Sunday, October 10, 2010

Abilities vs. Dispositions

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

Power Holism

Powers vs. Humean Supervenience


John said...

Thanks for this thoughtful discussion of my paper, which just recently came to my attention.

You are correct that a consequence of my proposal is that we will probably not be able to give a dispositional account of agency and mind. I am not overly worried by this consequence because I am skeptical, on independent grounds, about the prospects for such an account; my concerns about the dispositional account of abilities are just, as it were, a special case of this more general skepticism. (I am working on a paper on dispositional accounts of rule-following and meaning, which raises some independent concerns, which I hope to have posted soon). So I suspect that we will not be able to give a dispositional account of agency, and indeed that we will have to accept the distinction between agents and non-agents as a basic one.

Of course, these claims are contentious, and those who are sympathetic with dispositional accounts of agency and mind will find the approach to dispositions that I argue for objectionable on these grounds. I think the way of making progress here is to develop and evaluate non-agential accounts of agency, and agential accounts of purportedly non-agential phenomena, and see which approach does better overall. Most recent philosophical work on this subject has taken the former approach, while I take the latter.

Thanks again for this post. I'll be sure to keep an eye on this blog in the future.


Steve said...

Dear Dr. Maier: thanks very much for your comments. I have continued to think about the relationship between dispositions and agents' abilities since writing the post -- and your comments here placing this paper in the broader context are very helpful. I'll be very interested in following your work.