Sunday, March 24, 2024

#84 / The Denial Of All Determinisms

A "Guest Essay," published in The New York Times on January 31, 2024, was titled, "We Were Wrong About What Happened to America in 2020." I found out about Eric Klinenberg's essay by way of an email alert. Both the alert and Klinenberg's online essay featured the image reproduced above. The email, however, had some language that doesn't appear in the online essay. Here is how that email bulletin began: 

Disasters have a way of revealing things. Who we are. What we value. Whose lives matter.

It was the "who we are" statement that sent me off to write this brief blog posting. With apologies to Klinenberg, who is a sociologist, and who has thus received professional training that countenances statements like the one I have just highlighted above, I don't (ever) buy into statements about "who we are." 

Unlike "things," which have unchanging and absolute characteristics, human beings are "free." We, and the world we create, are not "determined." Any claim that we can be "defined," as though our character and essential reality can be accurately described as either inevitable or determined, is a good example of the "is fallacy." 

The "is fallacy" is a claim (made to others or accepted by ourselves) that what "is" - what we see as existing in any specific moment - is a definition of what is "real," or what is inevitably and necessarily true. 

Again, any claim that what "is" is "inevitable," that what "is," right now, delimits what can be in the future, is simply not true. Such statements are not true about us as individuals, or about our social, political, and economic arrangements. We can - and should, of course - pay attention to the realities we see around us, and that includes the realities of our own individual existence. It is a mistake, however, to attribute any "inevitability" or "essential reality" to observations about human beings and the things that humans create. 

"Identity politics"  is one example of how a mistaken way of understanding the nature of human reality can make it exceedingly difficult to deal with both our problems and our possibilities

The Klinenberg essay is a commentary on what happened during the Covid pandemic. Having a good description of what happened is valuable - even "essential." But let us not deduce, from what happened to us, or what we did, that we are now possessed of information about "who we are." 

Our ability to meet the challenges ahead (oh, so many of those) will depend on us rejecting any claim that our failures and past actions "define" us, tell us "who are are," articulate our "limits" or who we can be.

Please, as you think about the implications of what I have just written, join me in my denial of all determinisms. 

We must change the world, and to do that we must change what we do. And we can!

But to be able to do that, to be able to change the world, we must believe that we can. Accepting any claim that the past has defined us, told us "who we are," is to undermine the immense potential and promise of human freedom.


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