Are propensities (powers, etc.)
the right kind of thing
to be substance? Let us examine the proposal from the previous post
One might object that propensities do not appear to have enough being
as they appear instead always to point to an incipient state of becoming. Are
they, as Armstrong (1997) claims, always packing but never arriving? Would objects made of such substance as
proposed here actually exist, or only potentially exist, or (perhaps) exist
potentially? Bird (2007) responds to
this by pointing out that this objection assumes that powers or dispositions
are not fully actual. Rather, he says, we should insist that powers are actual
full-blooded features of objects and that what is
merely potential are
their manifestations. I would respond slightly differently: powers are the
actual full-blooded substance of objects and are not merely the ‘features’ or
‘properties’ of objects.
wonder whether objects made of such substance are really ‘full-blooded’. Do
such substantial objects persist as objects should? How
do they have being? Can they be individuated properly? Are they simple units, or can they be
divided? Could elementary particles be
of such substances? Could we
such objects and still feel our own reality?
Let us discuss some of these issues.
Do these new
kinds of substance persist? There is
certainly no need for them to persist forever, but can they persist through
accidental changes while maintaining their essential nature? To answer the question about persistence, we
note that dispositions are possessed even when they are not being manifested. A
vase is still fragile when it is not breaking. The fragility persists for a
finite duration: at least from one contact event until the next. What I am asserting
is that the corresponding substance of the glass persists for at least exactly
that same duration. In that duration, it may change its position, orientation
or illumination. These are the variable accidental properties that vary while
the underlying substance (fragility and the other dispositions) remain the
same. Whether the underlying substance persists forever is the same question as
whether the fragility (etc.) persists forever. That can be answered by looking
at the future adventures of the vase in the world.
If the fragile
glass ceases to exist, then the substance ends, perhaps by being changed into
another kind of substance. That substantial objects might persist only for a
finite time does not render them any less enduring or persistent objects during
How do these
substances have ‘being’? The recent
dispositional essentialists have taken all properties as ‘powers, and nothing
powers’, so we wonder if we can take all objects similarly. The claim
was thought by Bird (2009) to include all
properties, including all
those previously thought categorical such as position, shape and structure. I
do not hold such a strong view. Particular objects have both
dispositional and categorical properties, once we understand how this is to be conceived.
The dispositional properties are instantiated by the underlying dispositional
substance, whereas the categorical properties are instantiated by the form
of that substance which makes up this specific object. In this
way we have what Martin (1993) calls a ‘Janus-faced’ or ‘dual-aspect’ view, but
of objects rather than of properties. We are thereby constructing a notion of
substance wherein substantial objects legitimately have both dispositional and
categorical aspects. We do not follow Jacobs (2011) in having ‘powerful
qualities’ that have both dispositional and qualitative sides. Rather it is the
that have both. Now, some but not all properties are
dispositional. We do not deny the semantic distinction between dispositional
and categorical properties but rather reinforce it. Neither do we have a
‘neutral monism’ whereby the dispositional and categorical are ‘modes of
presentation’, following Mumford (1998), of the same instantiated properties.
philosophers since Prior et al. (1982), and recently, Rives (2005) have
argued that dispositions are ‘causally impotent’ following the argument that
“if dispositions are distinct from their categorical bases, and their bases are
efficacious, then the dispositions themselves are impotent.” Rives explicitly
assumes that “the causal efficacy of categorical properties is not in
question”. I disagree. I think categorical properties such as size, shape,
structure are by themselves never causally efficacious. We saw that above. Such
properties are only efficacious when they are shapes or structures of
some substantial object, and this requires the participation of dispositional
properties. A ‘base’ can never be a structure per se
and hence never
A summary of the
new position is to say that specific objects are unions
of form and
power, of qualitative and dispositional aspects.
structures of propensity, namely forms of substance, in a good Aristotelian
manner. Forms may be examined in great detail by form-
al sciences such
as mathematics and logic, but no natural changes can be generated by formal
constructions. For example, contemporary attempts in physics to construct ‘it
from bit’ (to derive existence from form) can only produce a static (timeless)
universe without changes or causes of change. I would instead say that forms
are the means by which
dispositional powers operate, since the
power-substances can only operate if they are arranged in some form or
structure that allows for interaction and movement. Conversely, forms can only
have an impact on the world if they are the forms of
some propensity, as
thereby a physical object in the world is in existence and has powers to
influence others. This is why I said that objects in the world are required to
be unions of form and power: they require powers to be in some form and require
forms to be of some power. The resulting union has an existence that goes
beyond either ingredient by itself.
In a natural
object, the power and form are actually inseparable and only abstractly
distinguishable. We can (and should) intellectually distinguish them—as recent
philosophers have emphasized—but that does that mean that they can ever exist
substantial objects be individuated? Can
we identify individual objects made of such substance? It certainly does not
seem that we can
divide powers or propensities themselves into parcels, with some for each
individual object in the world. I can only see individuation proceeding via the
forms or trope
that the substance-stuff has in specific
objects. That is, identifying individual objects, as forms of the underlying
substance-stuff, can only proceed by identifying those particular forms used in
each individual object. We may say that even the individual and specific existence
of an object depends on the specific forms that inform the essential underlying
powers/propensities of the substance.
may be suspicious of the idea that there is a fundamental level where objects
are composed of dispositions directly and do not have parts in substructures.
Would that not be the end of science?
No, because science’s task is to first determine which
fundamental level. Secondly, scientists try to exactly characterize and
understand all those dispositions, both common and uncommon, in order to
predict their exact operation. Any such claims are subject to empirical
verification or revision.
Finally, we must
consider the logical
plausibility of this proposed identity.
Grammatically, nouns in sentences are the agents of actions and refer to the
bearer of causal influences. The object of an action must cooperate in the
operation of those influences.
entirely consistent with the present claim that subjects and objects are themselves
forms of propensity. It is the nature of powers and propensities to be causal
influences, so any thing constructed from them will be the bearer of causal
influences. We must agree, therefore, to a grammatical move of powers from
being adjectives within predicates to being the substance of subjects and
objects. Then we must envisage as nouns the forms of such powers and
propensities. This seems to me to be quite feasible.
Armstrong, D. M. 1997. A world of states of affairs
Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press.
Bird, Alexander. 2007. Nature’s metaphysics: Laws and
. Oxford; New York: Clarendon Press; Oxford University Press.
Bird, Alexander. 2009. Structural properties revisited. Oxford;
New York: Oxford University Press: Clarendon Press;.
Ellis, Brian D. 2010. Causal powers and categorical
properties. New York: Routledge.
Jacobs, J.D. 2011. Powerful qualities, not pure powers. Monist
Martin, C. 1993. The need for ontology - some choices. Philosophy
Mumford, Stephen. 1998. Dispositions
. Oxford; New York:
Oxford University Press.
Prior, E.W., Pargetter, R., and Jackson, F. 1982. 3 theses about
dispositions. American Philosophical Quarterly
Psillos, Stathis. 2006. What do powers do when they are not
manifested? Philosophy and
Phenomenological Research, 72(1), 137–156
Rives, B. 2005. Why dispositions are (still) distinct from their
bases and causally impotent. American Philosophical Quarterly, 42(1),