Contrast to Powers-Based Accounts III: Structural Accounts

There are various types of structural powers-based accounts, of which it is enough to mention two in order to draw up a contrast that arguably generalises to them all. On the one hand we have Alexander Bird’scausal structuralism (2007a), in which powers are intrinsic properties whose nature nevertheless is nothing but a relation to a manifestation property. He thinks they can be both intrinsic and relational because the standard view of‘intrinsic’ is of something whose nature is independent of the nature of other substances. Bird’s powers are properties whose nature is exhausted by a relation to a manifestation property, even when the object is not exerting that power, and so is not dependent on standing in a relation to an instantiated property in any other object. They do however depend on there being an abstract realm of possibilia, that form an interconnected structure. Now, I have argued that this doesn’t really make powers intrinsic, because possibilia are still external to the power, and so there remain doubts about the reconciliation of ‘intrinsic’ and ‘relational’ (Ingthorsson 2015). But the main point of departure is that Bird does accept a distinction between active and passive possibilia and doesn’t characterise interactions as reciprocal. Hence his view is liable to the criticism directed at the standard view.

Neil Williams has for some time been developing what he calls blueprint holism (2019), which in many ways reminds me of Bird’s view. The idea is that powers are intrinsic properties which contain in themselves what he describes as a ‘blueprint’ of the specific types of interactions the bearer can engage in. It differs from Bird’s view in that Williams insists that the potentiality inheres in the object and does not require the existence of an abstract structure of possibilia. The criticism I direct against Bird, that it cannot reconcile the intrinsic/relational incompatibility, does not obviously apply here. The crucial question will therefore be whether Williams provides an account of how powers produce effects.

It is interesting to note that Williams explicitly declares that those who talk of active and passive powers, and Agents and Patients, are the ‘worst offenders’ with respect to falsely singling out individual powers as causes unto their own, or at least as particularly important in bringing about an effect (2019: 125). Instead he argues in favour of a total cause conception and insists that the relationship between powers is reciprocal. He talks about ‘constellations of power’, which when they obtain bring about an effect. Furthermore, he stresses that such constellations are not simply a collection of powers, but—like I argued against Mumford & Anjum’s version of the interference and prevention argument (Section 5.5)—that it really matters how the powers are ‘arranged’ in the constellation.

Now, I can complain that, while Williams rejects the Agent vs. Patient, and active vs. passive distinction, and endorses reciprocity, the examples he uses are exactly the same as those used by those who endorse those distinctions, such as water dissolving salt, and that the reciprocity involved is merely that of equal importance. So, he clearly imagines that the blueprint present in the solubility of salt contains the interaction with the dissolving power of water. He does not take it a step further to argue that, under the microscope of science, the dissolution of salt in water is in the end a matter of molecules mutually influencing each other with respect to the same power and not two different powers.

What is more interesting though is that Williams explicitly means for his model of constellations to be ontological rock bottom: ‘Instances of various constellations obtain, and they give rise to their manifestations. That is the full picture; it is not a metaphor designed to give way to some deeper analysis’ (Williams 2019: 129). Although he doesn’t refer to ‘Causal Production as Interaction’ (Ingthorsson 2002), it is clear that he thinks that analyses of the kind I present there, and defend again in this book, are bound to fail. His argument is that accounts that invoke constellations of objects that exert influence on each other, say energies or forces, only mean that the powers aren’t powers at all. I take him to mean that if manifestations are the results of forces and not, say, of the momenta of the objects involved, then momentum is not a power.

I have three worries. The first is that Williams’ account ends up being only a characterisation. It says—adapting the example I used in Section 5.5—that when constellation A[p(, p,] + B[pt, p4] obtains, it brings about E, but it doesn’t explain why that constellation brings it about (or why any constellation brings anything about). It is really just a brute fact that p„ p,, and p4 contain the blueprint that make that particular constellation bring £ about, but there is no further story to be told about how they actually do it.

Second, I don’t see how his account relates to the theories and findings of the natural sciences, which do talk about forces and energies in an attempt to explain why certain constellations bring something about. Finally, I don’t see how talk of forces implies that the properties of objects are not powers. Surely the idea is that momentum is a property that objects have, and which make the object able to exert a force. The force isn’t a power or distinct property that somehow arises to exert a force. It is the influence that the object exerts in an interaction in virtue of having momentum. Otherwise we have an infinite regress of the kind Psillos thinks the conception of pure powers leads to (Psillos 2006), namely that powers need powers, that need powers, that need powers ... etc. ad infinitum. For a critique of Psillos’ position, see Marmodoro (2010).

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