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The timing of determination

Three paragraphs of what I'm writing about Leibniz, process philosophy and determinations:

One of the dazzling features of time is that it introduces the idea of process – and that reality itself could be a consequence of multiple processes. As a general feature of what is often called process philosophy1 – committed to the claim that reality is constituted by ongoing processes and somehow doesn't precede them – the idea of process poses a specific problem for the relation between metaphysics and time: the problem of the timing of (metaphysical determination). Metaphysical truths are often considered to be (at least to a large extent) necessary and permanent. That is to say respectively that they are not contingent on anything else and that they are not subject to the passing of time.2 The issue here is whether metaphysical determinations take place once and for all – and cannot be otherwise – or whether they are not an instant event but rather require some duration. In particular, if metaphysical determinations are permanent, they were (or are) arguably issued outside time, and in this case established in no time – its establishment had no duration. The thesis that metaphysical truths are permanent entail that their determination required no timing; in other words, there was no process that took place in order for them to be determined. A similar concern has to do with grounding: grounds are instants in time or rather fully external to it? If metaphysical truths are grounded in a permanent basis, the grounding has to take place outside the passing of time – there would be no process of grounding anything. The issue can be made easier to picture if we consider what needed to be done in order for something metaphysical be grounded or determined. I have argued elsewhere3 that process philosophy is best conceived in terms of a multiplicity of agencies (not necessarily of agents). As far as process philosophies are willing to challenge the permanent character of metaphysical truths, they can do it in terms of agencies that require time in order to determine (or ground) anything metaphysical. This can be illustrated by what Whitehead took as his ontological principle: nothing is fully explained without a resort to actual entities.4 Applied to the issue at hand, an explanation of metaphysical determination or grounding requires an appeal to some actual entities that engaged in the process of determining or grounding. Applied across the board, the principle entails that nothing (with the possible exception of actual entities as Whitehead would prefer5) comes to exists or ceases to exist without the consort of some agency. As a consequence, nothing comes to exists or ceases to exist without a process, and therefore without a duration.

Charles Sanders Peirce endeavored to counter what he calls necessitarianism – the claim that ‘the state of things existing at any time, together with some immutable laws, completely determine the state of things in every other time.’6 Necessitarianism is the thesis that everything follows by necessity from what was set outside time by the agency of some immutable laws. In other words, necessitarianism is the view that reality was produced (by necessity) in one stroke. In the Laplacean picture that Peirce addresses, where determinism weds necessity to permanence, ‘the instantaneous state of a system of particles’ is defined by a number that ‘remains the same at all times’ and, therefore, ‘the intrinsic complexity of the system is the same at all times.’7 In any form, necessitarianism is the view that there is no genuine diversity, novelty or surprise. In particular, what interests us is the temporal element of necessitarianism: that there could be nothing other brought about by time . This is how Peirce counters his necessitarian opponent:

you think all the arbitrary specifications of the universe were introduced in one dose, in the beginning, if there was a beginning, and the variety and complication of nature has always been just as much as it is now. But I, for my part, think that the diversification, the specification, has been continuously taking place.8

Though two clarifications are in order, the general picture is drawn: reality as a fixed order concocted outside time is opposed by the idea that it gains genuine new elements with the passing of time. The two clarifications are the following. First, as Peirce presents necessitarianism, it conflates the idea that reality is permanent with the idea that it is necessary. Second, Peirce assumes that the beginning of the universe is not ruled by something permanent. Still, the debate is clear: while his necessitarian opponent takes the universe to be specified outside any interval of time – and therefore arguably in one dose – Peirce sides with a continuous constitution of reality and therefore with a duration in the process of specifying what there is. If we consider the process of determining how things are, a reasonable model is that of a determination as a decision – especially reasonable if we hold determining as an act of agency. In this model, there is a timing associated with decision making. That timing gradually introduces elements that were not present beforehand because it involves a decision that was not made before. Determinism – and Peirce's necessitarianism – is the absence of any decision; determinism is the absence of any determining, of any process of determination. If we consider the timing of determination to be about agency, Peirce's necessitarian holds that there is no agency in the world. It is all about following what was elsewhere established in determinations without determining being made. Peirce, on the other hand, wants to defend new determining processes and that takes him to claim that ‘there is probably in nature some agency by which the complexity and diversity of things can be increased.’9

The opposite of agency is clearly not only determinism but also indeterminism – where nothing is determined and therefore there is no determining process. In the latter case according to the model of determination as decision, there is no decision made and no hence decision followed. In this case, there is no process of determination because there is no metaphysical truth that is in any sense established. Meillassoux's principle of facticity – according to which everything is necessarily contingent – is a metaphysical truth that prevents any other metaphysical truth and therefore constitutes a form of necessitarianism.10 It is an overriding principle that rules that nothing can ever be determined and as an overriding principle it is not subject to any process or established in any interval of time. Anomy is in fact the other face of the opposite of positing determinations in time – unexplainable irregularities were not determined while exceptionless all-encompassing regularities were determined outside the scope of the passing of time. Peirce himself points out that the necessitarianism can appeal to random swerves like Epicurean clinamina that introduce novelty through an indeterminate element. In contrast, Peirce postulates a multiplicity of spontaneous actions that he claims can account for both order and exception because it involves diverse determinations that take place in time; acts of determining are multiple and continuously shape what there is. The contrasting image he favors against necessitarianism is one where a plurality of agencies influence through their acts – and spontaneous decisions – the outcome that constitutes reality. It is the image of a multitude of determiners situated in time that shape things; this multitude contrasts both with time-free, transcendent determinations and with no determinations at all. Peirce's image to oppose necessitarianism sets the stage for process philosophy as it makes it possible to understand determination as taking place in time.


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