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.)

A causal narrative?

source: Edward Tufte,

In a recent post I referred to the idea of a causal narrative (link). Here I would like to sketch out what I had in mind there.

Essentially the idea is that a causal narrative of a complicated outcome or occurrence is an orderly analysis of the sequence of events and the causal processes that connected them, leading from a set of initial conditions to the outcome in question. The narrative pulls together our best understanding of the causal relations, mechanisms, and conditions that were involved in the process and arranges them in an appropriate temporal order. It is a series of answers to “why and how did X occur?” designed to give us an understanding of the full unfolding of the process.

A narrative is more than an explanation; it is an attempt to “tell the story” of a complicated outcome. So a causal narrative will include a number of causal claims, intersecting in such a way as to explain the complex event or process that is of interest. And in my view, it will be a pluralistic account, in that it will freely invoke a number of causal ideas: powers, mechanisms, necessary and sufficient conditions, instigating conditions, and so forth.

Here is how I characterized a historical narrative in New Contributions to the Philosophy of History:

What is a narrative? Most generally, it is an account of the unfolding of events, along with an effort to explain how and why these processes and events came to be. A narrative is intended to provide an account of how a complex historical event unfolded and why. We want to understand the event in time. What were the contextual features that were relevant to the outcome — the settings at one or more points in time that played a role? What were the actions and choices that agents performed, and why did they take these actions rather than other possible choices? What causal processes—either social or natural—may have played a role in bringing the world to the outcome of interest? (29)

We might illustrate this idea by looking at the approach taken to contentious episodes and periods by McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly in Dynamics of Contention. In their treatment of various contentious periods, they break the given complex period of contention into a number of mechanisms and processes, conjoined with contingent and conjunctural occurrences that played a significant causal role in the outcome. The explanatory work that their account provides occurs at two levels: the discovery of a relatively small number of social mechanisms of contention that recur across multiple cases, and the construction of complex narratives for particular episodes that bring together their understanding of the mechanisms and processes that were in play in this particular case.

We think what happens within a revolutionary trajectory can better be understood as the result of the intersection of a number of causal mechanisms. We do not offer a systematic account of all such mechanisms and their interaction in a sample of revolutionary situations. Instead, we use a paired comparison of the Nicaraguan revolution of 1979 and the Chinese student rebellion of 1989 to zero in on one processes in particular: the defection of significant elements from a dominant ruling coalition. (kl 2465)

The narrative for a particular case (the Mau Mau uprising, for example) takes the form of a chronologically structured account of the mechanisms that their analysis identifies as having been relevant in the unfolding of the insurgent movement and the government’s responses. MTT give attention to “episodes” within larger processes, with the clear implication that the episodes are to some degree independent from each other and are amenable to a mechanisms analysis themselves. So a narrative is both a concatenated series of episodes and a nested set of mechanisms and processes.

Robert Bates introduces a similar idea in Analytic Narratives under the rubric of “analytic narrative”. The chief difference between his notion and mine is that his account is limited to the use of game theory and rational choice theory to provide the linkages within the chronological account, whereas I want to allow a pluralistic understanding of the kinds and levels of causes that are relevant to social processes.
Here is a brief account of what Bates and his collaborators mean by an analytic narrative:

The chapters thus build narratives. But the narratives are analytic narratives. By modeling the processes that produced the outcomes, we seek to capture the essence of stories. Should we possess a valid representation of the story, then the equilibrium of the model should imply the outcome we describe—and seek to explain. Our use of rational choice and game theory transforms the narratives into analytic narratives. Our approach therefore occupies a complex middle ground between ideographic and nomothetic reasoning. (12)

As have others, however, we seek to return to the rich, qualitative, and descriptive materials that narratives offer. And, as have others, we seek an explicit and logically rigorous account of the events we describe… We seek to locate and explore particular mechanisms that shape the interplay between strategic actors and that thereby generate outcomes. Second, most of these [other] literatures are structural: they focus on the origins and impact of alignments, cleavages, structures, and institutions. Our approach, by contrast, focuses on choices and decisions. It is thus more micro than macro in orientation. By delineating specific mechanisms and focusing on the determinants and impacts of choices, our work differs from our predecessors. (12-13)

A narrative typically offers an account of an historically particular event or process: the outbreak of a specific war, the emergence of ethnic conflict at a specific place and time, or the occurrence of a financial crisis. This places narratives on the side of particular social-science analysis. Is there a role for generalization in relation to narratives? I think that MTT would suggest that there is not, when it comes to large event groups like revolutions. There is no common template of revolutionary mobilization and regime collapse; instead, there are local and national interactions that constitute recurring mechanisms, and it is the task of the social scientist to discover the linkages and contingencies through which these various mechanisms led to revolution in this case or that. MTT try to find a middle ground between particularity and generalization:

Have we only rediscovered narrative history and applied to it a new, scientistic vocabulary? We think not. While convinced of the futility of deducing general covering laws of contention, we think our program — if it succeeds — will uncover recurring sets of mechanisms that combine into robust processes which, in turn, recur over a surprising number and broad range of episodes. (kl 3936)

In my view, anyway, a narrative describes a particular process or event; but it does so by identifying recurring processes, mechanisms, and forces that can be discerned within the unfolding of the case. So generalizability comes into the story at the level of the components of the narrative — the discovery of common social processes within the historically unique sequence of events.

Causal narratives, mechanisms, and powers

A million termites move around industriously without supervisors or external coordination.  Some months later, a great structure has arisen — a termite cathedral mound. It is a structure that has apparent functionality (figure 2), it is oriented to the sun in a way that optimizes its ability to handle heat and cold, and the design plainly exceeds the cognitive or practical capacity of any single termite. How do they do it? (The BBC video below describes these mounds and their construction.)

This is a hard question because we know quite a bit about what the termites do not do. They do not have architects and project managers; they do not have blueprints guiding their work; they do not have a master plan. Instead, millions of independent organisms somehow coordinate their actions in ways that collectively result in the large structure.

Termite architects 04 0511 mdn

 figure 1. The mound

Termite structure

figure 2. The structure of the mound

We would like to have an explanation for how this works; how the individual insects within this population behave in the ways that are necessary to create this vast complex structure.

One way of putting our explanatory needs here is to say that we are asking for a mechanism: what is the mechanism or ensemble of mechanisms that produce the collective behavior leading to the construction of the mound? What is it about the behavioral code of the insect that permits this collective behavior? This way of putting the problem is to highlight the mechanisms approach.

But we might better say, we are asking for an explanatory narrative, including elements like these:

  • The insects have such-and-so behavioral routines (algorithms) embedded in their nervous systems.
  • Behaviors are triggered by environmental circumstances and the activities of other insects around them.
  • The triggered behavior in each insect contributes to a pattern of activity that leads to progressive “building” of the mound.

The force of the explanation hinges on the details we can learn about these powers and capacities of the termites as a species — these behavioral algorithms. We want to know something crucial about the powers and capacities of the individual insects; we want to know how their routines are responsive to environment and other insects; and we want to know how the emerging structure of the mound leads to the modified activities of the insects over the process of construction.

This narrative highlights a topic we have considered several times before — the idea of the causal powers of an entity. Most basically, we might look at the individual worker termite as robot controlled by a complex algorithm — “when external circumstances X,Y,Z arise, carry out the Z routine.” The causal powers of the individual worker termite are determined by its algorithm and its physical capacities — salivation, moving around, carrying bits of mud, and so forth. And the task of explanation is to discover the nature of the algorithms and the ways in which the resulting behaviors aggregate to the observed physical structure of the mound.

We might observe, for example, that a certain kind of insect navigates a maze by following a simple rule: always keep the wall on your left. This rule will sometimes work well; sometimes it will not. But this observation suggests that the insect’s central nervous system encodes the decision-making rule in this way. And we might also infer that “maze navigation” is important for the survival of the insect in its normal environment, and so its navigational algorithms will have been refined through natural selection.

We would also like to know something else about the insects and their powers: how did they come to have these particular capacities and algorithms? Here we have a well established explanation, in the form of the theory of the gene, natural selection, and the evolution of species characteristics through differential reproductive success. Here the explanatory challenge is to piece together the nature of the algorithms that would suffice to account for the observed collective outcomes.It is also of interest in this example that there is a large field of research and discovery within complexity research that hinges on discovering the complex collective patterns that can emerge from simple routines at the level of the individual agent. For example, the “Game of Life” illustrates the power of cellular automata in generating complexity out of simple agent-level routines.

This example is a useful one, not primarily for entymologists, but for us as philosophers of social science. What would an explanation of this phenomenon look like? And a little bit of reflection seems to take us in the direction of some familiar ideas: the idea of things having causal powers that govern what they can do, the idea of the aggregation of complex outcomes from independent activities of large numbers of agents (agent-based models), and the idea that a good explanation gives us an empirically supportable understanding of how something works.

Mechanisms and powers

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source: William Bechtel, Discovering Cell Mechanisms: The Creation of Modern Cell Biology

The causal-powers approach to the understanding of causation is sometimes presented as an exclusive alternative to both traditional regularity theories and to more recent causal mechanism theories. In an earlier post I discussed Ruth Groff’s contributions to this topic. Here I would like to present a provocative view: that the causal mechanisms and causal powers are complementary rather than contradictory. The causal mechanisms theory benefits by being supplemented by a causal powers theory and the causal powers theory benefits by being supplemented by a causal mechanisms theory. In other words, the two theories are not exclusive alternatives to each other, but rather serve to identify different parts of the whole of causation.

The causal powers theory rests on the claim that causation is conveyed from cause to effect through the active powers and capacities that inhere in the entities making up the cause. The causal mechanisms theory comes down to the idea that cause and effect are mediated by a series of events or interactions that lead (typically) from the occurrence of the cause to the occurrence of the effect. In other words, cause and effect are linked by real underlying causal sequences (often repeatable sequences).

My thesis of the mutual compatibility of powers and mechanisms goes along these lines. If we press down on a putative mechanisms explanation, we are led eventually to postulating a set of causal powers that provide the motive force of the postulated mechanisms. But equally, if we press down on the claim that a certain kind of entity has a specified causal power or disposition, we are led to hypotheses about what mechanisms are set in play be its constituents so as to bring about this disposition.

Begin with a causal mechanism story:

  • C => {x happens bringing about y, bringing about z, bringing about u, which is E} => E

How is it that the sub-links of this chain of mechanism pieces happen to work to bring about their consequent? We seem to have two choices: We can look to discover a further underlying mechanism; or we can postulate that the sub-link entity or structure has the power to bring about its consequent. So if we push downward within the terms of a mechanism explanation, one way to close the story is by postulating a causal power at some level.

Now start with a causal power claim. Suppose we assert that:

  • Salt has the causal power of making H2O electrically conductive when dissolved.

Is this simply an unanalyzable fact about salt (or saline solution)? It is not; instead, we can look downward to identify the physical mechanisms that are brought into play when salt enters solution in H2O. That mechanism is well understood: the Na+ and Cl- ions created by the dissolution of salt permit free electrons to pass through the solution.

So we can explain the causal power by discovering the causal mechanism that gives rise to it; we explain links in the putative mechanism by alluding to the powers of the entities involved at that stage; and we can explain other things by referring to the causal powers that we have discovered to be associated with various kinds of things and structures.

If we take this set of possibilities seriously, then powers and mechanisms are answering different questions within the causal nexus. The reference to powers answers the question, “What does x do?”, while the reference to mechanisms answers the question, “How does x work?”

From a scientific point of view, it is always legitimate to ask how the powers of an entity or structure come to be in the natural world. What is it about the micro-structure of the thing in virtue of which the thing’s properties are established? In fact, this is one of the key intellectual challenges of the sciences. And this is a request for specification of some of the mechanisms that are at work. But likewise, it is always legitimate to ask what gives force to a given mechanism; and here we are eventually driven back to the answer, “some of the components of the mechanism have X, Y, Z powers to affect other entities” without further analysis within that particular explanation.

One might imagine that there are primitive causal powers — powers attached to primitive particles that have no underlying components or mechanisms.  We might begin to give a list of primitive causal powers: mechanical interactions among physical objects (transfer of momentum from one particle to another); electromagnetic properties inhering in one object and creating forces affecting other objects; gravitational forces among objects possessing mass; the causal interactions that occur within the central nervous system. And we might seek to demonstrate that all causal powers depend on combinations of these sorts of “primitive” causal powers — a kind of Hobbesian materialism.  But this is needlessly strenuous from a metaphysical point of view. Better is to consider the middle-level range of powers and mechanisms where we are able to move upwards and downwards in our search for underlying causal mechanisms and supervening causal powers.

This line of thought suggests that questions about the metaphysics of causation are perhaps less pressing than they are sometimes made out to be. A thing’s powers are not irreducible attributes of the thing; rather, they are the orderly consequence of the composition of the thing and the causal properties of those components and their interactions. It is hard to see that much turns on whether we think of the world as consisting of entities with powers, or as composites with system properties created by their components. The key question seems to be something like this: what is implied when we make a causal assertion? Both CP and CM agree that the core implication is the idea that one event, structure, or condition brought about the occurrence of another event, structure, or condition.  And the languages of both powers and mechanisms do a pretty good job of expressing what we mean in asserting this implication.

(John Dupré takes a similarly ecumenical view about several approaches to the theory of causation in a recent article, “Living Causes”, where he advocates for what he calls “causal pluralism”; link. He writes: “I believe that causality is a complex and diverse set of phenomena, and most or all of these accounts provide valuable and complementary perspectives on the topic. Such a pluralistic view is quite a common one among contemporary philosophers; however there are significant differences in the form that such pluralisms can take” (20). On the mechanisms side within the philosophy of biology is William Bechtel’s Discovering Cell Mechanisms: The Creation of Modern Cell Biology, who writes: “Beginning in the 1940s an initially small cadre of investigators who were pioneers in the modern discipline of cell biology began to figure out the biochemical mechanisms that enable cells to perform these functions. although miniaturized, the mechanisms they found to be operative in each cell are staggeringly complex” (1 ).)

Causality and metaphysics

descartesduck2Advocates of the causal powers approach attach a great deal of importance to the metaphysics of causation — the sorts of properties and relations that we attribute to the kinds of things that we want to postulate. The neo-Aristotelian point of view represented by Ruth Groff and others appears to have metaphysical objections to the causal-mechanisms approach: the CM approach postulates the wrong kind of relations among entities, according to this group. So if I want to argue that mechanisms and powers are compatible, as I do, then I need to take into account the metaphysical arguments. It will be necessary to tell a story about the nature of the world that gives a place and meaning to the metaphysical premises of each theory.

The possibility of fundamental metaphysical incompatibility cannot be trivially ruled out. Consider this different kind of example: the distance between the premises of analytical Marxism and the neo-Hegelian theory of internal relations espoused by Bertell Ollman in Alienation: Marx’s Conception of Man in Capitalist Society (link). Even if there were the possibility of some degree of convergence in conclusions about capitalism — e.g. the likelihood of recurring crises — the two schools of thought differ fundamentally on the nature of social entities and structures. They differ in terms of their social metaphysics. Analytical Marxists take the view that the structures of capitalism are the composite effect of variously motivated individuals; so there is an underlying atomism in the ontology of AM. Causes are fully distinct from the things they affect. Ollman, by contrast, believes that we need to conceive of the structures and social relations of capitalism relationally: the wage labor relation is not an atomistic relation between capitalist and worker, but rather a mutually implicating set of relations between the two that cannot be fully separated. Here is a passage in which Ollman attempts to capture the distinctive features of Marx’s social metaphysics:

What is distinctive in Marx’s conception of social reality is best approached through the cluster of qualities he ascribes to particular social factors. Taking capital as the example, we find Marx depicting it as “that kind of property which exploits wage-labor, and which cannot increase except on condition of getting a new supply of wage-labor for fresh exploitation” (Marx and Engels, 1945, 33). What requires emphasis is that the relation between capital and labor is treated here as a function of capital itself, and part of the meaning of “capital”. This tie is extended to cover the worker as well, where Marx refers to him as “variable capital” (Marx, 1958, 209). The capitalist is incorporated into the same whole: “capital is necessarily at the same time the capitalist . . . the capitalist is contained in the concept of capital” (Marx, 1973, 512). Elsewhere, Marx asserts that “the means of production monopolized by a certain section of society”, “the products of laborers turned into independent powers”, “money”, “commodities” and even “value that sucks up the value creating powers” are also capital (Marx, 1959b, 794-5; Marx, 1958, 153; Marx, 571). What emerges from these diverse characterizations is a conception of many tied facets, whose sense depends upon the relations Marx believes to exist between its components: property, wage-labor, worker, his product, commodities, means of production, capitalist, money, value (the list can be made longer still). (Chapter 2, section ii)

This example demonstrates the possibility of a genuine and deep incompatibility between two social theories at the level of the assumptions they make about the nature of the world — their metaphysical theories.

So what about causal powers and causal mechanisms? The primary metaphysical commitment that the CP theorists advocate derives from their treatment of powers and essences — two characteristic ideas from Aristotle. A power is thought to inhere in a thing in a particularly deep way; it is not an accidental expression of the empirical properties of the thing but rather an essential and active expression of the nature of the thing. The causal powers theory comes down to the idea that things and structures have an active capacity to bring about certain kinds of effects. In Groff’s terms, things are not passive but rather active.

Here is how Tuukka Kaidesoja introduces the metaphysical framework of critical realism in relation to causality in Naturalizing Critical Realist Social Ontology. Kaidesoja finds that the concept of a causal power is fundamental to critical realism (105). A thing’s power is the characteristic of the world through which causal influence arises; without the concept of causal power, we would indeed be stranded in a Humean world of pure constant conjunction. Kaidesoja quotes Harre and Madden in these terms:

“X has the power to A” means “X (will)/(can) do A, in the appropriate conditions, in virtue of its intrinsic nature”. (Kaidesoja, 106)

So what about the metaphysics of the causal mechanisms theory? Generally speaking, advocates of the mechanisms approach have not been very interested in the metaphysical issues. They (we) are generally realist, so we postulate that there are real causal interactions. This is indeed a metaphysical position. But this family of thinkers tends to be mid-range realists: they want to understand the necessity of causal relations at one level as deriving from the real workings of the physical or social system a bit lower down; but they generally don’t seem to want to pose the ultimate question: how could any event or structure exert causal influence on another? So the causal mechanisms theorists are perhaps better described as scientific realists rather than philosophical or critical realists. They take the view that the world has the properties (approximately) that our best scientific theories attribute to things. (Could we call them “Galilean realists”?)

Curiously enough, this contrast seems to have a lot to do with the quibble I raised for Ruth Groff in the earlier post: whether powers should be thought to be “irreducible”. Scientific realists would say they are not irreducible; rather, we can eventually arrive at a theory (molecular, genetic, economic, psychological, rational choice, physical) that displays the processes and mechanisms through which the ascribed power flows from the arrangement and properties of the thing.

On this standpoint, powers are attributions we make to things when we don’t know quite enough about their composition to work out the physics (or sociology) of the underlying mechanisms. They do attach to the entity or structure in question, surely enough; but they do so in virtue of the physical or sociological composition of the entity, not because of some inherent metaphysical property.

We might try to reconcile these two perspectives with a few simple ideas:

  1. Entities and structures at a range of levels of being have causal powers: active capacities to influence other entities and structures.
  2. Whenever we identify a causal power of a thing, it is always open to us to ask how this power is embodied; what it is about the inner constitution of the entity that gives it this power.
  3. When we succeed in arriving at a good scientific answer to this question, we will have shown that the power in question is not irreducible; it is rather the consequence of a set of mechanisms set in play by the constitution of the entity.

So the discovery of a given causal power of a thing is not a metaphysical fundamental; it is rather an empirical scientific discovery that invites analysis into its underlying composition.

Causal powers from a metaphysical point of view

ontology revisited

A number of scholars who are interested in causation have recently expressed new interest in the concept of causal powers. This makes sense in a very straightforward and commonsensical way. But it also raises some difficult questions about metaphysics: how are we to think about the underlying nature of reality such that things, events, or conditions have “causal powers”? These questions raise issues that a number of talented philosophers are now taking on in a systematic way. Particularly interesting are recent writings by Ruth Groff, who represents a wave of contemporary thinking in metaphysics that aims to revitalize portions of Aristotle’s views of causation in opposition to Hume’s.

Groff’s work on causal powers is sustained over a number of recent works, including especially her 2012 book Ontology Revisited: Metaphysics in Social and Political Philosophy (Ontological Explorations), her introduction and chapter in Greco and Groff, eds., Powers and Capacities in Philosophy: The New Aristotelianism, and her contribution to Illari, Russo, and Williamson, Causality in the Sciences. Groff emphasizes a broad clash of perspectives between a Humean theory of causation (“constant conjunction, no necessary relations among things or events”) and a neo-Aristotelian theory (“things have powers, powers underlie causal relations among things and events”). Here is how she and Greco put the perspective of the “New Aristotelianism” in Powers and Capacities:

Humeanism is now under serious pressure within analytic metaphysics. In particular, after having been dismissed for generations as so much antiquated animism, the loosely-Aristotelian theorizing of real causal powers has now come to be a major focus of research within the specialty. (kl 204)

Moreover, Groff believes that American social sciences are still largely in the grip of the Humean metaphysics.  In “Getting Past Hume” in Causality in the Sciences, she writes:

One can’t help but wonder what the outcome would actually be, were there to be a floor-fight on the question, i.e., a substantive debate within analytic philosophy and methodology of social science on the merits of Humean anti-realism about causality versus the merits of a powers-based, realist account of causality.

What is significant about all of this for my own argument is not so much that Humeanism continues to be the default ontology of especially American, often positivist, social science; but rather that it can be combined with the idea that it is not — i.e., with the idea that competing versions of regularity theory somehow differ in a deep way, or that it is possible to remain neutral on what causality is, whilst engaging in causal explanation.

This poses a stark contrast; either you are positivist, anti-realist, and Humean or you are anti-positivist, realist, and neo-Aristotelian.  However, it is worth observing that there seem to be two currents of realist thought that reject Humean causation, not just one: the powers ontology that Groff (and Mumford and Anjum in Getting Causes from Powers) advocate; and the causal-mechanisms approach that has been advocated by philosophers and sociologists such as Hedstrom, Elster, and Ylikoski under the broad banner of analytical sociology. One might take the view that the causal-mechanisms approach ultimately requires something like the powers ontology — “How else are we to account for the fact that sparks cause gasoline to explode?”; but on its face, these are two fairly independent realist responses to Hume. And certainly it is difficult to find a neo-Aristotelian predilection among the causal-mechanism advocates.

Groff takes up causal mechanisms theory in “Getting Past Hume” in  Causality in the Sciences. She concedes that this approach — in the hands of Jon Elster and in my own writings, for example — claims to be realist and anti-positivist, in that it rejects the notion that explanation depends on the discovery of general laws. But she doesn’t think that the causal-mechanisms approach actually succeeds in presenting a substantive alternative to the Humean framework on causation: “Upon closer examination, the mainstream mechanisms model is more of the same, metaphysically.”

Fleshing out her argument, she seems to be arguing that causal-mechanisms theory can either retreat to constant conjunction (at the level of the linkages of individual causal mechanisms) or it can press forward to a causal powers interpretation; there is no third possibility. “As with the other models, nothing on the mainstream mechanisms model is in a position of actually doing anything, in the sense of actively producing an effect. Thus here too, with an extra bit of ironic panache, the explanation-form functions as a delivery mechanism (no pun intended) for a Humean metaphysics.” And it is true that most definitions of causal mechanisms make some kind of reference to regularities and repeatability.

My own formulation of the mechanisms theory is one of the targets of Groff’s critique. And in fact I can reconstruct my reasons for thinking that mechanisms need to involve some kind of regularities; and I don’t think it implies a collapse onto Humean causation. (At one point I wanted to call them “pocket regularities”, to distinguish them from the grand social or psychological laws that Hempel and Mill seemed to want to discover.)  I wanted to assert that:

“M [information diffusion] is the mechanism connecting E [police beating] with O [rapid mobilization of an angry crowd]” is a description of a real underlying (perhaps unknown) causal process through which the features of E bring about the occurrence of O.

This is an ontological claim and it is a realist claim. But there is also an epistemic issue: How would we know that M is indeed such an underlying reality? It seems unavoidable that we would need to either produce empirical evidence supporting the conclusion that M frequently conveys these kinds of effects in these kinds of circumstances (the approach Tilly takes) or we need to have a theory of the mechanism which accounts for how it works to bring about the effect. The first boils down to a discovery of a limited set of regularities in a range of circumstances; the latter is a theoretical demonstration of how it works.  So this way of conceptualizing mechanisms does indeed invoke regularities of some sort.  However, it doesn’t agree with the Humean idea that causation is nothing but regularities or constant conjunction. The regularities that are invoked are symptoms of the underlying causal mechanism, not criterial replacements for the mechanism.

Moreover, the powers theory seems to be subject to the same possible objection: how do we know that lightning has the causal power of starting barns on fire, unless we have repeatedly observed the chain of events leading from lightning strike to blaze?

Another thing that demands more attention is an assumption about the implications of the “realism” of powers. What follows from the idea that things have real causal powers? Groff puts the view in these terms: to assert that powers are real is to assert that they are irreducible (kl 204). But that seems questionable. We may think that feudalism was real, while at the same time thinking that its properties and dynamics derived from more fundamental social relations that compounded to create the distinctive dynamics of feudalism. So it doesn’t seem that realists have to also accept the idea of irreducibility of the things about which they are realist. Or to put the point the other way around: the idea that realism implies irreducibility appears to also imply a fairly strong thesis about emergence. Groff returns to this set of ideas in Ontology Revisited, chapter three: “An emergent phenomenon (property or entity) is one that is not equivalent, ontologically, to the plurality of its parts.” And here too she emphasizes irreducibility. But, as Poe Yu-ze Wan shows in “Emergence a la Systems Theory: Epistemological Totalausschluss or Ontological Novelty?” in Philosophy of the Social Sciences, philosophers have differed on the question of whether “emergence” implies “irreducibility” (link). The theory of emergence offered by Mario Bunge does not require irreducibility.

One thing I particularly like about Groff’s work on causal powers is her persistence in working through the logical and conceptual implications of this field. She is painstaking in her effort to discover the implications of various parts of the several theories of causation (and freedom of the will in other essays); and this is exactly how we make progress on difficult philosophical issues like these.

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