Destiny or free will is a question only as old as religion, and it’s a silly question. In my opinion, this is one of the ways that religion and religious thought sullies the world. Some dead bloke way back when had some seeming epiphany, and it was entered into the doctrinal record.
The concept of destiny is the silliest part. This is a throwback to the teleological notion of progress. I wonder if the whole concept of progress isn’t an offshoot of religion.
I’ve written elsewhere about the folly of progress. Destiny fails on the same level. Moreover, destiny in this context is first about individual destiny—what is my personal fate—and then we devolve further into some group notion, whether by race or nationality or some other social construct. It’s the same logic that led to Manifest Destiny and the slaughter of millions upon millions of people worldwide over the course of history1.
Neither is free will sensible. Humans—living beings, categorically—have some autonomy over themselves. This, of course, presumes self and identity to actually mean anything. But, they are subject to the influences of genetics and environmental factors—including social indoctrination—, so how would one extricate these from some notion of sovereign free will?
One does not even need to be a strict materialist to see that one does not have free will. Not even Sartre’s no excusesExistentialism fully accounts for this. An Existentialist might argue the despite whatever historical baggage yo carry with you to any given point, you can always decide on what your next point might be. But this misses the point that any decision one makes can only be made in context to the experiences you’ve already had.
So, as I said at the start, the question of destiny and free will are for juveniles. There is no reason to adopt the religious frame that makes them appear to be more than the specious notions they happen to be.
In the end, you just are. Enjoy the moment or at least just live it. It may be your last.
1. Please note the I am using the course of history in the idiomatic sense as one might employ corners of the earth. There is no course; there are no corners.
Whether in English or in French, I don’t believe Foucault ever uttered the words, ‘It is meaningless to speak in the name of – or against – Reason, Truth, or Knowledge‘*, but I don’t think he’d disagree with the sentiment.
Foucault was a postmodernist, and on balance, political Conservatives (Rightists?) dislike the notion of postmodernism. Evidently, a lot of Postmodernists are also Leftists (Progressives or Liberals in the US), so somehow critics such as Jordan Peterson conflate the two clearly distinct concepts.
A basis for Conservatism is the notion of an objective truth, and despite recent sociopolitical trends, they at least say they are guardians or truth and purveyors of knowledge. Conservatives (OK, so I am broad-brushing here) are staunch individualists who believe strongly in possession and property, of material, of an objective reality. Fundamentally, the are aligned to a monotheistic god or at least some discernible (and objective) moral compass.
On the Left, especially post-Enlightenment, they’ve substituted God with some anthropomorphic Nature. In fact, they find comfort in natural laws and human nature. Science is often their respite because science is objective. Isn’t it? Leftists are friends or Reason, and one can’t acquire enough knowledge. Moderation need not apply here; the more the merrier.
This being said, evidently, many on the Left seem to have abandoned this comfort zone. Of course, this may be because the Left-Right dichotomy doesn’t capture the inherent nuance, and so they were miscategorised—perhaps, much in the same manner as persons are miscategorised in a binary gender system. No. It must be something else.
In any case, both side claim to the parties of knowledge, reason, and truth because the opposing parties are clearly abject morons. There is no hint of irony in the situation where each side claims some objective notion of truth—whether divinely granted or self-evidently reasoned—, yet they can’t resolve what the true truth is. If only the other side were more rational.
By now, we are well aware of the demise of homo economicus, the hyper-rational actor foundational to modern economic theory. In reality, humans are only rational given the loosest definitions, say, to (in most cases) know enough to get in the shade on a 37.2°C day. However, as behavioural economist Dan Ariely noted by the title of his book, people are Predictably Irrational. Ariely is just standing on the shoulders of Kahneman and Tversky and Richard Thaler. My point is that humans are only marginally rational.
As I’ve written elsewhere, truth is nothing more than a rhetorical endpoint. It is hardly objective. It’s a matter of opinion. Unfortunately, systems of government and jurisprudence require this objective truth. In truth—see what I did there?—, social fabric requires a shared notion of truth.
A shared notion doesn’t imply that this notion is objective, but if it’s not objective, how does one resolve differences of opinion as to which is the better truth. Without establishing a frame and a lens, this is impossible. The problem is that frames and lenses are also relative. Whether the members accept a given frame or lens is also a matter of rhetoric. It’s turtles all the way down.
Even if all members agree on all parameters of truth at day 0, there is nothing to prevent opinion changes or from new members not to share these parameters. Such is always the problem with social contract theory. [How does one commit to a contract s/he is born into with little recourse to rescind the contract, renegotiate terms, or choose a different contract option. The world is already carved up, and the best one can do is to jump from the frying pan into the fire.]
In the end, the notion of truth is necessary, but it doesn’t exist. Playing Devil’s advocate, let’s say that there is a single purveyor of Truth; let’s just say that it’s the monotheistic Abrahamic God of Judeo-Christian beliefs. There is no (known) way to ascertain that a human would have the privilege to know such a truth nor, if s/he were to encounter, say, a burning bush of some sort, that this entity would be conveying truth; so, we aren’t really in a better place. Of course, we could exercise faith and just believe, but this is a subjective action. We could also take Descarte’s line of logic and declare that a good God would not deceive us—sidestepping that this ethereal being was good, as advertised. I’m afraid it’s all dead ends here, too.
And so, we are back to where we started: no objective truth, limited ability to reason, and some fleeting notion of knowledge. We are still left with nothing.
Enter the likes of Jordan Peterson, he with his fanciful notion of metaphysics and morality—a channeller of Carl Jung. His tactic is to loud dog the listener and outshout them indignantly. His followers, already primed with a shared worldview, are adept (or inept) cheerleaders ready to uncritically echo his refrain. To them, his virtue-ethical base, steeped in consequentialism awash in deontology, Peterson speaks the truth.
He also potentiates the selfish anti-collective germ and rage of the declining white man. He’s sort of a less entertaining Howard Stern for the cleverer by half crowd. He gives a voice to the voiceless—or perhaps the thoughtless. He uses ‘reason’ to back his emotional pleas. He finds a voice in the wilderness where white Western males are the oppressed. If only they hadn’t been born centuries earlier—albeit with iPhones and microwaves.
Those would be the days.
* I believe this phrase attributed to Foucault was a paraphrase by philosopher Todd May.
Crispin Sartwell authored an Opinion piece about how to render history, and he presented several alternative perspectives.
The problem is that history is none of these or at least it doesn’t much matter. History is a narrative; it’s rhetoric; it’s a map, and an apparent goal is to simplify trends, but in fact, real history is a complexity of events and simplification is as often as reductio absurdum that not. Sure, facts are sprinkled in so people can latch on to them and say, ‘that happened’. But history is durative. It’s not just a locus of trivia and factoids. Some say that hindsight is 20/20, but even this is untrue. Humans are not very well equipped to perform analysis and even less so when the analysis is complex. We have all sorts of cognitive biases and backwards-form noise into signal or presume some weak link is as a strong link, moreover, a causal link. Humans love the simplistic notion of cause and effect. We rarefyNewton’s Third Law and even adopt this concept into morality vis-a-vis karma: what comes around, goes around. And we apply this to history. But what if history is more like music? What if, as Debussy said, regarding music, that history is the spaces between the notes, between the events?
“Music is the space between the notes.”
— Claude Debussy
In the world of mass market investment, it’s claiming the stock market declined because of some single factor. It’s a nod to facile humans and their limited capacity to grasp complexity and to settle for some heuristic that assuages cognitive dissonance.
Evidently, I ‘read’ a lot in 2017. To be perfectly honest, I listened to a lot of long-form audiobooks in 2017. Here is a summary of my favourites. The ♠ symbol indicates that I read rather than listened to the audiobook version.
Thinking in Systems: A Primer by Donella Meadows
♠ Whilst not philosophical, per se, this is a reminder of how much of what we analyse is based on systems and how poorly humans process complexity.
What Is Property? by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon
♠ I could have captured this under Classics, but Favourites rates higher. Proudhon does a bang-up job of critiquing private property, especially as rentier. Some have espoused stronger views, but he was a trailblazer and a trendsetter.
Good Strategy Bad Strategy by Richard Rumelt
Another non-philosophy book, this was more supportive of my rent-paying day job. He does a good job of defining strategy and explaining how poor most executives are at it—despite how many have done MBA-level coursework in Strategy at top-tier schools.
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
One of the few fiction pieces I read this year, I am not sure if I’ve read a better book. Whilst it’s difficult to judge over an expanse of years and decades—given falible memory and circumstances—, it’s got to be one of the top two or three.
Neo-Nihilism: The Philosophy of Power by Peter Sjöstedt-H
Although this work is entirely derivative, it is presented as a compact summary, and I enjoyed it on a plane trip from someplace to somewhere.
Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue by John McWhorter
Full disclosure: I’ve been a McWhorter fanboy for years, but again I enjoyed his perspective on language and linguistics.
The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature by Steven Pinker
I like Pinker’s presentation style, though I am not quite on board with his defence of Humanism and neo-Enlightenment position. These aside, his analysis resonates once I compensate for the bias they introduce. I read this after having read Robert Wright’s The Moral Animal, which trod some of the same ground. I recommend it, too; I just found Pinker’s presentment to be superior.
Philosophy and Real Politics by Raymond Geuss
♠ This came as a recommendation as result of an online conversation in a Libertarian forum. I listened to it as an audiobook and the read it to fully grasp the material. It was well worth it.
Discourse on the Origin of Inequality by Jean Jacques Rousseau
I enjoyed this quite a bit, and though it’s viewed through quite the quaint Romantic lens, it is nonetheless enjoyable. I was strongly considering this as a favourite, but I opted to place it at the top of the Classics list.
The Social Contract by Jean Jacques Rousseau
Although I appreciate Rousseau as a thinker and writer, I didn’t really like this. It was a decent thought experiment in its day, but in the end, it’s just a Romantic and fanciful sort of origin story.
Beyond Good and Evil by Friedrich Nietzsche
I also considered placing this in Favourites. Nietzsche or his translator provide coherent exposition, but in the end, I found it to be spotty. Though many find it to be a hard pill to swallow, his extension of Hegel’s master and slave (herd) morality still resonates today.
On the Genealogy of Morals: A Polemic by Friedrich Nietzsche
A strong follow-on to Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil, though not quite a favourite. Nietzsche is a master rhetorician, and this polemic is quite enticing. What struck me most is how he presaged Freud by at least a decade.
Anarchy, State, and Utopia by Robert Nozick
More of a modern classic—whatever that means—, Nozick tries, but the entire idea is based on a faulty premise and wishful thinking. I understand he walked back some of his position in his later years (of which there weren’t many), but he never quite jumped off the Libertarian bandwagon.
On Liberty and Utilitarianism by John Stuart Mill were refreshing, as I mention here. Whilst I don’t agree with his consequentialism, I appreciate what he has to say. Ultimately, he demonstrates what is wrong with empiricism. Still, definitely worth the read.
The Republic by Plato
I found this book to be sophomoric and lame logic. I truly don’t understand how this tripe is revered. It’s like listening to some random dude tripping balls at a party. It’s saving grace is his Allegory of the Cave, but I could have read that on the back of a cereal box. I didn’t need it to be buried in a book.
The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism by Max Weber
Not a favourite in the least. Probably the least interesting book I read in 2017. If I read a worse book, I mercifully put it aside and didn’t slog through it. Let’s just say I read this. Check that box. This was the epitome of boring. I almost quit, but as it was relatively short, I persevered. Weber’s main point of how Calvinism created the environment to allow Capitalism to flourish, could have been presented as a pamphlet. I was not interested in the deep historical perspective. YMMV
Great Courses In addition to reading and listening to the books above, I enjoyed several courses, which I recommend highly and I’d be remiss not to mention. Follow the links to read about them.
“The organization we call modern republicanism is based on multiple values and principles that conflict. We can identify at least five basic values of most modern republican political theories:
popular self-governance by the political community
individual liberties from government and social interference
communal or national preservation, and
economic and material modernization
“All of these matter; none can be ignored. But these values conflict. If you consistently emphasise or choose one over the other or pull on that thread, you move toward an exclusive political view of one kind or another.
“For example, if you emphasise self-governance over all other values and are willing to trade the others for more of it, you become a civic republican or a populist or a participatory democrat.
“If it’s individual liberties and rights, you value above everything else, a Libertarian, a neo-liberal, or a Natural Rights theorist.
“If it’s social equality, you become a progressive or social democrat or even a socialist.
“If it’s material progress above all, then you are probably an ethical utilitarian, believing the politic’s aim is to enhance general happiness.
“If it’s preservation of the forms of community life, then you’re a conservative.”
This is excerpted from the first chapter an excellent Great Courses lecture series by Lawrence Cahoon, The Modern Political Tradition: Hobbes to Habermas. (This PDF course guide provides a summary view.) It’s an interesting dimensionalisation of the problem with trying to reconcile politics into some unified theory, as it becomes necessary to optimise across these dimensions, some of which are polar opposites to other goals in a zero-sum relationship.
This series is available on Amazon as well as at Audible at good prices.
Before creating this, I searched online for instances of ‘movement is not progress‘ and ‘motion is not progress‘. I got results, but these results were generally either motivational or spiritual, which may amount to a different side of the same coin. To this contingent, movement is a necessary but not sufficient condition for progress. The dictionary defines progress as:
1. Forward or onward movement towards a destination
— or —
2. Development towards an improved or more advanced condition
Progress appears to be related to a specific type of movement: forward, but this still doesn’t seem to capture the essence of what we mean by the word progress. This is captured by the second definition by the inclusion of improved or advanced, but on what dimension are we assessing this improvement? Except in the minds of the adherents, this appears coincidentally to be arbitrary; anything in line with their wishes appears to be an advancement.
Unfortunately, progress is more than this still. Take the expanding universe model as an analogy—let’s not even discuss how a multiverse would further exacerbate things. Imagine that I can travel from Earth to Mars, and if I define Mars as the destination, then I have satisfied definition Nº 1, as I have made progress towards Mars (my stated destination), but I haven’t actually made any improvement. All I’ve done is changed position. I’ve gone from here to there, but now there is here, and here is there. If I retrace my route from Mars to Earth, again I’ve made progress under the first definition, but, in fact, I’ve just completed a circuit. Sure, I can argue that I may have done something on Mars that I can label progress: perhaps I’ve planted a flag or started a colony, but how is this progress? Following the same logic, is a cancer in your pancreas colonising your, well, colon progress? A disinterested observer taking the perspective of the cancer might say that the cancer has progressed or spread, but the patient may disagree with the assessment of progress.
In the sense that history is (anecdotally) written by the victors, we may have the illusion of progress, but as notables from Rousseau to Thoreau have quipped, progress is no progress. Even so, this progress presumes a wholesale concept of worse and better, yet there is no objective measure. This can only be claimed within some context. So, if I accept, within in the human domain, that Capitalism is better than Feudalism, then I can claim to have progressed. If I build a house on a plot of land, I can claim progress. Of course, to the previously standing wood, this is no progress. To the creatures who had occupied the wood, again, no progress. So, is progress a zero-sum game that I can qualify as a positive sum game by narrowly defining the system boundaries? Probably so, but let’s leave that for another day.
“Do not confuse motion and progress. A rocking horse keeps moving but does not make any progress.” ― Alfred A. Montapert
So what’s my point? My point is that there is only the illusion of progress, and that only in the realm of jingoistic specieism can we accept this illusion. In reality, there is no progress; there just is. We just are.
Listening to the Robert Wright’s audiobook, Moral Animal, it’s become even more apparent that ethics and morality are the results of a later stage of an evolutionary strategy. Not that he’s saying that.
After cognitive abilities came language and then, presumably, ethics then moral proto-structures. Subsequently, gods and God came into fashion.
That morality is the result of evolutionary progression is not particularly controversial, but sociobiologists seem to view the evolutionary development of morals as a parallel to Chomsky’s theory of innate language and universal grammar. My modification is that morality (as distinct from mores, customs, and such) necessarily requires language and cannot exist independent of language.
Given the evolutionary perspective, it is obvious that this concept will not be popular for those who do not support this base position, but it should not much of a stretch for those who do.