From owner-bhaskar Mon Nov 11 17:31:31 1996 Date: Mon, 11 Nov 1996 15:25:49 -0700 Message-Id: <> From: Hans Ehrbar <> Subject: BHA: rts2-21 ================================================= Chapter 2. Actualism and the Concept of a Closure ================================================= 1. INTRODUCTION: ON THE ACTUALITY OF THE CAUSAL CONNECTION (i) `We have no knowledge of anything but phaenomena; and our knowledge of phaenomena is relative not absolute. We know not the essence, nor the real mode of production, of any fact, but only its relations to other facts in the way of succession or similitude. These relations are constant; that is, always the same in the same circumstances. The constant resemblances which link phaenomena together, and the constant sequences which unite them as antecedent and consequent, are termed their laws. The laws of phaenomena are all we know respecting them. Their essential nature, and their ultimate causes, either efficient or final, are unknown and inscrutable to us.'1 (ii) `To give a causal explanation of an event means to deduce a statement, using as premises of the deduction one or more universal laws, together with certain singular statements, the initial conditions.'2 (iii) `Since in a fully-stated D-N [deductive-nomological] explanation of a particular event the explanans logically implies the explanandum, we may say that the explanatory argument might have been used for the deductive prediction of the explanandum-event if the laws and the particular facts adduced in its explanans had been known and taken into account at a suitable earlier time. In this sense a D-N explanation is a potential D-N prediction.'3 (iv) `Criteria of refutation must be laid down beforehand: it 1 J. S. Mill, Auguste Comte and Positivism, p. 6. 2 K. R. Popper, The Logic of Scientific Discovery, p. 59. 3 C. G. Hempel, Aspects of Scientific Explanation, p. 366. 64 A Realist Theory of Science must be agreed which observable situations, if actually observed, mean the theory is refuted.'4 (v) `Important though other considerations may be, the acid test of a theory is its predictive power.'5 It is the argument of this chapter that there is a distinction between open and closed systems, which most existing philosophy of science ignores; that closed systems are a condition of its most important doctrines, such as those expressed in (i) - (v); and that once the significance of this distinction is grasped the plausibility of these doctrines collapses. (i) - (v) possess a family connection, in that they all depend upon the Humean theory of law. This theory has often been criticized on the grounds that a constant conjunction of events cannot be sufficient for a law. But most of its critics have been content to allow that it is at least necessary.6 It is this notion, viz. that laws are constant conjunctions of events (plus some disputed contribution of mind), that I intend to challenge. It arises as follows: If atomistic events or states of affairs constitute the world then, for general knowledge to be possible, the relations between such events or states of affairs must be constant. (This is the assumption that the concept of a closure is designed to mark.) On the other hand if, as I intend to argue, they are not in general constant, then atomistic events cannot provide the only basis of ontology. And the philosophical theories based on the identification of causal laws with empirical regularities plus must all be radically wrong. I shall use the term `actualism' to refer to the doctrine of the actuality of causal laws; that is, to the idea that laws are relations between events or states of affairs (which are thought to constitute the objects of actual or possible experiences).7 Behind this idea of course lies the notion that only the actual (identified as the determinate object of the empirical) is real. Given it, the constant conjunction plus analysis of laws must 4 K. R. Popper, Conjectures and Refutations, p. 39, n. 3. 5 J. Gibbs and W. Martin, Status, Integration and Suicide, p. 197. 6 See e.g. N. R. Hanson, Observation and Explanation, p. 45. 7 M R. Ayers, The Refutation of Determinism, p. 6 and passim uses the term `actualism' to refer to the doctrine that only the actual is possible. The connection between the two concepts will become clear in due course. Actualism and the Concept of A Closure 65 follow. In this chapter I shall not be concerned with the `plus'. Moreover for convenience I shall use the term `empiricism' in a generic way so as to cover the entire post-Humean tradition of empirical realism, and in particular both its positivist and neo-Kantian wings. No harm will be done by this usage as I am here attacking an assumption, viz. that a constant conjunction is necessary for a law, common to both. The argument of this chapter is both simple and, I think, novel. Leaving aside astronomy, it is only under conditions that are experimentally produced and controlled that a closure, and hence a constant conjunction of events, is possible. The empiricist is now caught in a terrible dilemma: for to the extent that the antecedents of law-like statements are instantiated in open systems, he must sacrifice either the universal character or the empirical status of laws. If, on the other hand, he attempts to avoid this dilemma by restricting the application of laws to closed systems (e.g. by making the satisfaction of a ceteris paribus clause a condition of their applicability), he is faced with the embarrassing question of what governs phenomena in open systems. If he refuses the question, he is still left with the problem of accounting for experimental activity, and thus the establishment of `laws', however restricted, in the first place. His only options here are to deny either that men are causal agents or that experimental activity plays any role in science. For if laws are sequences of events and men, being causal agents, can bring about and prevent such sequences, there can be no rationale for according one rather than another sequence the status of law. A sequence of events can only function as a criterion for a law if the latter is ontologically irreducible to the former. And so we come back to the argument of 1.3, where I showed how the intelligibility of experimental activity presupposes the ontological distinctiveness of causal laws from the patterns of events. But it can now be seen that not only the experimental establishment but the practical application of our knowledge depends upon this same ontological distinction. For unless causal laws persisted and operated outside the context of their closure, i.e. where no constant conjunctions of events obtained, science could not be used in the explanation, prediction, construction and diagnosis of the phenomena of ordinary life. The empiricist makes matters worse for himself by the fact 66 A Realist Theory of Science that he not only ties laws to closed systems, but typically ties the activities of explanation, prediction and the identification of causes to our knowledge of laws. A reductio ad absurdum quickly follows. For to the extent that we seek to explain, predict and identify the causes of phenomena that occur in open systems, these activities become impossible. And to the extent that they are necessary for our social life, empiricism does. Thus there is no necessity that we should exist. But, given that we do, if our social life is to be possible we must ascribe causal responsibility in open systems. And given this, the Humean theory just cannot apply. Now I want to argue both that laws apply in open and closed systems alike; and, in a subsidiary thesis, that these other activities do not necessarily depend upon (though they may make use of) a knowledge of laws. From this perspective the Popper-Hempel theory of explanation, for example, may be seen to involve a double mistake: first, that explanation always involves laws; and secondly, that laws are or depend upon empirical regularities. My overall aim, it will be remembered, is to argue that the ultimate objects of scientific understanding are neither patterns of events nor models but the things that produce and the mechanisms that generate the flux of the phenomena of the world. Scientists attempt to discover the way things act, a knowledge typically expressed in laws; and what things are, a knowledge (to be discussed later) typically expressed in real definitions. Statements of laws, I have suggested, are statements about the tendencies of things which may not be actualized, and may not be manifest to men; they are not statements about conjunctions of events, or experiences. But in developing this theory I do not attach any great importance to the word or even the concept `law'. Rather what is essential to the realism developed here is the idea that the things and mechanisms of nature, that constitute the intransitive objects of scientific theory, both exist and act independently of the conditions, normally produced by men, that allow men access to them. For experimental science to be possible the world must be at least partially open. But if there is a real distinction between open systems and closed and our intuitions about the rationality of science are to be preserved there must be a real distinction between structures and events. In this respect the differentiation Actualism and the Concept of a Closure 67 of phenomena still provides the best argument for the stratification of the world. In isolating the special conditions under which a regular sequence or pattern of events occurs; that is, in which (to adopt the realist mode) there is a correspondence between causal laws and the pattern of events, I will be leaving it up to the epistemologist whether he wants to sustain the universality of laws (and inter alia the intelligibility of experimental activity) by postulating a categorical ontological distinction between them. If this is done by the development of a non-empiricist ontology and an analysis of laws as non-empirical and normic along the lines indicated in 1.5 above, the way is also open for an adequate theory of natural necessity and natural kinds. On the other hand without this, I shall argue in Chapter 3, our intuitions about the lack of sufficiency of the Humean criteria for law (and the theories of science based on it) cannot in the last instance be sustained. In showing how a closure is a condition of the intelligibility of empirical realism my primary intention in this chapter is critical. For it is when confronted with the fact and implications of open systems that the limitations of this approach to science - with its flat ontology of undifferentiated experience - become most apparent. But, in dealing with the problems posed by the largely unanalysed phenomena of open systems, I will also be compelled to develop new and more general alternatives to the theories, such as those expressed in (i) - (v) above, that are based on the tacit assumption that a closure is the universal rule in nature; rather than the rare exception I shall contend it is. Underlying the widespread, if tacit, acceptance in philosophy of the idea of the ubiquity of constant conjunctions in nature (an idea which is not confined to the empiricist tradition)8 and hence of the doctrine of the actuality of causal laws is the notion that the universe is at rock bottom deterministic; that, in the image of Leibniz, the present is big (in the sense of pregnant) with the future; that it, as it were, already contains it now. It is the job of science to discover the iron laws that uniquely determine its motion. Once these laws are discovered, given only a knowledge of any complete state-description, `nothing would 8 Leibniz's pre-established harmony of monads may be usefully compared with Hume's constant conjunctions of atomistic events. 68 A Realist Theory of Science be uncertain [to science] and the future, as the past, would be present to its eyes.'9 What accounts for the hold of this fantastic conception on our philosophical imagination? The philosophical arguments for it are, taken on their own, as we shall see, pretty poor. Why then do we feel the force of this picture? Partly no doubt because many things are de facto predictable, many processes are effectively isolated and many systems more or less closed; so that, given that rough-and-ready regularities are everywhere at hand, it seems plausible to suppose that underlying them there must be more exact ones. Partly no doubt because of an obsession with the consequences and a neglect of the conditions of the experimental paradigm, the single case that the hypothetico-deductive view of science fits. Above all perhaps because of the misconception created by the celestial closure secured by Newtonian science, and in particular by the idea that this closure embodied both a model of phenomena and a model of science. This was a double mistake. For it was not the human mind, as Laplace thought,10 that gave its special perfection to astronomy. Rather it was the peculiar conditions of the planets, and in particular the constancy of both their intrinsic states and the external forces on them, that made possible the observed regularities. Moreover for Newtonian, as for any other, mechanics celestial phenomena functioned merely as evidence that bodies tend to act in certain ways. The laws of motion, for example, describe actions which are unobservable in principle. But the tendencies of the bodies to which they apply are real; and would account for any disruption in the established order of our solar system. But, it might be objected, is not the universe in the end nothing but a giant machine with inexorable laws of motion governing 9 P. S. de Laplace, A Philosophical Essay on Probabilities, p. 4. Positivists still pay obeisance to this concept of knowledge. See e.g. Brodbeck's characterisation of it, in an echo of Laplace, as `perfect knowledge' (M. Brodbeck, `Methodological Individualism: Definition and Reduction', Readings in the Philosophy of the Social Sciences, p. 289); and Hempel's wry admission that classical deterministic (i.e. Laplacean) systems conform `best' to his model of explanation as deductive subsumption under universal laws (C. G. Hempel, Aspects of Scientific Explanation, p. 351). It is but a short step to identifying such systems with theories. (See e.g. M. Brodbeck, op. cit., p. 288; C. G. Hempel, ibid; and R. Rudner, The Philosophy of Social Science, p. 91). 10 P. S. Laplace, ibid. Actualism and the Concept of a Closure everything that happens within it? I want to say three things: First, that the various sciences treat the world as a network of `machines', of various shapes and sizes and degrees of complexity, whose proper principles of explanation are not all of the same kind as, let alone reducible to, those of classical mechanics. Secondly, that the behaviour of `machines', including classical mechanical ones, cannot be adequately described, let alone understood, in terms of the `whenever x, then y' formula of regularity determinism. Thirdly, that even if the world were a single `machine' this would still provide no grounds for the constant conjunction idea, or a fortiori any of the theories of science that depend upon it. Regularity determinism is a mistake, which has been disastrous for our understanding of science. --- from list --- .