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.
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