Category Archives: Pessimism

Analytical Freedom trying to defend “agency.”

The blog Analytical Freedom, ran by someone who is pro-capitalism and thinks writing like an academic makes that proposition seem reasonable, is unworthy of discussion. There’s no point discussing with someone who’s head is so far up their ass that they actually think capitalism is a good idea. But I wanted to use their silly entry against my entries on “agency” to illustrate the arguments that such types bring to bear when defending what is basically the strategy of blaming the victim.

Analytical Freedom’s argument is a version of “I know what you are, but what am I.” Basically, they argue that my attacks against “blaming the victim” themselves are a form of “blaming the victim”:

Tremblay states that “no individual has the power to change the institutions in which they live” and dismisses the possibility as “magic”. This assumption is based on a similar premise as the first one; minority communities are on every level incapable of altering their patterns of behavior into more beneficial ones. While it might seem tempting to blame outside forces as the sole reason for the lack of development in certain communities, such a theory would be hard-pressed to explain large differences between communities of the same demographic by completely ignoring the effect of in-group institutions.

Even though they quoted me accurately, they obviously didn’t read it well. I clearly wrote “no individual,” and was referring to individual human beings, not groups or communities. The full quote was:

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.

My point was that defining “agency” as “the ability of people to change the institutions in which they live” makes no sense because individuals (who supposedly possess agency) can’t “change the institutions in which they live.” Saying that a single individual has “agency,” meaning that they can somehow magically change the institutions that govern their actions, means blaming the victim because any victim of those institutions can be blamed for not changing those institutions.

How does one go from that to “minority communities are on every level incapable of altering their patterns of behavior into more beneficial ones”? I’ve said nothing like that at all, whatever “beneficial patterns of behavior” are; from my perspective those would be patterns of resistance, and it is quite obvious that communities are able to resist oppression.

But Analytical Freedom has failed to demonstrate that this ability stems from some magical individual capacity and not, as always, from institutional incentives. As proof, his own explanation is… based on institutional incentives! The fact that these institutions are in-group instead of out-group does not change the nature of the incentives.

Despite Analytical Freedom’s complaint that agency and free will are not that similar, advocates of free will use the same stupid objection: you must believe that individuals can’t change for the better and make better decisions. But they are confusing natural law or social laws with fatalism, and that’s a purely arbitrary decision. It would make as much sense to argue that, in the absence of free will, individuals can’t get worse or make terrible decisions.

Given how they end the paragraph I quoted, I know what Analytical Freedom is really talking about. When they say that “communities with behavior patterns grounded on values such as cohesion, individual responsibility and respect for physical integrity and property” provide more “choices” to their members, this is veiled racist-speak. Of course, racists don’t outright state their beliefs, as that’s unacceptable nowadays, but I think it’s pretty clear.

With this being dealt with, let me look at some other considerations brought up by the author:

The second assumption taken for granted is that an unequal amount of choices available during interaction necessarily indicates the presence of oppression or the lack of consent. However, a wealthy, well-educated laborer might very well have less available options in comparison to his employer, this does not render him in a state of oppression. Additionally, it is unclear what degree of choice a person needs to possess in order for them to be oppressed.

I have no idea what part of my entries Analytical Freedom is referring to here, but it doesn’t make any sense. Anyone who reads my blog would know that I don’t believe in “choices” to begin with, so I wouldn’t associate a greater or lower quantity of them with oppression. What does indicate the presence of oppression is, for example, being a subordinate in a hierarchy… something which a laborer is, in comparison to their employer.

I think this is supposed to be another blaming the victim argument, similar to “but they could have left at any time” rhetoric used to intimidate victims of spousal abuse, bad workplace conditions, cults, and so on. I assume Analytical Freedom would say that the laborer is not being oppressed because he can leave any time he wants. This is just more silly “agency” rhetoric without connection to the real world (as capitalist rhetoric usually is).

The fact that some women and ex-prostitutes oppose prostitution is completely irrelevant. Many women and prostitutes openly endorse prostitution, and the point of the quote was exactly that these prostitutes are silenced when universally painted as victims simply for selling sex. The fact that some prostitutes lack choice does not mean that every prostitute is a victim devoid of choice, responsibility, and accountability.

This is a bizarre reply because Analytical Freedom is now openly blaming prostituted women for being prostituted by saying they are accountable for their status. So much for their previous accusation of projection.

Either way, this is a complete non sequitur. There is no relation between portraying prostituted women as victims of an institution (which they are) and silencing those prostituted women. That makes no more sense than saying that calling poor people victims of capitalism (an analogy which Analytical Freedom would hate, I’m sure) means you’re silencing poor people. It’s a statement of fact about the status given to those people in society.

Many prostituted women support prostitution. This is not unexpected: people whose livelihood depends on a certain institution have an incentive in defending that institution, no matter what it’s doing to them. This does not mean that we should silence them. What it does mean is that we should take anything they say with a grain of salt, just as we would take what a politician says about a corporation financing his campaign with a grain of salt. That’s just common sense.

Taking the full measure of this hateful concept called “agency.”

From Sidewalk Bubblegum.

I’ve already written quite a bit about free will and agency, and it may seem like a rather abstract subject to discuss. But to liberals, agency is increasingly becoming the be-all and end-all of ethics; they are eager to sacrifice the well-being and lives of millions of women and POC in its name. So it behooves us to be very careful indeed about this agency business and name it for what it is.

I’ve already made the case that “agency” really means blaming the victim. But I think looking at uses of free will gives us some more clues as to the nature of agency. Because free will, after all, is nothing more than the philosophical term for agency, which is a more recent sociological term.

No proponent is eager to point that out, and for good reason: free will is being increasingly discredited by our recently acquired knowledge of the brain and by modern scientific experiments, and more and more thinkers and scientists are rallying to the side of determinism. And if free will is discredited, then so is agency. If free will is a regressive concept which leads us to a conceptual dead end, then so is agency.

My new point on free will is this: we commonly associate active characters, people who take charge of their lives, people who get things done, with free will and passive characters, people who are subjected to events, with determinism. People argue that if determinism is true, then we must all become passive victims of fate, unable to change anything in our lives.

On the face of it, this is nonsense: determinism is a causal issue, and our active or passive nature is a personality issue, so there’s no direct relation between the two. There are still, and will always be, active and passive people regardless of what anyone thinks about the nature of reality. In that sense, it’s as ridiculous as a Christian doubting the kindness of a person because they just learned that they’re an atheist; how could one abstract concept make you doubt the evidence of your own eyes?

But the association of volition with activity is interesting from a political standpoint. Who is categorized or portrayed as active, agents of change, leaders? Men, white people, adults. Who is categorized or portrayed as passive? Women, POC, children.

Well, isn’t that interesting? Look at who’s blamed by the concept of “agency,” who the liberals are pointing fingers at: it’s used against women in pornography and prostitution (“they decided to be abused!”), and it’s used against POC in capitalism (“they chose those jobs!”) and police abuse (“they want to live the thug life!”).

But who actually has the power to act otherwise? Well, rich people, for one. People who have a higher social standing, people who have more power in general, have a lot of options, while poor people, people who have less power in general, have fewer options.

In a sense, this is somewhat tautological: power entails having more options. But I state this because it tells us who is really being served by the “agency” strategy. Just to take the example of prostitution, a majority of prostitutes are destitute, have been sexually abused in childhood, and have few other choices available to them. Women who have more money have the option of not entering the sex industry.

Obviously we still cannot say that this minority of women who enter the sex industry even though they have other viable options “decided to be abused.” Few people outright want to be abused, and they are usually victim of the many misrepresentations and frauds surrounding the sex industry. But this minority is the only demographic being portrayed anywhere remotely accurately by “agency” rhetoric, in that they did have other options. Most women involved in prostitution don’t.

So “agency” rhetoric seems to be made to portray the people who are at the top of the ladder as the default. This is not overly surprising: we already know that males and white people are the default humans and everyone else is in a sub-category. But the “agency” rhetoric sends a deeper message: it says “women who are victimized by pornography or prostitution, POC who are victimized by capitalism or the legal system, deserve to be victimized because they, unlike the default humans, don’t have the option to get out of it.”

Here’s another thing. Is it a coincidence that, as the word “agency” is becoming omnipresent in feminist discussions, the word “victim” is being erased out of existence? Or are both symptoms of a greater ideological disease?

“Victim” identifies a party that was harmed and, by corollary, a party that harms. “Agency,” on the other hand, normalizes exploitation and puts the spotlight solely on the person that was harmed, scrutinizing their “choices.” But this already is the standard tactic used against rape victims. The way people analyze “welfare queens” and police shootings of black people also reflect this tactic: the agent (the victim) must always be scrutinized until some fault is found. No one else can ever be blamed.

They are desperately trying to evade the most important step in analyzing exploitation: to name the oppressor. They will say anything, use any form of misdirection, exploit any psychological vulnerability, to prevent you from doing this. And they are, by and large, successful. Even people who are sympathetic to the victims will rarely have the courage to name the oppressors; instead, they will quickly become apologists for the oppressors so that we know they are not “extremists” or “bigots.”

It’s also used in the reverse way: people who are said to not have “agency” (which is an arbitrary and socially constructed conclusion, since there’s no such thing as “agency” anyway) are thereby deemed to be worthy of being victimized (“children can’t make decisions for themselves, so parents must do it!”). We will harm you anyway, but at least it’s not your fault!

“Agency” is really such a hateful, depraved concept, isn’t it?

You have an inner destructive drive, I’m just cranky.

You will note that the title of this entry is similar to that of an earlier one. This is no coincidence, as the topics are also similar, but I hope this entry can shed light from a somewhat different angle.

My starting point on this one is from Alice Miller’s book Banished Knowledge. For those of you who don’t know her work, Alice Miller was a tireless worker for children’s rights and believed that child abuse must be identified and acknowledged by society. Despite being a mother herself, she attacked pedagogy itself and showed how even seemingly irrelevant verbal abuse can have consequences for a child’s future well-being.

In Banished Knowledge, she says:

It is only from adults that an unloved child learns to hate or torment and to disguise these feelings with lies and hypocrisy. That is why, when the child has grown up, he or she will say that children require norms and disciplining: this lie provides access to adult society, a lie that permeates all pedagogy and, to this day, psychoanalysis. The young child knows no lies, is prepared to take at their face value such words as truth, love, and mercy as heard in religious instruction in school. Only on finding out that his naivete is cause for ridicule does the child learn to dissemble. The child’s upbringing teaches him the patterns of the destructive behavior that will later be interpreted by experts as the result of an innate destructive drive. Anyone daring to question this assertion will be smiled at for being naive, as if that person had never come in contact with children and didn’t know “how they can get on your nerves.” For at least since the days of Sigmund Freud, it has been known in “progressive” circles that children come into this world with a death drive and might kill us all if we didn’t ward off “the first indications.”

(bold mine)

It’s easy to recognize in Miller’s pointed analysis the dichotomy between constructionism and some form of innate evil. I will not use the label adaptationism for the latter, since there are many contra-causal positions which believe in innate evil as well (e.g. Christianity), but the argument can be adapted to adaptationism as well (no pun intended).

In the entry I linked above, I noted the following double standard: that we claim “we” believe things on the basis of free willed thinking, and we claim “they” believe things on the basis of unreasoning reflex. “Our” beliefs are the result of free will, which is “good,” and “their” beliefs are determined, which is “bad.”

The actual truth of the matter is that everyone’s beliefs are determined by who they are and the circumstances they live through, and there’s no substantial difference between how “we” (the “good guys”) form beliefs and how “they” (the “bad guys”) form beliefs. The double standard is an excuse to not question our beliefs and to justify hating our enemies.

Miller talks about this “innate destructive drive” that people commonly believe children possess. Actual scientific observation has shown that children are born with the same ethical mechanisms (like empathy and fairness) that we all have: those are innate and don’t just pop up after a certain age, and, since they are feelings and not reasoned propositions, neither are they the kind of thing that you can learn. Children are human beings, with all that it implies; the fact that we consider children to be subhuman partially explains why we fall prey to such ridiculous beliefs as “children have a destructive drive.”

But there is a further part to this discussion. Children are essentially powerless bundles of need whose lives depend on their parents exactly as much as if they were still in the womb. They need food, sleep, heat, space to live and experiment, but they also need affection, care, a sense of belonging, love. Deprived of any of these elements, they will fail to develop as they should and may become “destructive.”

This is not normal and should not be interpreted as normal; it is the result of neglect and abuse. Try to understand a baby’s situation. The baby cannot feed itself, cannot move on its own, is only beginning to comprehend the world, and its life is dominated by two human beings who tower over it and control its activities. Adult slaves do not live through such a level of powerlessness, let alone your average adult. For those who have blocked their childhood experiences, even grasping a fraction of what it means to have such an existence is a daunting task.

Because they block understanding of this situation, adults become ridiculously judgmental and hostile to their own children. We routinely hear about parents who take their two year old, three year old, four year old, five year old to the task for not fulfilling the parents’ needs.

To put it as mildly as I can, this is batshit insane. I don’t know why anyone expects a toddler to process information the same way an adult would. But most importantly, a toddler does not exist to fulfill the parents’ needs, the parents exist to fulfill the toddler’s needs.

I imagine some parents may argue “well you don’t have children, you don’t know how it is.” Alice Miller had children and she knew how it was, and that didn’t stop her from denouncing parents in the most direct way. Child abuse and neglect by parents is caused by the parents; children can never be responsible for being neglected or abused. I don’t need to be a parent to understand that, any more than I need to be a murderer to be against murder.

The flip side of the “innate destructive drive” is that parents who neglect or abuse their children are said to be justifiably cranky or weak. You will note that unlike a drive, being cranky or weak is a temporary state which does not define the person. Children are evil by nature, parents are evil because of specific circumstances; in no way can pedagogy, or the person of the parent, be attacked. To do so is one of the biggest taboos in our societies (again, because we hate children and therefore the children are always held responsible except in extreme cases).

We use this same “innate destructive drive” excuse to explain away hardened criminals. If we can convince ourselves that criminals are born that way, then we can be reassured that there was nothing society could have done to prevent their crimes. “There is nothing we could have done” is always the clarion call of the “we live in the best of all worlds” delusion which is so necessary for all of us to keep living in our evil and corrupt Western societies. I do not argue that this is not a necessary delusion; the trouble is when people start taking the delusion as reality.

There is, however, a racial and genderist distinction. When white men kill, they are usually labeled crazed, mentally ill (which is an insult against the mentally ill, who are no more violent than the rest of the population), temporarily insane; only the serial killers and mass murderers are called “monsters,” which is just another way to evade reality. When black men kill, when women kill, no one shies away from the responsibility of the murderers.

Since my previous entry was about determinism, I think I should mention it in this entry as well, since it may yield some confusion. The concept of an “innate destructive drive” is not specifically deterministic: indeed, as I already pointed out, many free will beliefs include a belief in innate drives. It’s important to distinguish between determinism and adaptationism: the former is an obvious logical deduction, the latter is a formidable mine of pseudo-science. Despite what some people think, determinism doesn’t mean we can completely predict people’s behavior; that’s the hallmark of a quack who has no interest in the subtleties of, and numerous conscious and unconscious influences on, human behavior.

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.


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