Saturday, April 19, 2014

The near future

There is a lot going on in America and the world today: climate change, increasing separation between the rich and the non-rich, entrenched poverty in cities, continuing effects of racism in American life, and a rising level of political extremism in this country and elsewhere, for starters. Add to this politico-military instability in Europe, continuing social conflict over austerity in many countries, and a rising number of extreme-right movements in a number of countries, and you have a pretty grim set of indications of what tomorrow may look like for our children and grandchildren.

How should we think about what our country will look like in twenty or thirty years? And how can we find ways of acting today that make the prospects for tomorrow as good as they can be?

This is partly a problem for politicians and legislators. But it is also a problem for social scientists and historians, because the limits of our ability to predict the future are as narrow as they have ever been. (I wonder if the good citizens of Rome in the year 400 had any notion that Alaric was coming and that their way of life was already about to change?) The pace of change in the contemporary world is rapid, but even more, the magnitude of the changes we face is unprecedented. Will climate change and severe weather continue to worsen? Will the extreme right gain even more influence in determining American law and policy? Will economic crises of the magnitude of the 2008 recession recur with even more disastrous consequences? Will war and terrorism become even harsher realities in the coming decades with loose nukes and biological weapons in the hands of ruthless fanatics?

All these catastrophes are possible. So how should intelligent democracies attempt to avoid them? One possible approach is to attempt to design our way out of each of those pathways to catastrophe: create better arms control regimes, improve intelligence abilities against threats of terrorism, reach effective climate agreements, try to guide the economy away from meltdowns, create better protections for rights of participation so narrow minorities can't enact restrictions on basic health rights. In other words, engage in piecemeal engineering to solve the problems we face. And it goes without saying that we need to do as much of this as we can do. But it is probably not enough.

Another approach is the one advocated by Charles Perrow in The Next Catastrophe: acknowledge that we cannot anticipate, let alone solve, all these problems, and design for soft landings when harm comes knocking at our door. Risky processes (chemical plants, railways, LNG storage facilities) will inevitably fail once in a while; how can we design them and the system in which they operate so as to minimize the damage that occurs when they do? Perrow takes the example of increasingly severe hurricanes and flooding and their potential for decimating coastal communities, and he argues that the protective strategy isn't likely to succeed. A better strategy is to reduce population density around the highest risk locations, in order to reduce the impact of disasters that are ultimately impossible to prevent.

This approach would require quite a bit of change to very basic parts of our contemporary order: decentralize infrastructures like energy, information, and transportation; reduce our reliance on global-scale food systems by encouraging more local production; reduce population density where we can. These kinds of changes would make for a substantially safer world -- less concentrated risk, fewer tightly linked systems to go wrong. But achieving changes like these seems almost impossible because these outcomes are not likely to be the result of the uncoordinated actions of independent decision-makers. Rather, the state would need to legislate these kinds of outcomes, and it is hard to see how they might come about through normal electoral processes.

So we seem to be a little bit in the situation of myopic actors climbing Mount Improbable: our choices are likely to strand us in isolated local maxima, making it impossible for us to reach feasible outcomes on a more distant hilltop. And because of limitations on our ability to project future social outcomes, we often can't even see the alternative hilltops through the fog. Somehow we need to get to a more resilient form of risk assessment and planning that doesn't make excessive assumptions about our ability to foresee the near future.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Historical sociologists on critical realism

Critical realism took its origin within the philosophy discipline, arising at the time that there was profound debate over the adequacy of logical positivism as a basis for the philosophy of science. Carl Hempel represented the fruition of positivist philosophy of science, with his hypothetico-deductive model of confirmation, his deductive-nomological model of explanation, and his covering-law model of historical explanation. These all amount to the same idea, of course: that scientific knowledge takes the form of a set of general theoretical principles or laws, a set of empirical statements about existing conditions, and a set of deductions from the laws and statements of consequences for the observable phenomena. There was a strong reaction in the 1960s to the orthodoxies of logical positivism and Hempelian philosophy of science by philosophers such as Norwood Hanson, Paul Feyerabend, and Thomas Kuhn. Compelling criticisms were offered of the strict distinction between observation and theory, concerns were raised about the putative coincidence of explanation and derivation from general laws, and more nuanced theories of scientific rationality than the hypothetico-deductive method were offered.

A particular sticking point within the positivist theory of science was its common adherence to a Humean theory of the meaning of causation as constant conjunction. Hume derided the idea of “causal necessity” and sought to replace this notion with the idea of conformance to a strong regularity. Rom Harré and Edward Madden undertook a strong critique of this assumption in Causal Powers: Theory of Natural Necessity, also in the mid-1960s. And this anti-positivist strand of thinking about causation was more important to the emergence of critical realism than any other influence.

Several gifted sociologists joined this debate in the 1990s. Especially astute were contributions by George Steinmetz and Margaret Somers, both colleagues at the University of Michigan, and Philip Gorski at Yale. In a review article in Society for Comparative Study of Society and History in 1998 Steinmetz provides a careful review of the intellectual background and the central ideas that Roy Bhaskar introduces in his writings on naturalism and realism (link).  Steinmetz reviews the mainstream assumptions that defined positivist philosophy of social science through the 1960s and the echo of these assumptions in mainstream sociology; and he provides a fairly detailed description of Bhaskar’s alternative. He emphasizes several central ideas:
  • the transcendental nature of Bhaskar’s reasoning: “discovering what must be true about the world for science to be possible” (176)
  • the distinctions among the real, the actual, and the empirical
  • the scientific importance of “open systems” — systems lacking causal closure and displaying contingency
  • a specific idea about emergence — "Emergence is defined as the relationship between two levels such that one arises diachronically (or perhaps synchronically) out of the other but is capable of reacting back on the lower level and is causally irreducible to it (Bhaskar 1993:73) [178]
Following Peggy Somers in "We're No Angels" (1998; link), Steinmetz distinguishes between "theoretical realism" and critical realism; essentially the former concept refers to the standard version of scientific realism found within post-positivist philosophy of science (Hilary Putnam, Richard Boyd). The key attribute of scientific realism, according to Steinmetz, is its continuing adherence to the idea of scientific laws; "theoretical realism is strongly deductivist" (173). So Steinmetz believes that "theoretical realism" is more closely aligned with positivism than is critical realism, and that critical realism fits the practice of historically minded social scientists better.
I will argue that most historical researchers, whatever their self-description, are critical realists rather than theoretical realists, positivists, or neo-Kantian idealists, and that this stance is the most defensible one for the social sciences in general on ontological and epistemological grounds. (171)
Steinmetz believes that the philosophy of science articulated within critical realism accords very well with the practice of historically minded social scientists like himself. He closes his article with these words:
Critical realism is especially “liberating” for historical sociology. It provides a rebuttal to the positivist and theoretical realist insistence on the dogmas of empirical invariance, prediction, and parsimony (see Bhaskar 1989:184). Critical realism guards against any slide into empiricism by showing why theoretical mechanisms are central to all explanation. At the same time, critical realism suggests that contingent, conjunctural causality is the norm in open systems like society. Yet critical realism’s epistemological relativism allows it to accept the results of much of the recent history and sociology of science in a relaxed way without giving in to judgmental relativism. Historical social researchers are reassured of the acceptability of their scientific practice, even if it does not match what the mainstream misconstrues as science. Critical realism allows us to safely steer between the Scylla of constricting definitions of science and the Charybdis of solipsistic relativism. (184)
The methodology that Steinmetz commends is one that highlights social contingency and conjuncture, while at the same time discovering explanatory relations among circumstances based on the causal mechanisms we can identify that connect them. These are all important aspects of sociological research, and we should indeed seek out philosophies of social science that make room for them.

That said, I am not persuaded by the unfavorable distinction that Steinmetz and Somers draw between scientific realism and Bhaskar-style critical realism. I am inclined to think that the tradition of scientific realism has less baggage (from logical positivism) and critical realism has more (from Bhaskar's sometimes arcane philosophical arguments and distinctions deriving from transcendental philosophy). Here is Steinmetz on the deficiencies of theoretical realism:
Theoretical realism disparages explanations which invoke unique, nonrepeatable constellations of causal mechanisms in accounting for specific historical conjunctures. (174)
But this doesn't really seem to be an accurate portrayal of a wide range of scientific realists, including Richard Boyd. In fact, we can better look at the tradition of scientific realism as being closer to another tradition that Steinmetz admires, that of American pragmatism. (For a long time Harvard's department of philosophy was the home of scientific realism, and it was also the intellectual heir of James and Peirce.) Scientific realism, when considered as a meta-theory of the work of social sciences, simply extends to the social sciences the ontological elbow room that the natural sciences have long enjoyed: when we postulate unobservable entities, causes, and processes, we are sometimes justified in believing that these entities actually exist -- provided that our hypotheses are appropriately linked to observation and inference emanating from a dense field of scientific inquiry.

Take a sociological construct from Bourdieu that Steinmetz finds to be very useful, the idea of an intellectual field (link). This construct plainly invokes an extended and intangible social structure or entity -- an interconnected system of individuals, values, and institutions that steer the progress of persons and ideas through their careers. The concept has proven to be a plausible and contentful way of conceptualizing sociological phenomena across a broad range of contexts (intellectual and cultural history, imperialism, scientific research, political ideology), and Steinmetz and other sociologists are justified in attributing real existence to this construct. But this realist interpretation of the construct does not require esoteric philosophical reasoning; we can look at it as a very ordinary and pragmatist inference from the orderliness of a specific range of social phenomena to the best explanation -- that there is an underlying field of interrelations that generates this orderliness. And it seems to me that mainstream scientific realists like Boyd and Putnam would be very satisfied with this line of reasoning.

So I would look at these comments as a minor corrective to Steinmetz's argument here: social scientists are indeed well advised to be anti-positivist; they are well advised to be realist in their theorizing; but there is nothing in the case that suggests that Bhaskarian realism is the particular variant of realism they should assume. A more pragmatic and pluralistic version of scientific realism seems more suitable to research in sociology. (Here is a brief discussion of a more pluralistic and eclectic version of scientific realism for the social sciences; link.)

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Naturalizing causal powers

Several earlier posts have considered Tuukka Kaidesoja's very interesting recent book, Naturalizing Critical Realist Social Ontology (NCR). The book is an important contribution to the evolving literature on next steps for critical realism, and TK is an exceptionally clear and perceptive philosopher. Here I will focus on Tuuka's contribution to the causal powers literature.

The topic of causal powers is important for current debates within the philosophy of social science. This is especially true when it comes to the question of the causal role that supra-individual social entities play. Like Dave Elder-Vass in The Causal Power of Social Structures: Emergence, Structure and Agency, I want to support the idea that social structures (for example, organizations) have causal powers and properties, and a social structure is supra-individual entity. E-V presents this notion in terms of the idea of emergence, whereas I propose to understand it in terms of the notion of relative explanatory autonomy (linklink). But in each case, we hold that it is legitimate to attribute a causal power to a composed social entity, and that there is no compulsion to “reduce” that power to the individual powers of the persons who compose the entity. What is it about the social structure that gives rise to the causal power?

There are two important points to consider here. First, we need to ask what the terms of the causal relation are thought to be. Is it the abstract structure of the organization (shared with other organizations of the same type) that exerts causal power; or is it the concrete particular, this particular instantiated organization, that is the causal agent? I want to maintain that it is the particular social structure, not the abstract structure, that bears the causal role and exerts the causal power.

Second, the traditional account from critical realism and Bhaskar would hold that the powers of a social structure derive from its “essential” properties. But following Kaidesoja, it is both reasonable and justified to drop the essentialism associated with this line of thought. Instead, we can say that the powers of the structure derive from its contingent but current features of organization and functioning. In the case of a social organization, this comes down to the particular set of rules and practices that drive the organization at a point in time. As long as these rules and practices persist, the organization will continue to have the powers that we attribute to it. When those rules and practices undergo change and innovation, it is an open question what changes will result for the causal powers of the organization.

Kaidesoja approaches a view very similar to this in his treatment of Harré and Secord’s analysis of individual and collective powers:
I suggest that these views [advanced by Harré and Secord] presuppose that rules and institutions possess causal powers that are ontologically irreducible to those of individuals. (115)
So what about the assumption of essentialism that is often part of the definition of a causal power? TK takes up the issue of essentialism and natural kinds within causal-powers theory, and argues that we need to "naturalize" this issue as well. Whether there are natural kinds in a particular domain is a question for the sciences to answer, not the philosophers. TK notes that modern biology does not support the notion that biological things (including species) fall into natural kinds defined by distinctive essential natures.
Biological variation between and within species (or populations) is thus a normal state of affairs in nature and there is no a priori limit for such variation…. This means that it is no longer plausible to conceive biological species as natural kinds in Harré and Madden’s (1975) sense. (111-112)
So natural-kind essentialism does not fit the entities and processes of the biological realm.
Whether or not the essentialist notion of causal power can be applied to a certain collection of objects studied in a specific discipline should be decided by means of empirical analysis of the scientific research practices, theories and models that are developed in this discipline. (112)
But TK does not believe that this invalidates the idea that biological entities have causal powers; and this entails that there is a separation between essentialism and the attribution of causal powers.

I have argued at many points here that this feature of heterogeneity and change in some of the core characteristics of entities is fundamental to the social world as well (link). So TK's central insight here is important for the philosophy of social science as well as for biology: causal powers should not be defined in terms of the essential properties of an entity; causal-power theory should not be constructed in such a way as to presuppose essentialism.

One thing I especially appreciate in TK's treatment of causal powers is the light he sheds on the difference between logical or conceptual necessity, on the one hand, and natural necessity, on the other (106). This is relevant to the earlier discussion here about whether causes necessitate their effects (link). There I argued against the views of Mumford and Anjum, who reject necessity, on the grounds that their argument turns on features of logical necessity that do not attach to causal necessity. Kaidesoja's discussion here reinforces my conviction that it is reasonable to assert causal "necessitating" even when we acknowledge that causes are sometimes not followed by their effects. Discussing  and Madden TK writes:
The concept of natural necessity is thus carefully distinguished from the concepts of logical, transcendental and conceptual necessity (ibid., 19–21). (107)
Kaidesoja emphasizes the similarity of views that exists between Harré and Bhaskar concerning the specification of a causal power. Here is one typical statement from Bhaskar's A Realist Theory of Science, among many that TK quotes:
To say that a thing has a power to do something is […] to say that it possesses a structure or is of such kind that it would do it, if appropriate conditions obtained. (RTS, p. 88) [118]
The parallel with Harré’s formulations is evident. TK finds that Bhaskar’s main innovation on this point is his attempt to make a transcendental argument for the necessity of attributing real causal powers to entities, and this is a move that he rejects. TK finds that Harré and Madden’s account is more convincing exactly because it locates causal powers in the realm of “concrete powerful particulars”, not in the transcendental realm (121, 122).
Due to the aforementioned problems in the transcendental realist account of the concept of causal power, I prefer Harré and Madden’s Aristotelian conceptualization of causal powers which interprets them as efficient causes and ties them inseparably to the concrete powerful particulars. (122).
And this in turn provides an additional reason to reject the essentialism associated with Bhaskar’s broader conception of causal powers (that the causal power of a thing derives from its essential nature). This becomes the heart of TK’s concept of a “naturalized version of the concept of causal power” (136), and it seems to be a very plausible position.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Quantitative and qualitative social science

The social world is one reality, but the methodologies associated with quantitative and qualitative research are quite different. Quantitative research allows the researcher to discover patterns, associations, correlations, and other features of a population based on analysis of large numbers of measurements of individuals. Qualitative research usually involves studies of single individuals, based on interviews and observations, with the goal of identifying their internal psychological and behavioral characteristics. Quantitative research is directed at identifying population characteristics, patterns, and associations. Qualitative research is directed at teasing out the mental frameworks and experiences of individuals within specific social and cultural settings. Qualitative researchers are generally not interested in discovering generalizations or regularities, and are more interested in identifying particular features of consciousness, culture, and behavior.

What kinds of interface or bridging are possible between these two levels of social research?

Take the example of race studies. Both qualitative and quantitative research studies have been conducted in this field, with the goal of shedding light on the phenomenon of race in American society. Quantitative research has often been concerned to identify the features of inequality which are associated with race within American populations, including income, wealth, education, health, employment, and other important features. For example, the National Survey of Black Americans provides voluminous data on a range of characteristics of African American individuals, with surveys extending from 1979 to 1992 (link). Here is a list of the variables included in these studies (link). Several hundred research studies and reports have been completed making use of these data sets; here is a representative study by James Jackson making use of data sets like these to probe health disparities by race (link). These quantitative studies permit the researcher to use advanced statistical tools to measure and evaluation the strength of associations among characteristics and to evaluate causal hypotheses about the linkages that exist among characteristics.

Qualitative research on race takes several forms. There are ethnographic studies, through which the researcher attempts to identify the phenomenology and lived experience of race. Here I would include several research efforts that have been discussed here previously -- Al Young's study of young inner city Chicago men (The Minds of Marginalized Black Men: Making Sense of Mobility, Opportunity, and Future Life Chances) and Loïc Wacquant's ethnographic study of a boxing club on Chicago's south side (Body and Soul: Notebooks of an Apprentice Boxer). There are theoretical studies, which explore possible structures or mechanisms which produces racial and racialized behavior and disparities. Here is a good example from Elizabeth Cole on the construct of intersectionality as a way of theorizing about racial and gender identities (link). And there are studies of social psychology designed to identify the ways in which racial attitudes, presuppositions, and ideas contribute to behavior in American society. Here is a nice example of such an analysis by Lawrence Bobo and Cybelle Fox (link).

It is clear that studies based on all of these methodologies are insightful and valuable. We will arrive at a better understanding of the meaning and causal importance of "race" through all these approaches. The question raised above remains an important one, however: how should we think about the relations among these bodies of inquiry and knowledge?

One way is to think in terms of levels of analysis (link): we might say that quantitative studies examine facts about race at a more macro level (large populations), whereas qualitative studies are more meso- or micro-level studies. This isn't a very satisfactory view, however, because each of these approaches is concerned about individual-level facts; what differs is the level of aggregation of those facts that is chosen.

Another approach seems more promising: to consider the suite of qualitative studies of race as being a tool box for identifying the social mechanisms through which the patterns and associations that are discovered at the large population level come about. Qualitative studies (studies aimed at discovering or theorizing the mentalities and behaviors through which race is constructed and carried out) permit us to understand racialized behavior in groups that in turn allow us to understand the population outcomes that quantitative studies identify.

A third possibility is that these different methodological approaches do not admit of "bridging" at all. Here the idea would be that these are fundamentally different forms of knowledge, and they belong in different parts of the toolbox. Sometimes this approach is taken by advocates of one methodology or the other in dismissing the scientific credentials of the other approach -- quantitative researchers who dismiss qualitative research as anecdotal and qualitative researchers who dismiss quantitative research as positivist. This approach seems fundamentally wrong. We should look at the various ways of studying important aspects of social life as being complementary and fundamentally consistent.

My own predilection is to think of the qualitative approaches as providing insight into how various social processes work; how it is that socially constructed actors bring about the patterns of behavior and outcome we observe at various levels of aggregation. A quantitative study of racial attitudes might suggest that cities with effective public transportation have higher (or lower) levels of racial mistrust across groups. We would want to be able to form some hypotheses about what the underlying behaviors and attitudes are that bring about this effect. What are the mechanisms through which access to public transportation influences racial trust? And for this kind of inquiry to be possible, we need to have some good empirical theories about racial identities and mental frameworks.

So it does in fact seem both possible and desirable to try to integrate the findings of both quantitative and qualitative studies of racial attitudes; and this finding seems equally valid in almost all areas of the social sciences.

(Thanks to Mosi Ifatunji for his stimulating seminar at the University of Michigan on new approaches to the study of black ethnic disparities, which caused me to think about this topic a little further. Here is Mosi's webpage with some links to his work; link.)

Saturday, March 29, 2014

War and calculation

The Crimea is now securely within the grasp of Russia. This shift occurred as the result of the use of military force seemingly unconcerned about international law or opinion, the world objected, and Russia prevailed. Why is this kind of forcible seizure of territory not more common in contemporary international affairs? There are other places in the world where imbalanced states disagree about boundaries, resources, or ethnic populations; why is Russia's unconcerned use of force to gain its ends not more common? And, given its success and relatively low cost to the aggressor in this case, should we expect more such adventurism -- for example, in the South China Sea or in the Arctic?

One part of this question comes down to realpolitik and careful accounting of the costs and benefits of military action by the potential aggressor. How probable is success? Will there be concerted opposition and significant loss of life? How important is the prize?  Often enough this calculation will lead to restraint: the consequences may be unpredictable, the value of the prize may be minimal, and the target state may have enough deterrent military force to raise the stakes. But it is also true that aggressors are imperfectly rational and may be prone to discounting future costs and risks.

Another part of the question comes down to the rising value of multilateral organizations and agreements to the potential aggressor. The value of the prize may be small in comparison to the damage done to existing multilateral relationships. Disruption of trade, banking, investment, and stock exchanges may lead to costs far exceeding the short-term benefits of aggression.  (One of the first steps taken against Russia was the rescheduling of the G8 conference from Sochi to Brussels, and exclusion of Russia from the meeting.) This points to the possible stabilizing effects of globalization. The potential costs of one-off aggression may themselves include a large global component.

A third possible factor is the normative regime of non-aggression, respect for national sovereignty, and respect for human rights that underlies the development of the United Nations, the European Union, and other institutions of international law since World War II. It may be speculated that regime decision-makers have a degree of reluctance in directly flouting this set of international norms. Governments need legitimacy, and flouting international norms undermines this form of capital. But this effect seems pretty weak; just consider the impunity of the Syrian government in its use of chemical weapons against its own population. The use of force by the Soviet Army against Hungary and Czechovlakia was condemned but successful. And remember Stalin's comment: How many divisions does the Pope have?

So realpolitik calculations make aggression sometimes a favored choice, and multilateral retaliation and the indirect effects of violations of international norms provide for a degree of restraint. Do these contrary forces produce a relatively stable world system?  Unfortunately, the inhibitory effects are diffuse and readily discounted by the Saddams, Putins, and Assads of our world. So we might draw these considerations into a broad prediction: when a powerful state has an important interest in territory possessed by a weak neighbor, in circumstances where it is unlikely that the weak state will make a meaningful armed response, the combination of the deterrence value of international disapproval and the violation of international norms will often be too weak to deter the potential aggressor. And this in turn puts the spotlight on eastern Ukraine: why are all those Russian forces mustered at the border?

Certainly this topic receives plenty of attention within international relations theory. Much IR theory has couched its thinking in bilateral terms -- essentially the alignments of the Cold War. Perhaps we have entered a new strategic environment, however, where the stability created by a bilateral world divided between two major powers is degrading into a possible period of one-off acts of aggression. (Hilton Root offers a treatment of the greater complexity of international relations today in Dynamics among Nations: The Evolution of Legitimacy and Development in Modern States; link.)

This seems like an interesting subject for an agent-based model. Populate a map with large and small territories with powerful and weak military forces; postulate a decision rule for the leaders that places national security as the leading priority and that encompasses the costs of multilateral disapproval and loss of legitimacy brought about by naked aggression; and play the scenario forward. How much aggression will we see?

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Causal necessity?

Do causes make their effects “necessary” in any useful sense? This is the claim that Hume rejected — the notion that there is any “necessary” connection between cause and effect. Steven Mumford and Rani Lill Anjum take up the issue in Getting Causes from Powers, and they take the view that Hume has raised a red herring. They agree that causes do not “necessitate” their effects, but they deny that the condition of necessitation needs to be part of a robust conception of causation. They write,
Prima facie, causation does not look to be any kind of necessity at all. Anyone who uses matches knows that, in at least some cases, matches are struck and fail to light. Something can always go wrong. (47)
What they favor instead is the idea that causation rests upon dispositions, and they describe their position as "dispositionalist": "we should never say more than that a causal situation overall disposes towards a certain outcome" (175).

I like the work that Mumford and Anjum do in this book, but I find myself uneasy with the argument in this aspect of their treatment. A causal claim invokes the idea that there is some strong reason in the nature of reality in virtue of which the occurrence of the cause brings about the effect; that it is not a purely accidental relation. And this seems to invoke something along the lines of necessity.

When we say that type A causes type B (or that individual a caused individual b) surely we mean something like this:
  • given the inner constitution of A, the changes associated with B were brought about as an expression of that constitution and adjoining circumstances 
Mumford and Anjum take up this question by specifying a strict logical conception of “sufficient condition”: an event or circumstance is a sufficient condition for another iff the occurrence of the first makes it unavoidable that the second will occur. There can be no possible circumstances in which a occurs and b does not transpire. And they point out that causal relations are almost always to some extent defeasible: something can intervene or interfere such that the outcome is foiled. So causes are generally not sufficient in the strict sense for the occurrence of their effects. And therefore, they conclude, causes do not confer necessity on their effects.

My issue with their argument is that I don’t think that logical sufficiency captures what causal theorists have in mind when they assert that the cause brings about its effect with some degree of necessity.

The notion of natural necessity is sometimes invoked to capture this idea:
  • a causes b: given the natural properties of a and given the laws of nature and given the antecedent conditions, b occurs
This can be paraphrased as:
  • given a, b occurs as a result of natural necessity.
So the sense of necessity of the occurrence of the effect in this case is this: given a and given the natural properties and powers of the entities involved, b had to occur [allowing that causal necessity presupposes normal conditions that may be absent and interfere with the production of the outcome].

In The Cement of the Universe: A Study of Causation J. L. Mackie accounts for the fact of the common non-sufficiency of causes for their effects by analyzing causation in terms of INUS conditions ("insufficient but non-redundant parts of a condition which is itself unnecessary but sufficient for the occurrence of the effect”); none of the individual events or conditions is separately sufficient for a given effect. This is one way of treating the issue of ceteris paribus clauses or conditions — those conditions that we hold fixed in expressing general causal claims.

This issue is especially important when we consider the “powers” approach to causation — the idea that things have the power to bring about certain kinds of effects in virtue of their inner constitution. (The powers approach is extensively discussed in Greco and Groff, Powers and Capacities in Philosophy: The New Aristotelianism, a volume to which Mumford and Anjum are contributors.) This approach has the virtue of making a place for the notion of necessity that seems appropriate to me in talking about causes; and it is a sense that does not imply logical sufficiency or exceptionless sequence. A power is not expected to exercise its properties without exception; rather, it is understood that there are conditions that affect the workings of the power and may interfere with its effects.

Here is a fairly intuitive way to talk about causation: our causal judgments rest upon assumptions about how things work — what the governing processes and powers are that make up the medium of events and provide the connective structure between cause and effect. There is a substrate for any particular domain of causation, and the substrate embodies some features of activity and causal connectedness. It is this causal activity that gives rise to the reality of causal powers attached to things.

So the causal necessity I would like to assert goes something like this:
  • Given how domain X works, whenever A happens, it triggers a stream of events that lead to B.
And this in turn indicates why causal mechanisms are such a logical contribution to the analysis of causation. A causal mechanism is one chunk of this "stream of events" leading from A to B.

All of this looks a little different when we turn from natural causation to social causation. Social causes are the result of constrained and motivated social actions by concrete social actors, and these actors are not subject to anything analogous to laws of nature. (I don't mean this to be an assertion of free will fundamentalism; just the recognition that there aren't any laws along the lines of "individuals always behave in such-and-so a fashion.") So the idea of natural necessity does not help in the case of social causes. If we wanted to provide a counterpart notion of social necessity, it might go something like this:
  • Given a social environment populated with actors something like this and embodying rules and institutions something like that, change A brings about outcome B [through the actions of these ordinary actors].
It is readily observed that this is a substantially weaker foundation for stable causal powers of social structures and entities than we have in the natural world. The constituents of social processes -- individuals -- change over time and place. And the workings of the same institutions and systems of practices and rules will be significantly different if they are populated by actors with significantly different dispositions. (This is one of the central postulates of the idea of "methodological localism" that I have argued for here: individuals are socially constituted and socially situated; link.)

This does not invalidate the notion of causal necessity sketched above for social causation. The point remains valid that there is a substrate to the social world [socially constituted and situated individuals doing things within specific rules and practices] and this substrate does in fact convey a change at one end of a causal process [A -- a change in the rules of supervision in an organization, let us say] to a change in the outcome [B -- less petty corruption within the organization], through a series of events that are systemic enough to allow us to see the "necessity" of the transition from A to B.

So the kind of necessity I would like to attach to causal sequences goes something like this:
  • Given the underlying nature and constitution of the substrate of the field of action and given the constitution of A, we can uncover the active and provoking transitions through which A leads to B in a non-accidental way.
This conception differs from both apparent alternatives -- the unvarnished contingency that Hume asserted for causal linkages and the deterministic "If A then B necessarily" logic that some theorists would like to see.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Social contingency?

Image: Mason-Pfizer monkey virus (link)

Image: organization chart of General Motors

What does it mean to say that the social world is contingent? Several things. First, it means that social changes and patterns are not strongly law governed. Outcomes are the result of intersecting chains of causal mechanisms and stochastic happenings, so there is no sense in which outcomes are predetermined or confidently predictable. Social outcomes are the result of conjunctural causation, with indeterminate conjunctions of causal processes and conditions proceeding from independent background circumstances. And accidents and random events make a difference in the outcomes as well. This is true at a full range of scales, from large happenings like the outbreak of war to the growth of a corporation to the emergence of a new set of values about gay marriage. So historical processes and sequences are contingent, and we need to pay close attention to the path dependency of social happenings.

Another key kind of contingency has to do with the composition of social entities. In the natural world there are some formations that are necessary. H2O and protein molecules have a specific topology and arrangement that follows strictly from the physical properties of the constituents, and these properties, we would like to assert, are fixed by nature. So it is a necessary fact that H2O molecules all have the same topology -- this topology follows from physical laws. But likewise, large proteins have only a small number of stable geometries as well, given the physical characteristics of the atoms that compose them.

The situation is different for social compounds. They are composed of individuals. But their properties are not fixed by the laws of psychology or any other consistent realm. Rather, there is substantial path dependency in the formation of a particular social formation, and the properties of actual social formations are contingent relative to the properties of the individuals who constitute it.

To say that social phenomena are contingent is not to imply that they are random or unpatterned. In fact, a large part of the task of the social sciences is to identify and explain important social patterns -- for example, regularities of urbanization and habitation. G. William Skinner found that the cities, towns, and hamlets of Sichuan conformed to a pattern of nested hexagons (link); he offered the mechanisms associated with central place theory as the basis for an explanation of this fact. The combined workings of transportation cost and cost-sensitive individual decision-makers imply the hexagonal geometry that Skinner discovers. But there is vast contingency embedded within this account -- reasons why certain locations may be avoided or reasons why a given center may come to have higher-level commercial or military functions than would have been expected, for example. So the regularities that we observe can be explained by the workings of several social mechanisms that favor habitation choices; while extraneous factors can disrupt or distort the pattern that would be normally expected.

So there are conditions and influences that often create identifiable patterns of social activity. This is the chief reason why the study of social mechanisms is so fruitful in the social sciences: there is an open-ended plurality of causal mechanisms at work in the social space. These can be investigated and understood. And we can then use our ability to identify the workings of social mechanisms to provide explanations of both singular occurrences and intriguing social patterns. But at the same time, we are forced to recognize that particular social processes -- economic development, urbanization, political crisis, ethnic conflict, or changes in values systems in a population, for example -- are driven by multiple sub-processes that are themselves contingent, and that interact in contingent ways.

The evolution of species as described by classical Darwinian theory is a good example of the some of aspects of contingency that I believe are characteristic of social developments as well. The large pressures within a given ecological environment are those that affect reproduction and longevity. Variations occur within the genetic information constituting organisms at a certain time, and natural selection favors the proliferation of some of those variations into the population as a whole. But the longterm evolution of the X group of organisms is not pre-determined; X's may invest in better vision, better mobility, greater lethality as predators, greater ability to conceal from predators, or dozens of other possible lines of evolutionary change. So all we can predict is that the assortment of groups of organisms will evolve towards higher levels of reproductive fitness or will disappear; and we can explain, in hindsight, the emergence of some of the physiological characteristics of X's in terms of the reproductive advantage that this feature confers on the organism. So there is nothing in the antecedent habitat that preordains that giraffes will have long necks.

There is an important analogy here with social change. We can identify some of the features that influence the development of organizations and political institutions in a variety of historical settings: the need for states to extract revenues and to exert coercive power, for example. But we cannot predict with confidence what form those adaptations will take. So the theatre state of Bali looks very different from the feudal monarchy in France, even though both states succeed in the central functions of states.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Why emergence?

It is a fair question to ask, whether the concept of emergence is perhaps less important than it initially appears to be. Part of the interest in emergence seems to derive from the impulse by sociologists and philosophers to try to show that there is a legitimate level of the world that is "social", and to reject the more extreme versions of reductionism.

Social scientists have a few concrete and important interests in this set of issues. One is a concern for the autonomy of the social science disciplines. Is there a domain of the social that warrants scientific study? Or can we make do with really good microeconomic theories, agent-based modeling techniques, and a dollop of social psychology, and do without strong theories of the causal powers of social entities?

Another concern is apparently related, but on the ontology side of the story: are there social entities that can be studied for their empirical and causal characteristics independently from the individual activities that make them up? Do social entities really exist? Or are there compelling reasons to conclude that social entities are too fluid and plastic to admit of possessing stable empirical properties?

It seems to me that these concerns can be fully satisfied without appealing to a strong conception of emergence. We have perfectly good concepts that individuate entities at a social level, and we have fairly ordinary but compelling reasons for believing that these sorts of things are causally active in the world. But perhaps we can frame some simple ideas about the social world that will allow us to be more relaxed about whether these properties can be reduced to or explained by facts about actors (methodological individualism), or derived from facts about actors, or are instead strongly independent from the level of actors upon which they rest.

Consider the following background propositions about the social world. These are not trivial assumptions, but it would appear that a broad range of social thinkers would accept them, from enlightened analytical sociologists to many critical realists.
  1. Social phenomena are constituted by the actions and thoughts of situated social actors. ("No pure social stuff, no ineffable special sauce")
  2. Actors are causally influenced by a variety of social structures and and entities. ("Actors are socially constituted and socially situated.") 
  3. Ensembles have properties that derive from the interactions of the composing entities (actors). ("System properties derive from complex and dynamic relations and structures among constituents.") 
  4. There are social properties that are not the simple aggregation of the properties of the actors. ("System properties are not simply the sum of constituent properties.") 
  5. Ensembles sometimes have system-level properties that exert causal powers with regard to their own constituents. ("Systems exert downward causation on their constituents.") 
  6. The computational challenges involved in modeling large complex systems are often overwhelming. ("The properties and behavior of complex systems are sometimes incalculable based simply on information about constituents and their arrangements.") 
These assumptions would serve to establish quite a bit of autonomy for social science investigation and explanation, without requiring us to debate whether social entities are nonetheless emergent. And the ontologically cautious among us may be more comfortable with these limited and reasonably clear assumptions than they are with an open-ended concept of emergent phenomena and properties. Assumption 6 suggests that it is not feasible (and likely will never be) to deduce social patterns from individual-level facts. Assumptions 3 and 4 establish that social properties are "autonomous" from individual-level facts. Assumptions 1 and 2 establish the ontological foundation of social entities -- the socially constituted individuals whose thoughts and actions constitute them. And assumption 5 establishes that the causal powers of social entities are in fact important and autonomous from facts about individuals, in the very important respect that higher-level properties play a causal role in the constitution of lower-level entities (individuals). This assumption is reflected in assumption 2 as well.

So perhaps we might conclude that not much turns on whether social properties and powers are emergent or not. Instead, we might be better advised to try to capture the issues in this area in different terms. And the alternative that I favor is the idea of relative explanatory autonomy (link). The six core assumptions mentioned above serve to capture the heart of this approach.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Kaidesoja on emergence

Tuukka Kaidesoja's recent book Naturalizing Critical Realist Social Ontology devotes a chapter to the topic of emergence as it is treated within critical realism. Roy Bhaskar insisted that the assumption of emergence was crucial to the theory of critical realism. Kaidesoja sorts out what Bhaskar means by emergence, which turns out to be ambiguous and inconsistent, and offers his own position on the concept.

Kaidesoja quotes an important passage from Bhaskar's Scientific Realism and Human Emancipation) (1986):
It is only if social phenomena are genuinely emergent [. . .] that realist explanations in the human sciences are justified; and it is only if these conditions are satisfied that there is any possibility of human self-emancipation worthy of the name. But, conversely, emergent phenomena require realist explanation and realist explanations possess emancipatory implications. Emancipation depends upon explanation depends upon emergence. Given the phenomena of emergence, an emancipatory politics (or more generally transformative or therapeutic practice) depends upon a realist science. But, if and only if emergence is real, the development of both science and politics are up to us. [quoted by TK, 178]
Kaidesoja invokes a very basic issue about emergence by asking whether a claim of emergence for a given property is a claim about epistemology or about ontology. Is the phenomenon emergent because, given our current state of knowledge it is impossible to derive the property from the properties of the lower level constituents; or do we mean that the property is really (ontologically) independent from the features of the lower level? Kaidesoja makes it clear that Bhaskar and the critical realists have the stronger ontological thesis in mind when they assert that social entities are emergent or have emergent properties. The emergent feature is ontologically irreducible to the composing elements. But it is really unclear what this means.

TK argues that Bhaskar intertwines three different kinds of emergence without clearly distinguishing them: compositional, transcendentally realist, and global-level (179).
  • Compositional emergence: A particular complex whole sometimes has properties that are not properties of any of its parts and not merely "aggregative" effects of the ensemble of parts (179-180).
  • Transcendentally realist emergence: Abstract social structures, as distinct from social particulars, have properties that cannot be derived from the activities of individuals. "Transcendentally real emergent powers of social structures differ from the causal powers of concrete social systems composed of interacting persons" (182).
  • Global-level emergence: Levels of reality (e.g. society, mind, matter) have emergent properties not derivable from the properties of lower levels of reality. "Each emergent level has its own synchronically emergent properties which are autonomous with respect to those of other levels (186).
The three sets of ideas are successively more demanding, and TK finds that they are inconsistent with each other. Moreover, there is a crucial complication: within the compositional version (but not within the other two versions) Bhaskar allows that the emergent factor is amenable to "micro-reductive explanation". This is essentially the position taken by Herbert Simon (link) and Mario Bunge (link), and  it appears to be consistent with Dave Elder-Vass's position in The Causal Power of Social Structures (link) as well. It is a reasonable position. The other two versions, by contrast, are explicitly not compatible with micro-reductive explanation, and do not appear reasonable.

In fact, Kaidesoja finds that there are insolvable problems with the "transcendentally realist" and "global-level" versions of the theory of emergence, and he concludes that they are unsupportable. Kaidesoja therefore focuses his attention on the compositional version as the sole version of emergence that can be coherently asserted within critical realism.
Since Bhaskar and his followers deny the possibility of analysing emergent powers of social structures in compositional terms, their notion of transcendentally realist emergent powers of social structures is incompatible with the compositional account of emergent powers. (184)
I further tried to show that the attribution of transcendentally real emergent powers to social structures is problematic, since it leaves the ontological relation between social structures and concrete social systems (composed of interacting people and their artifacts) obscure and/or construes social structures as abstract entities. (187)
This discussion has an important consequence within TK's naturalizing strategy. It implies that a naturalized critical realism will need to surrender the two more extensive versions of emergence and make do with the compositional form. And that would bring a naturalized critical realism into closer alignment with mainstream thinking about the relation between higher-level and lower-level systems than this framework is usually thought to be.

So the argument TK has constructed in Naturalizing Critical Realist Social Ontology does not limit itself to criticizing the scheme of philosophical reasoning that Bhaskar and other CR theorists have pursued, but also extends to some of the substantive conclusions they have sought to derive.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Social plasticity and ontology

Ruth Groff has created a valuable blog and Facebook page on "Powers, Capacities, Dispositions"aimed at creating a community of scholars interested in the causal powers literature. Both are worth following! In a recent post she offers some thoughtful comments on my post on social powers. Here I will extend my reasons for thinking the powers approach raises some distinctive problems when applied in the social realm and respond to several of Ruth's comments. Thanks for engaging on this topic, Ruth!

Here are a couple of starting points for me. First, I believe that social entities are plastic, heterogeneous, and contingent. (I am thinking here primarily of organizations, institutions, and structures, but I would also include value systems, knowledge systems, and technology practices as well.) They are the interwoven product of intentional efforts to accomplish something collectively (as a group or a subgroup) and stochastic changes over time. A certain regulation gets written into the system at a certain time without any particular outcome in mind, and the change persists through a series of iterations. A practice arises spontaneously and becomes a powerful tradition.

The first source gives a weak kind of functionality to social entities, though it may be that it is functional only for a subgroup (e.g. the bosses, the civil servants, the admin assistants) but not for the group as a whole or for society at large. (Has anyone else noticed practices at his or her own university that seem to exist largely for the convenience of this or that group of staff or faculty?) The second source doesn't support an expectation of functionality at all unless we can postulate something like selective reproduction of complexes of institutional arrangements. (This might work for firms in a competitive environment, for example, where stochastic innovations permit superior performance and get carried over. This would be a part of evolutionary economics.) So we can expect that social entities will be shape-shifters over time, incorporating innovations, adaptations, self-interested changes, and random alterations over time. This means: no functionalism, no social kinds, no social essences.

It is true that there are some social factors that work against rapid change in social entities. So there is some degree of weak homeostasis among social entities. One of these stabilizing factors is the interests of powerful actors whose fortunes are intertwined with the particular features of the social entity, both inside and out. (Consider how hard it is to enact serious tax reform in the face of opposition of wealth holders and businesses.) A second factor is the internal processes of discipline and rectification that organizations often embody. A part of an organization is specifically developed as a control of innovation -- for example, the audit function of a business organization that prevents the "innovation" of taking expensive vacations at company expense. But nothing guarantees the correct workings of the audit function either! A third factor may be the discipline of selective survival in the course of competition with comparable organizations. Organizations have an interest in preserving features that favor survival. (It will be odd in the coming years if some universities allow their student recruitment functions to atrophy!)

These points suggest that social ontology is different from the ontology of the natural world. It is substantially more fluid, contingent, intermittent, and less orderly than entities and processes in the natural world. This is one reason I am somewhat drawn to the ontology of assemblage in the social realm -- entities are somewhat accidental and stochastic piles of unconnected sub-level stuff. (At one point I suggested that we think of the paradigm of a social entity as a rummage sale rather than a molecule.)

If we think these ideas are roughly correct in relation to social entities, then several things seem to follow:
  • There are no social kinds in a sense seriously analogous to natural kinds. "Bureaucracies" are not analogous to "metals".
  • Social entities do not have "essential natures". Rather, any and all of their characteristics may change over time. They are a bit like Neurath's raft, except that in the long run they may shift from a Phoenician fighting ship to a floating apartment complex!
  • Social entities cannot be treated as if they have inherent functions; their functionality at a certain time is no more than the partial success of one group or another to construct the entity so as to further some goal.
  • The causal properties of social entities derive from the contingent and transient structural properties that constitute them at a given time; so their causal properties are non-essential and shifting as well.
It is common to make assumptions about the "function" of a given social entity. But we have learned over the past twenty-five years to be very cautious about social functional talk. When Aristotle attributes a functional definition to "table" he is working with a couple of background assumptions that are not generally true of social entities. He is able to assume that there is a clear and broadly understood purpose that tables are designed to accommodate; and he is able to assume that individual designers and builders construct this simple artifact out of regard for this purpose. But social institutions and organizations aren't like tables in this regard. There is no single and universally shared understanding of the purpose of the institution; and no single designer typically builds the institution. Rather, it is largely a collective and unintended product of many individuals pursuing a number of different goals.

I offered the example of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission previously. One might say that one of its essential functions is "to regulate". It is true that this was what some of the framers of the legislation intended and that "regulation" is part of its name. But this is just a fact about the language we use, not a fact about the intrinsic nature of this specific organization. As the institution was built out, many other goals and interests were incorporated. So we cannot infer anything about the NRC from the premise that it is essentially a regulatory agency. It may have evolved into a rent-seeking entity, a compromise-generating bureau, a business promotion entity, or a ready source of campaign contributions. All these "functions" are compatible with its starting point.

What does this have to do with the metaphysics of causal powers? I think it lays the ground for a serious discussion of how and in what ways social entities can be said to possess causal powers. The anti-essentialist position is motivated at both ends of the story: the social entity does not possess essential characteristics, its causal powers are not generated by essential characteristics, and a specific set of causal powers is not essential to what a specific social entity is. So if we want to maintain that social entities sometimes possess causal powers -- that social entities make things happen -- then we need to allow that attribution of causal powers does not presuppose that the relevant entities have essential natures, or that the causal power is an essential expression of this essential nature.

Instead, I think it is entirely plausible to hold that the powers that a thing has are the necessary expression of its current inner composition and substrate of stuff of which it is composed. In the case of social entities this substrate is the nature of the human individuals who are involved in its activities, and the inner composition is the sometimes elaborate set of rules, incentives, opportunities, and norms that work to influence the actions and thoughts of the persons who constitute it. The differences in functioning between two chemical plants, populated by fundamentally similar human actors but embodying significantly different sets of rules and practices, will be substantial. This is the fundamental finding of the new institutionalism.

Ruth is right in noting that my NRC example actually lines up fairly well with the notion that "regulatory agencies are created to regulate, and the innovation Dan described just freed up that quasi-essential power of the agency" (my paraphrase of her point). That's true enough, in this example, but it's just an accident. The kind of innovation leading to new causal powers that I was searching for can point in any direction whatsoever with regard to the "essential functioning" of the social entity. It may restore functioning (as my example did; NRC2), or it may undermine functioning, or it may create new effects that are simply unrelated to the presumed function of the social entity. A rule innovation that makes the NRC even more subordinate to elected officials and legislative committees would likely have the effect of making the modified organization even less "regulatory" (NRC3), and an innovation that provided tuition support for employees might make the organization more likely to engage in mission creep (as employees are exposed to the more activist world of the university campus; (NRC4)).

Putting the point in Ruth's terms: NRC1 has the power to enforce safety standards only to a middling degree; NRC2 has that power to a greater degree; NRC3 has it to a lesser degree; and NRC4 has a different power altogether. And in each case, the organization or social entity has the powers it has in virtue of (i) the nature of the individual actors who compose it and (ii) the specific arrangements that constitute it as an organization during a period of time.

I think this means I can agree with Ruth in saying that in each instance the organization's powers are inherent in its current composition; but the coming and going of the powers in my several scenarios demonstrates that the composition of the entity has changed from one instance to another. I didn't want to say that the powers identified here are external to the NRC, but rather that the NRC's nature has changed as a result of each of the innovations mentioned. And this means to me that the NRC doesn't have a "nature in general", but only a nature as realized with specific institutional rules and arrangements.

Incidentally, much of what I know about regulatory organizations comes from Charles Perrow's excellent work in The Next Catastrophe: Reducing Our Vulnerabilities to Natural, Industrial, and Terrorist Disasters And Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies.

(I've created a collection of the postings in Understanding Society that are relevant to this topics. Think of it as a very brief book on the subject of plasticity and social ontology. Here is the e-book, which can be read in iBooks or any other e-reader. You can use the "export" function to download a format that works for you. Here is a direct link.)

Sunday, March 2, 2014

New thinking about metaphysics

It seems that there is a lot happening in metaphysics these days. There is of course the return to Aristotle that has occurred within the resurgent field of powers ontology in the theory of causation (e.g. Ruth Groff, Ontology Revisited: Metaphysics in Social and Political Philosophy, Stephen Mumford and Rani Lill Anjum, Getting Causes from Powers). But volumes like David Oderberg's Classifying Reality and Real Essentialism make it clear that the trend is broader than this. And here too, Aristotle is making a come-back.

The fundamental question for metaphysics is this: what exists in the world in which we live? But this is actually a diverse group of questions. We might be asking what specific particulars exist. We might be asking a more general question, what kinds or species of particulars exist (living things, rocks, liquids, spacecraft)? Or we might be asking the most general question, what categories of stuff are there in the world (events, individuals, properties, relations, space, cause, ...)?

This is one set of complexities raised by the field of metaphysics. Another complexity is more abstract: is metaphysics about the world or about the systems of thought that we use to make sense of the world? The three levels of questions just mentioned make it seem that metaphysics is about the world; but we might argue that metaphysics is really about the systems of categories and concepts that we use to formulate representations of the world.

The issue of realism is as relevant for metaphysics as it is for science. We might want to know whether the particulars referred to by the noun "electron" really exist in nature. Or we might want to know whether the classification system of Maxwell's electromagnetic theory (magnetic fields, electrical charge, photons, electromagnetic force, ...) draws real distinctions within nature -- distinctions that divide the stuff of nature at its joints. And finally, we might want to know if reality "really" consists of individuals and properties, or of some other more complicated set of ontological categories.

In Real Essentialism Oderberg proposes a renewed development of Aristotle's metaphysics as the basis for an answer to these questions:
The aim of Real Essentialism is to rehabilitate some of the core ideas of Aristotelian metaphysics in a contemporary context devoid of the minutiae of historical exposition and textual exegesis (though quite a bit of this will be found in the notes to each chapter). (1)
Here is his statement of essentialism within Aristotelian metaphysics:
At the heart of traditional metaphysics is the thesis that everything has a real essence – an objective metaphysical principle determining its definition and classification. Such principles are not mere creatures of language or convention; rather, they belong to the very constitution of reality. (2)
In his introduction to Classifying Reality Oderberg opens with this setting of the problem; and it might be taken as a proclamation for a new metaphysics more generally.
Is reality classifiable? In other words, does it have boundaries or 'joints' that enable us to assign various categories to its different constituents? (1)
As several of the contributors to Classifying Reality point out, there are two broad levels of ontological or metaphysical thinking that we can usefully engage in. First, at the level of the sciences directly there is the question of what kinds of things there are in a specific domain. The ideas of "animate thing," "vertebrate", "mammal", and "horse" arise at this level in the biological sciences.

But there is also a more abstract question that can be posed: what distinct sorts of stuff do we need to allude to in analyzing many or all areas of science? This might be called general metaphysics. We might try to make do with a very spare ontology of particulars and events; or it might be argued that there are distinctions among bits of reality that warrant separate categories. (Here is one such ontology: reality consists of entities, continuents, occurrents, and qualities; (4).) Or we might say that our ontology needs to refer to individuals, properties, relations, processes, and events, and that none of these can be defined in terms of some combination of the others.

In his contribution to Classifying Reality E. J. Lowe observes that analytic philosophers since Frege and Russell have tried to answer the more general question by referring solely to particulars and properties or relations, and have generally tried to understand properties and relations extensionally (as sets of particulars possessing the property). Lowe refers to this simple ontology as a "Fantology" -- there are particulars denoted by lower case letters, predicates denoted by uppercase letters, and statements of the form "Fa" (a has the property F).  Lowe favors a renewed attention to Aristotle's metaphysical theories, arguing that reality consists of primary substance, secondary substance, property or attribute, and individual accident or mode (11). And he believes that the minimalist ontology deriving from Frege (the Fantology) cannot handle the needs we have in creating language for describing the world. Lowe makes use of this more complex understanding of the kinds of things there are in the world to formulate a new version of formal logic. He provides a formalism for expressing the different kinds of statements that can be made within the more extensive universal ontology. "The system of formal logic whose language I have been constructing is meant to be one which respects and reflects certain fundamental categorial distinctions of an ontological nature" (18). What this formulation does not provide is a set of rules of derivation.

Tuomas Tahko takes up the issue of realist metaphysics in his contribution, "Boundaries in Reality." He believes that there is a basis for asserting that the assertions of metaphysics may be true or realistic; and to do so he addresses the conventionalist arguments that exist against this conclusion. Most generally the conventionalist line is this: there are multiple systems of conceptualization and classification, and there is no "best" system. Therefore there is no basis for concluding that one of these maximal systems is more realistic than another; and therefore there is no basis for metaphysical realism. Here is one version of this view in the words of Achille Varzi:
If all boundaries were the product of some cognitive or social fiat, if the lines along which we "splinter" the world depended entirely on our cognitive joints and on the categories that we employ in drawing up our maps, then our knowledge of the world would amount to neither more nor less than knowledge of those maps. (43)
But Tahko believes that the preponderance of evidence works against the conventionalist view:
We have seen that our system of classification is fundamentally grounded in reality. We can state this with some confidence, as otherwise this system would hardly be so reliable. It is an open question which entities are genuine, bona fide entities; we need philosophical inquiry as well as science to determine this. (60)
Gary Rosenkrantz brings the arguments into connection with biology in his contribution. He believes that there are necessary and essential truths about living things:
First, an animate being is a concrete entity capable of living a life. Second, a life, or at least any contingent being's life, is a process consisting of a series of intrinsic changes in an animate being. Third, an animate being is not a process; such a being -- at least of the most basic sort -- is what was traditionally called an individual substance. (79)
And further:
I shall argue that the question "What is an animate being?" can be answered by quantifying over ontological categories and natural kinds. (82)
Here is how Rosenkrantz characterizes natural kinds:
Every such natural kind, K, is such that: (i) it is impossible that something instantiates K contingently, (ii) K is a proper object of inquiry in natural science, (iii) K figures in one or more natural laws, (iv) K is possibly instantiated in the absence of an intention or belief of a contingent being that an instances of K is for performing some goal-directed activity, (v) K supervenes on structural and compositional properties, i.e., necessarily, for any x&y, if x instantiates K and x&y have the same structural and compositional properties, then y instantiates K, and (vi) K places limits on the kinds of parts an instance of K could have. (83)
This is tough slogging. We would like to know if this series of features of "natural kinds" are thought to be definitional or substantive. Is it a discovery about my wedding ring and "gold" that "it is impossible that the ring instantiates 'gold' contingently", or is this just a matter of definition? In other words, why should we accept (i)-(vi) as being true of natural kinds? And this raises a more pervasive question: what kind of philosophical or scientific reasoning is needed to establish truths of general metaphysics?

The diagram at the top is taken from Barry Smith's contribution to Classifying Reality in which he attempts to construct a "Basic Formal Ontology" -- a "top-level ontology that is serving as domain-neutral framework for the development of lower level ontologies in many specialist disciplines, above all in biology and medicine" (101). His account offers a formalized set of relations that can exist between ontological categories: "-is-a-" and "-part-of-", for example. And he distinguishes between things in terms of their temporal qualities: continuants and occurrents, for example (107), or "things" and "events".

What I find interesting and worthwhile about Classifying Reality is that it illustrates that there are genuine and important questions within the domain of general metaphysics -- questions that are provoked by our ordinary efforts to conceptualize and understand the world around us. What is challenging is to validate the kinds of reasoning that are offered as foundation to conclusions in this field. Does pure philosophy suffice? Do we need to "naturalize" metaphysics in order to have credible theories and conclusions? Should metaphysics simply be considered the most abstract end of the scientific enterprise, ultimately dependent on empirical reasoning and logical deduction? Or is there a realm of autonomous philosophical thinking that can lead to substantive metaphysical conclusions? My own philosophical training makes me wary of that final thought; but the contributors to this new metaphysics are making their best efforts to validate it.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Social powers?

I am one of those people who think that causal claims are the foundation of almost all explanations. When we ask for an explanation of something, we generally want to know why and how it came to be, and this means looking into its causal history. Moreover, I have believed for many years that this means looking for a set of causal mechanisms whose workings contribute to the outcome. And I subscribe to the anti-Humean idea that a causal relation involves some kind of necessity from cause to effect -- there is something in the substrate that necessitates the transition from cause to effect. The cause forces the effect to occur. (These ideas were first expressed in Varieties of Social Explanation.)

This means that my philosophy of social science has affinities to both large bodies of thought about causation today -- mechanisms and powers. The connection to mechanisms is explicit. The connection to powers is less direct but no less genuine. Essentially it comes down to the idea of necessity -- the idea that the properties of the causing thing, in the setting under consideration, actively produce its effects. This is what Ruth Groff refers to as an anti-passivist philosophy of causation.

One thing that makes me a little nervous about the current powers literature, though, is a kind of essentialism that it often seems to bring along. Rom Harré expressed this in his early formulations: it is the essential properties of a thing that create its causal powers. Here is how Stephen Pratten describes Harré's view (link):
Causal powers are, for Harré and Madden, properties of concrete powerful particulars which they possess in virtue of their essential natures.They analyse the ascription of causal powers to a thing in the following way: ‘ “X has the power to A” means “X will/can do A, in the appropriate circumstances in virtue of its intrinsic nature” ' (1975: 86).
And current powers theorists make similar claims. But I don't think things have an essential nature in any rigorous sense. So I'd rather see a powers theory whose formulation avoids reference to essential characteristics.

This is particularly important in the realm of the greatest interest to me, the social world. I believe that social entities are plastic and heterogeneous, and I don't think there are social kinds in a strong metaphysical sense. This entails that social entities do not have essential properties. So if powers theory depends on essentialism, then it seems not to apply in my understanding of the nature of the social world.

Fortunately essentialism is not essential! We can formulate an account of the causal powers of a social thing in terms of its contingent and changing properties and we don't have to hypostatize social things.

The way this works is that we do understand how the substrate of causal interconnection works in the social world. Social causation always works through the thoughts and actions of socially situated purposive actors. Individuals form representations of the world around them, both social and natural, they form relationships with other actors, and they act accordingly. So social structures acquire causal powers by shaping and incentivizing the individuals they touch.

So when we say that a certain social entity, structure, or institution has a certain power or capacity, we know what that means: given its configuration, it creates an action environment in which individuals commonly perform a certain kind of action. This is the downward strut in the Coleman's Boat diagram (link).

This construction has two important consequences. First, powers are not "irreducible" -- rather, we can explain how they work by analyzing the specific environment of formation and choice they create. And second, they are not essential. Change the institution even slightly and we may find that it has very different causal powers and capacities. Change the rules of liability for open range grazing and you get different patterns of behavior by ranchers and farmers (Order without Law: How Neighbors Settle Disputes).

Friday, February 21, 2014

A causal narrative?

source: Edward Tufte,

In a recent post I referred to the idea of a causal narrative (link). Here I would like to sketch out what I had in mind there.

Essentially the idea is that a causal narrative of a complicated outcome or occurrence is an orderly analysis of the sequence of events and the causal processes that connected them, leading from a set of initial conditions to the outcome in question. The narrative pulls together our best understanding of the causal relations, mechanisms, and conditions that were involved in the process and arranges them in an appropriate temporal order. It is a series of answers to "why and how did X occur?" designed to give us an understanding of the full unfolding of the process.

A narrative is more than an explanation; it is an attempt to “tell the story” of a complicated outcome. So a causal narrative will include a number of causal claims, intersecting in such a way as to explain the complex event or process that is of interest. And in my view, it will be a pluralistic account, in that it will freely invoke a number of causal ideas: powers, mechanisms, necessary and sufficient conditions, instigating conditions, and so forth.

Here is how I characterized a historical narrative in New Contributions to the Philosophy of History:
What is a narrative? Most generally, it is an account of the unfolding of events, along with an effort to explain how and why these processes and events came to be. A narrative is intended to provide an account of how a complex historical event unfolded and why. We want to understand the event in time. What were the contextual features that were relevant to the outcome — the settings at one or more points in time that played a role? What were the actions and choices that agents performed, and why did they take these actions rather than other possible choices? What causal processes—either social or natural—may have played a role in bringing the world to the outcome of interest? (29)
We might illustrate this idea by looking at the approach taken to contentious episodes and periods by McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly in Dynamics of Contention. In their treatment of various contentious periods, they break the given complex period of contention into a number of mechanisms and processes, conjoined with contingent and conjunctural occurrences that played a significant causal role in the outcome. The explanatory work that their account provides occurs at two levels: the discovery of a relatively small number of social mechanisms of contention that recur across multiple cases, and the construction of complex narratives for particular episodes that bring together their understanding of the mechanisms and processes that were in play in this particular case.
We think what happens within a revolutionary trajectory can better be understood as the result of the intersection of a number of causal mechanisms. We do not offer a systematic account of all such mechanisms and their interaction in a sample of revolutionary situations. Instead, we use a paired comparison of the Nicaraguan revolution of 1979 and the Chinese student rebellion of 1989 to zero in on one processes in particular: the defection of significant elements from a dominant ruling coalition. (kl 2465)
The narrative for a particular case (the Mau Mau uprising, for example) takes the form of a chronologically structured account of the mechanisms that their analysis identifies as having been relevant in the unfolding of the insurgent movement and the government's responses. MTT give attention to "episodes" within larger processes, with the clear implication that the episodes are to some degree independent from each other and are amenable to a mechanisms analysis themselves. So a narrative is both a concatenated series of episodes and a nested set of mechanisms and processes.

Robert Bates introduces a similar idea in Analytic Narratives under the rubric of “analytic narrative”. The chief difference between his notion and mine is that his account is limited to the use of game theory and rational choice theory to provide the linkages within the chronological account, whereas I want to allow a pluralistic understanding of the kinds and levels of causes that are relevant to social processes.

Here is a brief account of what Bates and his collaborators mean by an analytic narrative:
The chapters thus build narratives. But the narratives are analytic narratives. By modeling the processes that produced the outcomes, we seek to capture the essence of stories. Should we possess a valid representation of the story, then the equilibrium of the model should imply the outcome we describe—and seek to explain. Our use of rational choice and game theory transforms the narratives into analytic narratives. Our approach therefore occupies a complex middle ground between ideographic and nomothetic reasoning. (12)
As have others, however, we seek to return to the rich, qualitative, and descriptive materials that narratives offer. And, as have others, we seek an explicit and logically rigorous account of the events we describe… We seek to locate and explore particular mechanisms that shape the interplay between strategic actors and that thereby generate outcomes. Second, most of these [other] literatures are structural: they focus on the origins and impact of alignments, cleavages, structures, and institutions. Our approach, by contrast, focuses on choices and decisions. It is thus more micro than macro in orientation. By delineating specific mechanisms and focusing on the determinants and impacts of choices, our work differs from our predecessors. (12-13)
A narrative typically offers an account of an historically particular event or process: the outbreak of a specific war, the emergence of ethnic conflict at a specific place and time, or the occurrence of a financial crisis. This places narratives on the side of particular social-science analysis. Is there a role for generalization in relation to narratives? I think that MTT would suggest that there is not, when it comes to large event groups like revolutions. There is no common template of revolutionary mobilization and regime collapse; instead, there are local and national interactions that constitute recurring mechanisms, and it is the task of the social scientist to discover the linkages and contingencies through which these various mechanisms led to revolution in this case or that. MTT try to find a middle ground between particularity and generalization:
Have we only rediscovered narrative history and applied to it a new, scientistic vocabulary? We think not. While convinced of the futility of deducing general covering laws of contention, we think our program -- if it succeeds -- will uncover recurring sets of mechanisms that combine into robust processes which, in turn, recur over a surprising number and broad range of episodes. (kl 3936)
In my view, anyway, a narrative describes a particular process or event; but it does so by identifying recurring processes, mechanisms, and forces that can be discerned within the unfolding of the case. So generalizability comes into the story at the level of the components of the narrative -- the discovery of common social processes within the historically unique sequence of events.