From owner-bhaskar Fri Sep 27 15:41:36 1996 Date: Fri, 27 Sep 1996 13:36:47 -0600 Message-Id: <> From: Hans Ehrbar <> Subject: rts2-15a 5. ONTOLOGY VINDICATED AND THE REAL BASIS OF CAUSAL LAWS In Section 3 I argued that only if causal laws are not the patterns of events that enable us to identify them can the intelligibility of experimental activity be sustained. But causal laws are, or have seemed to philosophers to be, pretty mysterious entities. What can it mean to say that they have a real basis independent of events? The answer to this question will be seen to necessitate the development of a non-anthropocentric ontology of structures, generative mechanisms and active things. The ontological status of causal laws can best be approached by considering the divergent responses of transcendental realism and idealism to the problem of distinguishing a necessary from a purely accidental sequence of events. Both may agree, in their modern versions, that without some conception of a generative mechanism at work no attribution of necessity is justified. For the transcendental idealist, however, this necessity is imposed by men on the pattern of events; the generative mechanism is an irreducible figment of the imagination. For the transcendental realist, on the other hand, the generative mechanism may come to be established as real in the course of the ongoing activity of science. Indeed he will argue that it is only if existential questions can be raised about the objects of scientific theory that the rationality of theory construction can be sustained. For without them science would remain, as in empiricism, a purely 46 A Realist Theory of Science internal process - with the familiarity of image replacing the reinforcement of sensation, still lacking a rational dynamic of change. Now once it is granted that mechanisms and structures may be said to be real, we can provide an interpretation of the independence of causal laws from the patterns of events, and a fortiori of the rationale of experimental activity. For the real basis of this independence lies in the independence of the generative mechanisms of nature from the events they generate. Such mechanisms endure even when not acting; and act in their normal way even when the consequents of the law-like statements they ground are, owing to the operation of intervening mechanisms or countervailing causes, unrealized. It is the role of the experimental scientist to exclude such interventions which are usual; and to trigger the mechanism so that it is active. The activity of the mechanism may then be studied without interference. And it is this characteristic pattern of activity or mode of operation that is described in the statement of a causal law. It is only under closed conditions that there will be a one-to-one relationship between the causal law and the sequence of events. And it is normally only in the laboratory that these enduring mechanisms of nature, whose operations are described in the statements of causal laws, become actually manifest and empirically accessible to men. But because they endure and continue to act, when stimulated, in their normal way outside those conditions, their use to explain phenomena and resistence to pseudo-falsification in open systems can be rationally justified. Only if causal laws persist through, which means they must be irreducible to, the flux of conditions can the idea of the universality of a *known* law be sustained. And only if they have a reality distinct from that of events can the assumption of a *natural* necessity be justified. On this view laws are not empirical statements, but statements about the forms of activity characteristic of the things of the world. And their necessity is that of a natural connection, not that of a human rule. There is a distinction between the *real* structures and mechanisms of the world and the *actual* patterns of events that they generate. And this distinction in turn justifies the more familiar one between *necessary* and *accidental* sequences. For a necessary sequence is Philosophy and Scientific Realism 47 simply one which corresponds to, or is in phase with, a real connection; that is, it is a real connection actually manifest in the sequence of events that occurs. The world consists of mechanisms not events. Such mechanisms combine to generate the flux of phenomena that constitute the actual states and happenings of the world. They may be said to be real, though it is rarely that they are actually manifest and rarer still that they are empirically identified by men. They are the intransitive objects of scientific theory. They are quite independent of men - as thinkers, causal agents and perceivers. They are not unknowable, although knowledge of them depends upon a rare blending of intellectual, practico-technical and perceptual skills. They are not artificial constructs. But neither are they Platonic forms. For they can become manifest to men in experience. Thus we are not imprisoned in caves, either of our own or of nature's making. We are not doomed to ignorance. But neither are we spontaneously free. This is the arduous task of science: the production of the knowledge of those enduring and continually active mechanisms of nature that produce the phenomena of our world. Objections may be made to my proposed reconstitution of an ontological realm, which question in turn the intransitivity and the structured character of the postulated objects of scientific inquiry, i.e. the ideas of their categorical independence from men and events respectively. I will consider the two kinds of objections in turn. Thus, it might be objected that the very idea of a world without men is unintelligible because the conditions under which it is true would make its being conceived impossible. But I can think of a world without men; and I can think of a world without myself. No-one can truly say `I do not exist' but that does not mean that `I do not exist' is unintelligible; or that it cannot be meaningfully, just because it cannot be truly said. It is no objection to the intelligibility of a statement that it is counter-factual. Indeed it is only because it is intelligible that we can say that it is counter-factual. Someone might hold that to think of a world without men is not so much unintelligible as impossible; that we must picture ourselves in any picture. Now it is a fact about human beings that we can do this. But we do not have to do it, any more than 48 A Realist Theory of Science an artist must initial his work. The idea may be perhaps that a thought must always contain, or at least be accompanied by, a thought of the thinker of the thought thinking the thought. Clearly if this were so, an infinite regress would be impossible to avoid. However, to be aware of the fact that I am thinking of a particular topic x, it is not necessary for me to be thinking of that fact. Such awareness may be expressed in thought, but when it is the topic is no longer x but my thought of x. It is possible for A to think epsilon and to be aware of thinking epsilon without thinking about thinking epsilon; and unless this were so no-one could ever intelligently think. Moreover it is possible for A to think about thinking epsilon without thinking about his (A's) thinking epsilon. Thinking about thinking about a particular topic must be distinguished >from thinking about the thinker of the topic.32 There is no absurdity in the supposition of a world without men. Rather it is a possibility presupposed by the social activity of science. It is important to establish this fact. For we are too liable to underestimate the power of the pictures, often unconscious, which underpin philosophical theories. Such pictures indeed often hold our philosophical imagination `captive'.33 Our philosophy of science is heavily anthropocentric, which is why it is important to consider what it would be possible to say about our world if there were no men, given that we know that our world is one in which science is as a matter of fact possible. For example things would still act, be subject to laws and preserve their identity through certain changes. A second kind of objection might focus on the structured character of the postulated objects of scientific inquiry, questioning not so much the idea itself but the interpretation I have given to it; and in particular the explanatory value of the particular ontology proposed. Thus it might be objected that, while the transcendental argument from experimental activity in Section 3 establishing the distinctiveness of causal laws and patterns of events, is sound, the introduction of the concept of generative 32 In fact men have the capacity to be self-conscious in two ways: first in being conscious of what they are doing; and secondly, in being conscious of their doing it. That these two are not equivalent is shown by the fact that in some contexts a person may know what he has done but not that he has done it and vice-versa. 33 L. Wittgenstein. Philosophical Investigation, 115. Philosophy and Scientific Realism 49 mechanisms to provide a real basis for causal laws is gratuitous. What does it mean to say that a generative mechanism endures and acts in its characteristic way? It does not *mean*, we have seen, that a regular sequence of events occurs or is experienced; though the occurrence of such a sequence may, in special circumstances, provide empirical *grounds* for the hypothesis of the existence of the mechanism. For the intelligibility of experimental activity entails that the particular mechanism endures and at least some mechanisms act through the flux of conditions that determine whether they are active and co-determine the manifest outcome of their activity. That is to say, it entails that generative mechanisms endure even when inactive and act even where, as in open systems, there is no one-to-one relationship between the causal law representing the characteristic mode of operation of the mechanism and the particular sequence of events that occurs. In particular, it entails that mechanisms act in their normal way outside the closed conditions that enable us to experimentally identify them and whether or not we do so; i.e. whether or not the results of their operations are modified, and whether or not these results are perceived by men. (In the former case we could talk of a disjuncture between the domains of the real and the actual; in the latter case of a disjuncture between the domains of the real and the empirical.) Now the reason why the concept of a causal law cannot itself be taken as ontologically basic is because its analysis presupposes a `real something' over and above and independent of patterns of events; and it is for the status of this real something that the concept of a generative mechanism is groomed. But then does to say that a generative mechanism endures and acts in its characteristic way mean anything more than to say that a thing goes on acting in a certain way? As stated the reformulation is ambiguous. For the continuance of a form or pattern of activity can be interpreted in an empirical or a non-empirical way. The intelligibility of experimental activity requires the latter non- empirical interpretation. For it entails, as we have seen, that causal laws persist and are efficacious in open systems, i.e. outside the conditions that enable us to empirically identify them. Now accepting this non-empirical interpretation means that reference to causal laws involves centrally reference to causal agents; that is, to things endowed with causal powers. 50 A Realist Theory of Science On this interpretation then the generative mechanisms of nature exist as the causal powers of things. We now have a perfectly acceptable ontological basis for causal laws. For if it is wrong to reify causal laws, and it is wrong to reify generative mechanisms, it cannot be wrong to reify things! However, the fact that the transcendental analysis of experimental activity showed that generative mechanisms must go on acting (i.e. that causal laws must be efficacious) outside the closed conditions that permit their identification means that causal laws cannot be simply analysed as powers. Rather they must be analysed as tendencies. For whereas powers are potentialities which may or may not be exercised, tendencies are potentialities which may be exercised or as it were `in play' without being realized or manifest in any particular outcome. They are therefore just right for the analysis of causal laws.34 If the analysis of causal laws (and generative mechanisms) is to be given by the concept of things and not events (a possibility which I have already rejected by demonstrating in Section 3 their categorical independence from events), the consideration that they not only persist but are efficacious in open systems, which is presupposed by the intelligibility of experimental activity, entails that causal laws must be analysed as tendencies. For tendencies are powers which may be exercised without being fulfilled or actualized (as well as being fulfilled or actualized unperceived by men). It is by reference not just to the enduring powers but the unrealized activities or unmanifest (or incompletely manifest) actions of things that the phenomena of the world are explained. It is the idea of continuing activity as distinct from that of enduring power that the concept of tendency is designed to capture. In the concept of tendency, the concept of power is thus literally dynamized or set in motion. In the full analysis of law-like statements we are thus concerned with a new kind of conditional: which specifies the exercise of possibilities which need not be manifest in any 34 A recent antecedent of the view that causal laws should be analysed as tendencies is contained in P. T. Geach, `Aquinas', Three Philosophers G. E. M. Anscombe and P. T. Geach, pp. 10lff. Important works in the recent development of the concept of powers are W. D. Joske, Material Objects, Chaps. 4 and 5; M. R. Ayers, The Refutation of Determinism, Chaps. 3-5; and R. Harre, Principles of Scientific Thinking, esp. Chap. 10. Philosophy and Scientific Realism 51 particular outcome. Such conditionals are *normic*,35 rather than subjunctive. They do not say what would happen, but what is happening in a perhaps unmanifest way. Whereas a powers statement says A would psi in appropriate circumstances, a normic statement says that A really is psi'ing, whether or not its actual (or perceivable) effects are counteracted. They are not counter-factuals, but *transfactuals*; they take us to a level at which things are really going on irrespective of the actual outcome. To invoke a causal law is to invoke a normic conditional. A full analysis of normic and tendency statements will be provided later. For the moment, it should be noted that normic statements provide the correct analysis of the nomic indicative form. A nomic statement is a transfactual statement, with actual instances in the laboratory that constitute its empirical grounds. 35 I owe this term to M. Scriven, `Truisms as the Grounds for Historical Explanation', Theories of History, ed. P. Gardiner, pp. 464ff. Scriven uses it to refer to generalizations grounding historical explanations which contain modifiers such as `normally', `tendency', `usually', etc. My use of the term is substantially different. But it is the nearest thing to an antecedent for the kind of conditional I am concerned with. (Section 1.5 will be concluded in the next mailing) .