Tuesday, June 26, 2007

George Molnar and the Powers That Be

George Molnar’s Powers: A Study in Metaphysics appeared in 2003, with a paperback version following recently. The book presents a realist theory of causal metaphysics founded on a detailed ontological treatment of dispositional properties, or powers. Molnar’s work was brought to my attention last fall by an e-mail correspondent, to whom I’m grateful. I plan to present some notes and thoughts about the book over a couple of posts.

The book is a posthumous publication, Molnar having died in 1999. Some brief biographical information is provided in the introduction by Stephen Mumford (see also this webpage [UPDATE: 8 March 2011 - this was a link to a page about Molnar - now gone), as well as in a preface by D. M. Armstrong. Born in Budapest, Molnar and his family escaped the Nazis and he settled in Australia. He became a philosopher and published a handful of metaphysical papers early in his career. Then leftist political activities led him to depart his university post and exit formal academic philosophy for a couple of decades until just a few years before his death. In those years, this book took shape.

According to Mumford, who prepared the manuscript for publication, the chapters which present the main theory were largely complete; the manuscript lacked an introductory chapter and only fragments existed of the intended final chapters on application of the theory of powers to various metaphysical problems. Mumford has provided a helpful introduction, and edited the final fragments into a condensed last chapter.

Molnar’s theory is a realist account of dispositional properties as causal powers. This realism about dispositional properties and causality is in contrast to work in the Humean tradition which would eliminate dispositional properties and reduce apparent causal power to mere correlation. A traditional strategy is to employ a conditional analysis. Rather than ascribe the dispositional property of solubility to X, one simply notes that if X is placed in water, then it will dissolve. Another way to approach eliminating powers is to claim they can be reduced to categorical micro-physical properties (although many would view charge, mass, spin et. al as paradigm dispositional properties). Molnar will defend dispositional properties as real and ineliminable causal powers of objects.

Molnar’s Ontological Categories

A. Tropes. Molnar wants to present a full ontology of powers, so he must answer the question: what kind of properties are they? His answer is that properties are tropes. He thinks that nominalists are right to distrust the idea that properties as universals are real but err in rejecting all realism about properties. Realists are right in their realism, but wrong about universals, which are too inconsistent with naturalism. There are sections discussing the characteristics of tropes in great detail in Ch. 1, which I will pass over for now. I should note that in addition to powers, Molnar will find a need for non-power properties as well, leading to a property dualism.

B. Objects. There is a classic problem with tropes, however, which is explaining how they bunch up in coherent ways. Attempts to posit ways to bundle tropes together without adding something new to the mix are unsuccessful (see my old post with a link to work on this topic by Dr. Bill Vallicella). Molnar bites the bullet and admits objects as an additional ontological category. Powers are powers of objects. (Later in the book, though, he will admit ungrounded powers as well).

C. Relations. In Molnar’s assessment, objects are separable from their location in space-time. This leads him to add relations as an additional irreducible ontological category.

Given these ingredients, at least one ontological category Molnar will not need are “states of affairs” (or facts or situations, etc.), which he criticizes in section 2.3.

Still, I think that one can be more economical yet with regard to the size of the ontological zoo. I’ll say more later after a discussion of powers, but I think an event ontology can improve on an object oriented ontology.


Mike Wiest said...

Hi Steve,

I haven't read the Molnar, but I wonder if there is a relation between his causal theory and Rosenberg's. All I know about "tropes" is what I just read in your summary--but could it be that Rosenberg's rules of composition into higher-level individuals with distinct causal powers could solve Molnar's problem about "how tropes bunch up in coherent ways"?


Steve said...

Hi Mike:
I plan to discuss the comparision with Rosenberg's model at some point (what follows is off the top of my head for now).

I think your comment is on the right track. Rosenberg's model doesn't need objects (or irreducible relations I don't think). He has two kinds of properties: effective (which correspond to dispositional) and receptive. The coming together of effective and receptive properties creates a causal event. A twist is that he assigns a connective quality to the receptive properties which forms the basis of forming higher order causal nexii. He calls these nexii "natural individuals" and they take the place of objects in the system.

Mike Wiest said...

Yeah, I like how he gets ontological "connections" into the mix, although I confess I'm still chewing on the idea of receptive properties.

So, this idea of "natural individuals" is also very attractive to me. It feels like we've needed an idea like this badly for a long time. Is this an established idea in philosophy? All I can think of are Bruno, Spinoza, and Leibniz talking about the unity of organisms and monads and whatnot.

But since then it seems like philosophers get themselves into tangles because they don't distinguish "things" that actually exist (e.g. physical states) from "things" that are merely an observer's interpretation or label (e.g. functions, higher-level objects in classical physics).

Is there a contemporary philosophical literature about this issue of what constitutes and objective individual (not to say an objective object)....?

Steve said...

Well there's lots of literature on the ontology/mereology side of things. But only a subset of this connects up with causation (here's one I discussed in an older post) and very few connect it with philosophy of mind, as Rosenberg does.