Pretend you are Neo and I am Morpheus from “The Matrix.” I’m wearing my leather trench coat and opaque glasses and offering you a red or a blue pill: “What would you say if I told you the outcome of the 2020 election has already been decided?”
You sigh and turn away, disappointed to come across yet another online conspiracy monger.
“No wait!” I holler as I run after you. “It’s not what you think. It’s not a big conspiracy or someone stealing the — well, now that you mention it …” I gasp for breath and jog to keep pace. “But if he does, well, that was necessary. It was determined! What, did you think you had a choice?”
You cover your ears and scurry down the road.
Ain’t Nothing But MamMals
I know — I know! Determinism is a tough sell. Everyone likes to think they are the captain of their fate. Who wants stagger through some 80 years abandoned to forces knocking us this way and that like a human ping-pong?
But maybe the insistence that we’re in charge is nothing but human conceit. As humans, we like to think of ourselves as something separate from, and indeed quite elevated above nature. It’s why the Scopes monkey trial went down. It was sacrilege to suggest mankind was kin to the lowly beast, rather than the master of it.
But unless you’re an anti-science holdout who believes Jesus rode on dinosaurs, we know better. People are awkwardly self-aware animals who developed language and learned to use their thumbs. Sure, there are a few other differences: our fashion sense evolved and we invented boy bands. But when you get down to it: primates. Sometimes more like chimps, sometimes more like bonobos.
We are just one more facet of nature. Like amoebas. Like trees. Like rocks. Like comets and black holes and carbon atoms. Like coronavirus. It’s why the laws of nature — things like entropy and gravity — apply to us. Why e=mc2 explains how humans turn food into energy. It’s why magic, no matter how fun it is to imagine, just isn’t a thing. We are a part of nature, not apart from it.
We know this. We accept it. Even when it comes to cause and effect.
We readily see that even inanimate things move because of cause and effect. The earth rotates on its axis: cause. Because the earth is a sphere, it rotates faster near the equator than the poles: effect. This differential (cause) creates what is known as the Coriolis Effect. The Coriolis Effect is what creates the trade winds (effect) that blow from east to west near the earth’s equator. No one doubts any of this.
The OutcomeS of History
Until human beings get involved. At that point, people back away from the table and look for an out. People want to operate differently than the rest of nature and the universe. Suddenly, it’s not good enough to operate under the rule of cause and effect. We want our free will.
But back to the trade winds (cause) for a moment. European ships found it safer and more efficient to create trade routes from Africa to South America and the Caribbean than the other way around (effect), and it helped make the trafficking in human beings — slavery — lucrative (effect). The American colonies used these enslaved people (cause) as the basis for a growing economy (effect).
You see where it leads. What started with the rotation of the earth continues link by link to America’s original sin. And I’m not arguing that this is the ONLY reason slavery took root in the Americas — not by far. There were so many other causes: religious bigotry, the rise of mercantile capitalism, existing rivalries and warfare between kingdoms in Africa, failed attempts to press Native Caribbean peoples into slavery just to name a few. But this is just the start of the story.
The causes that created slavery built a social system on the belief that a certain kind of person is fully human than another kind based on the color of their skin. The South’s dependence on slavery for its economy, and its underpinning belief in white supremacy, became the grounds for a massive war: cause. The South’s loss resulted in the end of slavery — but not the end of racism: effects. The North wanted to quash Southern independence: cause. They established the Reconstruction, which included the extension of some political power to Black people — a situation intolerable to many white people believed themselves superior: effect. Southern white people revolted, establishing the KKK in a murderous backlash: effect. When Jim Crow was instituted (cause), police were put to work harshly enforcing a code of laws designed to punish Black people for their race and for daring to exert any power (effect).
Slavery is dead. Jim Crow laws have been repealed. But racism continues to harm us (as a nation) in everything from mass incarceration to poorer health outcomes to a lack of educational, job and housing opportunities . History is still alive.
So when a white person in American society acts in a way that is racist — police officers who unfairly profile and harm Black people, hiring managers who call back people with “typically” Black names or teachers who lower expectations for Black students — how much of that is a choice? How much is what they absorbed just by growing up in the culture they did? How much is simply an effect of all the causes that came before?
When a Black person in this country warily eyes a police officer, or prefers to find friends among other Black people — or gives up on their dreams because they don’t believe they can accomplish them, or that college isn’t for Black people — how much of that was really a choice? How much was the result of circumstance? How much of it just followed?
Why choose the lesser of two evils when you can never chose at all?
A lot of people like to think of voting, and especially their own vote, as a rational matter. They want to believe people carefully consider their options. But I’m here to tell you that’s not the case.
I worked for a caucus of a state legislature, which required me knock on a lot of doors. On non-campaign years, this took the form of constituent services. We’d ask people if they needed assistance from their representative, or what they thought of certain proposed legislation or tell them about upcoming events. During campaign years, we were required to volunteer for candidates. I didn’t enjoy it, and I sure wasn’t good at it, but I learned a good deal about people.
Here’s one thing I learned: people don’t vote with their heads. Sure, once in a while someone would ask where a candidate stood this matter or that. Even then, it was usually to gauge how closely the candidate matched their own strong emotions on an issue. People who liked my candidate greeted me with smiles and offers of snacks. People who didn’t like my candidate slammed the door in my face. I even had one threaten to shoot me. This wasn’t the realm of the rational. People approach politics from the gut level.
Where do those strong feelings come from? Any number of places:
- A man loses his job when his factory shuts down and the company sends the jobs overseas. The company says tax policy sponsored by Candidate A made the move necessary. The man now hates Candidate A.
- A woman grew up in a family active in Democratic politics. When she was 10, her mother began successfully running for office, and she was encouraged to participate in campaigns and political events. She met and befriended many Democratic politicians now running for office at the local, state and national levels and she enthusiastically supports them.
- A man works in an office where right-leaning political talk radio plays all-day, every day. When he was hired, he had a moderate voting record — sometimes voting Team Red and sometimes voting Team Blue. After a decade of exposure to daily propaganda, he consistently votes Republican.
In each of these scenarios, is their vote a choice? Or just a natural outcome of what came before?
Everything is Necessary
The U.S. elections are slightly more than a month away. Polls show that most people have “made up their minds” about how they are going to vote. Numbers show little change between Trump and Biden for weeks. Whether you favor a free-will view of the universe or a deterministic one, there seems to be little room and less time for people to change their vote.
Minds are made up, as they say.
Or, if you are a hardcore determinist, the causes that will have determined people’s vote have likely already occurred.
In Spinoza’s philosophy, all things that happen, happen necessarily. That means that they are the only possible outcome based on all the other things that came before it. Everything that comes to pass had to be the next event in an unbroken chain of cause and effect that started with the Big Bang and continues into the distant future.
To quote the man himself: “From a given determinate cause the effect follows necessarily; and conversely, if there is no determinate cause, it is impossible for an effect to follow” (Ethics I, Axiom III).
In other words, once a given event happens, it sets off a chain of events that must follow. And vice-versa, if that thing doesn’t happen, it’s impossible for it to be the cause of anything.
Soon after (Ethics I, Proposition XXXIII), he follows that up with, “Things could have been produced by God in no other way, and in no other order than they have been produced.” (It’s important here to remember that Spinoza’s god isn’t the man with a beard on a cloud, but nature itself, or “the universe,” or whatever concept you choose to put in that place. It is not a personal thing, it does not meddle in human affairs, it doesn’t answer prayers or conduct miracles.)
In this proposition, Spinoza argues that ALL things MUST happen exactly as they do because of everything that came before. We humans are a part of nature, not apart from it, and beholden to the same laws.
And that includes things like how you react to people who look different from you. Or what career you pursue. Or what you have for lunch tomorrow.
Or who you vote for.
Or what happens after the votes are counted, and one large section of the country or the other is massively displeased with the result.
I can’t tell you what will happen next, but I can tell you that in some ways, we already know.
America: carefully divided after decades of hyper-partisan feuding.
America: a country proclaiming “e pluribus unum” while one politician urges his “proud boy” followers to “stand by” for … who knows what.
America: a land that has carefully avoided coming to terms with its racist past or its racist present.
Whatever comes next will be necessary.
And yet, if you’re looking at our current political situation through Spinoza’s lenses, that still doesn’t mean we’re helpless to affect change for the future. That’ll be the next post.