John Maier (of ANU) does research on the philosophy of abilities. I read his SEP article on abilities, and a draft paper entitled “An Agential Theory of Dispositions.” In the latter, he argues that dispositional properties (also known as dispositions, and sometimes powers) can be analyzed in terms of agents' abilities. The idea is that claims about dispositions in the world are a “projection of agent-centric facts about manipulability onto a world whose nature, considered in itself, is exhausted by the categorical.” Since I have been interested in ontological accounts which place dispositions in a central, fundamental role (see list of posts below), I was interested to see Maier’s argument for this alternative proposal.
Some philosophers have argued that dispositions can explain abilities. Maier agrees that there is a deep connection between them, but that it is the abilities which are more fundamental.
Maier notes that there are problems with reducing dispositions to categorical properties, as has been argued by philosophers like C.B.Martin. He briefly recapitulates the difficulties in the strategy of using counterfactuals as the reductive tool. Likewise, he then notes problems which arise when attempting a counterfactual analysis of abilities. So we have two kinds of things which would appear to lend themselves to a counterfactual analysis, which is ultimately unsuccessful. So, one might turn to analyzing dispositions and abilities in terms of one another.
Looking at the strategy of reducing abilities to dispositions, Maier identifies some difficulties (although he doesn’t present these as conclusive at this point). The analysis would seem to have trouble accounting with some features we associate with abilities, involving the notion of “trying” and the passive and active aspects of an agent’s abilities.
Still, the commonalities between the two notions motivates Maier to explore a way to convert dispositional talk to ability talk and back again (e.g. “an object has a certain disposition just in case the ability to apply a certain stimulus to that object determines the ability to elicit a certain manifestation from that object.”) After considering and defending against some objections to this biconditional analysis, Maier turns back to the question of order of priority.
He argues that the better case is for abilities as the prior notion. In addition to noting the challenges dispositions might face in explaining some of the subtleties involved with our understanding of abilities (noted earlier), Maier is persuaded by the fact that if dispositions are analyzed in terms of abilities of agents it helps explain how dispositions fit into the world, and also why we (as paradigm agents) are interested in them.
I liked this paper and thought Maier’s drawing out of the connections between abilities and dispositions to be valuable. I disagreed with his conclusion, however.
I find Maier’s arguments for the priority of abilities are modest compared to an “elephant” in the room which weighs against the idea: abilities presuppose the existence of agents, and we have no account of these. In fact, the unspoken but presupposed dualism of agents and non-agents is deeply unsatisfying. If, on the other hand, dispositions are fundamental, they can be posited as the ubiquitous building blocks of the world with at least the potential for explaining agency and mind, as in the work of Martin or John Heil.
List of Dispositions/Powers posts (in chronological order).
George Molnar and the Powers That Be
Powers and Property Dualism
Modal Problems with the Theory of Powers
John Heil Gets Very Close
Suarez on Quantum Propensities
Notes on C.B.Martin's The Mind in Nature
Powers vs. Humean Supervenience