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What’s Wrong with Determinism?

October 7, 2009

A recent comment on this post discussed Pierre Bourdieu’s determinism, which brought to mind some standing objections I have to arguments against determinism. There seems to be three types of criticisms I see, only one of which do I think is legitimate.

First, some people suggest that determinist ontologies aren’t capable of accounting for or explaining changes in society. That is, there is change in society, but determinist can’t show how or why it takes place. This is a legitimate criticism, although I think Bourdieu (and Foucault) have more than adequate replies. That is, I think Bourdieu can account for changes in society despite his determinism. But I’ll accept that this is an open rather than a closed debate.

Second, some people seem to suggest that if determinism is true, there cannot be changes in society. Usually we see this sort of thing when people are writing about oppressed groups: how can oppressed groups overcome their oppression if determinism is true? This is a non sequitur. If societies change (and they obviously do!), and if determinism turns out to be true, then there can be changes in a determinist world. This (usually implicit) objection is crap—it’s like saying that if gravity turns out to be true then birds cannot fly.

Third, some people seem to suggest that if people believed determinism is true, change would be impossible. That is, they seem to suggest that if people believe that everything is determined, they’ll be rendered impotent and unable to effect social change. If oppressed people believe that social behavior is determined, that belief will debilitate them and prevent them from trying to effect change. This objection is crap too—the ancient Stoics both believed in determinism and worked to effect change. In part, this objection misunderstands the relationship between people’s beliefs and their behavior. My students “believe” they’re all individuals, but they still all dress and talk exactly the same way. Believing they are individuals doesn’t make them individuals, any more than believing in determinism makes me incapable of working for social change.

One Comment leave one →
  1. October 7, 2009 2:14 pm

    Moreover, it seems there’s a built-in determinism with the notion of causation. Anyone working for change would seem to presuppose at least SOME determinism.

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