Category Archives: Pessimism

Does determinism imply fatalism?

I have already addressed the more extreme and bizarre versions of associating determinism with fatalism, the versions where determinism is some kind of external force that you can trick or fight against. But there are more subtle versions of this confusion as well, which are not as clearly wrong or bizarre, and therefore are worth addressing.

I want to address two specific sort of arguments here. The first is that determinism is incompatible with knowledge, and is similar to an argument used by Christian apologists about the incompatibility of evolution with knowledge. The apologist argument is that we should not expect evolution to have brought about a brain which generates truths, and that the human brain would be fundamentally unreliable if evolution was true. There are many things we can reply to this, but the main objection is that the brain is not a proposition-generating machine but rather a versatile tool which, like other parts of our body, can be used for many different purposes. One of these purposes happens to be finding rationally justified propositions.

The anti-determinist argument is somewhat similar to this, but basically replaces evolution with determinism. If determinism is true, then our thoughts are the result of predetermined processes in the brain, therefore we cannot assume that our beliefs are correctly justified. This is usually accompanied by a fallacious argument from incredulity: how can we assume that any proposition that is the result of random natural processes will be properly justified?

The main fallacy with this argument is the assumption that natural processes are random or unguided. Everything humans do is determined and regulated by natural law, and yet we don’t say that buildings or computer chips are random, came into existence unguided, or necessarily unreliable. If it would be laughable to assume this in the case of buildings or computer chips, then why should we assume it in the case of human reasoning? When I construct an argument and justify it rationally, am I not acting in a determined manner and in accordance with natural law? The main difference is that a building is an entirely physical product while an argument is a conceptual product, but both require the careful use of our minds in constructing justified beliefs (about construction or about concepts).

Saying that a thought was determined instead of volitional does not change the nature of the thought, or its justification or absence thereof. The only way we can tell whether a proposition is justified remains to look at arguments or lines of reasoning in favor of, or against, it. What I believe about, say, the sky being blue still hangs upon observations of the sky and the facts about light passing through air, regardless of how my brain arrived at the proposition. For that matter, a Markov chain algorithm could theoretically compose an entire argument (with premises, logic, and conclusion) on some subject: the argument would still be true or false on its merits, regardless of the fact that it was the result of an unthinking algorithm (note that I am not arguing that we are anything like a Markov chain algorithm!).

This argument also begs the question of how a volitional brain could use evidence to formulate reasoning. After all, we are told that volition is not affected by physical processes, since anything caused by a physical process is determined. Perceiving evidence is a physical process. So how can a volitional brain process evidence?

The second argument I wanted to discuss is one which attacks the ethical consequences of determinism. In its simplest version, the argument is simply that determinism cannot explain why people change their minds, or how people can consider arguments and “choose” one side over the other. Sometimes this takes the ironic form that determinists are self-contradictory because they are trying to change people’s minds about agency, when that is impossible according to determinism.

This argument always puzzles me because there is no logical connection between determinism and being unable to be convinced by an argument. All that determinism says is that the processes in our brain are the result of natural processes. It does not indicate anything about the kind of thoughts we can or cannot have. Of course we can change our minds, as is demonstrated every day. Indeed, most or all determinists arrived at their position because some argument or discussion changed their minds on the subject. It would be very silly for a determinist to deny that we can change our minds, but we don’t need to, since there is no logical argument going from “determinism is true” to “we cannot change our minds.”

Sometimes the argument is actually backed by a kind of fatalism: people cannot help being what they are. But this is not a position about whether natural law applies to the brain, this is a psychological position. Whether human beings have some “true nature” which is always reflected in their thoughts or actions or not, this has nothing to do with determinism. You can believe in “fixed personalities” (to give a name to this belief) and be a determinist or an anti-determinist, and you can believe that there are no “fixed personalities” and be a determinist or an anti-determinist.

I think the idea that there are “fixed personalities” is silly because people do change their minds. Nothing about this fact has anything to do with determinism, except the obvious conclusion that such changes take place within the realm of natural law, i.e. are a psychological result of some prior psychological cause. Some people are more set in their ways and less likely to change, while others are more tolerant of new attitudes or ideas. This is a very interesting subject, but, again, it has nothing to do with determinism.

The selfishness of being against suicide.

I watched the excellent movie The Sea Inside, about the real story of a paraplegic man, Ramón Sampedro, who fought 28 years for the right to assisted suicide. There is no doubt who the director thinks is sympathetic and who is despicable, especially his brother, who is bitter at having to support him but vociferously refuses to support his suicide.

Even though it is, after all, a story and not a documentary, I think it illustrates the selfishness of the anti-suicide position. There really is no reason for anyone to not be supportive of Sampedro’s quest. Yes, obviously a lot of people feel that life is always worth living and that suicide is regrettable, and some still cling to religious dogma which prohibits suicide because suicide takes asses off the pews and into the ground, but these are, after all, only opinions. Reasonable people should be able to accommodate the existence of differing opinions.

But a more interesting question is this: why is suicide regrettable? Yes, people who kill themselves make their loved ones suffer because of it, but only because they must do it in secret. In cases of assisted suicide which were planned for such a long time, surely no one will be taken by surprise.

Now, family situations are a different matter. When children depend on the income of a person or two people, a suicide of one of them will have a profound effect on the child’s well-being. And I don’t deny that suicide, in those cases, does inflict suffering and is questionable at best. The fact that this is not even a consideration right now in the public debate about suicide and assisted suicide is a reflection of the childism in our cultures: we don’t really care what happens to the children.

In the movie, the brother seems to be suffering from some strange version of the sunk cost fallacy: because he ruined his own hopes and dreams in order to take care of Ramón, he therefore believes that it would be unfair for Ramón to kill himself and undo all this work. While the situation is deplorable, it is deplorable because of the illegality of assisted suicide, not because of the suicide itself. Obviously I am not blaming anyone who’s angry or frustrated about such a difficult situation. But we must always remember who is suffering the most: the person who wants to kill themselves but is not allowed to.

Viewers of the movie seem to sympathize with Sampedro and his plight, even though he is trying to kill himself. Perhaps people sympathize because he is, after all, presented as the protagonist, and he is an extreme case. It’s easier for people to accept that someone who’s been paraplegic for 28 years should be able to kill themselves than for people to accept assisted suicide as a whole. And people do love a good story.

It seems to me that the anti-suicide attitude is very selfish. Parents don’t want to be seen as bad parents, friends and family would rather see them continue to live than bear the shame and loss of a suicide, and I think people in general oppose suicide because they have a selfish desire to make life something better than it is. We know from the way people argue against antinatalism and pessimism, and the popularity of religious and New Age beliefs, that they desperately need to see life as more than what it is.

Although the most extreme seekers are ready to lie to themselves in order to achieve this, most people are content with ignoring inconvenient facts. Such an attitude consists of looking at the positives and ignoring the negatives. One can say that, for example, Sampedro lives a life where he is free to write at his leisure (albeit with his mouth), where he is taken care of, where he may be pushed in a wheelchair whenever he needs to go somewhere. He publishes a book and clearly can do something with his life. But there are also severe negatives in his life, including, well, being paraplegic, with all the severe physical limitations that this entails, and a complete lack of independence or privacy. Optimists wants us to only look at the first list and not at the second. Obviously if you ignore all the negatives of a person’s existence, then you can easily argue against any suicide.

A lot of people pull the veil over their own eyes. This causes problems. But even bigger problems are caused by the fact that those same people try to restrict other people’s freedom based on this veiling. Ultimately, they want to turn society as a whole into a self-censoring torture cell, which is how they treat their own minds. They torture their minds to “exterminate negative thoughts” and keep optimism in the face of the negatives of life, and they want to physically torture others who refuse to align themselves with their delusion. For what can we call forbidding people, who are in psychological or physical pain, to kill themselves, but a form of torture?

It’s always easy to maintain our belief in a just world and blame the victims, call them whiners, and so on. That’s the easy way out, keeps us in our bubble, keeps us comfortable. But blaming the victim is never honest and doesn’t help anyone. Blaming people for killing themselves is selfish and dishonest, and no matter what, people just shouldn’t do that. Yes, you’re allowed to think that a person shouldn’t have killed themselves, but admit that it’s your opinion, and that others (including the suicide) are allowed to rationally disagree.

A clearer refutation of choice-talk.

I feel like I haven’t presented as clear of a refutation of choice-talk as I should have in the past (I did write this entry, but it was more specific to refuting the pro-choice position). This seems rather important to me, since choice-talk is so pervasive and widely accepted, and I spend so much time debunking its theoretical consequences. Much nonsense in politics and philosophy is derived from some form of choice-talk and its bastard grandparents, agency-talk, free will-talk and blame-talk.

What is a “choice”? The standard definition in choice-talk is that a choice happens when an individual picks one out of many options at a given time. This is usually followed with the assertion that, if the situation was repeated exactly, the individual could pick a different option.

The latter assertion is very easy to refute: if the situation was repeated exactly, then there could be no difference in the outcome, as everything moves in accordance with natural law. In short, there’s no free will, which would be a sort of other-dimensional spark (called a “soul”) or a random vibration (depending on who you ask) that makes the brain change itself. If that spark or vibration did change the brain, then we wouldn’t be in the same exact situation anyway. If the spark or vibration could change the brain in a different way, then we’re not in the same exact situation either, because the effect of the spark or vibration is different.

Anyway, the whole argument is moot, for a simple reason. If there is an other-dimensional spark or a random vibration changing the brain, it could not be said to be a result of my decision, and therefore it wouldn’t be me “choosing,” it would be the spark or the vibration. So that’s just not a “choice” in the way we routinely use the word. When people say they “choose” something, they don’t mean a spark or vibration made them pick an option, they mean they picked the option. So the whole thing about souls or randomity is just a dirty semantics trick.

So what about the picking amongst options business? It may seem very clear, but it’s not clear at all. For one thing, how can we figure out what is or is not an option? Take the standard example, which is some individual who wants to eat a fruit and has to decide between an apple and an orange. Is this “choice” really between only two options, “eating an apple” and “eating an orange”? What about doing nothing? What about eating the apple in a certain way, or another way? What about standing on your head?

I am not merely suggesting that we should be careful in how we talk about options, but that the whole notion is entirely arbitrary. If our standard is that an option is a possibility of action, then there is only one option, the action that actually will be undertaken!

People have a lot of confusion over the term “possible.” They think anything they can imagine is “possible.” But I can imagine quite a lot of impossible things (for instance, I can imagine that Napoleon was a gardener or a bricklayer, but it’s not actually possible). Possibility is an indication of the limits on our knowledge, but there must be some evidence that the thing is actually possible and not impossible. If the individual ends up eating the apple, then “eating the orange” was never a possible option. The fact that the individual may have considered it, or could have considered it, does not prove that it is possible.

All human action is the result of the deterministic interaction between an individual’s mind, body and environment. This is a very general statement, but it debunks the idea that there’s any such thing as a “choice.” There are no more “human choices” than there are “tree choices” or “rock choices.”

This has profound political and philosophical implications. For instance, I have talked about how the pro-choice position is fatally flawed because of this. I have also debunked all sorts of voluntaryist and liberal feminist positions, which are heavily based on choice-talk and agency-talk.

Choice-talk adds absolutely nothing to any discussion. I want to demonstrate that with some real-life examples.

Take our previous example of “I chose to eat an apple instead of an orange.” I can remove the choice-talk and say: “I ate an apple, and there was also an orange available.” The latter is saying exactly the same thing as the former, but without the concept of “choice.” The words “chose” and “instead” add no conceptual content (at least, no conceptual content that is actually true) to the sentence.

Now take this typical liberal feminist opinion: “It is argued that most sex workers choose to work in the sex industry and the rights and ability of these individuals to exercise this agency should be supported.”

The terms “sex workers” and “sex industry” are invalid and are just loaded terms used to prop up the author’s beliefs. Apart from that, nothing in this sentence is meaningful. No one “chooses” a job (let alone in the “sex industry”); we take jobs because we must do so in order to function in a capitalist system, and the kind of job we take depends on the economic situation, our education, our talents, who we know, and our opportunities, amongst other things. It’s especially ironic to use the term “agency” in relation to any form of work because workplaces in a capitalist system (unless you’re self-employed) are hierarchical in nature and involve very little freedom.

Note that I am not talking specifically about “sex work.” My point here really has nothing to do with your position on that issue. But the choice-talk and agency-talk is used here to validate the liberal feminist position, and therefore it becomes part of the “sex work” issue. It appears to them as if they are making a powerful argument for their position, but they are really saying absolutely nothing.

We can change the previous sentence to exclude choice-talk and agency-talk while actually saying something meaningful: “The rights and ability of people who work in the ‘sex industry’ should be supported.” This is a meaningful sentence, but it leads us in a rather different direction than that desired by the liberal feminists.

Here is a question related to atheism: “On what basis do people choose to be atheists?”

Of course, that’s not how reality works. Anyone who knows what it’s like to deconvert from any religion knows that there’s very little “choice” involved, even if you believe in the concept to start with. People are generally compelled to become atheists because some doubt or research made them lose their faith.

A better way to phrase the question would be: “Why do people become atheists?”

This asks the same thing, while omitting the concept of “choice,” which is a bad way of approaching the subject.

Here is one prized by conservatives: “Poor people choose to be poor.”

Again, choice-talk is used to appear to validate a position, in this case, political conservatism and hatred of the poor. It’s much easier to hate someone if you believe that their hardships are the result of their own “choice” and not from social conditions. Same for “sex workers”: it’s easier to reject helping prostituted women if you call them “sex workers” and call their “job” a “choice” instead of a consequence.

There is no content independent of the choice-talk in this sentence (apart from the existence of poor people), so there’s no way to rephrase it. Poor people are poor for a wide variety of reasons, but fundamental to all these reasons is the capitalist system which demands that our worth (set in monetary value) be evaluated by the kind of job we have. In a society with a guaranteed minimum wage (as was tested in Canada and proposed in Switzerland), poverty can be eliminated, at least for all citizens. This is an issue of political will, not of “choice.”

I haven’t talked about blame, so here is a sentence about blame: “The president blames society and guns for crime, and I blame criminals.”

The concept of “blame” can only exist where “choice” exists: we cannot blame inanimate objects for anything. We can say “guns cause crime,” but we cannot say “guns are to blame for crime,” at least not literally. But what does it mean to blame society or criminals for crime? We have to make a clear distinction between “criminal action” and “unethical action.” Any given criminal action is only criminal because 1. it has been defined by some legal system as criminal and 2. the legal definition has been enforced.

If anything, we should say “I blame politicians and judges for crime.” But even that is not accurate; no one can be “blamed” for anything because it implies that the individual is the cause of the blameworthy action. There is no point in “blaming” someone who is only incidental to the action. But this is true of all of us.

But this idea of blaming society brings up another point: my position that there is no such thing as “choice” or “blame” because actions are by and large the result of social conditions may be confused with the position that we should “blame society.” If by “society” one means a collection of loose individuals, as right-wingers define it, then no, one cannot “blame” any number of people. If by “society” one means a complex structure made of institutions and their attendant beliefs, then it would be silly to “blame” such a thing because it is inanimate.

It seems to me that, despite the straw men coming from right-wing fanatics, no one really “blames society.” But it’s clear that, if blame is impossible, then “blaming society” must therefore also be impossible. We cannot “blame society” any more than we can blame anyone or anything else.

Justice has nothing to do with “blame.” Punishment does, but not justice. The issue is not one of blame but of cause and effect. Institutions impose incentive systems on individuals. Individuals react to those incentive systems based on their personal circumstances, education, and biases, amongst other factors. The issue of subjectivity really has nothing to do with it.

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.