Monday, September 21, 2009

Notes on C.B.Martin’s The Mind in Nature

Philosopher C.B.Martin died last year and left us a great book. The Mind in Nature summarizes his philosophy and its applications to mind, causality and more. For background see Paul Snowdon’s obituary and a brief note on the book by Gualtiero Piccinini; here is a very good draft review by Jessica Wilson. It was not an easy book for me to read but I found it very rewarding. Martin proposes an ontology featuring dispositions (sometimes referred to as powers). Notably for him, dispositions are inherently qualitative, and are also capable of producing myriad manifestations depending on the context.

I have previously read the work of philosophers who feature dispositional properties/powers as a basic element in their ontologies. (Martin has an early section recounting arguments for the irreducibility of dispositions– see the Wilson review for more on this). An attraction of these proposals is their potential to support a theory of real causality and of intentionality – topics mainstream analytic philosophy has trouble with IMO (see my series on George Molnar for more). John Heil adds the twist (along with Martin) that we could consider dispositions to also be qualities, which helps solve an additional aspect of the mind/body problem. Despite these accomplishments I have continued to view disposition-based accounts as falling a bit short when it came to mind and also to modality (see this recent post). Martin’s distinctive account takes another step toward addressing these issues.

Dispositions Offer Possibilities

I think the key to Martin’s ontology is that his dispositions don’t just point to one kind of manifestation, they are prolific. He says that whatever the fundamental elements of nature are, they have multiple internal properties which are dispositions to potentially an infinite number of different manifestations depending on context. Different “reciprocal disposition partners” will give you different manifestations. At any point, what exists is a “…manifestation tip of a disposition iceberg (p.9)”.

One doesn’t need “possible worlds”, since dispositions and their “projectivity” of actual and non-actual manifestations with various partners constitute a web or “power-net (p.29)”. In fact actual readinesses exist for infinite potential (Wilson points out this assertion is not backed up by an argument), so you don’t need any further grounding for possibility. (Upon reading this my own thought was why couldn’t Martin just redefine possible worlds as possible power-nets?). I note Martin himself isn’t vehement in asserting he’s definitely provided a full and adequate grounding for modality, compared to his tone when defending other aspects of his view.


For Martin, the creative power of dispositions means you don’t need “levels of reality” or the notion of supervenience. He sees all reality as a continuum “going from the many directional readiness of the quark, most of which will never be manifested, to the capacities and dispositions for many representations of some English speaker, most of which also will never be manifested (p.29)”. (Note that in contrast to the mainstream of analytic philosophy, language is not primary: the ontology comes first). The basic ontology is rich enough that emergence occurs through processes at the one level of reality; emergence is not a concept implying or requiring multiple levels.

Causality and Events

The manifestation of a disposition is the basis unit of causality. At one point (Ch.5), Martin stresses that causality in his view is not a temporally separated thing. The reciprocal partnering of dispositions creates a mutual manifestation; the model is of a “cause-effect” rather than cause-then-effect. (I would say, in other words, an event.) Martin doesn’t much address the problem of time and its perceived unidirectional flow. He takes the space-time of Einstein to be a substratum carrying the dispositional properties.


With regard to mind, Martin stresses that dispositions (which are inherently directional) give you intentionality at level below what we think of as “mental”. He also gives an account of how a natural system utilizing representation comes into being; he is inspired by results in neurobiology which he takes to show that “vegetative” (i.e. unconscious) systems of the brain effectively utilize representations already. So intentionality and representation are not distinctive hallmarks of human consciousness.

And neither are qualities. Martin first says dispositions cannot be identified with structural properties (such a view leads to an empty “Pythagoreanism” in his view). Even structureless elementary units (quarks or whatever) have multiple internal dispositions. And there is no need for purely qualitative, non-dispositional (categorical) properties. It is dispositions through-and-through and these dispositions are themselves simultaneously qualities (Wilson’s review also discusses criticism of this dual-aspect idea citing Armstrong).

So what does distinguish the mental? Here Martin offers a model which says the difference between mental and non-mental lies in the kind of qualitative material used in a representation. If the material of use is appropriately sensory, we get consciousness. I’m giving this model short-shrift here a bit in my notes (chs.13 -15), but I was a bit disappointed by it. Given Martin’s emphasis on gradualism, i.e. having nature exploit its base level qualities to give rise to all phenomena, I found his account of mind to be ad hoc. Since we’re making some brute assumptions in our ontology anyway, I would prefer to just couple the experiential aspect of reality to the qualitative aspect at the base level as two views of the same thing (possessed by each mutual manifestation). Then the emergence of human consciousness would be likewise gradual and not wholly dependent on functional criteria. (Wilson has a somewhat similar critique in the last part of her review).

Propensities and Quantum Physics

I was happy to see Martin tries to grapple (briefly) with quantum physics (in his chapter 6). In a section called “Dispositions and Quantum Theory”, Martin briefly discusses quantum theory and the interpretational question of assigning ontological status to the wave function vs. the measurement events. He thinks a system as described by the wave function could be taken as a propensity, which is a bit different idea than a disposition which points to specific manifestation. There seems to be a metaphysical gap here (correlating to the problem of the “collapse of the wave function”). He suggests that a “dispositional flutter” or oscillation might cause the appearance of irreducible probability. He says the flutter could be a consequence of practical limits on detection, or an intrinsic random oscillation. Unfortunately, I think we know this kind of interpretation of QM doesn’t hold up.

I thought it would have been consistent with his views if he identified his dispositions as wave function-type propensities and than had his “mutual manifestation” event map to the quantum measurement event. There still is an element of apparent mystery or gap surrounding the triggering of events, but I think we have to accept that this is just a given feature of the world, given QM.

1 comment:

TechTonics said...

I was looking forward to finding a discussion of C. B. Martin. My interest started with GEB by Hofstadter.