Tagged: dispositions

Why Dispositions Make More Sense Than Powers

By R.N. Carmona

Consider what follows some scattered thoughts after reading an excellent paper by Marius Backmann. I think he succeeds in showing how the Neo-Aristotelian notion of powers is incongruous with pretty much any theory of time of note. My issue with powers is more basic: what in the world are Neo-Aristotelians even saying when they invoke this idea and why does it seem that no one has raised the concern that powers are an elementary paraphrase of dispositions? With respect to this concern, Neo-Aristotelians do not even attempt to make sense of our experience with matter and energy. They seem to go on the assumption that something just has to underlie the physical world whereas I take it as extraneous to include metaphysical postulates where entirely physical ones make do. Dispositions are precisely the sort of physical postulates that adequately explain what we perceive as cause-effect relationships. What I will argue is that a more thorough analysis of dispositions is all that is needed to understand why a given a caused some given effect b.

My idea that powers are an elementary paraphrase is entailed in Alexander Bird’s analysis of what powers are. He states:

According to Bird, powers, or potencies, as he calls them alternatively, are a subclass of dispositions. Bird holds that not all dispositions need to be powers, since there could be dispositions that are not characterised by an essence, apart from self-identity. Powers, on the other hand, Bird (2013) holds to be properties with a dispositional essence. On this view, a power is a property that furnishes its bearer with the same dispositional character in every metaphysically possible world where the property is instantiated. If the disposition to repel negatively charged objects if there are some in the vicinity is a power in that sense, then every object that has that property does the same in every metaphysically possible world, i.e. repel negatively charged objects if there are some in the vicinity.

Marius Backmann (2019) No time for powers, Inquiry, 62:9-10, 979-1007, DOI: 10.1080/0020174X.2018.1470569

Upon closer analysis of Bird’s definition, a power just is a disposition. The issue is that Bird and the Neo-Aristotelians who complain that he has not gone far enough have isolated what they take to be a power from the properties of an electron, which is a good example of a particle that repels negatively charged objects given that some are in its vicinity. Talk of possible worlds makes no sense unless one can prove mathematically that an electron-like particle with a different mass would also repulse other negatively charged particles. However, though it can easily be shown that a slightly more massive electron-like particle will repulse other particles of negative charge, its electrical charge will be slightly higher than an electrons because according to Robert Milikan’s calculation, there seems to be a relationship between the mass of a particle and its charge. The most elementary charge is e = ~1.602 x 10^19 coulombs. The charge of a quark is measured in multiples of e/3, implying a smaller charge, which is expected given that they are sub-particles. So what is of interest is why the configuration of even an elementary particle yields predictable “behaviors.”

To see this, let us dig into an example Backmann uses: “My power to bake a cake would not bring a cake that did not exist simpliciter before into existence, but only make a cake that eternally exists simpliciter present. Every activity reduces to a change in what is present” (Ibid.). The Neo-Aristotelian is off track to say we have power to bake a cake and that the oven has power to yield this desired outcome that do not trace back to its parts or as Cartwright states of general nomological machines: “We explicate how the machine arrangement dictates what can happen – it has emergent powers which are not to be found in its components” (Cartwright, Nancy & Pemberton, John (2013). Aristotelian powers: without them, what would modern science do? In John Greco & Ruth Groff (eds.), Powers and Capacities in Philosophy: the New Aristotelianism. London, U.K.: Routledge. pp. 93-112.). Of the nomological machines in nature, Cartwright appears to bypass the role of evolution. Of such machines invented by humans, she ignores the fact that we often wrongly predict what a given invention will do. Evolution proceeds via probabilities and so, from our ad hoc point of view, it looks very much like trial and error. Humans have the advantage of being much more deliberate about what they are selecting for and therefore, our testing and re-testing of inventions and deciding when they are safe and suitable to hit the market is markedly similar to evolutionary selection.

That being said, the components of a machine do account for its function. It is only due to our understanding of other machines that we understand what should go into building a new one in order for it to accomplish a new task(s). Powers are not necessary because then we should be asking, why did we not start off with machines that have superior powers? In other words, why start with percolators if we could have just skipped straight to Keurig or Nespresso machines or whatever more advanced models that might be invented? Talk of powers seems to insinuate that objects, whether complex or simple, are predetermined to behave the way they do, even in the absence of trial runs, modifications, or outright upgrades. This analysis sets aside the cake. It does not matter what an oven or air fryer is supposed to do. If the ingredients are wrong, either because I neglected to use baking powder or did not use enough flour, the cake may not raise. The ingredients that go into baked goods play a “causal” role as well.

Dispositions, on the other hand, readily explain why one invention counts as an upgrade over a previous iteration. Take, for instance, Apple’s A14 Bionic chip. At bottom, this chip accounts for, “a 5 nanometer manufacturing process” and CPU and GPU improvements over the iPhone 11 (Truly, Alan. “A14 Bionic: Apple’s iPhone 12 Chip Benefits & Improvements Explained”. Screenrant. 14 Oct 2020. Web). Or more accurately, key differences in the way this chip was made accounts for the improvement over its predecessors. Perhaps more crucially is that critics of dispositions have mostly tended to isolate dispositions, as though a glass cup’s fragility exists in a vacuum. Did the cup free fall at 9.8m/s^2? Did it fall on a mattress or on a floor? What kind of floor? Or was the cup thrown at some velocity because Sharon was angry with her boyfriend Albert? What did she throw the cup at: a wall, the floor, Albert’s head, or did it land in a half-full hamper with Sharon and Albert’s dirty clothes?

Answering these questions solves the masking and mimicker problems. The masking problem can be framed as follows:

Another kind of counterexample to SCA, due to Johnston (1992) and Bird (1998), involves a fragile glass that is carefully protected by packing material. It is claimed that the glass is disposed to break when struck but, if struck, it wouldn’t break thanks to the work of the packing material. There is an important difference between this example and Martin’s: the packing material would prevent the breaking of the glass not by removing its disposition to break when struck but by blocking the process that would otherwise lead from striking to breaking.

Choi, Sungho and Michael Fara, “Dispositions”The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).

I would not qualify that the packing material prevents the glass from breaking by blocking the process that would result if it were exposed. The packing material has its own properties and dispositions that we have discovered through trial and error making this material good at protecting glass. Packing paper was more common, but now we have bubble wrap and heavy duty degradable stretch wrap, also capable of protecting glass, china, porcelain, and other fragile items. The dispositions of these protective materials readily explain why their encompassing of fragile objects protects them from incidental striking or drops. If I were, however, to throw a wrapped coffee mug as hard as I can toward a brick wall, the mug is likely to break. This entails that variables are important in this thing we call cause and effect.

A perfect example is simple collisions of the sort you learn about in an elementary physics course. If a truck and haul speeding down a highway in one direction at ~145 km/h, and a sedan traveling in the opposite direction at cruising speed of ~89 km/h collide, we can readily predict the outcome and that this particular collision is inelastic. The speeding truck would likely barrel through the sedan and the sedan will be pushed in the direction the truck was traveling in. The vehicles’ respective speeds and masses are extremely important in understanding what goes on here. There is no sense in which we can say that trucks just have a power to mow things down because a collision between the truck in our original example and a truck and haul driving at roughly the same speed in the opposite direction results in an entirely difficult outcome, a perfectly elastic collision in where both trucks collide and come to an immediate halt after the effects of the impact are fully realized.

Neo-Aristotelian analyses of powers give us nothing that is keeping with physics. What these explanations demand is something they imagine happening behind the veil of what science has already explained. There are just dispositions and what is needed is a more critical analysis of what is entailed across each instance of cause and effect. Power ontologies beg the question, in any case, because they require dispositions to make sense of powers. That is because powers are just a cursory analysis of cause-effect relationships, a way of paraphrasing that is overly simplistic and ultimately, not analytical enough. Power ontologies, along with talk of dynamism, which properly belongs to Nietzsche not Aristotle, severely undermine the Neo-Aristotelian project. Nietzsche’s diagnosis of causation makes this clear:

Cause and effect: such a duality probably never exists; in truth we are confronted by a continuum out of which we isolate a couple of pieces, just as we perceive motion only as isolated points and then infer it without ever actually seeing it. The suddenness with which many effects stand out misleads us; actually, it is sudden only for us. In this moment of suddenness there is an infinite number of processes that elude us. n intellect that could see cause and effect as a continuum and a flux and not, as we do, in terms of an arbitrary division and dismemberment, would repudiate the concept of cause and effect and deny all conditionality.

Nietzsche, Friedrich W, and Walter Kaufmann. The Gay Science: With a Prelude in Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs. New York: Vintage Books, 1974. 173. Print.

Nietzsche describes a continuum and a flux, in other words, a dynamism thoroughly unlike what can be attributed to Aristotle’s theory of causation. So the fact that Neo-Aristotelians even speak of a dynamism feels like a sort of plagiarism, since they are associating the idea of a dynamism with a thinker that said nothing to that effect. Nietzsche is critical of Aristotle’s causal-teleological marriage and can be seen as explicitly accusing Aristotle and also Hume of arbitrarily splicing a dynamic continuum in an ad hoc manner that does not find justification in metaphysical ideas. If Nietzsche had been properly exposed to modern science, he would probably agree that this splicing does not find justification in physical ideas either. The hard sciences confirm a continuum, preferring complex processes from which predictable results follow. There is just no sense in which we can apply any theory of causation to a chemical reaction. What features in these reactions are the properties and dispositions of the elements involved and how they are constituted explains why we get one reaction or another. Any talk of dynamisms is properly Nietzschean in spirit and as should be clear in his words, there is no invocation of powers.

Suffice to say that a deeper analysis of dispositions also explains away the mimicker problem. Styrofoam plates simply do not break in the way glass plates do and their underlying composition explains why that is. Ultimately, Neo-Aristotelians are not in a good position to get to the bottom of what we call cause and effect. Aside from the difficulties Backmann sheds light on, the notion of powers is incoherent and lacking in explanatory power, especially at levels requiring deeper analysis. Predictably, I can see Neo-Aristotelians invoking an infinite regress of sorts. In other words, is it simply the composition of the glass interacting with the composition of a hardwood floor that results in the glass shattering or is there more to the story? To that I would respond that events like these happen within a causally closed space-time system. It is then when we will be asked who or what decided that a glass cup should break on impact when landing on a hardwood floor? Well, who or what decided that a compound fracture of the tibia is expected given that it receives a strong enough blow from an equally dense or denser object? The Neo-Aristotelian will keep pushing the buck back, demanding deeper levels of analysis, effectively moving the goalposts. What will remain is that there is no intelligence that decided on these things, i.e., there is no teleological explanation involved in these cases, because then they would have to account for undesired ends like broken bones.

In the end, I think that the deepest level of analysis will involve a stochastic process in where degrees of probability encompass possible outcomes. Not every blow leads to a broken tibia. Dropping a glass cup on just any surface is not enough to crack or shatter it. There are cases in where angular momentum as a result of a human foot can change a falling glass cup’s trajectory just enough to ensure that it does not break upon hitting the ground. I have met people quite adept at breaking these kinds of falls with a simple extension of their foot. As such, probabilities will change given the circumstances on a case by case basis. This element of chance at the deepest level of analysis coheres perfectly with the universe we find ourselves in because even the fact that we are beings made of matter, as opposed to beings made of anti-matter, is due to chance. Apparently, God has always rolled dice. On this, I will let Lawrence Krauss have the last word:

Because antiparticles otherwise have the same properties as particles, a world made of antimatter would behave the same way as a world of matter, with antilovers sitting in anticars making love under an anti-Moon.  It is merely an accident of our circumstances, due, we think, to rather more profound factors…that we live in a universe that is made up of matter and not antimatter or one with equal amounts of both.

Krauss, Lawrence. A Universe From Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing. 1st ed. New York, NY: Free Press, 2012. 61. Print.