Saturday, March 29, 2014

War and calculation

The Crimea is now securely within the grasp of Russia. This shift occurred as the result of the use of military force seemingly unconcerned about international law or opinion, the world objected, and Russia prevailed. Why is this kind of forcible seizure of territory not more common in contemporary international affairs? There are other places in the world where imbalanced states disagree about boundaries, resources, or ethnic populations; why is Russia's unconcerned use of force to gain its ends not more common? And, given its success and relatively low cost to the aggressor in this case, should we expect more such adventurism -- for example, in the South China Sea or in the Arctic?

One part of this question comes down to realpolitik and careful accounting of the costs and benefits of military action by the potential aggressor. How probable is success? Will there be concerted opposition and significant loss of life? How important is the prize?  Often enough this calculation will lead to restraint: the consequences may be unpredictable, the value of the prize may be minimal, and the target state may have enough deterrent military force to raise the stakes. But it is also true that aggressors are imperfectly rational and may be prone to discounting future costs and risks.

Another part of the question comes down to the rising value of multilateral organizations and agreements to the potential aggressor. The value of the prize may be small in comparison to the damage done to existing multilateral relationships. Disruption of trade, banking, investment, and stock exchanges may lead to costs far exceeding the short-term benefits of aggression.  (One of the first steps taken against Russia was the rescheduling of the G8 conference from Sochi to Brussels, and exclusion of Russia from the meeting.) This points to the possible stabilizing effects of globalization. The potential costs of one-off aggression may themselves include a large global component.

A third possible factor is the normative regime of non-aggression, respect for national sovereignty, and respect for human rights that underlies the development of the United Nations, the European Union, and other institutions of international law since World War II. It may be speculated that regime decision-makers have a degree of reluctance in directly flouting this set of international norms. Governments need legitimacy, and flouting international norms undermines this form of capital. But this effect seems pretty weak; just consider the impunity of the Syrian government in its use of chemical weapons against its own population. The use of force by the Soviet Army against Hungary and Czechovlakia was condemned but successful. And remember Stalin's comment: How many divisions does the Pope have?

So realpolitik calculations make aggression sometimes a favored choice, and multilateral retaliation and the indirect effects of violations of international norms provide for a degree of restraint. Do these contrary forces produce a relatively stable world system?  Unfortunately, the inhibitory effects are diffuse and readily discounted by the Saddams, Putins, and Assads of our world. So we might draw these considerations into a broad prediction: when a powerful state has an important interest in territory possessed by a weak neighbor, in circumstances where it is unlikely that the weak state will make a meaningful armed response, the combination of the deterrence value of international disapproval and the violation of international norms will often be too weak to deter the potential aggressor. And this in turn puts the spotlight on eastern Ukraine: why are all those Russian forces mustered at the border?

Certainly this topic receives plenty of attention within international relations theory. Much IR theory has couched its thinking in bilateral terms -- essentially the alignments of the Cold War. Perhaps we have entered a new strategic environment, however, where the stability created by a bilateral world divided between two major powers is degrading into a possible period of one-off acts of aggression. (Hilton Root offers a treatment of the greater complexity of international relations today in Dynamics among Nations: The Evolution of Legitimacy and Development in Modern States; link.)

This seems like an interesting subject for an agent-based model. Populate a map with large and small territories with powerful and weak military forces; postulate a decision rule for the leaders that places national security as the leading priority and that encompasses the costs of multilateral disapproval and loss of legitimacy brought about by naked aggression; and play the scenario forward. How much aggression will we see?

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Causal necessity?

Do causes make their effects “necessary” in any useful sense? This is the claim that Hume rejected — the notion that there is any “necessary” connection between cause and effect. Steven Mumford and Rani Lill Anjum take up the issue in Getting Causes from Powers, and they take the view that Hume has raised a red herring. They agree that causes do not “necessitate” their effects, but they deny that the condition of necessitation needs to be part of a robust conception of causation. They write,
Prima facie, causation does not look to be any kind of necessity at all. Anyone who uses matches knows that, in at least some cases, matches are struck and fail to light. Something can always go wrong. (47)
What they favor instead is the idea that causation rests upon dispositions, and they describe their position as "dispositionalist": "we should never say more than that a causal situation overall disposes towards a certain outcome" (175).

I like the work that Mumford and Anjum do in this book, but I find myself uneasy with the argument in this aspect of their treatment. A causal claim invokes the idea that there is some strong reason in the nature of reality in virtue of which the occurrence of the cause brings about the effect; that it is not a purely accidental relation. And this seems to invoke something along the lines of necessity.

When we say that type A causes type B (or that individual a caused individual b) surely we mean something like this:
  • given the inner constitution of A, the changes associated with B were brought about as an expression of that constitution and adjoining circumstances 
Mumford and Anjum take up this question by specifying a strict logical conception of “sufficient condition”: an event or circumstance is a sufficient condition for another iff the occurrence of the first makes it unavoidable that the second will occur. There can be no possible circumstances in which a occurs and b does not transpire. And they point out that causal relations are almost always to some extent defeasible: something can intervene or interfere such that the outcome is foiled. So causes are generally not sufficient in the strict sense for the occurrence of their effects. And therefore, they conclude, causes do not confer necessity on their effects.

My issue with their argument is that I don’t think that logical sufficiency captures what causal theorists have in mind when they assert that the cause brings about its effect with some degree of necessity.

The notion of natural necessity is sometimes invoked to capture this idea:
  • a causes b: given the natural properties of a and given the laws of nature and given the antecedent conditions, b occurs
This can be paraphrased as:
  • given a, b occurs as a result of natural necessity.
So the sense of necessity of the occurrence of the effect in this case is this: given a and given the natural properties and powers of the entities involved, b had to occur [allowing that causal necessity presupposes normal conditions that may be absent and interfere with the production of the outcome].

In The Cement of the Universe: A Study of Causation J. L. Mackie accounts for the fact of the common non-sufficiency of causes for their effects by analyzing causation in terms of INUS conditions ("insufficient but non-redundant parts of a condition which is itself unnecessary but sufficient for the occurrence of the effect”); none of the individual events or conditions is separately sufficient for a given effect. This is one way of treating the issue of ceteris paribus clauses or conditions — those conditions that we hold fixed in expressing general causal claims.

This issue is especially important when we consider the “powers” approach to causation — the idea that things have the power to bring about certain kinds of effects in virtue of their inner constitution. (The powers approach is extensively discussed in Greco and Groff, Powers and Capacities in Philosophy: The New Aristotelianism, a volume to which Mumford and Anjum are contributors.) This approach has the virtue of making a place for the notion of necessity that seems appropriate to me in talking about causes; and it is a sense that does not imply logical sufficiency or exceptionless sequence. A power is not expected to exercise its properties without exception; rather, it is understood that there are conditions that affect the workings of the power and may interfere with its effects.

Here is a fairly intuitive way to talk about causation: our causal judgments rest upon assumptions about how things work — what the governing processes and powers are that make up the medium of events and provide the connective structure between cause and effect. There is a substrate for any particular domain of causation, and the substrate embodies some features of activity and causal connectedness. It is this causal activity that gives rise to the reality of causal powers attached to things.

So the causal necessity I would like to assert goes something like this:
  • Given how domain X works, whenever A happens, it triggers a stream of events that lead to B.
And this in turn indicates why causal mechanisms are such a logical contribution to the analysis of causation. A causal mechanism is one chunk of this "stream of events" leading from A to B.

All of this looks a little different when we turn from natural causation to social causation. Social causes are the result of constrained and motivated social actions by concrete social actors, and these actors are not subject to anything analogous to laws of nature. (I don't mean this to be an assertion of free will fundamentalism; just the recognition that there aren't any laws along the lines of "individuals always behave in such-and-so a fashion.") So the idea of natural necessity does not help in the case of social causes. If we wanted to provide a counterpart notion of social necessity, it might go something like this:
  • Given a social environment populated with actors something like this and embodying rules and institutions something like that, change A brings about outcome B [through the actions of these ordinary actors].
It is readily observed that this is a substantially weaker foundation for stable causal powers of social structures and entities than we have in the natural world. The constituents of social processes -- individuals -- change over time and place. And the workings of the same institutions and systems of practices and rules will be significantly different if they are populated by actors with significantly different dispositions. (This is one of the central postulates of the idea of "methodological localism" that I have argued for here: individuals are socially constituted and socially situated; link.)

This does not invalidate the notion of causal necessity sketched above for social causation. The point remains valid that there is a substrate to the social world [socially constituted and situated individuals doing things within specific rules and practices] and this substrate does in fact convey a change at one end of a causal process [A -- a change in the rules of supervision in an organization, let us say] to a change in the outcome [B -- less petty corruption within the organization], through a series of events that are systemic enough to allow us to see the "necessity" of the transition from A to B.

So the kind of necessity I would like to attach to causal sequences goes something like this:
  • Given the underlying nature and constitution of the substrate of the field of action and given the constitution of A, we can uncover the active and provoking transitions through which A leads to B in a non-accidental way.
This conception differs from both apparent alternatives -- the unvarnished contingency that Hume asserted for causal linkages and the deterministic "If A then B necessarily" logic that some theorists would like to see.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Social contingency?

Image: Mason-Pfizer monkey virus (link)

Image: organization chart of General Motors

What does it mean to say that the social world is contingent? Several things. First, it means that social changes and patterns are not strongly law governed. Outcomes are the result of intersecting chains of causal mechanisms and stochastic happenings, so there is no sense in which outcomes are predetermined or confidently predictable. Social outcomes are the result of conjunctural causation, with indeterminate conjunctions of causal processes and conditions proceeding from independent background circumstances. And accidents and random events make a difference in the outcomes as well. This is true at a full range of scales, from large happenings like the outbreak of war to the growth of a corporation to the emergence of a new set of values about gay marriage. So historical processes and sequences are contingent, and we need to pay close attention to the path dependency of social happenings.

Another key kind of contingency has to do with the composition of social entities. In the natural world there are some formations that are necessary. H2O and protein molecules have a specific topology and arrangement that follows strictly from the physical properties of the constituents, and these properties, we would like to assert, are fixed by nature. So it is a necessary fact that H2O molecules all have the same topology -- this topology follows from physical laws. But likewise, large proteins have only a small number of stable geometries as well, given the physical characteristics of the atoms that compose them.

The situation is different for social compounds. They are composed of individuals. But their properties are not fixed by the laws of psychology or any other consistent realm. Rather, there is substantial path dependency in the formation of a particular social formation, and the properties of actual social formations are contingent relative to the properties of the individuals who constitute it.

To say that social phenomena are contingent is not to imply that they are random or unpatterned. In fact, a large part of the task of the social sciences is to identify and explain important social patterns -- for example, regularities of urbanization and habitation. G. William Skinner found that the cities, towns, and hamlets of Sichuan conformed to a pattern of nested hexagons (link); he offered the mechanisms associated with central place theory as the basis for an explanation of this fact. The combined workings of transportation cost and cost-sensitive individual decision-makers imply the hexagonal geometry that Skinner discovers. But there is vast contingency embedded within this account -- reasons why certain locations may be avoided or reasons why a given center may come to have higher-level commercial or military functions than would have been expected, for example. So the regularities that we observe can be explained by the workings of several social mechanisms that favor habitation choices; while extraneous factors can disrupt or distort the pattern that would be normally expected.

So there are conditions and influences that often create identifiable patterns of social activity. This is the chief reason why the study of social mechanisms is so fruitful in the social sciences: there is an open-ended plurality of causal mechanisms at work in the social space. These can be investigated and understood. And we can then use our ability to identify the workings of social mechanisms to provide explanations of both singular occurrences and intriguing social patterns. But at the same time, we are forced to recognize that particular social processes -- economic development, urbanization, political crisis, ethnic conflict, or changes in values systems in a population, for example -- are driven by multiple sub-processes that are themselves contingent, and that interact in contingent ways.

The evolution of species as described by classical Darwinian theory is a good example of the some of aspects of contingency that I believe are characteristic of social developments as well. The large pressures within a given ecological environment are those that affect reproduction and longevity. Variations occur within the genetic information constituting organisms at a certain time, and natural selection favors the proliferation of some of those variations into the population as a whole. But the longterm evolution of the X group of organisms is not pre-determined; X's may invest in better vision, better mobility, greater lethality as predators, greater ability to conceal from predators, or dozens of other possible lines of evolutionary change. So all we can predict is that the assortment of groups of organisms will evolve towards higher levels of reproductive fitness or will disappear; and we can explain, in hindsight, the emergence of some of the physiological characteristics of X's in terms of the reproductive advantage that this feature confers on the organism. So there is nothing in the antecedent habitat that preordains that giraffes will have long necks.

There is an important analogy here with social change. We can identify some of the features that influence the development of organizations and political institutions in a variety of historical settings: the need for states to extract revenues and to exert coercive power, for example. But we cannot predict with confidence what form those adaptations will take. So the theatre state of Bali looks very different from the feudal monarchy in France, even though both states succeed in the central functions of states.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Why emergence?

It is a fair question to ask, whether the concept of emergence is perhaps less important than it initially appears to be. Part of the interest in emergence seems to derive from the impulse by sociologists and philosophers to try to show that there is a legitimate level of the world that is "social", and to reject the more extreme versions of reductionism.

Social scientists have a few concrete and important interests in this set of issues. One is a concern for the autonomy of the social science disciplines. Is there a domain of the social that warrants scientific study? Or can we make do with really good microeconomic theories, agent-based modeling techniques, and a dollop of social psychology, and do without strong theories of the causal powers of social entities?

Another concern is apparently related, but on the ontology side of the story: are there social entities that can be studied for their empirical and causal characteristics independently from the individual activities that make them up? Do social entities really exist? Or are there compelling reasons to conclude that social entities are too fluid and plastic to admit of possessing stable empirical properties?

It seems to me that these concerns can be fully satisfied without appealing to a strong conception of emergence. We have perfectly good concepts that individuate entities at a social level, and we have fairly ordinary but compelling reasons for believing that these sorts of things are causally active in the world. But perhaps we can frame some simple ideas about the social world that will allow us to be more relaxed about whether these properties can be reduced to or explained by facts about actors (methodological individualism), or derived from facts about actors, or are instead strongly independent from the level of actors upon which they rest.

Consider the following background propositions about the social world. These are not trivial assumptions, but it would appear that a broad range of social thinkers would accept them, from enlightened analytical sociologists to many critical realists.
  1. Social phenomena are constituted by the actions and thoughts of situated social actors. ("No pure social stuff, no ineffable special sauce")
  2. Actors are causally influenced by a variety of social structures and and entities. ("Actors are socially constituted and socially situated.") 
  3. Ensembles have properties that derive from the interactions of the composing entities (actors). ("System properties derive from complex and dynamic relations and structures among constituents.") 
  4. There are social properties that are not the simple aggregation of the properties of the actors. ("System properties are not simply the sum of constituent properties.") 
  5. Ensembles sometimes have system-level properties that exert causal powers with regard to their own constituents. ("Systems exert downward causation on their constituents.") 
  6. The computational challenges involved in modeling large complex systems are often overwhelming. ("The properties and behavior of complex systems are sometimes incalculable based simply on information about constituents and their arrangements.") 
These assumptions would serve to establish quite a bit of autonomy for social science investigation and explanation, without requiring us to debate whether social entities are nonetheless emergent. And the ontologically cautious among us may be more comfortable with these limited and reasonably clear assumptions than they are with an open-ended concept of emergent phenomena and properties. Assumption 6 suggests that it is not feasible (and likely will never be) to deduce social patterns from individual-level facts. Assumptions 3 and 4 establish that social properties are "autonomous" from individual-level facts. Assumptions 1 and 2 establish the ontological foundation of social entities -- the socially constituted individuals whose thoughts and actions constitute them. And assumption 5 establishes that the causal powers of social entities are in fact important and autonomous from facts about individuals, in the very important respect that higher-level properties play a causal role in the constitution of lower-level entities (individuals). This assumption is reflected in assumption 2 as well.

So perhaps we might conclude that not much turns on whether social properties and powers are emergent or not. Instead, we might be better advised to try to capture the issues in this area in different terms. And the alternative that I favor is the idea of relative explanatory autonomy (link). The six core assumptions mentioned above serve to capture the heart of this approach.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Kaidesoja on emergence

Tuukka Kaidesoja's recent book Naturalizing Critical Realist Social Ontology devotes a chapter to the topic of emergence as it is treated within critical realism. Roy Bhaskar insisted that the assumption of emergence was crucial to the theory of critical realism. Kaidesoja sorts out what Bhaskar means by emergence, which turns out to be ambiguous and inconsistent, and offers his own position on the concept.

Kaidesoja quotes an important passage from Bhaskar's Scientific Realism and Human Emancipation) (1986):
It is only if social phenomena are genuinely emergent [. . .] that realist explanations in the human sciences are justified; and it is only if these conditions are satisfied that there is any possibility of human self-emancipation worthy of the name. But, conversely, emergent phenomena require realist explanation and realist explanations possess emancipatory implications. Emancipation depends upon explanation depends upon emergence. Given the phenomena of emergence, an emancipatory politics (or more generally transformative or therapeutic practice) depends upon a realist science. But, if and only if emergence is real, the development of both science and politics are up to us. [quoted by TK, 178]
Kaidesoja invokes a very basic issue about emergence by asking whether a claim of emergence for a given property is a claim about epistemology or about ontology. Is the phenomenon emergent because, given our current state of knowledge it is impossible to derive the property from the properties of the lower level constituents; or do we mean that the property is really (ontologically) independent from the features of the lower level? Kaidesoja makes it clear that Bhaskar and the critical realists have the stronger ontological thesis in mind when they assert that social entities are emergent or have emergent properties. The emergent feature is ontologically irreducible to the composing elements. But it is really unclear what this means.

TK argues that Bhaskar intertwines three different kinds of emergence without clearly distinguishing them: compositional, transcendentally realist, and global-level (179).
  • Compositional emergence: A particular complex whole sometimes has properties that are not properties of any of its parts and not merely "aggregative" effects of the ensemble of parts (179-180).
  • Transcendentally realist emergence: Abstract social structures, as distinct from social particulars, have properties that cannot be derived from the activities of individuals. "Transcendentally real emergent powers of social structures differ from the causal powers of concrete social systems composed of interacting persons" (182).
  • Global-level emergence: Levels of reality (e.g. society, mind, matter) have emergent properties not derivable from the properties of lower levels of reality. "Each emergent level has its own synchronically emergent properties which are autonomous with respect to those of other levels (186).
The three sets of ideas are successively more demanding, and TK finds that they are inconsistent with each other. Moreover, there is a crucial complication: within the compositional version (but not within the other two versions) Bhaskar allows that the emergent factor is amenable to "micro-reductive explanation". This is essentially the position taken by Herbert Simon (link) and Mario Bunge (link), and  it appears to be consistent with Dave Elder-Vass's position in The Causal Power of Social Structures (link) as well. It is a reasonable position. The other two versions, by contrast, are explicitly not compatible with micro-reductive explanation, and do not appear reasonable.

In fact, Kaidesoja finds that there are insolvable problems with the "transcendentally realist" and "global-level" versions of the theory of emergence, and he concludes that they are unsupportable. Kaidesoja therefore focuses his attention on the compositional version as the sole version of emergence that can be coherently asserted within critical realism.
Since Bhaskar and his followers deny the possibility of analysing emergent powers of social structures in compositional terms, their notion of transcendentally realist emergent powers of social structures is incompatible with the compositional account of emergent powers. (184)
I further tried to show that the attribution of transcendentally real emergent powers to social structures is problematic, since it leaves the ontological relation between social structures and concrete social systems (composed of interacting people and their artifacts) obscure and/or construes social structures as abstract entities. (187)
This discussion has an important consequence within TK's naturalizing strategy. It implies that a naturalized critical realism will need to surrender the two more extensive versions of emergence and make do with the compositional form. And that would bring a naturalized critical realism into closer alignment with mainstream thinking about the relation between higher-level and lower-level systems than this framework is usually thought to be.

So the argument TK has constructed in Naturalizing Critical Realist Social Ontology does not limit itself to criticizing the scheme of philosophical reasoning that Bhaskar and other CR theorists have pursued, but also extends to some of the substantive conclusions they have sought to derive.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Social plasticity and ontology

Ruth Groff has created a valuable blog and Facebook page on "Powers, Capacities, Dispositions"aimed at creating a community of scholars interested in the causal powers literature. Both are worth following! In a recent post she offers some thoughtful comments on my post on social powers. Here I will extend my reasons for thinking the powers approach raises some distinctive problems when applied in the social realm and respond to several of Ruth's comments. Thanks for engaging on this topic, Ruth!

Here are a couple of starting points for me. First, I believe that social entities are plastic, heterogeneous, and contingent. (I am thinking here primarily of organizations, institutions, and structures, but I would also include value systems, knowledge systems, and technology practices as well.) They are the interwoven product of intentional efforts to accomplish something collectively (as a group or a subgroup) and stochastic changes over time. A certain regulation gets written into the system at a certain time without any particular outcome in mind, and the change persists through a series of iterations. A practice arises spontaneously and becomes a powerful tradition.

The first source gives a weak kind of functionality to social entities, though it may be that it is functional only for a subgroup (e.g. the bosses, the civil servants, the admin assistants) but not for the group as a whole or for society at large. (Has anyone else noticed practices at his or her own university that seem to exist largely for the convenience of this or that group of staff or faculty?) The second source doesn't support an expectation of functionality at all unless we can postulate something like selective reproduction of complexes of institutional arrangements. (This might work for firms in a competitive environment, for example, where stochastic innovations permit superior performance and get carried over. This would be a part of evolutionary economics.) So we can expect that social entities will be shape-shifters over time, incorporating innovations, adaptations, self-interested changes, and random alterations over time. This means: no functionalism, no social kinds, no social essences.

It is true that there are some social factors that work against rapid change in social entities. So there is some degree of weak homeostasis among social entities. One of these stabilizing factors is the interests of powerful actors whose fortunes are intertwined with the particular features of the social entity, both inside and out. (Consider how hard it is to enact serious tax reform in the face of opposition of wealth holders and businesses.) A second factor is the internal processes of discipline and rectification that organizations often embody. A part of an organization is specifically developed as a control of innovation -- for example, the audit function of a business organization that prevents the "innovation" of taking expensive vacations at company expense. But nothing guarantees the correct workings of the audit function either! A third factor may be the discipline of selective survival in the course of competition with comparable organizations. Organizations have an interest in preserving features that favor survival. (It will be odd in the coming years if some universities allow their student recruitment functions to atrophy!)

These points suggest that social ontology is different from the ontology of the natural world. It is substantially more fluid, contingent, intermittent, and less orderly than entities and processes in the natural world. This is one reason I am somewhat drawn to the ontology of assemblage in the social realm -- entities are somewhat accidental and stochastic piles of unconnected sub-level stuff. (At one point I suggested that we think of the paradigm of a social entity as a rummage sale rather than a molecule.)

If we think these ideas are roughly correct in relation to social entities, then several things seem to follow:
  • There are no social kinds in a sense seriously analogous to natural kinds. "Bureaucracies" are not analogous to "metals".
  • Social entities do not have "essential natures". Rather, any and all of their characteristics may change over time. They are a bit like Neurath's raft, except that in the long run they may shift from a Phoenician fighting ship to a floating apartment complex!
  • Social entities cannot be treated as if they have inherent functions; their functionality at a certain time is no more than the partial success of one group or another to construct the entity so as to further some goal.
  • The causal properties of social entities derive from the contingent and transient structural properties that constitute them at a given time; so their causal properties are non-essential and shifting as well.
It is common to make assumptions about the "function" of a given social entity. But we have learned over the past twenty-five years to be very cautious about social functional talk. When Aristotle attributes a functional definition to "table" he is working with a couple of background assumptions that are not generally true of social entities. He is able to assume that there is a clear and broadly understood purpose that tables are designed to accommodate; and he is able to assume that individual designers and builders construct this simple artifact out of regard for this purpose. But social institutions and organizations aren't like tables in this regard. There is no single and universally shared understanding of the purpose of the institution; and no single designer typically builds the institution. Rather, it is largely a collective and unintended product of many individuals pursuing a number of different goals.

I offered the example of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission previously. One might say that one of its essential functions is "to regulate". It is true that this was what some of the framers of the legislation intended and that "regulation" is part of its name. But this is just a fact about the language we use, not a fact about the intrinsic nature of this specific organization. As the institution was built out, many other goals and interests were incorporated. So we cannot infer anything about the NRC from the premise that it is essentially a regulatory agency. It may have evolved into a rent-seeking entity, a compromise-generating bureau, a business promotion entity, or a ready source of campaign contributions. All these "functions" are compatible with its starting point.

What does this have to do with the metaphysics of causal powers? I think it lays the ground for a serious discussion of how and in what ways social entities can be said to possess causal powers. The anti-essentialist position is motivated at both ends of the story: the social entity does not possess essential characteristics, its causal powers are not generated by essential characteristics, and a specific set of causal powers is not essential to what a specific social entity is. So if we want to maintain that social entities sometimes possess causal powers -- that social entities make things happen -- then we need to allow that attribution of causal powers does not presuppose that the relevant entities have essential natures, or that the causal power is an essential expression of this essential nature.

Instead, I think it is entirely plausible to hold that the powers that a thing has are the necessary expression of its current inner composition and substrate of stuff of which it is composed. In the case of social entities this substrate is the nature of the human individuals who are involved in its activities, and the inner composition is the sometimes elaborate set of rules, incentives, opportunities, and norms that work to influence the actions and thoughts of the persons who constitute it. The differences in functioning between two chemical plants, populated by fundamentally similar human actors but embodying significantly different sets of rules and practices, will be substantial. This is the fundamental finding of the new institutionalism.

Ruth is right in noting that my NRC example actually lines up fairly well with the notion that "regulatory agencies are created to regulate, and the innovation Dan described just freed up that quasi-essential power of the agency" (my paraphrase of her point). That's true enough, in this example, but it's just an accident. The kind of innovation leading to new causal powers that I was searching for can point in any direction whatsoever with regard to the "essential functioning" of the social entity. It may restore functioning (as my example did; NRC2), or it may undermine functioning, or it may create new effects that are simply unrelated to the presumed function of the social entity. A rule innovation that makes the NRC even more subordinate to elected officials and legislative committees would likely have the effect of making the modified organization even less "regulatory" (NRC3), and an innovation that provided tuition support for employees might make the organization more likely to engage in mission creep (as employees are exposed to the more activist world of the university campus; (NRC4)).

Putting the point in Ruth's terms: NRC1 has the power to enforce safety standards only to a middling degree; NRC2 has that power to a greater degree; NRC3 has it to a lesser degree; and NRC4 has a different power altogether. And in each case, the organization or social entity has the powers it has in virtue of (i) the nature of the individual actors who compose it and (ii) the specific arrangements that constitute it as an organization during a period of time.

I think this means I can agree with Ruth in saying that in each instance the organization's powers are inherent in its current composition; but the coming and going of the powers in my several scenarios demonstrates that the composition of the entity has changed from one instance to another. I didn't want to say that the powers identified here are external to the NRC, but rather that the NRC's nature has changed as a result of each of the innovations mentioned. And this means to me that the NRC doesn't have a "nature in general", but only a nature as realized with specific institutional rules and arrangements.

Incidentally, much of what I know about regulatory organizations comes from Charles Perrow's excellent work in The Next Catastrophe: Reducing Our Vulnerabilities to Natural, Industrial, and Terrorist Disasters And Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies.

(I've created a collection of the postings in Understanding Society that are relevant to this topics. Think of it as a very brief book on the subject of plasticity and social ontology. Here is the e-book, which can be read in iBooks or any other e-reader. You can use the "export" function to download a format that works for you. Here is a direct link.)

Sunday, March 2, 2014

New thinking about metaphysics

It seems that there is a lot happening in metaphysics these days. There is of course the return to Aristotle that has occurred within the resurgent field of powers ontology in the theory of causation (e.g. Ruth Groff, Ontology Revisited: Metaphysics in Social and Political Philosophy, Stephen Mumford and Rani Lill Anjum, Getting Causes from Powers). But volumes like David Oderberg's Classifying Reality and Real Essentialism make it clear that the trend is broader than this. And here too, Aristotle is making a come-back.

The fundamental question for metaphysics is this: what exists in the world in which we live? But this is actually a diverse group of questions. We might be asking what specific particulars exist. We might be asking a more general question, what kinds or species of particulars exist (living things, rocks, liquids, spacecraft)? Or we might be asking the most general question, what categories of stuff are there in the world (events, individuals, properties, relations, space, cause, ...)?

This is one set of complexities raised by the field of metaphysics. Another complexity is more abstract: is metaphysics about the world or about the systems of thought that we use to make sense of the world? The three levels of questions just mentioned make it seem that metaphysics is about the world; but we might argue that metaphysics is really about the systems of categories and concepts that we use to formulate representations of the world.

The issue of realism is as relevant for metaphysics as it is for science. We might want to know whether the particulars referred to by the noun "electron" really exist in nature. Or we might want to know whether the classification system of Maxwell's electromagnetic theory (magnetic fields, electrical charge, photons, electromagnetic force, ...) draws real distinctions within nature -- distinctions that divide the stuff of nature at its joints. And finally, we might want to know if reality "really" consists of individuals and properties, or of some other more complicated set of ontological categories.

In Real Essentialism Oderberg proposes a renewed development of Aristotle's metaphysics as the basis for an answer to these questions:
The aim of Real Essentialism is to rehabilitate some of the core ideas of Aristotelian metaphysics in a contemporary context devoid of the minutiae of historical exposition and textual exegesis (though quite a bit of this will be found in the notes to each chapter). (1)
Here is his statement of essentialism within Aristotelian metaphysics:
At the heart of traditional metaphysics is the thesis that everything has a real essence – an objective metaphysical principle determining its definition and classification. Such principles are not mere creatures of language or convention; rather, they belong to the very constitution of reality. (2)
In his introduction to Classifying Reality Oderberg opens with this setting of the problem; and it might be taken as a proclamation for a new metaphysics more generally.
Is reality classifiable? In other words, does it have boundaries or 'joints' that enable us to assign various categories to its different constituents? (1)
As several of the contributors to Classifying Reality point out, there are two broad levels of ontological or metaphysical thinking that we can usefully engage in. First, at the level of the sciences directly there is the question of what kinds of things there are in a specific domain. The ideas of "animate thing," "vertebrate", "mammal", and "horse" arise at this level in the biological sciences.

But there is also a more abstract question that can be posed: what distinct sorts of stuff do we need to allude to in analyzing many or all areas of science? This might be called general metaphysics. We might try to make do with a very spare ontology of particulars and events; or it might be argued that there are distinctions among bits of reality that warrant separate categories. (Here is one such ontology: reality consists of entities, continuents, occurrents, and qualities; (4).) Or we might say that our ontology needs to refer to individuals, properties, relations, processes, and events, and that none of these can be defined in terms of some combination of the others.

In his contribution to Classifying Reality E. J. Lowe observes that analytic philosophers since Frege and Russell have tried to answer the more general question by referring solely to particulars and properties or relations, and have generally tried to understand properties and relations extensionally (as sets of particulars possessing the property). Lowe refers to this simple ontology as a "Fantology" -- there are particulars denoted by lower case letters, predicates denoted by uppercase letters, and statements of the form "Fa" (a has the property F).  Lowe favors a renewed attention to Aristotle's metaphysical theories, arguing that reality consists of primary substance, secondary substance, property or attribute, and individual accident or mode (11). And he believes that the minimalist ontology deriving from Frege (the Fantology) cannot handle the needs we have in creating language for describing the world. Lowe makes use of this more complex understanding of the kinds of things there are in the world to formulate a new version of formal logic. He provides a formalism for expressing the different kinds of statements that can be made within the more extensive universal ontology. "The system of formal logic whose language I have been constructing is meant to be one which respects and reflects certain fundamental categorial distinctions of an ontological nature" (18). What this formulation does not provide is a set of rules of derivation.

Tuomas Tahko takes up the issue of realist metaphysics in his contribution, "Boundaries in Reality." He believes that there is a basis for asserting that the assertions of metaphysics may be true or realistic; and to do so he addresses the conventionalist arguments that exist against this conclusion. Most generally the conventionalist line is this: there are multiple systems of conceptualization and classification, and there is no "best" system. Therefore there is no basis for concluding that one of these maximal systems is more realistic than another; and therefore there is no basis for metaphysical realism. Here is one version of this view in the words of Achille Varzi:
If all boundaries were the product of some cognitive or social fiat, if the lines along which we "splinter" the world depended entirely on our cognitive joints and on the categories that we employ in drawing up our maps, then our knowledge of the world would amount to neither more nor less than knowledge of those maps. (43)
But Tahko believes that the preponderance of evidence works against the conventionalist view:
We have seen that our system of classification is fundamentally grounded in reality. We can state this with some confidence, as otherwise this system would hardly be so reliable. It is an open question which entities are genuine, bona fide entities; we need philosophical inquiry as well as science to determine this. (60)
Gary Rosenkrantz brings the arguments into connection with biology in his contribution. He believes that there are necessary and essential truths about living things:
First, an animate being is a concrete entity capable of living a life. Second, a life, or at least any contingent being's life, is a process consisting of a series of intrinsic changes in an animate being. Third, an animate being is not a process; such a being -- at least of the most basic sort -- is what was traditionally called an individual substance. (79)
And further:
I shall argue that the question "What is an animate being?" can be answered by quantifying over ontological categories and natural kinds. (82)
Here is how Rosenkrantz characterizes natural kinds:
Every such natural kind, K, is such that: (i) it is impossible that something instantiates K contingently, (ii) K is a proper object of inquiry in natural science, (iii) K figures in one or more natural laws, (iv) K is possibly instantiated in the absence of an intention or belief of a contingent being that an instances of K is for performing some goal-directed activity, (v) K supervenes on structural and compositional properties, i.e., necessarily, for any x&y, if x instantiates K and x&y have the same structural and compositional properties, then y instantiates K, and (vi) K places limits on the kinds of parts an instance of K could have. (83)
This is tough slogging. We would like to know if this series of features of "natural kinds" are thought to be definitional or substantive. Is it a discovery about my wedding ring and "gold" that "it is impossible that the ring instantiates 'gold' contingently", or is this just a matter of definition? In other words, why should we accept (i)-(vi) as being true of natural kinds? And this raises a more pervasive question: what kind of philosophical or scientific reasoning is needed to establish truths of general metaphysics?

The diagram at the top is taken from Barry Smith's contribution to Classifying Reality in which he attempts to construct a "Basic Formal Ontology" -- a "top-level ontology that is serving as domain-neutral framework for the development of lower level ontologies in many specialist disciplines, above all in biology and medicine" (101). His account offers a formalized set of relations that can exist between ontological categories: "-is-a-" and "-part-of-", for example. And he distinguishes between things in terms of their temporal qualities: continuants and occurrents, for example (107), or "things" and "events".

What I find interesting and worthwhile about Classifying Reality is that it illustrates that there are genuine and important questions within the domain of general metaphysics -- questions that are provoked by our ordinary efforts to conceptualize and understand the world around us. What is challenging is to validate the kinds of reasoning that are offered as foundation to conclusions in this field. Does pure philosophy suffice? Do we need to "naturalize" metaphysics in order to have credible theories and conclusions? Should metaphysics simply be considered the most abstract end of the scientific enterprise, ultimately dependent on empirical reasoning and logical deduction? Or is there a realm of autonomous philosophical thinking that can lead to substantive metaphysical conclusions? My own philosophical training makes me wary of that final thought; but the contributors to this new metaphysics are making their best efforts to validate it.