Notes on Supervenience

– The basic idea for supervenience is that there is no change in the mental (M) unless there is a change in the physical (P). Put differently, no mental activity without physical activity – the mental supervenes on the physical.

– What supervenience attempts to secure, generally speaking, is a non-reductive physicalist account of the mind – ie, this isn’t a simple identity theory (mind = brain) or an eliminative theory. In other words, it’s a theory of the mind that aims at an account of the mind that, while not reducing the mental to the physical, shows the mental to not be independent of the physical.

– There are various accounts of supervenience, but generally it’s accepted that it must be of the strong kind to be a really physicalist theory of the mind. This means, roughly, that in no nomologically possible world (this move is made so as to preclude the metaphysical possibility of, say, dualism) :

‘Necessarily, for each property M in M,  if anything x has M, then there is a property P in P such that x has P, and necessarily if anything has P it has M.’ (‘A Companion to the Philosophy of Mind’, p. 579)

– As Jaegwon Kim notes, its difficult to see exactly how this isn’t a reductive theory – if for M it’s necessary for P, there it certainly seems like M entails P. Kim goes so far as to declare that supervenience won’t give up a nonreductive theory of mind, in fact.

– A further difficulty (and the above is a very crude sketch of one objection) comes when the issue of causation comes into play – Kim appropriately dubs his theory of causation ‘supervenient causation’ – M causes P because M supervenes on P. Kim holds to a theory of ‘causal explanatory exclusion’, or the doctrine that there is at most one full, complete causal explanation for a given event, and this, coupled with his principle of ‘causal closure’ –  any physical event that has a cause at time t has a physical cause at t – seems to really nix any idea of mental causation in the bud, which is precisely what Kim is trying to hold on to (the spectre of epiphenomenalism is always hovering nearby). If M causes P, and M supervenes on P, and M really is distinct from P, then it would appear that we have two causes of P – M and P. But given Kim’s commitment to the causal priority of P, what causal role is there really for M? It seems that epiphenomenalism has been invited in here.

Thoughts on a ‘Transcendental Realism’

As I was running out to the pet store last night to grab an e-collar for my cat, the thought occurred to me that it might be fruitful to see if the transcendental aspect of Kant’s metaphysic could be married with realism. What follows are various other thoughts that occurred to me on this subject.

What would a transcendental realism be concerned with? Well, as I’m thinking of it, it would be a metaphysic concerned primarily concerned with the following: what are the conditions that make empirical study of the world possible? So in this sense, it’s more of a metaphysic of science. How is science possible? That’s a key question.

To polish the question a bit more: how must the world be in order for science to have proceeded as it has? Two things that come to mind are the issues of causality and universals – laws of nature would probably fit in here under both of those. So what would TR (tentatively) say here?

Well, causality, of one form or another, seems to be necessary for any empirical science to get off the ground. But causality is a metaphysical, and not empirical, category (here we can follow Hume’s insight without committing ourselves to his conclusions). We can’t study causality under a microscope. But if causality is a real feature (albeit a metaphysical feature) of the world, the question we need to ask is how exactly is causality ‘mediated’ through experience (here I wonder if modalities have a role to play)? Here’s a possible answer (not THE answer, but merely a way in which the question might be answered on this view):

Causality is a real feature of the world with both objective (transcendental) and subjective aspects – so it’s a bottom up/top down feature. Causal structures are mediated through and reflected by the empirical world and empirical study. This allows for for the conditions of study, science, etc. This view effectively thinks backwards from the given of our experience, but an argument seems to be needed that I don’t have at the moment.

So I suppose a map of this view would look something like this:

Reality———->causal structures———->experience of reality———->causal concepts———->allow empirical science

I’m not hugely satisfied with this yet, but the raw material for a decent metaphysic is here, at least.

Metaphysics, Science, Metaphysics

Stanley Jaki, one of my favourite authors, says in almost every one of his books that one can go from philosophy to science, but not from science to philosophy. It’s a one-way street. To build a philosophy from science (assuming the common definitions of both) is a conceptual confusion – or is it? How often is it said that a given scientific area of research is answering questions previously reserved for philosophy only?

Think, for example, of determinism. Determinism is a metaphysical theory – that any given state of affairs is causally necessitated by preceding states of affairs. Now, if the road truly is one way, then a metaphysical theory cannot be falsified by empirical data. Two things come to mind, however, that would ‘disprove’ determinism: quantum mechanics and Ilya Prigogine’s work in the field of non-equilibrium thermodynamics ( Both of these scientific enterprises seem to show that determinism is a bankrupt idea.

How is this possible, though? How can empirical scientific discoveries falsify a metaphysical theory? I suspect that the answer can be found by looking closely at what I’ve argued is the intimate tie between science and metaphysics. If a scientific discovery appears to falsify a metaphysical theory, then that ought to be a sign that what we hold as a metaphysical theory is simply a scientific theory in disguise – by the same token, if a metaphysical theory is taken to falsify a scientific theory, then what we have isn’t a metaphysical theory but a scientific theory disguised as metaphysics. If the above scientific enterprises falsify determinism, then it merely serves to demonstrate the deep concord between metaphysics, science and language.

The extent to which (say) determinism is falsified by a given scientific discovery shows the extent to which science and metaphysics are bound up together – while the metaphysics of causality aren’t empirical (Hume), the empirical correlations we see in scientific research do give us insight into the realm of causality. T.F. Torrance actually goes into a bit of depth on causality in light of the resurrection of Jesus – see here:

If I could formulate a maxim of my own on this subject, in might be something along these lines: without metaphysics, there is nothing by which we can study the empirical, and without the empirical, there is nothing which we can study.

I wanted to say more, but my dog barked and I lost my train of thought.

Hart Contra Hume

‘…a series of mere sense impressions of consecutive events, like smoke rising from a fire, can be synthesized into the judgment that the relation between the two evens is one of causality only because the mine already possesses the concept of cause. Hence what the senses perceieve as only a sequence the mind understands as a real consequence. And the category of cause could not be abstracted from nature were it not already present in the mind’s perception of nature. In a broader sense, however, one can say that apart from the rational organization of experience in an articulated and continuous order, under concepts formally prior to empirical data, the world would be nothing more than a sea-storm of sense impressions. The senses would not be able to perceive sequences of events because they would not be able to perceive distinct events at all.’ (David Bentley Hart, ‘The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss’, p. 190-191)

As the title of this posts makes apparent, this seems to me to be a direct refutation of Hume’s ideas on perception of causality and the self – Hume argued that the self is just a bundle of sensations and impressions. Such a view of the self is simply, to borrow from Fr. Stanley Jaki, a heap of bricks.

Another note on Hume, Chesterton and Causality

Hume’s denial of causal connections being a kind of objective feature of the world was made on the basis of his radical empiricism – we can’t experience causality in a sensuous way. But why agree with his empiricism? Empiricism has been all but abandoned, and in its more extreme form, logical positivism, actively rejected. Why assume that Hume’s empiricism is true? Sure, we can’t have knowledge of causal relations via empirical datum, but so what? While empirical sense data is essential for a lot of knowledge, it’s certainly not necessary for all knowledge – empiricism itself cannot be verified empirically. So Hume’s critique, while in my opinion correct, ends up losing some of its force once one no longer believes the myth of empiricism.

Chesterton, Hume, Contingency and Causality

Hume famously argued that causality was a mental construct and not an objective feature of reality – we see one billiard ball hit another, but we don’t see or sense causation – we merely see the fact of the balls collision and draw the causal connection ourselves. Causes do not necessitate their effects. In theory any effect may follow from any cause.

Chesterton, in his book ‘Orthodoxy’, (specifically, ‘The Ethics of Elfland), pursued a somewhat similar line of thought, though it may be that he was far more radical. Chesterton conceded that there are, in fact, things such as logical and mathematical necessities – one plus one is two, if I am the son of a miller, than a miller is my father. These are necessarily true. But then he makes what may turn out to be a stunning observation:

‘If Jack is the son of a miller, a miller is the father of Jack. Cold reason decrees it from her awful throne: and we in fairyland submit. If the three brothers all ride horses, there are six animals and eighteen legs involved: that is true rationalism, and fairyland is full of it. But as I put my head over the hedge of the elves and began to take notice of the natural world, I observed an extraordinary thing. I observed that learned men in spectacles were talking of the actual things that happened — dawn and death and so on — as if they were rational and inevitable. They talked as if the fact that trees bear fruit were just as necessary as the fact that two and one trees make three. But it is not.’

What Chesterton does here is to note that there is nothing necessary about an actual fact – that X happens does not mean that X is necessary. In all actuality, Chesterton says that anything may happen. There is not a chain of absolute causality about simple factual happenings – in the physical sciences, ‘there are no laws, only weird repetitions.’ 

Hume took the insight and argued that we have no right to expect that something, say, eating bread, will produce the same effects as it did in the past. I was nourished by bread in the past – but it does not follow necessarily that I will be nourished by it in the future.

Chesterton took this basic point and agreed with it – I’m not nourished by bread by necessity. It’s entirely possible that bread will not nourish me in the future. But what Chesterton argued is that though everything is contingent that happens, and we can’t count on repetition in a logical and necessary sense, reality is structured such that it should turn out to be an odd surprise if one should find trees bearing tigers instead of fruit. Every event is radically contingent, but reality itself is not structured in such a way that anything does come anything. The relations between necessary and logical propositions and facts do not give us a structure of reality as a whole which involves a chain of causation for every event – no event had to occur a certain way.

‘Chesterton’s stunning insistence in ‘The Ethics of Elfland,’ that science as such gives only logical identities and relations but no realities, should make him appear an interpreter of science to be ranked with a Duhem and a Meyerson.’ (Stanley Jaki,‘Interpreter of Science,’  from ‘Chesterton, A Seer of Science’).

It took me a long time to see the force behind Chesterton’s line of thought. The radical contingency and opposition to strict causal laws goes far beyond Hume, in my opinion.