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Against Determinism

Against Determinism

In Adieux: A Farewell to Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir published a long discussion she had with her companion—the world-renowned, radical-left philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre—in the last years of his life. Though the two of them believed many things I find unpalatable, this phrase served me for some time as an email signature:

Simone de Beauvoir: Broadly speaking, how would you define…what you call Evil?

Jean-Paul Sartre
: Evil is that which is harmful to human freedom, that which holds men out as not being free and which, for example, creates the determinism of the sociologists…

It’s one of the biggest of the big questions: Are we free to act, or do things beyond our wills limit or determine our actions?

A trivial view of the question can be found in much of academic thinking today—and elsewhere too. There, the answer given is that people at the top of social hierarchies are free while those below them in those hierarchies are mercilessly compelled and unfree. “Structures” put in place by the powerful keep those lower in the social hierarchies powerless. The powerless are so impervious to struggle and individual effort that they can never escape their bondage. At least, not until the magical moment of the revolution.

Of course, while this view may not be accurate, social forces do inform the acts of individuals. We are sometimes driven down certain behavioral paths, or at least greatly encouraged to go down them, by things that are external to us. Just as physical environments set conditions on the freedom of all living things, social environments can affect our actions.

As a social scientist, I have spent much time thinking about the relationship of individual freedom and social force. As a purely scientific matter, the question of the influence of each of these forces is incredibly complex. And no position that ignores the influence of either freedom or structure is intellectually sustainable.

But it is not ultimately the scientific question that guides my action in everyday life with respect to this relationship of freedom and determinism. It is the moral concern for the dignity of human beings. The profound importance of hope is what drives my life with other people and my way of talking with them about this topic.

What if the evidence clearly indicated that structures in American society were fully deterministic of people’s lives?

What would we do with that knowledge of unfreedom in our everyday lives? How would it affect our interactions with others and our understanding of the possibilities of our lives and theirs?

What would we tell young people? What would parents tell their children?

Telling young people this deterministic worldview would deflate their spirits. It would mean telling them that what they do really matters very little or not at all. We would be saying to them that the trajectories of their lives are out of their control.

Telling young people that their efforts are in vain might well lead them to give up even trying to make positive changes in their lives. It would be teaching them to accustom themselves to being at the whim of forces over which they exercise little or no power. It would require participating in the diminution of an extraordinary aspect of human beings: our deep belief in and love of the notion of our own freedom.

In such a conversation with a young person, I know what I would say to them.

I would tell them everything I could to convince them to try. I would tell them to have hope, even if I believed based on the evidence that their efforts had a significant likelihood of turning out fruitless and their hope proving ultimately groundless.

I would tell them to fill their hearts and their souls with happiness and the spirit of work and endeavor and effort. I would tell them they should never give up and never give in and always strive upward, upward, upward, no matter what faced them.

No matter what.

Image credit: Wallpaper Flare


Alexander Riley
Alexander Riley

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  • Avatar
    May 10, 2023, 11:05 pm

    For determinism:


    The alternative is to believe that if you had been there and raised in those same cultures and circumstances that you alone would have stood tall against the forces of immorality among millions who have not throughout history. That you are the ray of light in the darkness. The human embodiment of that shining city on the hill. That you, through your own innate virtue and purity, are simply impervious to corruption, cultural conditioning, peer pressure and propaganda, and never experience any of the ingredients of depravity which might steer your actions away from the moral: distrust, paranoia, fear, envy, greed, inferiority, superiority, hate. In summary: that you are just better than the countless unpitiable masses who – through clear fault of their own – failed to live up to the moral standards you specifically chose to adopt and would always adopt in all possible scenarios no matter your experiences, influences, or education level (wait, did you choose to adopt them or are they just your unchosen nature? There's a conflict here, can you see it?). Take a moment and try to get a handle on the level of narcissism and conceit such a view of your psyche requires in order to prevent it from collapsing in on itself from its own weight.

    Full: https://tritorch.com/choice

    Let's discuss.

    • Avatar
      May 11, 2023, 8:28 pm

      A good deal of truth in what you say, Severance – it could even be called "uncomfortable truth." (^:

    • Avatar
      Chris Hughes@Severance
      May 12, 2023, 1:16 am

      Jesus was probably the only one that had the courage and intelligence to be a true cultural revolutionary of his time. The rest of us can strive to see evil and stand for the good in our time… and we have the agency to so do. But we only see through a glass darkly.
      Noah was “perfect in his generation.” I take this to mean that perhaps his generation… like Washington’s generation… had some serious cultural darkness… but like Washington, he did quite well in the context of his generation and pushed the whole towards greater enlightenment.

  • Avatar
    Chris Hughes
    May 11, 2023, 12:05 am

    Thanks Alexander. My take away from your article: Even if it were true that we are socially determined, the deterministic message itself would condemn us to nihilism.

    I am unspeakably grateful for the spiritual principles that permit the exercise of my moral agency from moment to moment….And for the social conditions that still allow for a wide expression of that agency.

  • Avatar
    robert chadis
    May 11, 2023, 1:27 pm

    Kids must learn to judge parents thoughts. We are born as infants under sway of elders, but we can develop into
    individuals if lucky, by being treated well as we grow, and exposure
    to great minds, e g, Emerson, and so getting brave enough to accept
    that life is war and in everyday life one needs the skills of
    Clausewitz, Freud, and Lincoln. Unfortunately, bad trends in
    philosophy are supported by the weak-minded and by plutocrats, thus
    the pathetic interplay between Heidegger and Sartre, both jerks who
    never grew up. Indeed, The first pages of Koran exemplify the simple
    attempt by the overlords to control the vicious hormones of adolescent
    males by directing vigor abroad. The assertion of individuality
    depends on confidence in early childhood, which itself depends on
    several factors. Human evolution social/political includes/requires
    the struggle to think—in 1835 the notorious king of Spain said, #We
    must stop the dangerous plague of thinking#. Of course, we must
    distinguish between masses gone mad, and massive agreement to do what
    is really best—politics requires organization, hopefully of people
    who think.

  • Avatar
    May 11, 2023, 8:35 pm

    There are arenas where we can exercise freedom, and others where we are bound. Finding the line of demarcation between these arenas is the real trick. I think where a lot of people transgress one such line is in the realm of salvation – i.e. "I have decided to follow Jesus," forgetting that Jesus said, "You did not choose me, but I chose you…" This – the doctrine of election – is of great offense to the supposed free will in regards to salvation; we sinners just can't let God have all the glory for salvation, but have to try and rob him of some for ourselves.

  • Avatar
    May 15, 2023, 2:31 pm

    Evil is making the natural unnatural, and the unnatural, natural.


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