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Are human actions pre-determined?

By Paul D'Amato | January 23, 2004 | Page 9

IN NATURE, change comes about through the blind workings of unconscious elements acting on each other, not because of someone or something's desired aim. Planets don't decide to form out of nebular gases. Water doesn't decide to freeze in winter. Science consists in figuring out the patterns that arise amid nature's welter of blind, accidental interactions.

It is tempting to think that human beings, because we have minds, are diametrically opposed to nature. Our actions are not blind, they are willed. There is a sense in which this is true. Human beings can erect things in their heads before they create them in real life.

This idea underlies the popular idea that every person, if they really apply themselves, can achieve virtually anything. The message serves as a soothing comfort to the rich and as a source of shame for the poor.

The rich person thinks--my great personal capacities, my will, helped me to get where I am today. The poor person is encouraged to think--I'm poor because I'm not trying hard enough. One can only wonder how many potential geniuses thwarted by poverty and idiots born into wealth and success are necessary to disprove it.

The truth is that we, as humans, are part of the natural world, and are therefore subject to its material laws. Anyone who decides to stop eating, or refuses to build a shelter from the cold, will find that their willpower won't prevent them from ceasing to exist. We cannot survive unless we cooperate to make shelter and procure food. These are nature-imposed constraints on human action and interaction.

The fact that human beings act with desire and purpose does not mean that our history consists in the fulfillment of that will. Quite the opposite. In the majority of cases, historical change comes about behind the backs of its human actors, often with unintended results.

This fact tends to lend support to the other popular idea--that we are all victims of the blind flailings of history, unable to stem its inevitable tide. This fatalism is the exact opposite of voluntarism, yet often the same idea can be expressed at different times by the same person.

Frederick Engels got at the contradiction when he wrote "Men make their own history, whatever its outcome may be, in that each person follows his own consciously desired end, and it is precisely the resultant of these many wills operating in different directions, and of their manifold effects upon the outer world, that constitutes history."

" is a question of investigating the driving powers which--consciously or unconsciously, and indeed very often unconsciously--lie behind the motives of men who act in history and which constitute the real ultimate driving forces of history, then it is not a question so much of the motives of single individuals... as of those motives which set in motion great masses."

The interaction of competing human wills, anchored at its base by the human need to cooperate in some way to procure subsistence, is the foundation of historical change. The less developed our capacity to manipulate our surroundings to serve our own needs, the more we are subject to nature's blind laws.

Historical development consists, in an important respect, in humanity's increasing capacity to consciously manipulate nature's laws to suit our own needs and desires. But we still live in a society in which there is blind interaction on a world scale. Capitalism has developed immensely our capacity to harness nature, but it has done so in a context of extreme competition, where we can potentially feed or destroy every person on the planet.

The path toward fully conscious control of nature and our society, where our intentions and their results are harmonized in the interests of human well-being, can only come about by a revolution which "sets in motion great masses" of people to seize control of societies productive forces.

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