? Obviously stating that a raped woman was “only a victim” leaves her “devoid of responsibility or accountability” because that’s precisely what it means to be a victim; victims by definition are not “responsible or accountable.”

The whole paragraph is completely vacuous, but counts on the reader’s (conscious or unconscious) bias against prostitutes to remind them that prostitutes are inherently wrong and responsible for their own degradation, all the while telling us that it’s the anti-prostitution advocates who are silencing prostitutes. This is a classic case of projection.

But the main “argument” (there is no real argument here) used against the anti-prostitution position is that it denies “agency” and “choice.” Because “agency” and “choice” are considered self-evident, anyone who argues for social constructionism can be denied on this basis. Not only that, but the mere use of those words is considered a valid argument in and of itself: anyone who denies “agency” must automatically be wrong, period. To them, it is such an absurd conclusion (or, most likely, they merely pretend that it is so absurd) that we must therefore deny the premises.

The end point of this complete reversal of victimhood lies in the term “sex work,” which seeks to normalize prostitution as “just another job” that we “choose” to perform. There lies a double fraud: first, it is predicated on the premise that capitalist work contracts are a “choice,” which in itself is a laughable conceit, and second, it is predicated on prostitution being a “job.” If our sole criterion for a “job” is work in exchange for money, then many slaves have slavery as a “job” and so do many prisoners have a “job” as prisoners, because both receive some money in exchange for their forced labor. But this is obviously nonsense.

Social constructionism states that the actions an individual takes are the result of how social structures mold the psyche and motivations of the individual. These social structures influence the individual through a wide variety of social constructs, which become part of how we explain facts.

The integration of gender explains why, for instance, we can understand when workers are exploited but “know” that prostitutes are personally responsible for being trafficked, beaten, filmed, addicted to drugs, raped and murdered; in the exact same way, integrating class means we “know” why poor people are lazy and undeserving, and integrating race means we “know” that black people are stupid and violent.

I have already discussed another major problem with “choice” as an argument: at best it can only mean that you believe you are in control of a situation. In that sense, the argument is now coherent but becomes trivial:

“Taking the position that woman who sell sex are only victims, powerless and not in control of their circumstances leaves women devoid of the belief that they are in control of their own life situation.”

Of course convincing people that they do not actually have power means they will lose the belief, or more accurately the delusion, that they have power. But this is true of any such delusion. People can also lose the delusion that their vote gives them power, or the delusion that religious belief gives them power. There is nothing strange about prostitution in that sense.

“Agency” is generally brought up in situations where it is inherently delusional; sociologists don’t waste time telling us about the agency of CEOs or presidents because that would be pointless. There is no point in talking about those people believing they have power, because they actually do have power; the whole victim/”choice” dance makes no sense in those cases. “Agency” is reactionary because it is always used to explain away the victims of whatever hierarchy (like gender) one wishes to support.

I said I would come back to the point about “agency” being “the ability of people to change the institutions in which they live.” Behind this definition lies the theory that we cannot be victims of social structures if we have the power (again, really a delusion that we have the power) to change them. If that’s true, then anything done to inferior by their superiors is, in a twisted way, the inferiors’ fault.

As perhaps a more extreme example of this argument, it was argued during the Gulf War (including by George Bush) that it was the Iraqi people’s responsibility to overthrow Saddam Hussein. Presumably the Iraqi people are at fault for getting bombed and killed by the American Army for not overthrowing Hussein (never mind that the Americans didn’t, either).

So again we’re talking about a purely reactionary strategy which aims to justify oppression through the delusion of power, but this time applied to entire groups of people. Because no individual has the power to “change the institutions in which they live,” this kind of “agency” applied to any individual must lead to the same conclusion: the victim is actually “responsible and accountable” for eir own oppression.

I do want to point out that this “ability to change” sort of definition is somewhat similar to how we define “free will,” a term which (contrasted with determinism) presumes that the human mind can somehow suspend causal laws. I can’t think of a greater “ability to change” than the ability to change the fabric of reality itself. In practice, “agency” is merely a non-religious, watered down version of “free will” which still permits people to blame victims while not relying on outdated pseudo-scientific beliefs.

The concept of “agency” is not just reactionary for the reasons I’ve mentioned, but it is also a powerful thought-stopper. It cuts short any examination of why things happen in society, and most importantly for a supposed decision-making process, any examination of why people do what they do.

Saying someone does X because of “her agency” or because “she chose it” doesn’t tell us anything more than saying “God did it” in answer to some natural event. Any worthwhile explanation has to be causal or it will inevitably serve as a thought-stopping mechanism, whether it’s believed honestly or not.

In the end, this sort of thought-stopping about human action reduces everything to atomistic individualism: as I noted in that entry, it reduces all analysis to the individual, sets up gender roles (in the case of prostitution) as the standard of evaluation, and classifies anti-prostitution efforts (and anti-oppression ideologies generally) as undesirable based on individualist beliefs (“you can’t tell other people what to do,” “you’re making people feel bad by telling them they’re being oppressed,” “you are responsible for everything that happens to you,” and so on endlessly).

Even though “agency” proponents usually claim to be left-leaning and even radical, they end up, through atomistic individualism, propping up the principles of the capitalism they are reacting to, and in most cases unwittingly supporting its structures. They poison the very well they’re gathering water from.

Determinism is not a thing you can trick.


Determinism is defeated again!

When we talk about determinism, there are some things that people say that don’t make much sense but are hard to understand. After a while, you start to get the idea that people operate under a strange mental model which leads to incorrect reasoning about determinism.

From what I can tell, there is this notion that determinism is an actual thing that can be defeated or broken if you “go against it.” They seem to think that determinism is something external to the individual that controls them and that they can challenge it for supremacy over their “choices.” They think determinism literally is Jasmine from the show Angel and that we could fight against her in some way. In short, they confuse the metaphor for the reality.

Determinism is not an actual thing that you can defeat, break, challenge, fight or trick. It’s a way to modelize reality. The same is true of free will. We do imagine free will as being a soul or a spark or some other concrete thing, but all that the term “free will” actually means is that we can make choices (that if you turned back the clock, you could end up doing something different). And all that “determinism” means is that you really can’t.

What we’re basically arguing about is what it means for a human being to do something. But the action exists whether you agree or disagree on what it means. The issue of meaning supervenes upon the issue of what is actually happening. The concept of choice is a superfluous, cancerous growth which sprouted off of our language. There really is no actual thing called a “choice,” whether you believe it exists or not: at best, it is only an interpretation of reality.

Just to be clear, I am not saying here that the determinism/free will issue is not important. Exposing the fallacies of free will proponents and demanding that society be structured in accordance with deterministic principles is very important (and will probably be one of the greatest human rights issues of the 21st century). But it’s important to keep in mind the level at which this debate is taking place, so people stop thinking determinism or free will are something more than just models of reality. Likewise, atheism and anarchism are just models of reality, but they are still important to the individual.

There is a common misconception that determinism is defined by being predictive. This leads both to the belief that determinism cannot be true if you can’t predict the future, and to the belief that you can “beat” determinism by refusing to follow the prediction. But determinism has nothing to do with predictions, except to imply as a corollary that they are not logically impossible.

Again, determinism and free will are not about what our actions will be but about what our actions mean. Determinism does imply that human exceptionalism is delusional, that blame is invalid, that revenge is pointless, that inequality and punishment are unjust. But it does not imply that we can predict, or even that our level of technology will ever be sufficient to do so (especially given the feedback loop problem). Determinism and free will are mental models of reality which are true or false regardless of the possibility of prediction. Indeed, any apparatus used to predict the future would itself exist within the framework of determinism or free will.

There is no way to “trick” determinism by “choosing” to do something else, because determinism does not have a “predicted future.” There is no way to “choose” something you won’t “choose.” Just to express this is to demonstrate why it is fallacious. Events unfold according to causal laws, and you can’t “break” causality.

So stating that “determinism means we can’t change the future” is true but irrelevant, since whatever happens will happen. There are no actions that are “supposed to happen” or actions that are “not supposed to happen”; “supposed to happen” implies a plan or expectation, and all that determinists expect is that future events will follow causally from past events. No event is dictated by some outside source.

The law of gravity provides a simpler but still relevant example. When we release a ball, we expect it to fall to the ground. This is due to the law of gravity as applied to the ball and the Earth. We expect that releasing the ball from being held up will cause it to travel towards the center of Earth’s gravitational field unless it is stopped by some other force (e.g. normal force, buoyancy, etc). If the ball stopped in mid-air for no apparent reason, we would not thereby deduce that the ball has “chosen” to stop. We would instead look for other deterministic causes such as an air vent, an invisible surface, or some property of the ball (perhaps it is filled with helium?).

Some may argue that the ball cannot “choose” but that humans can because they have brains. But there is nothing particular about brains that makes them immune to the laws of causality. Like everything else we see, they are made of matter and subject to material causes.

An error similar to the “cannot change the future” is to claim that determinists are fatalists, that they have no reason to do anything, or that social change is impossible. And yet this is clearly false. We live in a deterministic universe, and yet we do have reasons to act, social change is possible, and most of us are not fatalists. This is because under determinism nothing is “supposed to happen.”

Indeed, the belief in fatalism cannot be compatible with determinism, but can only be compatible with free will. This may seem like a surprising statement, but think about it: to be a fatalist means to exclude oneself from causality, and a person who believes that they are part of causality could never be a fatalist because they would clearly see that they themselves are part of the system which produces future events. What I say and do affects the people around me, which affects the people around them, and so on and so forth.

You might say this is just common sense. But from the free will perspective, the story changes; by definition free will describes the human being’s “choices” as being a break in causality. If this is true, then what I say and do may not affect anyone else at all, because that would be an instance of cause and effect. If other people’s decisions are not based on material causes, then they may not be based on anything I say or do. You might say that this is absurd, but this is a direct consequence of free will.

So just from a basic analysis, we can conclude that a belief in free will is logically more compatible with fatalism than a belief in determinism.

Again, I think the accusation of fatalism makes some sense if people are thinking of determinism as this thing that is guiding and dictating events from an outside perspective. It seems pretty similar to the belief in God, and Christians are subject to accusations of fatalism for the same reason. If God is somehow in control of everything, then how are we active agents of our own destiny? But the obvious difference is that determinism is not a being that controls everything for some mysterious purpose, it is not dictating anything, and there is no script somewhere in another dimension written by some eldritch abomination that says we are “supposed to” do this or that.

This whole concept of “tricking” determinism also reminds me of folkloric stories about the Devil. Quebec, as well as many other cultures, has a tradition of stories about people meeting and outwitting Satan, who is often portrayed as a bumbling fool. I can’t help but think that perhaps people instinctively think of determinism in an anthropomorphic way like they do the Devil.

The illusory desire for control.


From Everyday People.

I’ve written about why free will is philosophical and scientific nonsense. But there is a deeper problem with the concept of free will: it’s not even falsifiable.

If free will could be true, it would mean that we can “choose” between alternatives when confronted with a decision. In real life, we can’t prove this in any way because we can’t retake the same decision twice. Every decision is different, and we don’t have a time machine to go back to any decision we’ve taken in the past. So not only is free will not scientifically valid, but free will cannot possibly be scientifically valid!

Sure, one can still believe in free will even though it cannot be scientific. But the same can be said of other unfalsifiable belief systems like Creationism or astrology. So that’s not a particularly interesting question.

Here’s a more interesting question: why do they believe? The way they talk, I think the answer has to do with wanting to feel like you’re in control. They believe that without this belief in free will, humans must necessarily lose control over their morality and become depraved.

You will probably note that this is the exact same thing they say about atheists. I will address this later.

When I talk about “being in control,” I am referring mostly to two things: 1. understanding what’s going on and one’s role with a reassuring certainty and 2. being able to make choices based on these understandings (note: this is not the same thing as the control mentality I’ve discussed before, although obviously they are related). We’re talking here about control at any level: control over oneself, control over family, control over one’s environment, control over life, control over one’s future.

Take a simple example such as Christianity and the afterlife (which represents control over one’s future). The believer knows that there is a Heaven and a Hell, and that people go to either of them when they die. The believer’s duty is to believe in Jesus’ plan of salvation for them. By choosing to do so, one can ensure an afterlife in Heaven, with absolute certainty.

When faced with the rebuttal that ey might not actually go to Heaven, the believer has little response but to reiterate eir faith, because it is the faith that brings certainty. If one has faith, one will go to Heaven. The issue here is not to actually know anything but rather to live in the utmost confidence. Reliance on facts cannot bring certainty and therefore cannot fulfill the desired function of making one feel in control.

Perhaps the most recently famous case of an ideology which sells an extreme form of control is The Secret, which tells you that you can get whatever you wish for, if you wish for it the right way. Another such case is Scientology, which claims that at the highest levels you can achieve “cause over MEST” (mastery of matter, energy, space and time).

Of course such ideologies can never deliver what they sell. But it is also no coincidence that both ideologies are almost ridiculously optimistic, i.e. that suffering is secondary and that one can lead a charmed life, if one follows a certain method to the letter. Optimism, like positive thinking, always buckles under the weight of reality, and control provides the way to reassure oneself that everything is going according to one’s will.

Positive thinking is another ideology which relies heavily on control. I have previously highlighted the proto-fascistic language used to symbolize the amount of control a positive thinker must maintain. It requires the individual to repress natural urges and bottle emself up, a surefire recipe for loss of control and guilt.

Many conspiracy theories feed into this need also. It may seem strange to posit that believing that one is ruled by shadowy and omnipresent forces leads one to feel more in control, but it is the certainty involved in “knowing” the secret truth that is reassuring:

The power structure: government, academia, corporations… take your pick. Whatever flavor of paranoia you favor, it can fit into the widespread panic that shadowy elites are not just in control of your life but actively hiding the truth from you. Clearly, this reflects the complexity of modern society and the alienation many feel from the structures of power, which impact our lives from afar. Unable to understand how society actually functions, it becomes reduced to a conspiracy by powerful elites keeping us from our alien destiny. By revealing this truth, their power will evaporate and you, the powerless Everyman, can finally take your rightful place among the chosen. Yes, you, the lowly middle-class worker drone who hates big government and thinks that PhDs want to keep you oppressed, you too can commune with aliens and stick it to the Man.

Control implies reassurance through belief. In the case of failure of a traditional belief (such as the failure of Creationism), the one thing a control freak can never say is “I don’t know,” because this completely nullifies the effect of belief. Instead of saying “I don’t know,” the believer must either make up false data, or ignore the problem. In real life, individuals and groups will choose one or the other branch as the new tradition to follow (“theistic evolution” or “Intelligent Design”).

Coming back to the issue of depravity resulting from loss of control, I’ve mentioned that free will proponents and religious people share the belief that once you abandon their pet belief system you will lose control of yourself, murder, rape, steal, and so on (that is to say, you will no longer be a moral agent but be reduced to what they see as an animalistic state, even though other species can be moral agents too).

What’s interesting is that it seems to me that the believers implicitly prove that their supposed control is really entirely subjective. Some free will proponents argue that even if free will does not really exist, we must still promote it as a concept because otherwise people will go rampant. So they admit that it is the belief, not the fact of the matter, which retains control. Likewise, religious believers claim that atheists are evil even though [they also believe that] God exists. How is that possible unless it’s the belief that’s operating, not God?

Of course it seems obvious to us that control is subjective. The concept of losing control is hard for people to imagine, but it remains solely in the imagination. Despite the belief that people can “lose control” and become animalistic, there really is no such thing as a nihilist. There are people who claim to be nihilists, but as far as we can tell they behave more or less like everyone else.

The thing about deconversions to atheism and determinism is that they are not a loss of control but a loss of meaning. And a loss of meaning is always temporary, because the creation of meaning is second nature to human beings. We do it all the time whether deliberately or nilly-willy, and we even have whole masses of people whose job is solely to do this for others. It does not take long for a new atheist or determinist to realize the meaning vacuum, and then to start filling it up (so what happens after we die? how does the universe work?).

The human mind, like nature, abhors a vacuum. If nihilism actually means anything, its meaning must lie in that short, unstable period between abandoning one framework of meaning and replacing it with another or others. Such a state cannot be permanent.

I do want to make clear that I am talking here about illusory mental control which really refers to meaning. I am not talking about actual control over one’s bodily or mental functions. That’s an entirely different issue, and one which is genuinely worrisome and scary.

I think we can observe from true believers that control does not work. The more people obsess over being in control, the more that need controls them in turn. The attempt to control oneself leads to obsession which leads to compulsion. The supposed signs of “loss of control” are observed in all kinds of people, including true believers. All that is left is a hollow shell of the procedures which supposedly bring about control, such as religious rituals, self-censorship, aggressiveness and passive-aggressiveness, and childish dogmas.

“So, just kill yourself!”

Some critics of the pessimist often think they have his back to the wall when they blithely jeer, “If this is how this fellow feels, he should either kill himself or be decried as a hypocrite.” That the pessimist should kill himself in order to live up to his ideas may be counterattacked as betraying such a crass intellect that it does not deserve a response. Yet it is not much of a chore to produce one. Simply because someone has reached the conclusion that the amount of suffering in this world is enough that anyone would be better off not having been born does not mean that by force of logic or sincerity he must kill himself. It only means he has concluded that the amount of suffering in this world is enough that anyone would be better off never having been born. Others may disagree on this point as it pleases them, but they must accept that if they believe themselves to have a stronger case than the pessimist, then they are mistaken.

Naturally, there are pessimists who do kill themselves, but nothing obliges them to kill themselves or live with the mark of the hypocrite on their brow.

Thomas Ligotti, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, p.50

Debunking the Objectivist support for free will.


Above: Dilbert becomes an Objectivist, is refuted by Dogbert.

All Objectivists thinkers believe in free will, as far as I know. Some believe in compatibilism, some in pure free will, but none of them accept determinism as applied to the human mind.

Reasons for this have been pretty scarce. Perhaps the best argument was proposed by Nathaniel Branden in The Objectivist Newsletter (May 1963):

The determinist concept of mind maintains that whether a man thinks of not, whether he takes cognizance of the facts of reality or not, whether he holds facts above feelings or feelings above facts – all are determined by forces outside his control; in any given moment or situation, his method of mental functioning is the inevitable product of an endless chain of antecedent factors; *he* has no choice in the matter.

That which a man does, declare the advocates of determinism, he *had* to do – that which he believes, he *had* to believe – if he focuses his mind, he *had* to – if he is guided solely by reason, he *had* to be – if he is ruled instead by feeling or whim, he *had* to be – he *couldn’t* help it.

But if this were true, no *knowledge* would be possible to man. No theory could claim greater plausibility than any other – including the theory of psychological determinism.

Those who expound determinism must either assert that they arrived at their theory by mystical revelation, and thus exclude themselves from the realm of reason – or they must assert that *they* are an exception to the theory they propound, and thus exclude their theory from the realm of truth…

But then how did the advocates of determinism acquire their knowledge? What is its validation? Determinists are conspicuously silent on this point.

If the advocates of determinism insist that their choice to think and their acceptance of reason is conditional, dependent on factors outside their control–which means: that they are not free to test their beliefs against the facts of reality–then they cannot claim to know that their theory is true; they can only report that they feel helpless to believe otherwise. Nor can they claim that their theory is highly probable; they can only acknowledge the inner compulsion that forbids them to doubt that it is highly probable.

Some advocates of determinism, evidently sensing this epistemological dilemma, have sought to escape it by asserting that, although they are determined to believe what they believe, the factor determining them is logic. But by what means do they know this? Their beliefs are no more subject to their control than those of a lunatic. They and the lunatic are equally the pawn of deterministic forces.

Unlike most Objectivists’ evaluation of an opposing ideology, Branden’s description of the corollaries of determinism is actually correct on all points (then again, Branden was always the smarter one). Unfortunately, the actual argument makes no sense. How does determinism imply that no theory can claim greater plausibility? Why does determinism means you can either arrive at any position by mystical revelation or by denying determinism?

I have quoted Branden extensively so you realize that this is his entire argument, that I haven’t hidden some propositions made elsewhere. He just repeats the same argument over and over. You can read the article yourself, but you won’t find anything more. The argument, such as it is, can be summarized thus:

1. Determinists believe their choices, including epistemic choices, are outside of their control.
2. Ergo, determinists cannot know that their beliefs are true.
3. Ergo, determinists cannot know their belief in determinism is true.

But this is a misrepresentation. Determinists are not saying that man is incapable of figuring out whether any belief is true; it is not the case that “they are not free to test their beliefs against the facts of reality.” Branden asks, how do determinists justify their knowledge? The same way everyone else does: with the senses, experiences, motivations, learning and brain that everyone else has. The fact that conscious reasoning happens after unconscious decision-making does not nullify its existence or make it any less valid.

Branden is only stumped by this question because he believes in a worldview where free will is a prerequisite for rationality. If you don’t buy into this a priori relation, then there’s no particular reason to link rationality to either free will or determinism. If such a link exists, I am not aware of it.

Branden’s final point is ludicrous. Neuronormativity aside, whether determinism is true or not, the obvious difference between myself and a “lunatic” surely must lie in the fact that I am not a “lunatic.” I am able to explain the reasoning behind my beliefs in a way that other people could understand (not agree with, but at least understand), while a “lunatic” may not be able to do the same. I am also able to describe the conditions in my personality and the personal experiences that led me to believe something, while a “lunatic” may not be able to do so.

This is what Branden cannot, or will not, understand, because of his a priori belief that free will is axiomatic and that rationality cannot take place without it. The evidence for that belief is non-existent.

Leonard Peikoff used a similar argument in Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand:

When the determinist claims that man is determined, this applies to all of man’s ideas also, including his own advocacy of determinism. Given the factors operating on him, he believes, he had to become a determinist, just as his opponents had no alternative but to oppose him. How then can he know that his viewpoint is true? Are the factors that shape his brain infallible? Does he automatically follow reason and logic? Clearly not; if he did, error would be impossible to him…

If a determinist tried to assess his viewpoint as knowledge, he would have to say, in effect: “I am in control of my mind. I do have the power to decide to focus on reality. I do not merely submit spinelessly to whatever distortions happen to be decreed by some chain of forces stretching back to infinity. I am free, free to be objective, free to conclude — that I am not free.”

This is similar to Branden’s rhetoric, and that part is refuted in the same way; but Peikoff also introduces new errors that were not present in Branden’s argument, which makes it worse. The most obvious error is his bizarre belief that the causal antecedents of a determinist’s brain must be infallible. First of all, I have no idea what it would mean for a “factor that shapes one’s brain” to be infallible; factors cannot be fallible or infallible, only epistemic agents can.

If Peikoff means that the determinist’s brain itself must be infallible and “automatically follow reason and logic,” then the answer must be: why? Why should one be infallible in order to conclude that one specific belief is true? Determinism or not, we all make mistakes, and our ability to ferret out error still exists. As one commentator argued:

A deterministic system doesn’t have to be infallible, it’s sufficient that it in general draws more correct conclusions than false ones. The biological evolution has produced a human brain that is certainly not infallible, but that nevertheless is not a random device that cannot distinguish good evidence from bad evidence. Brains that are not efficient have been weeded out. This is further strengthened by a cultural evolution, where conclusions, results, information can be registered and transmitted to other people and to next generations. If a scientist somewhere draws an incorrect conclusion, this will be sooner or later corrected by others and the thinking machines are flexible enough to accept better explanations, explanations that make things work, creating an increasingly powerful technology, which makes it a self-reinforcing system.

Furthermore, Peikoff’s imagined monologue of a determinist is imbecilic. A determinist would never say things like “I am in control of my mind,” and only in an Objectivist’s wet dream would this ever happen (in fact, it is rather similar to the Christian fantasy stories about what atheists say). So what might a determinist actually say? Perhaps something more like this: “I can be confident about my conclusions because I value understanding reality and I thinks I can provide sufficient evidence to justify my positions, including my position that determinism is valid.”

There is no self-contradiction here because none of the terms involve “choice”: values are derived from our personality and how it interacts with existing ideologies and social roles, evidence is the result of our understanding of reality, justification is a process of formulating evidence and articulating it into cogent arguments.

In essence, these arguments reduce themselves to “you believe that you’re determined, but that includes your belief in determinism, so you’re contradicting yourself! Nyah nyah nyah!” The trouble is that they cannot point out where the contradiction lies. They merely assume the contradiction must exist because Ayn Rand said that free will was axiomatic.

Here is the last argument, again from Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand:

How, then, do we know that man has volition? It is a self-evident fact, available to any act of introspection.

You the reader can perceive every potentiality I have been discussing simply by observing your own consciousness. The extent of your knowledge or intelligence is not relevant here, because the issue is whether you use whatever knowledge and intelligence you do possess. At this moment, for example, you can decide to read attentively and struggle to understand, judge, apply the material — or you can let your attention wander and the words wash over you, half-getting some points, then coming to for a few sentences, then lapsing again into partial focus. If something you read makes you feel fearful or uneasy, you can decide to follow the point anyway and consider it on its merits — or you can brush it aside by an act of evasion, while mumbling some rationalization to still any pangs of guilt. At each moment, you are deciding to think or not to think. The fact that you regularly make these kinds of choices is directly accessible to you, as it is to any volitional consciousness.

Peikoff is confusing choices with their results. I either read attentively or skim, confront points or brush them aside, think or don’t think, but none of this is the result of a conscious decision. Introspection cannot tell you anything about that, unless you’re using a circular argument: I feel that I have free will, therefore I have free will. The determinist’s answer is that our brain makes us feel like we have free will for evolutionary reasons, but this feeling is disproven by every scientific study made on decision-making in the brain. To assume that the way things appear to us personally must be true regardless of all other evidence is extremely naive.

The height of this naivete comes at the very end, where he says that “[a]t each moment, you are deciding to think or not to think.” Obviously I am doing no such thing, at least not consciously. Otherwise I’d be spending every moment of my consciousness making constant “decisions” to think or not to think, which would be trivial since I’d have no time to actually, you know, do anything. The fact that Peikoff thinks this is a good argument is laughable, and demonstrates that he is either psychotic, does not understand what “deciding” means, or actually means a deterministic unconscious “deciding” and doesn’t really believe in free will.

Objectivism is a perfect example of why the free will/determinism issue is so important. Because Objectivists are completely blind to mental biases and instinctual behavior, they completely misunderstand human nature and condemn themselves to failure. The Objectivist movement has turned on itself many times. Ayn Rand herself repudiated most of her closest associated over the years, because she believed all preferences and beliefs were the result of volition, and therefore anyone who disagreed with her on any issue was simply not good enough. In trying to create a rational ideology, she created a cult, because she ignored inborn desires to belong and to conform.

Even more importantly, being blind to mental biases and instinctual behavior makes it completely impossible to understand human beings. Objectivists basically believe that humans are self-generating demigods and that teaching people sociopathic principles can strengthen society. This is a recipe for tyranny and violence on a global scale, and capitalism, which Objectivists defend slavishly, has demonstrated this fact from the get-go.

In her newsletter The Ayn Rand Letter, Rand herself disagreed:

Dictatorship and determinism are reciprocally reinforcing corollaries: if one seeks to enslave men, one has to destroy their reliance on the validity of their own judgments and choices—if one believes that reason and volition are impotent, one has to accept the rule of force.

This is the perfect conclusion because it condenses Branden and Peikoff’s errors into one succinct statement. Rand assumes that believing in determinism entails believing that reason is impotent and that we cannot rely on our judgments. She cannot argue the point because she has no evidence for this. She just knows it must be true. The only difference between Ayn Rand and the advocates of free will at present time is that the latter are getting rather more melodramatic, because they see the end coming and it frightens them. I hope they keep getting frightened.

The unholy triad of the little god…


Image from Something Awful.

It is often said that all philosophical discussions eventually reduce themselves to the free will versus determinism debate. The same could be said about political discussions and the concept of self-ownership. But what is not often said is why that should be the case.

The importance of the debates derives from the fact that everything we think or do is at its core thought and done by human beings. This is a fundamental implicit premise of any philosophical reasoning, and the debates just make it explicit. We have two basic options: either human beings are “little gods” that self-generate everything, which means reality takes a back seat to human action, or human beings are engaged in a process of discovery and reality is primordial.

They are all part of what one might call (to borrow a Creationist term) “human exceptionalism,” the delusion that humans are somehow exceptional by being exceptions to natural law. “Mere animals” do not have free will, are not self-owners, do not construct their own morality, but humans do, somehow, in some vague, fuzzy way.

A human being is not one thing among others; things determine each other, but man is ultimately self-determining. What he becomes—within the limits of endowment and environment—he has made out of himself.
Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

I call this mindset “self-generation,” and we can easily see how it applies to the three members of the free will/relativism/self-ownership triad (which I broached on in my earlier entry on free will as an ideological weapon):

* Free will can be reformulated as the position that individuals self-generate (“choose”) their decisions.
* Relativism can be reformulated as the position that individuals self-generate their morality.
* Self-ownership can be reformulated as the position that individuals self-generate ethics (“I own myself so I decide what’s right for me to do in society”).

What about God-belief? Some people include it as a primary element of the self-generation mindset, but I don’t think it’s primary. Every sect of Christianity has a different conception of what God is and how to follow God’s (subjective) laws, and which set of beliefs one adopts is purely subjective. Christian belief is relativist because the moral rules one adopts is not based on facts but rather on sectarian preference (not to mention that each sect has as much evidence for their moral position as any other).

So relativism is necessary before we even have a conception of God, at least in Christianity. As other thinkers have noted, relativism and subjectivism go hand in hand; a subjective moral principle is not likely to connect to any standard that transcends the individual point of view (e.g. to exhibit moral realism and not moral relativism).

And the Christian belief in God itself leads to belief in free will and self-ownership. An atheist may still hold such beliefs, but that’s usually because they’re holdovers from Judeo-Christian thought. Still, the possibility of a consistent atheistic adherence to the triad cannot be rejected, which means Christianity cannot be its fundamental basis.

Christianity is relativist in two ways. One is what I’ve already pointed out, that the sects’ moral principles are all equally valid on the sole basis of their supposed adherence to the Bible. The other is in the belief that God created everything, including morality. Whatever God decides is good, is good, regardless of existing facts.

Each element of the triad is dependent on the other two, so disproof of one of them casts serious doubts on the others. To take an easy example, when (not if) free will is conclusively disproven, Austrian economics, which for decades has been a major support for capitalism, will also have been conclusively disproven, since it holds “choice” as its foundation (see the Axiom of Human Action). Likewise, a radical position against self-ownership means that free will is rather unlikely, since self-ownership is predicated on (the self) being in control of one’s body.

In this way, it seems relevant to me that Wikipedia describes the sense of agency as being intertwined with the sense of (self-)ownership:

The “sense of agency” (SA) refers to the subjective awareness that one is initiating, executing, and controlling one’s own volitional actions in the world.[1] It is the pre-reflective awareness or implicit sense that it is me who is presently executing bodily movement(s) or thinking thoughts. In normal, non-pathological experience, the SA is tightly integrated with one’s “sense of ownership” (SO), which is the pre-reflective awareness or implicit sense that one is the owner of an action, movement or thought.

The three concepts all depend on each other for justification, because they represent different interconnected facets of a coherent (if nonsensical) mindset.

I call the triad the “little god” because each of its parts involve giving humans some kind of element that goes beyond the natural world. When we look at the natural world, we come to certain moral or ethical conclusions, such as that genocide is evil. Indeed, most “little god” believers will usually agree with these conclusions. But when we apply the conclusions to their belief systems (for example, genocide in the Bible narratives), they balk and argue that God decided that genocide was good and that’s that. But for this new conclusion to also be true requires there to be something more than the natural world, some supernatural process or entity that can somehow overrides normal morality (in this case, God).

This sort of contradiction does not only apply only to Christianity, but to all forms of relativism. Take for example cultural relativism and its justification of atrocities such as footbinding, female circumcision, suttee or the Inquisition. Academics have an almost endless fountain of justification available to them (for examples, see Gyn/Ecology by Mary Daly). And yet equivalent acts, but acts which do not perpetuate the status quo, would be considered atrocious by most, if not all, people.

Suppose, for instance, that gangs of theologians were going around torturing and murdering women, or that parents started chopping off their babies’ ears a few days after their birth. I’m pretty sure that everyone, except the offenders, would be outraged (when the police or jailers do the torturing, on the other hand, we’re not outraged because this maintains the status quo).

In the case of free will, the non-natural element is obvious: for there to be something contra-causal, there must be something non-natural, whether it is a soul or a quantum process in the brain (or some other kind of “pure randomness”).

God himself is said to have complete free will (but also omniscience, however that’s supposed to work), to be the supreme owner, and the ultimate relativist (whatever he says, goes). So he’s a perfect fit for the unholy triad.

The funny thing is that many people engaged in worshipping “little gods” insist that they are being “objective” (others, like New Agers, don’t really care and only want to indulge in their pretend divinity as much as possible). A lot of the demonization and political rationalizations going around actually exist to try to prove that the profound subjectivism of the triad is actually an inexorable law of nature or is based on laws of nature. So you get absurd positions which state that it is a law of nature that there is this domain (the human mind, morality, politics) where there are no laws of nature.

This then provides the opportunity for the “experts” to affirm the absolute truth of the lack of truth, the freedom of tyranny. Self-ownership “proves” voluntaryism, which “proves” capitalism, which “proves” the need for neo-liberalist policies (which crush the lives of the dispossessed around the world). Free will “proves” total personal responsibility, which “proves” the evilness of the dispossessed (poor, “immigrants,” people persecuted by the government, invalids, and so on), which grounds hatred against the dispossessed (for an example, here is an entry from Femanon discussing how this is applied to women). Cultural relativism “proves” the validity of evil cultural practices, which grounds implicit or explicit approval of those practices (said practices being mostly used against the dispossessed).

Another property they share is their chilling effect on scientific inquiry and intellectual curiosity. This is especially true with free will, as its proponents are outright hostile to the examination of the causes of human actions (especially criminal ones). Through voluntaryism, self-ownership blocks awareness of the effects of people’s “voluntary” actions on others. Relativism prevents one from examining the validity of other people’s moral principles and measuring them to ours. In all cases, we are enjoined to stop thinking and stop evaluating. We are invited to cheer for “freedom” and are told that anyone who objects to these magical, contra-causal ideas is against “freedom.” We are told that systemic analysis is intolerant and wrong, that only the individual creative intent matters.

So it’s important to keep in mind what these concepts lead us to. Free will leads us to pride, but it also leads to demonization and revenge. Self-ownership leads us to a feeling of control, but it also leads to voluntaryism and free market capitalism. Relativism leads us to tolerance, but it also leads us to genocide. In all cases the negatives are many orders of magnitude more important than the positives.

“Human exceptionalism” and free will…


Being human is just the bees’ knees and the cat’s pajamas!

In an issue of the “Human Exceptionalist,” a newsletter put out by the naturalism deniers at the Discovery Institute, an infamous Creationist outlet, there was a passage concerning free will that I thought illustrates well some of the arguments used to defend it, as well as the relation between the fairy tale of free will and the fairy tale of Creationism.

RationalWiki explains “human exceptionalism” in this way:

The most recent usage of the term can be found in Discovery Institute propaganda. Like intelligent design, it’s basically creationism (specifically, baraminology) in a funny hat…

The rationale is that western civilization “depends on accepting the moral importance of being human,” and a conspiracy of “powerful and bounteously financed ideological forces in seemingly unrelated but actually symbiotically connected fields such as bioethics, radical environmentalism, neo-Darwinism, scientific materialism, animal rights, and futuristic transhumanism, assert with mounting vigor that being human is morally irrelevant.” Western civilisation is good, therefore creationism should be true…

So let me get into the article, which starts with “Dear Exceptional Human:” (if you remember that this newsletter is exclusively for Creationists, you will get the irony of that). It continues:

Free will is one of the crucial moral attributes that distinguishes human beings from animals.

Already we’re in troubled waters. Apparently human beings are not animals but… something else. Well, that’s the natural consequence of believing in free will. But let’s soldier on:

That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t take the increasing attacks on free will seriously, such as the proselytizing atheist, Sam Harris’s, newest book Free Will. If we have no free will, moral agency is actually a fiction. Without free will, we are reduced to so many automaton slaves of our genes, chemicals, whatever, overlords. In such a worldview, no one could be held morally accountable for their own actions since their biology would have made them do it.

Moreover, if humans have no free will, we are not really moral agents. Once we accepted that premise, the bases for judging behavior and establishing moral standards would eventually collapse.

This is a wonderful Argument from Armageddon. Every time I hear such an argument, I can just imagine the person declaiming this from a pulpit somewhere, with a thundering booming voice, slamming their fist on the pulpit at the right times.

The funny thing about all such arguments is that they are basically correct. The rejection of free will does entail a major crisis in Western civilization. And it’s coming, whether they like it or not. They know it, and it makes them want to rant and rave. They want to raise their hind legs and proclaim “human exceptionalism” to all and sundry.

That being said, I don’t believe that naturalism entails that we are not really moral agents or that there are no moral standards; all it means is that we can’t have “absolute” moral standards, of the kind Christians profess allegiance to (but don’t actually have).

Destroying the unique dignity of man, would, for many, make God go away. Ironically, that would elevate us back into sense of superiority (as opposed to exceptionalism), since in a Godless milieu, our unique “god-like” capabilities would make us even more remarkable, with no theists around urging humility in the face of a Creator. Perhaps, that is the point.

I don’t really understand what this passage means. We have no “god-like” capabilities (insofar as the concept of God means anything). Free will would definitely be a “god-like” capability, if we had it, but we don’t. There is nothing that clearly distinguishes us from other animals, not even the eagerness in which humans adopt absurdly false beliefs like Creationism.

And now we come to the treat:

Of course, if humans are just another animal in the forest, why not treat some of us—those with the least power and who are the most vulnerable—as mere natural resources. Alas, some of the wealthy among us look to the bodies of the destitute as so many corn crops to be harvested, or rented. Biological colonialism strikes just such a beat, for example, purchasing the kidneys of the destitute and renting the wombs of poor women—sometimes with deadly result.

I wanted to analyze this because the belief that determinism leads to tyranny through objectification is a point I haven’t gone into yet. I have, however, stated that determinism leads to the end of demonization, and objectification is often a result of demonization. But that’s not quite enough.

What I can say, however, is that the reasoning above is flawed because it fails to consider that “the wealthy,” of course, see themselves as having free will, and it is their victims that they consider to be “mere natural resources.” They do not see themselves as “mere natural resources.” So to use this as an argument for determinism is a straw man. In the determinist perspective, everyone is equally blameless and equally “just animals.”

It is incongruous for Christian Creationists to pretend that they don’t support hierarchical systems, as they believe in the hierarchies of Creator/created, saved/unsaved, God/men/women, and so on. It is also extremely ironic that in a country where Christianity backs capitalist exploitation and has wholeheartedly adopted it as its mode of operation, Discovery Institute is trying to badmouth capitalist exploitation. Neo-liberalism (and by extension, modern capitalism and our Western lifestyles) is predicated on treating half of the world as a natural resource to be exploited. Is the Discover Institute ready to fight against that, too? No… no they are not.

Putting capitalism aside, I come back again to my factory analogy. If you say that some people might break into the factories and start using the machines for their own gain, I’d say you’ve lost the plot of the analogy: we are all machines, not just some of us. And the idea of a machine trying to exploit another is just silly. It is just aberrant programming that needs to be corrected.

The thing with free will is that it’s not something that some people can have and not others: either we all have it, or no one has it. You can’t come out and say that a tyrant has free will but his victims don’t. From a naturalist perspective, the tyrant is just as blameless as his victims, and should be considered as a defective machine like any other violent criminal or psychotic. What we should be doing, first of all, is finding out what power they are using to bring about their tyrannical ends, and abolish the sources of that power or, if this is found impossible, equalize the power as much as possible.

The belief that naturalism entails seeing others as a means to an end relies on the same fallacy. To whose end would anyone be a means for, if no one is in control? In order to see people as means to an end, we must first posit someone who is more than part of a causal chain and who can turn others into tools for eir ends. But there is really nothing that exists to be an end for, just causality.

Another theory, this time from the Left, is that without agency we cannot fight back against tyranny and propose alternative structures. But this is as abstruse as the claim that without free will we can never change our mind. At the very least, it remains unproven that the free will perspective can deal more effectively with tyranny than a naturalist perspective. It seems to me that a frank analysis and uprooting of the causes of evil is a more effective way to deal with evil than punishment without any sort of change.

Tyranny doesn’t come from seeing people as machines, but rather from not seeing yourself as a machine, as something greater (contra-causal), while believing that everyone else is innately evil and depraved. This can only come from belief in free will. In the free will perspective, the dispossessed are responsible for their own powerlessness, and indeed deserve to be powerless. No matter how much they insist on the reverse, the free will perspective does not and cannot allow for human dignity, because any human being’s worth will always depend on eir self-created “choices.”

The relation between Creationism and free will is not discussed at all in this piece, but it is implied that this Creationist newsletter supports free will because God is its source, and that this all has to do with the Christian worldview. Creationists do well to panic about the imminent defeat of free will, since Creationism relies on divine free will, supernatural creation from thought alone.

Evolution, on the other hand, is incompatible with the existence of free will, because natural selection and mutations operate on physical factors, through DNA. There can be no evolution or adaptation of supernatural processes in evolution, because the reproductive processes that act on the information in DNA synthesize proteins, not supernatural entities.

This, of course, would be a surprise to those who argue for some secular form of free will. I don’t expect to convince them that they believe in a spook, even though they are. To them, the “intuition” that they have free will trumps both evidence and basic logic.

As for the topic of human exceptionalism, studies have shown that it is actually natural for people to believe that humans somehow function differently than other things around them, even when they are told to assume determinism. So perhaps human exceptionalism, in a more sophisticated form than that presented by vulgar Christians, is one of those mental models that will be hard to root out of popular culture even after determinism wins the day.

Free will as an ideological weapon…


From Mimi and Eunice.

The belief in free will (in the self as the partial or total creator of its decisions) is so patently absurd that the fact that so many people, even people educated in science, still adhere to it must give us some pause. It is, in that sense, very similar to the debate around God or statism. Why do people cling to these obviously nonsensical and discredited models?

The answer, of course, is morality. People cling to God, statism and free will, whether they believe these concepts are discredited or not, because they believe that said concepts are necessary to maintain morality (whether in society or as an abstract concept).

Another obvious correlation is that both the God debate and the free will debate are showdowns between a supernaturalist, anti-science perspective and a naturalist, pro-science perspective. To admit of the existence of supernatural entities or processes (such as a soul, free will mechanism or god) is to shut science down a priori and affirm intuitive “proofs” as its masters. To affirm the supernatural is to write a “here be dragons” on our map of reality, is to gloat of a final victory for irrationality; for if we thought any such area could one day be uncovered by science, we would not call it supernatural, merely still unexplained.

I know that free will proponents would not agree that this is what they are doing. They have hidden this fact to themselves through the use of a variety of projections. To prove my point, I am going to list a few of these.

Before I begin, let me give some simple definitions for the two sides of this debate. Naturalists are people who believe human actions can be solely explained by prior (naturalist) causes. Free will proponents are people who believe that this is not the case; some believe human actions cannot be explained at all by prior (naturalist) causes, and some believe human actions can be partially, but not completely, explained by prior (naturalist) causes.

* One may argue that denying free will is contradictory because communicating this denial implies that one chose to communicate in the first place. If the person did not choose to communicate, then, since the intent is lacking, the communication cannot be meaningful.

Those of you who know ancap rhetoric will recognize this argument as the identification of a performative contradiction (which occurs when the act of stating a proposition contradicts the proposition itself, such as saying “I am dead” in a literal sense).

It is however not clear how denying free will is a performative contradiction, since it’s not clear at all how not having free will means one cannot communicate meaningfully or intend to communicate meaningfully. All it means is that our intent to communicate has prior causes.

If we look at free will proponents who believe our actions have no prior causes, however, we do end up with a problem. If we are having a discussion and I come to believe that your intent to communicate is based on no prior cause, such as what I have just communicated to you, then how can I believe that it’s meant as a reply to what I said? Again the hard problem of free will (the impossibility of free will proponents to point out how their supernatural mechanism interacts with the natural world) rears its head.

This is basically an attempt to reduce the debate to the issue of choice and to argue that we obviously choose what we do. But this is not an argument, merely a restatement of the free will position. It is not at all “obvious.”

* Free will proponents argue that we all possess a deep intuition that we are contra-causal agents, and that this is sufficient proof that free will actually exists. This seems rather unlikely to me. I experience my beliefs and my decisions as the results of prior causes, and I can’t imagine what it would even be like to experience myself as some kind of ghostly self-creative entity. How could they possibly know this is what they are experiencing? I think it is more likely that they are trying to hide to themselves the fact that their own intuitions contradict what they believe.

* Another argument used is that if determinism was true, then we couldn’t change our minds, or alternately that there is no point in doing anything because fatalism becomes true. From a determinist perspective, this is a bizarre argument; everything is in a state of flux, everything changes, so why wouldn’t human minds change as well? Under determinism, it is unchanging minds that would be surprising, not changing minds. Under the free will perspective, however, it’s hard to understand why people would change their minds, since they are not subject to physical change, or why proponents do not think fatalism is an issue.

* Finally, there is an argument that determinism is an attack on human dignity. Seen from a determinist perspective, this is a weird criticism; how does seeing human beings as integral parts of the natural world attack human dignity? The alternative we’re looking at is a fairy tale, that there is some kind of supernatural self governing human beings on a random or unfathomable basis; how is that not an attack against human dignity?

Free will rhetoric itself is really all smoke and mirrors. But if you realize that it’s coupled with the belief that people are innately evil, then it’s a whole other ball of wax, because then people can have their cake and eat it too (talk about mixing metaphors). With this, one can both refuse to explore human behavior and provide a simplistic explanation for human behavior at the same time; the explanation merely reinforces the need not to look any further.

Ultraconservative Dinesh D’Souza is a staunch opponent of determinism and provides us with a good example quote:

If neither society nor genes made them do it, what did? The third possibility is that they did it because they are evil. This option, so easily scorned by sophisticates, is actually the clearest and most satisfying description of the facts before us. This was an evil act, and it was done by some really bad people. Evil inspires indignation, and this indignation is not a mere emotional response but reflects a rational comprehension of the horror that has been perpetrated.

You see, D’Souza rejects the possibility that we can explain murderers’ behavior through analyzing cause and effect, so he gets to keep his belief in free will and “choice.” But at the same time, he does provide an explanation: the murderers were “evil” and “really bad people” (another common example is when criminals are called “monsters”).

We have a superficial contradiction and a deeper contradiction here. The first is, how can the murderers have made the contra-causal “choice” of killing people if they were already “evil people”? If they really are “evil people,” then they were just doing what “evil people” do, and there can be no further talk of “choice.” So D’Souza ironically proves that he believes in determinism, he just disagrees what the causes of behavior are (not society, not genes, but some innate evil nature).

The deeper contradiction here is, if this is a correct account of murderers, then why do most people not commit murder? Since D’Souza does not believe in determinism, no cause in the world can prevent us from being “evil people.” So why are we not all “evil people”? Do we simply lack the opportunity? But plenty of murderers kill others in circumstances in which they are easily caught. Why are we not all doing this?

Either way, it should be obvious that a society full of such sociopaths would disintegrate in short order. So D’Souza’s position is a logical impossibility. This is unlikely to bother people like D’Souza who argue against determinism not out of an actual desire to know the truth but out of a desire to support their failed religious worldview.

It is my contention that for a lot of people, especially those who know what the debate is all about, free will is used as an ideological weapon in support of certain worldviews, many of which oppose each other (capitalist voluntaryists, fundamentalist Christians, law and order statists, New Age hucksters, etc). What sort of weapon is it?

Free will is part of a set of dangerous ideas which hold that the individual somehow self-generates its own meaning and purpose in a vacuum. These ideas also include self-ownership and moral/ethical relativism (in which I include the extreme form of individualism as well, where the individual is said to create eir own morality). These three ideas have one obvious common property: they all serve to occlude reality and permit the flourishing of evil.

I’ve already commented on the fact that collapsing into one’s self leads to people being incapable of standing up to tyranny. In that regard, free will is the perfect complement to self-ownership and relativism; the latter produce tyrannical social institutions, while free will permits the demonization and subsequent desire for revenge that makes the rise and flourishing of such institutions possible.

In some cases, the association between free will and tyrannical institutions is out in the open, like in the case of people who argue against determinism on the basis that it eliminates the desire for revenge which is at the basis of our “justice” system. The fact that there are some intellectuals who are willing to go at bat for tyranny shouldn’t be too surprising. But most do not, at least not openly.

Free will advocates may reply that my deterministic worldview does not allow for political freedom. This is correct… in a certain sense. It depends on what kind of political freedom we’re talking about.

If we’re talking about the traditional notion of political freedom as “freedom from coercion” or “freedom to make our own choices,” then no, that kind of freedom is impossible. Here is one such definition:

…[W]e are free to the extent our actions flow from our character-based motives and desires, not from coercion or duress.

As determinism makes clear, our “choices” are not “our own,” but rather are molded by social and institutional forces. As John Kenneth Galbraith discusses in The Anatomy of Power, incentives and conditioning are merely an extension of the use of force, all three being aspects of what we call power- the ability to control minds. There is therefore no reason to arbitrarily state that someone who is free from coercion has “freedom,” when ey is still subject to a different kind of control over eir mind.

A study showed that this is an intuitive conclusion:

But now suppose we introduce a somewhat fanciful thought experiment. Suppose that a skillful manipulator has set things up from the very beginning of your life to make sure that you perform a particular action. He carefully arranged your whole childhood, exposing you to certain friends, certain TV shows, etc. In the end, his plan works perfectly. You end up acquiring exactly the beliefs, desires and values he wanted you to have, and as a result of having those psychological states, you perform exactly the action he was trying to get you to perform…

[from the study results:] Incompatibilists and compatibilists (mostly) agree that there is a strong intuition that a manipulated agent, i.e., an agent who is the victim of methods such as indoctrination or brainwashing, is unfree.

It’s obvious that this “thought experiment” is more or less what happens to all of us when we grow up, except that the manipulators (our parents, our schools, the media, government, etc) do not have a specific action in mind. They just want you to become a “good” child/student/citizen/worker.

I do believe in freedom from all control as a sort of ideal. It would be nice if we could both live in organized society while being free from incentives or conditioning, but it’s impossible. Obviously I’d rather live in a society where the influence of incentives and conditioning on my decisions is as limited as possible, and we can continue to call this limitation on power “freedom” (i.e. freedom is a state of society where power is limited to a greater extent).

I point out the error in this concept of “freedom” because it creates an illusory dichotomy, between coercion on one hand and incentives and conditioning on the other. This is dangerous because people can be subject to all sorts of incentive systems and conditioning systems and still believe they are “free” (a la Brave New World, or as exemplified by the way we fail to pay attention to dangerous cults today because they do not use physical violence). This therefore permits the existence of any tyrannical institution or system.

People who have read my entries on voluntaryism should notice a similarity here, because this is more or less what voluntaryism does: it hides the operation of incentive systems and conditioning systems and declares the individual “free to choose.” So we get the absurdity of people living in poverty being “free to choose” to live in a factory in a state of near-slavery or Indian women who were “free to choose” to commit suttee.

I have not yet touched, however, on what is by far the most important way in which free will is used to support tyranny, its support of demonization and revenge.

Suppose you work in a factory that houses a number of machines that produce cars. One of these machines starts to malfunction and produces cars that blow up when they crash. What would be your feelings towards this machine? Would you be angry at the machine? Would you think the machine is evil? Would you want to destroy it?

You’re probably not psychotic, so no. You wouldn’t demonize the machine, nor would you want revenge done to the machine. It’s just a machine. You’d want it to be fixed, and you’d want to know that there are better safety standards in place, but you wouldn’t call it evil.

When we accept determinism, we slowly come to the understanding that human beings are nothing more than complex organic machines which are programmed by their genetics and the inputs that they have received. There is no reason to be angry at people, call them evil, demonize them, or punish them for what they do. Doing so is as psychotic as demonizing and punishing a machine.

What this means, amongst other things, is the end of the legal system as we know it, given that it is made to enact revenge for criminal acts. This is highlighted by the fact that the “justice” system is predicated on free will:

It is embarrassing, to say the least, that proof of criminal guilt depends on blocking plausible explanations of both behavior and character, but in fact this is what the law requires. For, it is widely supposed, once we allow that a person’s acts or essence are explicable in terms of cause and effect, the primary basis for responsibility – the freely willed choice – evaporates. Unless the agent somehow acted on its own (or created itself) in some important respect independently of influences and circumstances, we forfeit the fundamental retributive justification for punishment. The prosecution therefore wanted the jury to believe that the essential Susan Smith, the self-agent-controller pulling her own strings, deserved capital punishment for an act that she alone originated.

So in essence, the “justice” system punishes people on the basis of a pseudo-scientific worldview. And while our “justice” system needs free will to exist, the “justice” system is also used as evidence that we need to maintain belief in free will, so it’s ultimately a circular argument. The fact that free will is false, and therefore should not be believed, cannot be disproved by looking at an institution which is founded on free will. The people who say the “justice” system “works” and must be preserved are assuming that revenge is valid, and therefore that free will is true.

Of course, there are plenty of things that are evil with the “justice” system. This is just one of them.

Interestingly, as the quote notes, the “justice” system does allow for plausible explanations of a person’s acts, such as “insanity.” “Insanity defenses” and other such explanations are deterministic, in that they presume that there may be some cause to a certain human action. It is only when such explanations fail that free will is declared operational. “Little god” of the gaps?

There is something fundamentally wrong in declaring the desire for revenge the best reason we have to maintain belief in free will. Think about it. The desire for revenge is a primal instinct, and in order to maintain the illusion that our actions are not caused, we should let this instinct cause our actions.

Another institution which could not continue to exist in its current form is war, as war relies heavily on the demonization of the enemy. This is not to say that the absence of demonization would make war impossible, but that it would take a very different form. For one thing, it would be impossible to create enemies out of whole cloth like we do today through media campaigns.

Demonization is another process which unites both the concepts of free will and innate evil. In order to demonize the “enemy,” one must believe two contradictory things: one, that the “enemy” is “fully responsible” for their actions, and two, that the “enemy” is somehow evil and therefore must be exterminated. This is just as nonsensical as D’Souza’s treatment of criminals.

But I think it’s about even more than support of specific institutions. Free will can be used as a weapon against pretty much anyone. Consider for example that the people who benefit from prostitution are justified by determinist explanations (“they can’t help it!”) but the victims are blamed on the basis of free will (“they chose to do this!). Now look at this pattern elsewhere. You will find that blame is always given on the basis of some “freedom of choice,” while excuses for people’s behavior will often follow determinist patterns. This is the basis of “hatred through personal responsibility.”

Now think about what people say about religion: “but for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.” Now that’s not entirely correct, as many other worldviews can do the trick, but what is it exactly about religion that does this? The first step is the acceptance of some fixed idea, like the existence of God. And you might say that this is the whole trick.

But morality does not necessarily change even with this fixed idea, because there is a vast gulf between divine obligation and moral obligation. So there are missing steps there.

I think one of those steps is free will. When we look at ourselves from a determinist perspective, there is no reason to believe that we should act in any way but that which conforms to our personal values. It takes belief in free will to make a person believe that they should act in ways which conflict with eir personal values. To the machine that is a human being, religion will always be an outside programming and cannot be primary (one must first judge the Bible or Christianity from one’s own standards before accepting it).

So it’s no surprise that all Christian sects put emphasis on belief in the soul and the dichotomy between “the world” (“sin”) and “God” (“salvation”). If you think of yourself as a self-caused agent, then you give yourself the justification to compartimentalize yourself, and to reject what is good in you in order to rationalize doing evil.

Now I think we can grasp the proper scope of the free will debate, as well as why philosophical discussions always seem to come back to it. The analogy with self-ownership and relativism (the other two parts of the triad) is striking, since it seems that all political discussions come back to the former, and all moral or ethical discussions come back to the latter. They all come down on whether the individual is self-created or if ey is the product of outside forces (free will can be briefly described as self-caused decisions, relativism as self-caused morality and self-ownership as self-caused ethics).

In all cases, we are invited to cheer for “freedom” and are told that anyone who objects to these magical, contra-causal ideas is against “freedom.” We are told that systemic analysis is intolerant and wrong, that only the individual creative intent matters, that we should ignore the facts unless they reinforce the status quo.

It seems to me that this ardent desire to ignore patterns is as inane as the Creationists’ desire to ignore the patterns in the changes in lifeforms. Both free will advocates and Creationists basically don’t want you to use your brain and draw conclusions regarding patterns that are all around us.

One of the reasons I find this attitude so fascinating is that it strikes me as a direct repudiation of a singular, vital, and noble aspect of humanity – the ability, and desire, to aggregate multiple (sometimes apparently disparate) bits of information into connected events, which, when considered in the light of experience with cause and effect, can be crafted into hypotheses, and eventually knowledge. Humans tease patterns out of associated observations. It’s part of our cognitive structure to acknowledge and collate connections that go on to form the basis for understanding.

To compound the chilling effect, some proponents of free will go so far as to propose that we keep people in ignorance of the non-existence of free will, because spreading that knowledge would make people lose their sense of ethics. They point to a study in particular which demonstrated that when students were exposed to determinist messages, they were more likely to cheat on a test.

This should be a familiar story to people who were raised religious and deconverted to atheism, or who have read such stories. There is sometimes a phase where the individual has rejected the religious beliefs but hasn’t yet integrated the alternatives, and asks always the same questions: “what is good and evil?”, “where do I go when I die?” and “why does anything matter?” For a period of days or weeks, you live in a sort of suspension where your entire life is in upheaval.

There’s no reason to think that people confronted with determinist-priming sentences won’t react in the same way, at first. We should expect them to feel demoralized, shocked, flirting with nihilism, and so on. After a while, however, people will get used to determinist thinking, will realize that their values are still there inside of them, and will realize there’s no reason for them to follow anything else.

What we stand to lose: our sense of self-aggrandizement, blame and revenge, our support of inequality and violence, and ultimately our support of evil institutions:

it seems to me that to casually (sic) deny free will invites the total collapse of every human institution, from law, to the family to the notion of the self – it reduces us to automata. Billiard balls with legs. Wind us up, show us a certain image or ideal, and we act – senselessly and without individual volition… Worse, if we’re robots, then what’s the bloody point? Of anything?

I find this to be a delicious ironic quote, because it reveals the truth (I think we should call such grandstanding oratories about the imminent naturalist collapse of society Arguments from Armageddon). Three cheers for the supposedly upcoming collapse of the law and the family, then, although I think that may be a bit optimistic. But what’s the bloody point, indeed, of the notion of the self? We’re better off without it, billiard balls with legs or not. Good show, wot?

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