Powers, Dispositions and Laws of Nature

Kistler begins by introducing the idea that sciences often discover laws. Some of these are laws merely by virtue of being “accidental regularities” or by satisfying conditions that distinguish them from accidental universal statements (172). Kistler goes on to explain a plethora of positions that involve the existence and status of laws, but his central contention is that laws have the same metaphysical status as natural properties. Furthermore, he contends that even if natural properties are conceived in terms of “powers,” it will make no difference to the metaphysical status of laws.

Comment/Question: Do you think that this argument depends on realism of some kind? If these laws are not directly observable and may represent only useful fictions, does this seriously disrupt the argument?

11.2 The Distinction Between Powers and Dispositions

Kistler explains that dispositions are true by virtue of natural properties, conceived of as powers. This argument makes two assumptions:

  1. The distinction between dispositional and categorical qualities is semantic
  2. Powers are distinct from dispositions

Kistler then, in a similar vein to Chakravartty, describes the qualities that make dispositional properties dispositional. He summarizes this explanation as follows:

  1. “Object x has disposition D iff, ‘if x were in (triggering) circumstances T, then ceteris paribus, x would manifest M”

Kistler also makes the assumption that the attribution of D to x requires an intrinsic property that is the “causal basis of the disposition” (174). This causal basis is the “power” that grounds the disposition. 

Comment/Question: Is this a fair assumption given our discussion on Wednesday?

So, what is a “power” exactly? Kistler wades into the categorical/dispositional debate that we had on Wednesday to evaluate this concept. In his view, this distinction can either be ontological or semantic. “Power,” in his view, is an ontological category while “disposition” is a semantic category. All powers can be conceived in a categorical or dispositional which points to the view of properties as having a “dual nature.” This ontological commitment, however, lacks an explanation as to how dispositional and qualitative aspects of an entity can coexist within the same property. Kistler thus concludes that the distinction is best understood as semantic where “dispositional and categorical predicates can make reference to the same property although they have, as predicates, incompatible properties” (175). Kistler means that dispositional predicates entail the counterfactual listed above while categorical predicates do not. 

Comment/Question: Does it make sense to cast this distinction as semantic? It seems to resolve a lot of the things we were struggling with on Wednesday regarding capacities to be broken for example. Is it clever or cheap? Perhaps it takes some stance voluntarism out of the question because you do not have to choose between the two conceptions.

From our reading of Chakravartty and our previous discussion, it is not apparent why we should need to reference powers at all. It seems that dispositions can do all the work on their own. However, Kistler notes several examples that demonstrate that the power of electric charge branches into producing a number of dispositions (176). The concept of a power unites sets of dispositions.

Powers are, on Kistler’s view, theoretical properties that are justified by their utility. It is useful, he reasons, given its ability to unify the observed phenomena.

Comment/Question: If you are a dispositional realist, this unification does seem to work nicely. Do you think this escapes Professor Khalifa’s objection to Chakravartty’s use of unification? See post for Wednesday.

11.3 Laws as Parts of the Truth-Makers of Disposition Attributions

Kistler now turns his attention to the central argument of the chapter relating to laws. He argues two positions:

  1. Laws are required to explain the structure of the dispositions corresponding to one property, or power (179)
  2. Dispositional concepts and predicates are relational whereas powers are typically monadic

He focuses his attention on two of Mumford’s arguments. If either were true, then there would be no need for laws to make an attribution of a disposition. Mumford’s arguments are as follows:

  1. Powers are sets of dispositions, or dispositions are elements of powers (this is called the thick conception of properties)
    1. A power P contains all/some of the dispositions D that P gives its bearers.
    2. An object x’s power of being electrically charged contains x’s disposition to undergo forces in an electric field
    3. The electric field and force are contained in P
    4. If powers are internally related, P contains these internal relations to other powers 
  2. Powers are mereological sums of dispositions

This thick conception is justified if it follows from it that laws of nature are conditionally necessary. 

Nothing but the laws a property figures in can determine the identity of a property. For example, Coulomb’s law is approximately true and expresses a part of what it is to be electrically charged. This hold for other laws which feature electric charge. Kistler writes: “In all possible worlds in which the property of having mass M exists, it is such that pairs of objects having M attract each other with a force proportional to…the inverse of the square of their distance” (182). Laws are therefore conditionally necessary. There may, however, be worlds in which any given property does not exist, so laws are not absolutely necessary. 

Comment/Question: Do other laws cover all the other parts? If the distinction between dispositional and categorical is semantic, how is something like extension governed by laws? Can it not exist without them?

It follows from this argument that natural properties and laws must come together and that laws are internal relations between properties. “In other words,” Kistler writes, “in every possible world in which b and c exist, they are related by R” (183).

Having established these conclusions, Kistler presents four arguments against the thick conception of properties. 

  1. Laws explain the structure of sets of dispositions that are present in any given entity by virtue of a certain property. That is, “the attribution to electrons of the disposition to create a magnetic field if they are in motion…(Ampere’s law) is directly made true by the property of the electrons of being electrically charged” (183). This attribution is made in two steps:
    1. Possession of charge
    2. Ampere’s law that serves to connect electric charge to the existence of a magnetic field

The property of being charged also indirectly makes true the disposition to exercise forces on a wire carrying another electric current. P cannot, therefore, be constituted by a cluster of dispositions. Clusters are unstructured, and they cannot account for the fact that the disposition of electrons is linked to a varying degree to their properties. Laws, however, can explain these direct and indirect dispositions that arise from properties. Kistler views sets of dispositions as layers in an onion centered on P. The first shell are those dispositions made directly true by P and the outer ones are made true by P and multiple laws that become more and more indirect.

Comment/Question: Is this true? Couldn’t the linkage to properties be achieved without reference to the cluster?

  1. The thick conception cannot explain why there are no properties corresponding to subsets of these sets of dispositions. Postulating laws allows us to say that the set of laws containing property P determines the dispositions which are attributed to entities by P.

Comment/Question: I need some more clarification on the way Kistler argues for position 2.

  1. Without laws, we cannot make sense of the relations between different properties/clusters. If properties are clusters of dispositions, then the same disposition belongs to several clusters. For example, the cluster of speed and magnetic field contains the disposition to produce a force on moving charged objects. If properties are clusters of dispositions, one cluster should not constrain others; however, dispositions belonging to different clusters do constrain each other. If we adopt the thin conception, properties are related to other properties by laws. Dispositions in different clusters would be constrained by each other because they are determined by the same law.
  2. Dispositions are relational, so the truthmaker must be relational. Dispositions, as we have discussed, have relational conditions in order to be manifested. The truth maker of the attribution of a disposition cannot be monadic because the conditions of the disposition are relational. Laws allow us to conceive as the truth maker as composite insofar as it contains a property and relational insofar as the law relates the power to the condition in which the disposition is manifested.

6 thoughts on “Powers, Dispositions and Laws of Nature

  1. Peter Huggins

    I really like what Kistler does in this reading. His position regarding the relationship between powers and dispositions is incredibly interesting, and allows us to really hash out some of these issues we ran into last week. The powers as linking entities for different dispositions is a good idea, but I feel like the way he describes the powers makes them seem like dispositions, at least to me.

    As a result, I’m not sure that I agree with Kistler’s view that dispositions cannot be single-track. I’m not entirely sure as to why I feel that way yet, but my intuition is that they can, and should be able to be linked to each other. As a result of that sticking point, I guess that’s my question: do you think that dispositions are single-track? Why?

  2. Nam Nguyen

    From my understanding, powers are a concept used by Kistler to unite otherwise separate dispositions. What I don’t fully understand, and this may be a point similar to Rebecca’s point, is why some powers might not just be derivatives of properties. In the example above involving charge, wherein the power unites dispositions that make up the charge, could we not understand the power to also be properties of the charge. Kistler’s positions is that power discussions are needed because of the utility provided by powers as a overarching set of certain dispositions. However, it doesn’t seem to me that power doesn’t do much work that dispositions do not.
    Laws govern the relationship between dispositions and powers. This seems a bit suspect to me because it seems that powers exist as an umbrella to encapsulate dispositions. If we posited the existence of laws, wouldn’t it follow that powers exist not as a concept that provides utility but as an actual property of some kind? Or at the very least that dispositions are properties of a power? It doesn’t seem to be the case that laws are also discussed for their utility which does confuse me a bit.

  3. Rebecca Amen

    It doesn’t seem that a power has to be understood as the metaphysical concept that explains the unvarying concomitance of a group of dispositions. Again, this seems to be contingent on the claim that these dispositions necessarily but epistemically-speaking, inexplicably occur together, when in fact their concurrence does not seem to have to be some less identifiable metaphysical concept, to me. I can see how it may be useful for now, as we aim to determine whatever is behind their concurrence, but I don’t feel like it has to be explained in these terms. Rather, it seems like the power uniting these sets of dispositions could be understood as the overarching property that entails them (if I am reading Phin correctly, and even Nate’s points that it may be the same property manifesting in several ways, they might be saying or inclined to agree with something like this). In other words, with the electric charge example, I feel like these four dispositions listed by Kistler could quite simply be indexed to the state of possessing an electric charge
    (or to whatever state/property necessarily entails a certain set of dispositions, thereby explaining their concurrence) rather than to some more abstract idea of a power. And still, I feel this could be done while avoiding this supposedly inevitable problem of equating this set of dispositions to the state of being charged, since instead it would involve an argument of entailment. Perhaps I’m engaging in some treacherous – or worse, trivial – reasoning here… Somebody let me know.

  4. Farhan Islam

    This was a fascinating reading, and a great summary, Kenzo!

    The first 12 pages or so really had me sold on the thick conception of properties and then the remaining four arguments really seemed to fall flat. The question on my mind that I think would really clear up what Kristler is trying to do here is “What even is a law?”. My intuitions on what laws are had always seemed to just be a more rigorous description of a disposition. So, massive objects have the disposition to be attracted to other massive objects and the associated law is that that attraction is governed by the equation G((mm)/r^2). I had a hard time being convinced by any of Kristler’s arguments because they seem to allude to some other idea of what a law is that remains mysterious to me. In a similar vein, I don’t see the intuition for having the dispositional-categorical divide be purely semantic while still being a realist about laws. Kristler’s ontological commitments are probably doing a fair bit of work here, but without stating them (or at least me not picking up on them), the force of his critiques are quite lost on me.

  5. Nathan Obbard

    Something which confused me about this reading is why the debate surrounding the ‘buy-one-get-all-the-other’ sets of dispositions Kistler talks about isn’t one that can be hashed out in wholly epistemic terms, wherein we understand the different dispositional descriptions not to track different, real things in the world such as novel metaphysical relations, but simply describe the same property exhibiting its essence in ways which are distinct and amenable to categorization for a human perceiver. Kistler is clear about these relations needing to exist in virtue of laws as well as the powers which ground all the separate dispositions, but I have at best a kind of fuzzy idea of why we have to accept that these relations as things is the world rather than inevitable tools of human observation and explanation. No matter what degree of realist you are about properties, it doesn’t seem intractable to just claim that all of Kistler’s concerns about, say, relative directness of dispositional properties, or systematizing dispositions, can be solved by arguing those things as being solved epistemically, without having to give ground on to metaphysical laws which are on the same ‘level’ as properties. Would love to hear other people’s thoughts – I kind of struggled with this reading and have a feeling I’m not being charitable to Kistler.

    (Also two, random thoughts:

    1) are there any disposition sets where there is scientific disagreement over whether the various dispositions obtain in virtue of one or multiple properties? Properties that always coincide, but which some scientists maintain do so accidentally? I have a hazy sort of underdetermination question in my head if this is the case, but I can’t think of an example.

    2) Why does Kistler opt for a semantic reading of the categorical/dispositional distinction? It seems to make his entire line a bit weaker, and makes his fourth argument in particular read as easily evitable by simply rephrasing our property attributions.)

  6. Phin Choukas

    Kistler seems to point out a paradox that charge, for example, is both one and many dispositions/powers at the same time. He solves this issue by distinguishing powers and dispositions. Powers, while not identical to all the dispositions in a set, have a sort of unifying power or common element that entails all of the dispositions within a set. While power is a metaphysical concept, disposition is really a semantic concept. Importantly, dispositions cannot be single-track (that is, not linked to any other dispositions). Thus, a power entails all of the dispositions associated with a given thing like charge. From what I gather, Kistler is motivated to conceptualize power in this way to explain how different dispositions are always found together. Furthermore, he uses this reasoning to argue for the necessary existence of laws, which explain how multiple dispositions relate to one power. My question is, how is power different from the categorical conception of dispositions? I understand that Kistler claims the former is making a metaphysical claim while the latter is semantic, but they seem to be doing the same kind of work.

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