“Oh yeah?”, I wonder to myself. You certainly know how to write a good hook there, Mr. Bonner. Please, go on. What was Marx right about?
Strangely, the first thing that comes to mind is a quote that I either read, heard, or made up. Supposedly, Marx once said that we out to “be careful when trusting a person who does not like wine”.
I’ve always been dubious about the authenticity of that quote. Authentic or not, that’s some solid advice if you ask me. If you don’t like wine, then you have either never had any or you have never drank enough of the stuff.
But now I’m just getting away from the subject at hand. What was it that Marx was right about?
“Karl Marx had plenty of bad ideas. But he had at least one good one: historical determinism.
It is not the consciousness of men that determines their social being, but their social being that determines their consciousness.
Or as Marx put it:
‘At a certain stage of their development, the material productive forces of society come in conflict with the existing relations of production or – what is but a legal expression for the same thing – with the property relations within which they have been at work hitherto.
From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into fetters. Then begins an epoch of social revolution.’” -Bill Bonner (Diary of a Rogue Economist)
Determinism? Consciousness? Plenty of bad ideas?! Great Scott! We are talking about philosophy here!
The newsletter continues, detailing how economic forces are, largely, determined by the events of preceding years. I’m certain my modest stock portfolio could benefit from this type of advice, but I was already too deep in thought.
Historical determinism you say? Marx might have been waving that banner for some time, but it was the ideas of the ancients that made the banner in the first place.
And if you think the question of determinism within society, economics, or the consciousness of human beings is interesting, then certainly the notion of determinism within the scope of all of existence would be even better!
This brings us back to that age old question- Do I do what I want to do? Or do I do what I must do? We are talking about determinism and indeterminism, obviously. And it is something of an ongoing debate that will either fascinate you or throw you into a fit of existential depression.
It could go either way to be honest.
I won’t go into too much depth at this point, but what you basically need to know is the following: Determinism tells us that all events, even human events, are caused by forces other than our own will. That is to say that we are not in charge of what we do, but are merely just one more domino falling in a sequence that started with the beginning of existence. Assuming, of course, that there even was a beginning.
Indeterminism, on the other hand, tells us that we are, at least to some degree, in control of our own actions. We aren’t just passengers in our lives. We are, partially, the authors of our stories.
It basically comes down to free will. Do you have it or don’t you?
In his Physics, and later in Metaphysics, Aristotle makes a case for a continuous sequence of motion. Basically, it comes down to the assertion that for every motion there is a mover. Simple enough, right?
The rock is moved by the agency of the stick. The stick is moved by the agency of the hand. The hand is moved by the agency of the man- so on an so forth.
The question becomes ‘where did it all start?’ We could have, conceivably, continued that regression ad infinitum (which is just a fancy way of saying “forever and ever and ever”).
Aristotle then concludes that there must have been some first mover that kicked off all of this motion in the first place. There must have been some thing that was unmoved itself, but was able to initiate motion. This is what is known as ‘the unmoved mover’.
“Since motion must be everlasting and must never fail, there must be some everlasting first mover, one or more than one.” -Aristotle’s Physics
At first glance, we might think that this idea espouses the notion that everything we do is predetermined. We are all just falling in line behind the unmoved mover. However, we must remember that Aristotle also was a big fan of the idea of potentiality and actuality. He even centered most of his ethical philosophy around the idea.
The sequence of events that was set in motion by the unmoved mover does not dictate what we do. Rather, the unmoved mover allows for the potentiality of all things. We are still, at least partially, in charge of our lives.
Now that was just a roundabout way of saying that events are partially determined by previous events and partially determined by our choices. And if that seems unsatisfying, then that’s because it is.
The question of “determinism or indeterminism” was not properly addressed by Aristotle because it was not a question that was consciously known by philosophy at the time. Epicurus, however, is another story. Perhaps it is with him that we might find a suitable answer.
Epicurus, who studied philosophy one generation after Aristotle, subscribed to the atomic model of Democritus and Leucippus, two pre-socratic philosophers whose theory tells us that all of our world is composed of atoms and void.
Atoms move through void and often smash into one another. These collisions create causal chains and result in all the events within our universe. This gave rise to the idea of causal determinism, or the idea that all things occur out of physical necessity. Within the fragments of Leucippus’ writing he tells us that…
“Nothing occurs at random, but everything for a reason and by necessity.”
Epicurus attempted to combat this deterministic position by suggesting that atoms do not always follow predictable paths. They can swerve, change course, and collide with other atoms. These random collisions give rise to new causal chains.
Epicurus argued that these new causal chains gave us more control over our actions, which would mean that ideas like praise or blame are appropriate when looking at human behavior. We are, in short, not slave to necessity.
“Fate, which some introduce as sovereign over all things, he scorns, affirming rather that some things happen of necessity, others by chance, others through our own agency. For he sees that necessity destroys responsibility and that chance is inconstant; whereas our own actions are autonomous, and it is to them that praise and blame naturally attach.” -Epicurus (Letter to Menoeceus)
Some of you might be scratching your heads over this one. Epicurus seems to tell us that there are gaps in the causal chains which occur right before a human decision. This gives rise to the possibility of spontaneity and free will.
But wait a minute there, Epicurus! How is it that we can assume that these causal gaps occur with any regularity during the exact moments of human decision? Moreover, you seem to be suggesting that indeterministic actions are dependent upon these causal gaps. How can it truly be free will if it is dependent upon some previous event, or lack thereof?
The clever and astute reader that you are, you may be asking yourself these questions. To this, Epicurus would tell us absolutely nothing because he is an ancient philosopher who died thousands of years ago.
There really aren’t any fulfilling answers to these sorts of questions. Epicurus believed that the random motion of atoms allowed for the potentiality of human decision. However, the relation between the causal gaps and human free will is murky. Moreover, the fact that free will is dependent upon these causal gaps means that we really only possess some sort of quasi-free will.
In other words, we are deterministically indeterminate.
If Epicurus and his deterministic indeterminism seems just way too wonky for you right now, then you could always just subscribe to the ideas of the early stoics. It’s like that old expression says…
Those who can’t reconcile their own free will against the causal forces of the universe ought to just concede to the divine logos within all existence.
People say that, right?
That, however, is a discussion we will leave for next week. Speak soon.