Friday, October 02, 2009

Power Holism

This makes a nice follow up to my recent reading of C.B. Martin’s book: I found this paper, “Puzzling Powers: The Problem of Fit” by Neil E. Williams. In it, Williams identifies and seeks to address a trouble spot encountered by Martin and other advocates of a powers/dispositions-based ontology.

To start, Williams describes three key features of the ontology. First: the powers are intrinsic properties of their bearers. They don’t need external or relational connections for support. Second, the manifestations which they are capable of producing are essential features of the power: those potential manifestations make a power what it is. Third, the actual manifestations occur as a result of reciprocity. Martin in particular stressed the mutual nature of powers working together to produce manifestations, noting different pairings or combinations of powers will lead to different outcomes.

Given these three features, Williams sees “a problem of fit.” He says: “Stated briefly, the problem is that powers have to work together when they produce manifestations (reciprocity), but as they are not relations (intrinsicality), and they cannot change with the circumstances (essentialism), the fact that they are causally harmonious is without explanation.” Powers fit together to produce mutual manifestation, but the fact that they fit is not accounted for by the three features they possess. He uses a jigsaw puzzle analogy to suggest that, as it stands, there’s no reason to expect a fit to occur without adding more to the story.

So, what to do? Williams doesn’t think it’s advantageous to drop one of the three features he began with. With regard to essentialism, he does mention an alternate idea that the potential manifestations essential to powers are not determinate but are instead “TBD” (to-be-determined) via hooking up with other powers. But he still sees a gap with this idea: what finally makes the particular determinate manifestation finally occur?

So, instead, Williams puts forward a solution: “power holism”. The nature of powers is determined holistically: “the specific, determinate nature of each power (that is, the set of manifestations a power is for and the precise partners required for those manifestations) depends on the specific, determinate nature of other powers with which it is arranged in a system of powers.”

He notes we also need to discuss the bigger picture of “…what kind of world allows for or provides for the fit that power holism bestows.” How do the powers get their holism on, in other words?

He looks at three ways one might address this. First, we could just posit holistic coordination as a brute addition to ontology. But this isn’t very satisfying. Second, he suggests one might look to a platonic account: collaboration between powers takes place in the platonic realm. Third, one might retain naturalism, but suggest a form of monism which could support the coordinated fit. For instance, if all powers ultimately ontologically depended on the prior existence of the whole world (a la Jonathan Schaffer), then this shared basis could explain the harmonious fit. Williams is sympathetic to this option but says any of the choices might be worthy of consideration.

A very good paper. I liked the appeal to holism and (although Williams doesn’t use this terminology) non-local connections. In my opinion, though, in order to really nail it down, some indeterminism needs to be added to the model. Fit (correlations) can be explained by the non-local connections, but powers need to be seen as capable of more than one outcome per partner—an irreducible indeterminism only resolved when the manifestation (event) occurs. This would then nicely comport with quantum mechanics.

(I see Williams also has a paper co-authored with Andrea Borghini advocating a single-world modal actualism, explained using a powers ontology. I’ll have to check that out – my last post on that topic was here).

2 comments:

Doru said...

Steve,
As an electrical engineer, I see the “power” or the “potential of manifestation” as a circuit. Nothing can manifest without returning to the source or whatever it came from. Even better said, everything sourced has to return to whatever it came of. So the power circuit has to be holistic in order to work, in other words, even you may think of two paths in two different direction, the circuit has to be closed into one.
The TBD part is more of a path in my opinion and is not important as far as the power goes. The path of the circuit determines only the form of manifestation and is not that undetermined as we may think. The power circuit will always follow the path of the less resistance. The Ohm’s law is valid for any sort of energy, including the more metaphysical ones, spiritual, etc.

It’s very fascinating for me to think of the non-local connections in the Universe (Platonic entanglement). If we can see light from stars that was sourced 10 billions years ago at 10 billions light years away, then the source of that light 10 billions years ago, must be the same thing where that light will sink into (like the cone cells in your retina). The circuit must be complete, the source and the sink must be one. Separation is an illusion.

Steve said...

That's interesting Doru. I do think non-local platonic connections are real, although I wouldn't agree with calling the actual world of distinct events an illusion. It's real, too; it's just not the whole story.