Friday, December 30, 2011

Supervenience and social entities

What is the ontological status of social entities -- kinship systems, police departments, religious movements?  And what is the status of causal powers of social entities?  Do we need to "reduce" social entities to the compounds of individuals who make them up? And do we need to derive the causal properties of social entities from the characteristics and interactions of the individuals who make them up? In short, do we need to be reductionist about the social world?

This is a question that arises in many of the "special" sciences, including in particular psychology and neuroscience.  A basic premise of contemporary philosophy is that all phenomena are composed of physical entities, processes, and systems. The mind-body problem is the most immediate place where physicalism does some important work. Mind-body dualists held that mental states were independent from physical states, whereas physicalists insist that mental states are embodied in physical processes and systems.

It is plain enough that we make use of a vocabulary that doesn't appear to invoke physical states when we talk about people's actions and states of mind. When I decide to have tofu for dinner, or when I experience the taste of hot sesame oil, I am engaging in a mental act or qualitative state. "Deciding", "experiencing", and "having qualitative states" all appear to be terms that refer to private mental states. The physicalist takes it as a piece of ontological certainty, however, that these "mental" states are fully and entirely constituted by the physical substrates of the brain and nervous system.

So what do physicalists have in mind when they say that the phenomena to which these terms refer are really physical states? There are several possibilities:
  • eliminative materialism: mental states do not exist, and we need to give definitions of mental terms that allow us to eliminate them in favor of physical terms [reductionism]
  • non-eliminative materialism: mental states exist, but they are wholly and exhaustively caused by physical states
  • epiphenomenalism: mental states are by-products of physical states without causal powers to influence subsequent physical states
  • supervenience: mental states depend upon physical states and nothing else, but it is difficult and unnecessary to reduce facts about mental states to facts about physical states
Is there an analogous situation in the social sciences? Is individualism for the social sciences strongly analogous to physicalism for the natural sciences? Is there something ontologically dubious about referring to social entities and causes?

There is nothing peculiar about the idea that some entities are complex assemblages of other, simpler entities. Virtually every entity that we have an interest in is a compound of simpler entities -- genes, enzymes, or the insulin molecule depicted above.  A table has characteristics that depend on the physical features and arrangement of the materials that make it up, but those "table" characteristics are very different from the features of the composing elements -- hardness, stability, load-bearing capacity, etc. And there is no reason whatsoever to insist that "tables do not exist -- only bits of wood exist."  Tables are identifiable composite objects, and they have causal properties that we can invoke in explanations.  So the fact that there are characteristics of the composite that are dissimilar from the characteristics of the elements is not peculiar.  And this is entirely true of social entities as well.  The efficiency or corruptibility of a tax-collecting bureau is not a characteristic of the individuals who compose it; it is rather a system-level characteristic that derives from the incentives, oversight mechanisms, and physical infrastructure of the organization.

So composite entities are not suspect in general. However, there are a couple of challenging questions that we need to confront about composite entities.  First, can we explain the properties of the composite by knowing everything about the properties of the elements and the nature of their arrangement and interactions?  Can we derive the properties of the whole from the properties of the components?  Take metallurgy: can we derive the properties of the alloy from the physical characteristics of the tin and copper which make it up?  Or are there "emergent" properties that somehow do not depend solely on the properties of the components?

Second, can we attribute causal powers to composite entities directly, or do we need to disaggregate causal claims about the aggregate onto some set of claims about the causal powers of the elements?  Do we need to disaggregate the load-bearing capacity of the table onto a set of facts about the properties of the elements (legs, table top) and their configuration?  It is certainly true that we can derive the load-bearing capacity of the table from this set of facts; this is what civil engineers do in modeling bridges, for example.  The philosophical question is whether we ought to regard this causal property as simply a way of summarizing the underlying physics of the table, or as a stable causal property in its own right.

One appealing answer that has been offered to the question of the relationship between levels of entities is the theory of supervenience.  This theory is largely the work of philosopher Jaegwon Kim over the past thirty years. Here is a recent synthesis of his views (Physicalism, or Something Near Enough). He summarizes the basic idea in these terms:
It will suffice to understand [supervenience] as the claim that what happens in our mental life is wholly dependent on, and determined by, what happens with our bodily processes. (14)
And here is how Julie Zahle puts the point in her contribution to Turner and Risjord's Philosophy of Anthropology and Sociology:
Social entities, their properties, actions, etc. may be said to supervene upon individuals, their actions, and so on, insofar as: (1) there can be no difference at the level of social wholes, their properties, actions, etc., unless there is also a difference at the level of individuals, their properties, actions, and so on; (2) individuals, their actions, etc. fix or determine what kinds of social wholes, properties, etc. are instantiated. (327)
Does the idea of supervenience help answer the question of the ontological status of social entities?  Is it helpful to judge that social entities supervene upon facts about individuals and nothing else?  And does this leave room for the idea of social causation and relative explanatory autonomy?  Are we able to acknowledge the dependence of the social world on facts about individuals without abandoning the idea that there is social causation and social science?

Perhaps surprisingly, Kim thinks that the theory will not assist us in the last two ways, at least when it comes to psychology:
This view [supervenience] provides the burgeoning science of psychology and cognition with a philosophical rationale as an autonomous science in its own right: it investigates these irreducible psychological properties, functions, and capacities, discovering laws and regularities governing them and generating law-based explanations and predictions. It is a science with its own proper domain untouched by other sciences, especially those at the lower levels, like biology, chemistry, and physics. 
This seductive picture, however, turns out to be a piece of wishful thinking, when we consider the problem of mental causation--how it is possible, on such a picture, for mentality to have causal powers, powers to influence the course of natural events. (15)
So I am in a quandary at the moment: I favor the idea of "relatively autonomous social explanations" (link), I like the idea of regarding social entities as legitimate compound entities that don't require elimination, and I think of the theory of supervenience as providing some authority for these views.  And yet Kim himself seems to reject this line of thought when it comes to the special sciences of psychology and cognitive science.  Kim seems to want to argue that higher level sciences cannot claim relative autonomy; in this respect his own view seems to be reductionist.

What seems clear to me can be summarized in just a few points:
  • Social entities and facts are determined and constituted by facts about individuals, their beliefs, their relations, and their actions.  So social entities and facts do in fact supervene upon facts about individuals.
  • Social entities do have causal properties that can be discovered without needing to eliminate them in terms of properties of individuals.  
  • The requirement of microfoundations is crucial because it establishes the intellectual discipline required by the first point: we must be able to validate that the claims we make about social properties and causal powers can be provided microfoundations at the level of socially situated individuals.
  • There is a legitimate and defensible level of explanation at which social scientists can hypothesize social properties and causal capacities; so there is a place for a "relatively autonomous" social science.  We are not forced to be reductionist.
  • The "social" is not inherently puzzling in the way that the "mental" is.  Social entities are more analogous to chairs and proteins than they are to thoughts and qualia: they are complex entities whose system-level characteristics are the ultimate effects of the interactions and properties of the individual elements that constitute them.  We often cannot trace out exactly how the properties of the whole derive from the properties of the components; but we don't need to do so except in unusual circumstances.


Zora said...

Could it be that social entities ARE entities because those who deal with them, as members or outsiders, see them as entities? Wouldn't such a concept strongly influence behavior?

Aleph said...

In chemistry, Boyle's Law states that at constant temperature, the product of pressure and volume is a constant and changes in volume will lead to predictable changes in pressure. Pressure, volume, and temperature are all macro properties (supervening on the individual particles) and, at the macro level of description, the change in volume could be said to cause the change in pressure. No need for micro foundations...

BobC said...

Doesn't Charles Taylor (from a couple of decades ago) give a pretty good answer to such questions?

His notion is that while social entities are reducible to discrete physical states, knowing how to describe those physical states has little use at the level of social entities. Cause and effect at the level of social entities is best understood in terms of those social entities.

That doesn't mean that there aren't physical states that also account for those causes and effects. It's just that knowing what those physical states are, is less useful than understanding the language and symbols of the social entity. That "social level" language is a better explanation of events at that level.

That might change someday. Physics might someday be able to provide shortcuts to what are now strictly "social" explanations. But that is not the case now. More importantly, there is no reason to think it will ever be the case.

Social explanations for social events might not be the epistemologically "deepest" explanations. But they are the best explanations. At least given the current state of play. So they are worth taking seriously.

Daniel Little said...

Thanks for thoughtful comments, Zora, Aleph, BobC.

To Zora: it's certainly true that a common belief about something can be causal. But that doesn't mean that the object of the belief exists. So beliefs about witches can lead to mass behavior, without there being real witches. Right?

To Aleph: You're right that there are macro-level laws in all areas of the natural sciences. What allows us to assert them confidently is precisely the fact that they are observationally verified. This is not frequently the case for social entities. So when we assert that a certain form of organization has certain causal properties, we generally can't validate that hypothesis simply by doing a statistical study of organizations. Instead, we need to validate the hypothesis by exposing the micro-mechanisms that would be expected to bring it about

To BobC: This is essentially the argument that I endorse concerning "relative explanatory autonomy." I agree with you that this is a reasonable position to take.

BobC said...

Dan -

Thanks. But my point is that you are under-selling your argument.

It's not just that social explanations deserve "relative autonomy". In virtually all situations they are better explanations. They might not be the most epistemologically "deep" explanations, but they are actually better, more useful, with wider applications, etc. At least when done well.

This seems to me the key issue in any social science. The fact that social and psychological descriptions - heck, include ordinary language - are probably reducible to physics is a "so what" conclusion. Of course they can be reduced. In theory.

The more interesting question for Kim and others is why should we think that matters if they can't show us how descriptions of discrete physical states advance my understanding of anything social.

Bottom line. You shouldn't be so defensive about your views on this. You sound like you are happy to carve out a narrow, temporary foothold for social explanations on a steep cliff that quickly falls off into a physics experiment. That's the wrong image.

I think, given the current state of play, it is worth asking if the causality in social interactions is more than just a shadow of deeper physical interactions, but actually functions as primary causes of social actions, in the sense that but for the complex social network (which might exist in the form of molecules, but in a certain configuration that would not exist but for the social context), X wouldn't have occurred. Put differently, the physical description in that context would have to include the applicable "social" factors.

Another way of saying that if social networks are in some sense essential to social explanations, they are to that extent irreducible.

I'm sure you mulled these issues over. The Kims of this world have been around forever. They sound smart but at the price of not advancing the ball. Would love to hear your thoughts.

john c. halasz said...

On the physical/mental causality front, there is actually a third kind of "stuff" involved, information, which is actually a difficult issue to sort out on a continuous and consistent basis, and which is ambiguous with respect to its physical/mental status. The problem of physical/physiological causality doesn't present any real problem Since animal organisms already constitute a separate causal organization which delimit themselves from their environment and intervene in environmental causal chains on the basis of their metabolic organization and whatever sensory organs and appendages they might be endowed with. The mental would take hold along a gradient with the evolution of increased neuro-physiological complexity from physiological causal processes as emergent properties or capacities, while combining with physical/environmental and physiological causal processes. However, brains are basically analog pattern-matching and recognition devices, (not digital computational devices), and it's the neurally generated information and its patterns that "count", not their discrete physical causes. Since likely brains operate in highly stochastic and multi-valent ways, such that their might be thousands of numerically unique and discrete sets involving thousands of numerically unique and discrete causal physio-chemical events occurring along thousands of numerically unique and discrete pathways which all result in the "same" overall result, the same matching of informational patterns, which, if such pattern matching is sufficiently complex, would amount to a mental state or decision. There is no absence of physical causality involved, but also no meaningful reduction of mental to physical events. (The 100 billion neurons in the human brain, which implies a number of synaptic connections at least an order of magnitude larger, should provide at least a broad evolutionary clue). Physicalism, the thesis that there is no mindedness without embodiment is likely true, but it affords little or no informational content or explanatory "force", as a conjunctural configuration of physical and physiological causal events adds nothing to the fact that informational patterns happen to match.

john c. halasz said...

The social level, however is "constituted" by natural language and the symbolic thinking it affords, which is even less susceptible to physical reduction. It's only then that environmental states-of-affairs can be interpreted against a background of counter-factual possibilities and a causal intervention in the environment be deliberately selected and effected, rather than just responding to environmental events or cycles of events within a specious present. Human agency, like the speaking of a natural language itself, is a structured, rule-governed behavior, (partly by direct overlap and partly by analogy), which is built over the already existing causal capacities of animal motility, and once it is a question of structured, rule-governed behavior, it is no longer a question of causally determined behavior in terms of fixed laws. Speakers/agents are constrained and thus limited by the structuring rules, but the rules themselves are at bottom constitutive and not merely regulative: i.e. no such rules, no such language or intention. The structured rules render possible the phenomena in question, but such structure doesn't cause behavior, strictly speaking, but rather constrains, limits, directs the operation of causes. And, of course, there is no language without communication with the other, such that the generation of such rules is to be sourced in communicative interaction between organisms. Since all communication occurs across relationships between organisms, communicative interaction merely brings about modal shifts in the relations between organisms, whereby neither organism directly causes the states of the other, since each organism has a capacity for further and variable response, which is the "spark" that generates meaning, as a non-causal medium. The meanings of words don't derive from external causes, and don't somehow automatically reflect it, but rather derive from the uses they take on in communicative interaction, which may be more or less suitable in dealing with external reality. But they are even less susceptible to any physicalist causal reduction or explanation that mental properties and capacities, since they are not intra-cranial, but rather inter-cranial events. Both human agency, "freedom", and understanding and their intertwinements are "effects" of rule-governed structure, not causal determinism.

john c. halasz said...

The task then of social "sciences" or theories is to explain the structuration of systems of social action. Social agents, of course, are embedded in a physical as well as social environment or world and their acts or activities have causal conditions and consequences. But the underlying event domain consists in acts and communications, and physical causality enters into that domain as information. And, since, once again, structure doesn't cause, but rather constrains/renders possible behavior, structural explanations are not, strictly speaking, causal explanations. The interactions of social agents generate both structures and consequences that might operate beyond the ken and "over the heads" of such agents and their understandings, which may or may not include an adequate account of causal conditions and consequences. And such overall structures might also interact structurally again over the heads of embedded agents, feeding-back further constraints and consequences upon them and their limited capacities. It is to inform the understanding of embedded social agents about such structural interactions and thus reflexively to enable their collective capacities as putatively "rational" agents that such social inquiries derive their distinctive value from. Of course, since such agents are notionally "free" and since structures merely constrain rather than cause such agents, they can always defect from such structural constraints, whether through drift, structural break-down or common and agreed-upon projects of deliberate collective action. But they can never do so without incurring "costs". But then, given the wide variability of social structures and the readiness by which they might change, which contrasts starkly with the uniformity of physical causal "laws", perhaps accounting for their relative stability might be the more difficult explanatory challenge than accounting for their mutability.

john c. halasz said...

A further consequence of this view is that social formations or structures always already present a holistic/composite aspect. Though the event substrate might be discrete action and communication events, as the source of empirical date for confirming inquiries, these always already must have assumed some structured social organization to exist at all, let alone be reliably identified. The basic constituent unit of social inquiry is not the individual agent, but rather elementary social groups, without which such agents don't and can't exist. A search for "micro-foundations" is bootless and misdirected. Rather identifying relevant "wholes" and analyzing their composite/constituent elements puts one squarely in a hermeneutic circle.

So the upshot is that the physicalism that preoccupies Analytic philosophy, whether reductionist or not, in its problematics about "philosophy of mind" and "agent causation", contain a philosophical hang-over, which is largely an atomistic mis-direction, in assuming that physical reality must be "ontologically" and thus explanatorily primary, on account of the principle that a discrete cause must imply a discrete effect, which is interpreted to "logically" imply a deterministic account of causality, which isn't even really adequate to account for the more recent advances in modern natural science. And then again, if the aim is to explain our explanations, there is a further odd inversion in such physicalism, since modern natural science is itself a socio-cultural institution.