Are we always already determined?

The insight that we are “always already” in something or other leads people to a kind of determinism and a belief in an invisible boundary beyond which exist forces that control us in ways that we cannot ever actually know. We are produced by a structure from which there is no escape, no getting on the outside of. 

But this deduction from the always-already to a cultural determinism has a hidden but necessary premise, which is a certain vision of what a human being is and what the world is.  Cultural determinism is usually laid out as an argument, a set of steps, based upon a set of premises from which if-thens follow. But the fact of always/already is not enough to conclude that cultural determinism is true. It requires also an understanding of what is already/always there, and also who is plunged into that always already. If there is always already an ideological structure, then what is that structure and what is it made from? 

It is not the case the mere acceptance that we are plunged into some already and always experience necessarily means that one must subscribe to a form of relativistic determinism. It means that only if it that “always/already” part is combined with a certain set of assumptions about the kind of thing that human beings are. If it presupposes the Darwinian view, the always already does necessitate cultural determinism. But if one presupposes another view of human beings (e.g. the Islamic one), then the always already does not necessitate determinism. 

That is, the very entity that is able to grasp the fact of an already/always also has to grasp that the way that it interprets the already/always is going to be contingent on the picture of the world into which it is placed. 

The very fact of the always/already does not arbitrate between the picture of the world that makes the already/always determinate and the picture that leaves the possibility of freedom open. Rather, one must choose between those two pictures for some other reason. 

Think of bodily space: The fact that one always begins from somewhere in three dimensional space and ends up somewhere else in three dimensional space does not itself tell you how that change in location occurs. The very fact of those dimensions being “always already” given does not tell you how movement occurs. In other words, it may be the case that the three dimensions are there from beginning to end, but that does not tell you how to interpret what accounts for the changes. What are the forces at play? If, as in the mechanical philosophy, you suppose that everything is contact causation, then the only way that an object can move from one point in space to another is by being pushed around by other objects in one’s direct vicinity the way a lever uses a fulcrum. Therefore, the fact of movement is explicable only in terms of nearby objects and the behavior of those objects is where one looks to explain movement. But then, as with Newton, you might decide that there are such things as gravity, and while the very same three dimensions are still always there, the interpretation one gives for how those objects move in those three dimensions is radically different, since one is no long simply looking at the nearby objects that touch, but at all objects and especially large ones far away.

Now, a mechanical philosopher could not point to the inescapability of the three dimensions of bodily space as proof for his hypothesis about the mechanical nature of objects. But the non-mechanical nature of objects (which was made plain with gravity) does not erase the three dimensions in which we experience the non-mechanistic nature of bodies. That is, the always already given three dimensionality does not help to decide which picture of causation is right. 

The always already active in all idea is like that. If I were to say that a ball is always somewhere and already somewhere, where “somewhere” means a certain position in three dimensional space, that fact cannot help me decide whether the ball is governed by Cartesian mechanics, Newtonian gravity, or quantum mechanics. 

The question is what kind of entity is already always in the “is-can-ought” inner-space and what is the nature of how its immediate experiences determine it? The analogous choice (as between contact causation and gravity, for example) is something like: Are one’s conscious positions revisable in a true way, or are they merely ephemeral and changing? And saying one is already always within cannot tell you the answer, even though it can rule out certain conceptions such as a kind of disembodied view from everywhere, a fully formed rationality parachuting into life.  

This is the advantage to conceptualizing the inner space as a three dimensional manifold of descriptive, theoretical, and normative ideas, since one can use the bodily metaphor to separate out the fact of a given set of parameters and locations from the fact of change and its nature. Yes, our descriptive, theoretical, and normative ideas are already and always given, but that does not tell us how those ideas change. It does not tell us how ideas or beliefs get revised. Yes, we have all sorts of conscious and even unconscious beliefs about what is real, what is rational, and what is right, but that does not tell us how those ideas change, how they might go from being unconscious to conscious or vice versa, and so on. All that we can say for sure is that by the time we begin to attempt wisdom we already have a position on all sorts of things. How we get from one position to another is not decidable by the fact that we start with such positions, but by something else. 

So to use an example: suppose there is metal ball buried a few inches in the sand. According to one theory of the nature of bodies and change, one has to first move some sand touching that ball before one could move the ball, because the only way to move the ball (according to this mechanical view) is to touch the ball or to touch things that are in contact with it like the sand. But according to another theory, the ball can be moved first and then the ball would move the sand out of the way to move toward the magnet because a magnet can attract the ball without doing anything to the sand at all. In the latter theory, in fact, both ways of moving the metal ball can work—it can be moved mechanically through touch contact, or it can be moved magnetically without touch contact. 

The question then is: does the ball act on the sand first, or does the sand act on the ball first, or can both happen? 

Now, the fact that there is a ball and sand and they are already there in three dimensions of space cannot tell you which theory is right. 

Therefore it is invalid to conclude from the fact of the “always already” that human beings are imprisoned in a cultural structure that determines everything. It does not follow.  


Now, this way of looking at the already-always has the further advantage of not being self-refuting, unlike the deterministic way of looking. If the determinists are right, then they are determined to hold that view about determinism and therefore the insight is without value at all. The philosophy of cultural determinism undermines itself logically. But the always already view that also adds activity means that the entity who realizes this always and already status could be real without it leading to any logical problems. If the view is wrong, it is only empirically wrong, and not logically impossible as in the case of the deterministic view. 

And in fact that is really as far as any “proof” about such things can go, since skepticism is always a demand with regards to probability and not deductive necessity. The skeptic is always presenting an imaginative picture and asking for deductive proof within that picture. The answer to the skeptic is not an impossible skepticism-proof argument (since deduction can only flow from premises set by the skeptic) but the combination of presuppositions with an argument about those presuppositions. If my view is logically unproblematic but my presuppositions are empirically far-fetched (according to some), it’s still better than your combination of premises and argument which is logically impossible by the standards we both agree to even if the picture of the worlds feels better to you. 

The “that’s only what you are obligated to believe to be true but not what is actually true” just mixes up the definition of truth, since the standards of proof can only ever be determined outside of or prior to the procedure of the proof. What is the difference between what is true and what one is obligated to believe to be true anyway? That is when you bid the skeptic good day.

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