Determinism and The Irrationality of Absolute Autonomy

Yesterday I was reading a science text on physical cosmology that was quite critical of string theory and of physicists in general for allowing theory to trump evidence. In the course of his critique he claimed that the birth of science was in fact due to the Christian idea that God as absolute creator established unalterable physical laws to govern the universe. He argued that no other worldview, whether Islam, Buddhism, or Hinduism had such a determinist foundation.

This got me thinking about Marxist determinism, which in some sense became a dogma under Stalinism. In the preface to Kapital Marx writes, “And even when a society has got upon the right track for the discovery of the natural laws of its movement — and it is the ultimate aim of this work, to lay bare the economic law of motion of modern society — it can neither clear by bold leaps, nor remove by legal enactments, the obstacles offered by the successive phases of its normal development. But it can shorten and lessen the birth-pangs.”

This characterization has the peculiar antinomy of all deterministic statements, it posits a continuum of cause and effect, but then also posits a “deus ex machina” agent (or subject) that is “outside” and can alter the process. The ruling metaphor here is almost that of an obstetrician midwifing a birth. However, the revolutionary observer, who seeks to “lay bare” the natural laws of society’s motion, isn’t in fact a skilled physician, but rather, in our moment, a disparate collection of theorists, organizations, movements, and activists who each describe part of the elephant of revolutionary potential in terms of their immediate interests. They, too, are buffeted by the “successive phases” of social (economic) development.

This reminds me of the Kantian antinomy of freedom, that while all natural phenomena (including the perception of autonomy) are determined, human reason demands a perception that it is free.

One way that I’ve handled the freedom vs determinism antinomy is to borrow from our favorite leftist supplementary discourse – psychoanalysis. The problem isn’t that our freedom is frustrated by a deterministic continuum of cause and effect in which we are helpless cogs, but that we have formed unrealistic expectations of freedom itself. This certainly was the case in the 60s New Left, when so many felt “revolution was in the air” even as the cops killed the movement leaders systematically with the consent of the majority.

How does subjectivity become “unrealistic’? By splitting itself from itself via the trauma of achieving autonomy. We deny our dependence on others, our embeddedness in the very systems we have come to hate. Our hate has a rationale, but our psychic deformation under the death-systems of sexism, authoritarianism, and capitalism induces within each and every person an irrational sense of individual responsibility for forces beyond any one’s control.

Why does achieving autonomy shape us into irrational subjects? Because we want to be far more free than is possible. We want to command mother to feed us and change us on demand. When she fails to satisfy us we hate her passionately in infantile tantrums. When our tantrum subsides through exhaustion, we are driven to renegotiate with the still all-powerful caregiver we’ve tried to murder in our imaginations. Beneath the traumatic shame and guilt we come to feel at our hatred of mother is an unresolved anxious feeling of failure, an irrational hope that we can someday actually force mother to give us everything we want when we want it. These fantasies of omnipotence and future autonomy in relation to mother’s failure to satisfy our desires are projected onto social and economic systems. Mother was supposed to be able to feed us, to change us (which toilet-training ended), and to let us play any game we wanted any time we wanted, endlessly. The “Law of the Mother” is far more potent in the infantile imagination – and omnipresent in the adult ego – than that of the “Father.”

One of my favorite philosophers, John Macmurray, analyzed the problematic of agency and irrational desire by pointing out that “since our actions contain a negative element which is … ‘unconscious’, the unconscious motive may find expression in action, so that we find that what we have done is not what we [consciously] intended, but something different; even something opposite and contradictory to our intention. In our relations with other persons this ambiguity of motivation is felt as a tension and a constraint between us, and therefore in each of us.”

As revolutionaries of the left, our conscious intention is a mass revolution in which the majority of humanity rises up as a unified movement against its exploiters and oppressors. However, as irrational fantasists of absolute autonomy, we want this revolutionary movement to satisfy our needs, recognize our theoretical mastery, and fulfill our freedom. We must each face and mature beyond our internal irrationalities, our trauma-induced fantasy of absolute freedom, and our desire that we never need depend on another (Mother).

Although it is something of a wordplay, there is substantive truth in the concept of interdependence that has emerged from ecological philosophy and political activism. The illusory dream of absolute independence cannot be simply rejected for the dangerous myth of complete dependence. We are not slaves to natural law, nor are we limitless free subjects. Our freedom is found in interdependence, in seeking out companions and partners for the grand project of human emancipation. Overcoming our resistances to an egalitarian leveling that includes and limits our own desires, to the recognition that others hold indispensable keys to our own emancipation which they can only truly give us if they freely choose to do so, and finally acting according to the realization that we cannot be truly free if we do not invest ourselves in emancipating others, even at the cost of our irrational desires and illusions.


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