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Ontology with Lessons from Pyrrho and Sextus

Chakravartty concludes his defense of stance voluntarism by drawing analogies with the ancient skeptics Pyrrho and Sextus Empiricus.

  • The Agrippan Trilemma
  • Background

This was an ancient skeptical argument. Here’s the setup.The trilemma’s key assumption is what might be called the No Free Lunch Principle:

If q is S’s justification for believing that p, then S must be justified in believing that q.

This assumption seems plausible to many. Yet, it leads to one of the toughest skeptical arguments in the history of Western philosophy. Here’s the gist:

Suppose that you claim to know that p (e.g., that frogs are green.)

How do you know that p?

Because q (e.g., you’ve seen frogs in good lighting conditions, and they appear green)

But how do you know that q?

Because r

How does this end? Three options:

  • It doesn’t end (infinite regress).
  • r is justified by p or by q (circular reasoning)
  • r is unjustified (arbitrary assumption)

Infinite regresses, circular reasoning, and arbitrary assumptions fail to yield justification. Hence, it appears that no belief is justified.[1]

Nevertheless, each of the three bullet points can be given a positive spin. The most exotic are infinitists who hold that infinite justification isn’t as utopian as it may initially seem. Coherentists distinguish between “vicious” and “virtuous” circles, and then argue that circular reasoning of the latter sort is justificatory. Finally, foundationalists hold that beliefs can be self-justifying without being arbitrary.

  • Should We Be Skeptical About Stances?

Recall that stances are justified via coherence. Chakravartty also describes them as “foundational,” albeit only in a qualified sense. However, he also asserts the following:

A stance is not something for which one gives justifications as such, but rather something that one adopts because it reflects what one values, epistemically. (242)

One might not think that Chakravartty is letting himself off the hook too quickly here. Although one does not give justifications for stances, considerations of coherence point to at least one way in which stances can be justified or not. Moreover, one may wonder whether one’s choice of core epistemic values is arbitrary. If so, then stances fall on the third horn of Agrippa’s trilemma.

  • Isotheneia and Ataraxia

Chakravartty suggests that we can learn other lessons from Pyrrhonian skepticism. First, we can align competing arguments to appreciate their equal strength or isotheneia. Chakravartty suggests our situation with competing stances is similarly in a state of isotheneia. He takes this as ground for collaborative epistemology, which he defines thusly:

elaborating stances and the values that favor them, entertaining them dispassionately, seeking to understand their purchase on ourselves and our interlocutors— this must not be conceived as a surreptitious means of arguing for the superiority of any given rational stance, for as we have seen, the relevant mark of strength here is rationality, and all rational stances are rational. Regarding the question of superiority there can be only aphasia, speechlessness, and suspension of judgment. (244)

In ancient skepticism, recognition of isotheneia brings about ataraxia or peace of mind. In short, we see that trying to hash out the superiority of one stance over another is futile, and so we stop engaging in such endeavors. Here we get one of Chakravartty’s clearest pronouncements on the upshot of his book:

The disagreements were ill formed. The attempts to resolve them were wrongheaded. With a clearer understanding one is now free to focus attention elsewhere, on issues worthy of philosophical agonizing. One stands relieved. (245)

[1] Here’s a slightly fancier version of it:

A1. For all S, p, and q, if q is S’s justification for believing that p, then S must be justified in believing that q.

A2. If A1 is true, then all justification results in an infinite regress, a vicious circle, or stopping at an arbitrary assumption.

A3. We cannot possess an infinite chain of justification.

A4. Viciously circular reasoning does not provide justification.

A5. Stopping at an arbitrary assumption does not provide justification.

A6.\ No belief is justified. (A1-A5)

Miriam Schoenfield’s “Permission to Believe: Why Permissivism Is True and What It Tells Us About Irrelevant Influences on Belief”

  1. Introduction

Shoenfield begins by presenting a concern regarding belief. Oftentimes, our most deeply held beliefs are caused by seemingly irrelevant influences, such as the community in which we grew up, the school we attended, or the immediate people in our lives. These cases are called “IF cases.” Shoenfield claims we need not worry in many such cases. First, Schoenfield argues for the truth of permissivism. Second, Shoenfield argues that, if we take permissivism to be true, the concern raised by irrelevant influences on belief is, in many cases, unwarranted. Third, Shoenfield raises an issue with her view and responds to it. Finally, Shoenfield turns to the issue of peer disagreement and examines how permissivism sorts out issues related to the topic.

  1. What is permissivism and why is it true?

Shoenfield defines permissivism as “the claim that sometimes, there is more than one rational response to a given body of evidence” (194). There are non-permissive cases in which there is only one rational way to respond to a body of evidence, and permissive cases in which there is more than one rational way to respond to a body of evidence. Shoenfield argues that, starting with a non-permissive case, if we learn that it is an IF case, a significant reduction in confidence may be warranted. In a permissive case, however, finding out such a case is an IF case need not worry us. Shoenfield’s main argument goes as follows:

P1. Permissivism is true.

P2. If permissivism is true, the view that you should reduce confidence significantly in permissive irrelevant influence cases is unmotivated.

P3. If the view that you should reduce confidence significantly in permissive irrelevant influence cases is unmotivated, you don’t need to reduce confidence in such cases.

C1. You don’t need to reduce confidence significantly on the basis of irrelevant influences in permissive cases. (P1-P3).

To argue for the truth of P1, Shoenfield first introduces a countering view:

UNIQUENESS: For any body of evidence E, and proposition P, there is only one doxastic attitude to take towards P that is consistent with being rational and having evidence E.

Permissivism is simply the denial of UNIQUENESS. In other words, permissivism states that there are at least some cases in which there is more than one rational response to a body of evidence E. Shoenfield provides two arguments to motivate permissivism, one intuitive and one theoretical.

  1. Intuitive Motivations

Intuitively, it seems reasonable people can disagree when confronted with the same body of evidence. This extends beyond scientific contexts. For example, it seems jury members may rationally arrive at different conclusions given the same body of evidence. Some argue that everyone’s unique experiences constitute different bodies of evidence which may influence what is rational to believe. If this is true, we can maintain belief in UNIQUENESS while accepting that different jurors can rationally come to different conclusions. Shoenfield shows it seems very unlikely that all cases work this way. For example, paleontologists’ unique life experiences don’t seem to make substantive differences in the debate between what killed the dinosaurs. A further concern is, if we assign such importance to life experiences, this calls into question the trustworthiness of experts’ opinions in their given fields.

  1. Theoretical Motivations

Shoenfield argues that many plausible theories of justification require the truth of permissivism including coherentism, conservatism, and subjective Bayesianism. Furthermore, some theories of justification that reject permissivism contain unfortunate metaphysical commitments. For example, consider the Bayesian who thinks in terms of degrees of belief. According to UNIQUENESS, the Bayesian must believe in a unique real number between 0 and 1 that measures the appropriate credence to have in a proposition. Furthermore, she must believe that there exists some general principles that can objectively determine such a number. Given a proposition such as “there exist more than three hundred elephants,” this seems like an undesirable feature of UNIQUENESS. Rather, it seems like some principle is necessary to explain what is unreasonable about a given position, rather than some brute fact.

Question/Comment: Are you persuaded to believe in permissivism given these intuitive and theoretical motivations? It seems to me that the intuitive motivations are much stronger than the theoretical ones. Nevertheless, it seems to me like there is a rational position which denies these arguments. So is permissivism itself a permissive case? Note that Schoenfield’s entire argument hinges on the truth of permissivism.

2.1 Problems with permissivism

First, Shoenfield notes an important aspect of her permissivism. That is, “what one ought to believe depends, in part, on what epistemic standards one has” (199). Shoenfield defines a set of epistemic standards as “a function from bodies of evidence to doxastic states which the agent takes to be truth conducive” (199).

Question/Comment: Shoenfield’s epistemic standards are like stances/values in the sense that these standards precede beliefs and thus do much to determine them. Furthermore, Shoenfield argues that, according to permissivism, there are multiple permissible standards. Do you see any benefits/drawbacks to defining standards in this way?

With this talk of epistemic standards in our back pocket, we are ready to look at the objections levied against permissivism.

  1. The evidence pointing problem (Sosa, White)

A seemingly problematic aspect of permissivism is that it is permissible, given E, to believe p and permissible, given E, to believe ~p. Surely, we do not want to accept that the evidence supports both p and ~p. This idea rests, however, on a faulty assumption. Shoenfield’s permissivist does not think that the evidence “dial” points both to p and ~p simultaneously. Rather, there are multiple evidence “dials” corresponding to different permissible ways of weighing the evidence, due to different epistemic standards. Thus, it is not the case that given one set of epistemic standards, one is permitted to believe p and ~p.

  1. A cluster of worries: arbitrariness (Christensen, Feldman, White)

If one thinks that, given E, it is reasonable to both believe p and ~p, it seems having one belief, rather than the other, is arbitrary. According to Roger White, we can think of belief forming as taking a pill. If we take pill #1, we believe p. If we take pill #2, we believe ~p. Either we can look at evidence and come to whatever conclusion we come to, or we can take a randomly selected pill and come to our conclusion that way. If one is a permissivist, it seems both methods are equally likely to lead to truth, both being rational. Standards can help ease our worries here. Recall that one’s epistemic standards are thought to be more truth conducive to the individual than other standards. Taking the pill could either result in a belief conflicting with one’s standards, or result in changing one’s standards themselves. Both of these instances look undesirable to the permissivist, so she should deny the pill. Importantly, regardless of whether one is a permissivist, one cannot give independent reasons for weighing evidence in a certain way.

  1. How permissivism bears on irrelevant factor cases (defense of P2)

Now that we can assume permissivism is true, Shoenfield turns to P2.

P2. If permissivism is true, the view that you should reduce confidence significantly in permissive irrelevant influence cases is unmotivated.

Shoenfield introduces two hypotheses which motivate decreasing confidence.

RATIONAL INDEPENDENCE: Suppose that independently of your reasoning about p, you reasonably think the following: “were I to reason to the conclusion that p in my present circumstances, there is a significant chance my belief would not be rational.” Then, if you find yourself believing p on the basis of your reasoning, you should significantly reduce confidence in that belief.

TRUTH INDEPENDENCE: Suppose that independently of your reasoning about p, you reasonably think the following: “were I to reason to the conclusion that p in my present circumstances, there is a significant chance my belief would not be true.” Then, if you find yourself believing in p on the basis of your reasoning, you should significantly reduce confidence in that belief.

Schoenfield then presents a practical case COMMUNITY in which growing up in a religious community leads one to rationally believe in the existence of God. Had this individual grown up in a different place, she would have come to believe otherwise given the same body of evidence. Taking this to be a permissive case, Schoenfield argues that one should not decrease confidence in one’s belief.

P3. The best motivation for reducing confidence in permissive irrelevant influence cases requires TRUTH INDEPENDENCE.

P4. TRUTH INDEPENDENCE says to decrease confidence in all permissive cases (even when there are no irrelevant influences!).

P5. If you have to give up your belief in all permissive cases, there are no permissive cases, (definition of permissivism)

P6. TRUTH INDEPENDENCE is inconsistent with permissivism. (P4, P5)

C2. If permissivism is true, the view that you should reduce confidence in permissive irrelevant influence cases is unmotivated. (P3, P6)

P3 is true because if RATIONAL INDEPENDENCE is true, it is permissible to maintain belief, whereas if TRUTH INDEPENDENCE is true, you must give up your belief. Thus the worry about irrelevant influences, such as in COMMUNITY, only arises with TRUTH INDEPENDENCE. If Schoenfield can show that TRUTH INDEPENDENCE is inconsistent with permissivism, we need not worry about irrelevant influences in permissive cases.

TRUTH INDEPENDENCE is inconsistent with permissivism because it requires one to give up belief in permissive cases all the time. Consider the following example without irrelevant influences:

A caveman considers the arguments for and against the existence of God. He comes to believe in the existence of God (G), but also recognizes one could rationally reject G given the same evidence. TRUTH INDEPENDENCE will require him to give up his belief, as he must consider the likelihood of being right independent of his reasoning about the existence of God. Doing so leads to the conclusion that he is not likely to be right. So, if we accept TRUTH INDEPENDENCE, there can be no permissive cases, because each time we are forced to reject our belief absent independent justification. Since permissivism says there can be such cases, TRUTH INDEPENDENCE is inconsistent with permissivism. “What TRUTH INDEPENDENCE demands is exactly what the permissivist cannot provide: an independent reason for thinking it likely that her beliefs, in permissive cases, are true” (208).

  1. A problem with permissivism

Schoenfield notes that it is odd to argue on the one hand that a permissivist should not be willing to take a belief pill, but if one does take that pill (or grow up in a certain community), there is no reason to abandon that belief. The idea that we need not reduce confidence in permissive cases seems to conflict with REFLECTION.

REFLECTION: If you know that, in the future, you will rationally, without loss of information, have doxastic attitude A towards p, you ought to now have doxastic attitude A towards p.

Schoenfield gets around this issue by revising REFLECTION.

PERMISSIVE REFLECTION: If you know that, in the future, you will rationally, without loss of information, rationally have doxastic attitude A towards p, and your future self has the same standards of reasoning as your current self, you ought to now have doxastic attitude A towards p.

This move allows the permissivist to deny believing p or ~p, because the future self may have epistemic standards that conflict with the current self.

  1. Disagreement

Schoenfield’s permissivism can shed light on the debate surrounding peer disagreement. Views that argue a decrease in confidence in light of peer disagreement are motivated by the same independent reasoning principle that motivates a decrease in confidence for IF cases. Independently of one’s reasoning, one cannot assign a high probability of being right. This can lead to the spineless accusation because we would too often have to reject our beliefs. But according to permissivism, this is not enough to decrease confidence (you should instead decrease confidence in light of a high probability of being irrational). Thus decreasing confidence in IF cases hinges on whether or not the case is permissive. So, there will be some scenarios where we should decrease confidence and some where we should not.

The Nature and Provenance of Epistemic Stances

  1. An Indefeasible Persistence of Ontological Disagreement

Recall that Chakravartty distinguished between two kinds of “ontological uncertainty” in the previous chapter:

  • Given inconsistent descriptions of a given object, event, process, etc. within a domain, which description are we justified in believing? For example, are fluids continuous media or collections of discrete particles? This kind of uncertainty was Chakravartty’s focus in the previous chapter.  
  • In which ontological domains is belief justified and which is it not? For example, should we be realists about DNA and antirealists about processes? This is Chakrvartty’s focus in this chapter.

One might think that debates about scientific ontology are “philosophical business as usual.” Few perennial debates in philosophy ever admit of resolution or clear victors. There are two ways to look at this:

  • Given enough time, effort, and ingenuity, a clear victor will emerge by offering a decisive argument.
  • In principle, no such victory is possible, because the best arguments that can be offered will always presuppose some of the disputed grounds between opposing viewpoints.

Chakravartty adopts the latter view, but holds that the problematic presuppositions are best regarded as epistemic stances.

  • Stances Revisited
  • What is a stance? For Chakravartty’s purposes, stances are collections of “attitudes, commitments, and strategies” regarding “how purported knowledge of scientific ontology is generated.” (206)
  • Stances have non-propositional content. Propositions can be expressed as declarative sentences and can follow “that” in English. Consequently, they are not beliefs. For example, it would be incorrect to say that the empiricist stance involves belief that explanations that posit unobservable entities are bad.
  • They reflect different assessments of empirical vulnerability and explanatory power, and thereby dictate one’s tolerance for epistemic risk.

Question: One thing that has puzzled me is this claim about non-propositional content. Aside from the fact that it produces the voluntarist’s desired result, I don’t see the motivation for denying that (i) empiricists believe that certain explanations are bad, while affirming that (ii) empiricists take a negative stance toward those same explanations. The irresoluble nature of ontological debate might be that it is very hard to say what makes something an explanation, what makes it good or bad, etc. That could all be couched in terms of propositional commitments, such as beliefs, and the intractability of the debates might simply be due to the difficulty in coming to know these propositions, rather than some difference in stances. I don’t know how to adjudicate between Chakravartty’s position and this alternative. Any ideas?

Three stances are sketched:

  • The Deflationary Stance

D1.      Reject traditional philosophical (i.e., realist) understandings of scientific ontology.

D2.      A fortiori, reject the analyses of truth and reference with which they are typically explicated.

Chakravartty associates this stance with historicist, social constructivist, and pragmatist philosophers of science. He mostly seems to associate it deflationary views with “non-literal” interpretations of science, which is one way (but not the only way) in which to interpret D2. (I have voiced my misgivings about calling these views “deflationary” in an earlier post.) Chakravartty largely focuses on the other two stances.

  • The Empiricist Stance

E1.       Reject demands for explanation in terms of things underlying the observable.

E2.       A fortiori, reject attempts to answer these demands by theorizing about the unobservable.

Note that this stance puts greater weight on empirical vulnerability (or “empirical answerability,” as we prefer) and less weight on explanatory power.

  • The Metaphysical Stance

This is essentially the mirror opposite of the empiricist stance:

M1.      Accept demands for explanation in terms of things underlying the observable.

M2.      Attempt to answer these demands by theorizing about the unobservable.

Note that this stance puts less weight on empirical vulnerability (or “empirical answerability,” as we prefer) and greater weight on explanatory power.

  • Voluntarist Primer on Choosing Stances & Beliefs

Chakravartty endorses stance voluntarism: which stance one adopts is a matter of choice.

This entails a modest form of “indirect” doxastic voluntarism: what one believes is a matter of choice.

Essentially, one can make a direct choice as to what stance one adopts, and this will influence what one believes However, this is consistent with having no direct choice over what one believes; only an indirect choice. (Compare: one can make a direct choice as to how much evidence one seeks, and this will influence what one believes.)

How does one choose a stance then? Chakravartty appeals to epistemic values:

“The stances of agents reflect the things they value, epistemically, including certain kinds of information and explanation, certain kinds of evidence and argument, and intuitive judgments about what kinds of information, explanation, evidence, and argument support inferences to ontological claims and to what degrees, all of which then translates into certain epistemic policies.” (220)

However, he does not think that there is much to be said about how epistemic values are adopted. They seem to be the “bedrock” in his account.

  • It’s worth noting that there is quite a bit of debate about epistemic value in epistemology. It’s not clear how much of it bears on this discussion. Yet, as we’ll see below, Chakravartty must have some constraints on what counts as epistemic value if he is to defend his permissive conception of rationality.
  • Epistemic Stances in Conflict: Rationality & Robustness

Thus, stances are epistemic policies about how ontological knowledge should be produced from scientific claims, and they are chosen freely based on one’s core epistemic values. So, ontological commitments (beliefs about what exists) can differ as a result of one’s stance. But is every choice in stance a rational one? Chakravartty asserts the following:

If we regard the scope of ontological commitment as something that may vary, rationally, as a function of different stances, the conception of rationality at issue will have to be “permissive” in the sense that it allows (potentially) more than one stance and resulting set of beliefs, given evidential considerations, to count as rational. (223)

Following van Fraassen, he takes the rationality of adopting a stance to consist of three things:

  • The stance must not lead to logical incoherence, such that beliefs contradict each other.
  • The stance must not lead to probabilistic incoherence, such that degrees of belief violate the probability calculus.
  • The stance must not lead to pragmatic incoherence, such that the beliefs that are in tension with the attitudes and orientations of the stance itself and lead to “self-sabotage.” Later, and perhaps more clearly, he describes pragmatic incoherence as the requirement that “the stance is not self-defeating, in the sense that it leads one to believe propositions that are in tension with (thus ‘sabotaging’) the very application of the epistemic values that define the stance itself.” (232)

Chakravartty uses the blanket term “internal coherence” to cover the satisfaction of all three conditions.

Given the permissive conception of rationality, what debate can there be between those holding conflicting stances? Chakravartty makes the following points:

  • One can criticize another stance for its internal incoherence.
  • Showing that well-established stances—such as the three sketched above—are incoherent is extremely difficult. Why?
    • Stances are more resilient than the ontological beliefs they license or “facilitate.” One can revise the latter without revising the former, and often this is what is done in the face of recalcitrant evidence.
    • The only way to criticize a stance directly is by targeting the values that led to its adoption. But the deflationist, empiricist, and metaphysical stance’s core values appear internally coherent.

Consequently debates between partisans of different stances are deep and intractable. The positive lesson that Chakravartty draws is:

“the nature of the debate is transformed: we can articulate our stances, put our epistemic values on the table for examination by ourselves and by others, explain how and why they resonate with us, invite others to empathize, and encourage the same with respect to our interlocutors. This is the basis of a collaborative epistemology in the context of voluntarism.” (228)

  • In Defense of Permissive Norms of Rationality for Stances

Chakravartty concludes by addressing two final challenges to voluntarism.

  • The Relativist Argument

One objection to permissive rationality goes as follows:

R1.       If rationality is permissive, then the same body of evidence can justify the belief that P and also justify the belief that not-P.

R2.       The same body of evidence cannot justify the belief that P and also justify the belief that not-P.

So, rationality is not permissive.

For those who are interested, Chakravartty cites the following article, which is “burning up the charts” in epistemology:

  • Schoenfield, M. 2014: “Permission to Believe: Why Permissivism Is True and What It Tells Us about Irrelevant Influences on Belief,” Nous 48: 193– 218.

More generally, voluntarism in philosophy of science has many affinities with permissivism in epistemology. For a recent criticism of permissivism, see:

  • Schultheis, Ginger, 2018, “Living on the Edge: Against Epistemic Permissivism”, Mind, 127(507): 863–879. doi:10.1093/mind/fzw065

Chakravartty denies the first premise, and replaces it with the following:

R1*.     If stance voluntarism is true, then the same body of evidence can justify the belief that P and also justify the suspension of belief about P.

This is because of epistemic risk. Consider an analogy: confronted with the same data, some medical doctors might believe that a medical treatment is effective while others might suspend belief until more/different evidence comes in, owing to worries about harmful side-effects. If this strikes you as plausible, then Chakravartty is simply extending this to debates about scientific ontology. Some philosophers might believe an ontological claim, while others suspend judgment until there is more empirical evidence.

  • The Pathology Argument

The second objection to stance voluntarism is as follows:

P1.            If rationality is permissive, then pathological stances will be rational.

P2.            Pathological stances are irrational.

So, rationality is not permissive.

What is meant by a pathological stance? The paradigmatic example (232) is of a stance that disregards relevant evidence.

Chakravartty challenges the first premise, counterarguing as follows:

C1.           If rationality is permissive, then every rational epistemic stance is pragmatically coherent.

C2.           Any epistemic stance that permits the disregard of relevant evidence will be pragmatically incoherent with respect to acquiring truth.

C3.           Every epistemic stance has the acquisition of truth as one of its core values.

Not-P1.    Even if rationality is permissive, pathological stances will not be rational.  

Let’s grant C1. Is C2 true? Won’t quite a bit depend on which evidence is disregarded and which truths are valued? Perhaps Chakravartty would argue that the kinds of cases I have in mind don’t speak to the pathology objection. Truly pathological stances are ones in which all relevant evidence for all valuable truths is disregarded. Finally, consider C3. Might someone seek something that falls short of truth that is still epistemically valuable? Chakravartty might reply that such agents are not seeking something that falls short of truth; they are simply keying in on certain truths to the exclusion of others. For instance, empiricists only value truths about observables.

Hasok Chang’s “Pragmatism, Perspectivism, and the Historicity of Science”

1. Background information

This essay begins by establishing its broad use of the terms “humanism” and “humanist.” Here, they should not be conceived of according to their historical associations but rather understood as simply designating the things humans do or construct. If science is taken to be humanist, it is through and through something done by humans; it should not be understood as a discipline that comprehends and represents some objective, completely mind-independent reality. This is in the Kantian fashion of transcendental idealism, in which “phenomena”—our experiences of “things-in-themselves”—are separate from “noumena,” or the things-in-themselves.

This is all to say that pragmatism and perspectivism—though Chang is discussing perspectivism seemingly in a different light than Chakravartty did, but more on that in my questions—are philosophies that belong to this “humanist” family. Chang sets out in this essay to demonstrate how scientific perspectivism is vindicated in some sense by pragmatism (though that is not what he says initially), and this project is made possible by their shared humanistic drive.

2. Delving into pragmatism

In general terms, pragmatism seeks to bring abstract concepts into light by examining their practical, real-world applications and expressions. This is a distillation of the “pragmatist maxim” forwarded by C.S. Peirce and William James. Chang states that this maxim led to the semantic interpretation of pragmatism. Semantic pragmatism can be used to put to bed “metaphysical disputes” that are seeking—without foreseeable success—to make fine-grained distinctions. By simply making the distinction and acknowledging the difference in what you and the objector practically mean by a certain concept, a disagreement about that concept can be resolved. But Chang is not interested in semantic pragmatism, or pragmatism that is focused on what we mean in our language about a thing (see the squirrel example discussed on page 12). Instead, he wants to make pragmatism exercise a more normative force on science: it should say what we should mean or do in praxis.

Chang argues that, paradigmatically, truthful thought under pragmatism has been pejoratively put as “whatever is convenient” or advantageous to believe. But he is rather convinced that pragmatism is really a “thoroughgoing empiricism,” with “empiricism” to be taken in the sense in which we have discussed it—a rejection of the pursuit of metaphysical explanations for observable and experienced phenomena.

Using his understanding of operational coherence, or a “harmonious fitting-together or actions that is conducive to a successful achievement of one’s aims” and a form of coherence that pertains to actions and epistemic activity rather than beliefs or propositions, Chang proposes a “coherence theory of truth.” This theory states: “a statement is true in a given circumstance if (belief in) it is needed in a coherent activity (or system of practice).”

Questions/objections: Does this theory of truth not give rise to the same worries to which the “misconception” of the pragmatist version of truth is susceptible? As in, it really does still seem to champion whatever is advantageous to believe in a given moment and to be more relativistic or permissive than many would like to allow of a theory of truth, just as Chang notes is the concern with James’ maxim due to the use of the word “expedient.”

He justifies the “deep empiricism”—the thoroughgoing empiricism—he perceives in pragmatism by noting pragmatism’s empiricism about methods: as in, method is learned/observed/experienced alongside the content of a theory. Another “deeply empiricist” facet of the pragmatist movement that Chang notes is its assessment of a priori judgments as empirically validated, too. A popular pragmatist perspective is that the a priori—or non-empirical—element of knowledge is analytic rather than synthetic. A priori judgements under pragmatism are true under the rules of a conceptual system chosen according to its uses rather than by their relations to the world. Chang points then to the historicity of a priori judgments under pragmatism, for pragmatism allows the a priori to morph as new scientific developments or inventions that change our conception of truth arise, since it makes no claims to some fundamental or incontrovertible truth.

With this in mind, Chang argues that pragmatism is incompatible with “the propositional conception of knowledge that forms the bedrock of epistemology in the analytic tradition”—and I believe that this propositional conception of knowledge is what demands substantiation of a belief claimed to qualify as knowledge, or an adequate (or too stringent, in Chang’s view) relation of a belief to truth or reality. Propositional knowledge is what is embodied by a “copy theory of knowledge,” or a knowledge that perfectly imitates reality. Chang forwards the suggestion that pragmatism needs, instead, knowledge understood as “ability to achieve certain aim”—knowledge as the process of inquiry and the very practice of knowledge-production, which belong among human experiences. This is the deep empiricism Chang ascribes to pragmatism: the notion that everything, down to “abstract” concepts, is related to experience and practice.

3. Now, you may be wondering… How will this all connect to perspectivism (and why did we have to dig so far into pragmatism)?

A product of science being a human activity is that every piece of scientific knowledge is inextricably attached to the context in which it is generated—whether it be historically, in that different instruments, methods, and so on are available in every period, or culturally, in that different instruments, methods, and so on are dominant in every period. But Chang argues that these views of perspectivism are too semantic, and thus, not strong enough; he wants to say that perspectivism is also thoroughgoing, and knowledge claims and the conditions that validate them are both perspectival. Any “perspective-independent” state to which knowledge claims appeal, and by which they are justified, cannot be articulated, though it may exist.


  • But perspectival realism does not necessarily need to be conceptualized this way… I think we’ve seen that Chakravartty thinks of it very differently. It does seem, of course, that Chang is more partial to a theory of use, whereas Chakravartty aims to define what is truly real—and that is how he comes upon the conclusion that reality, and not knowledge, cannot be perspectival. There seem to be deep differences in their understandings of perspectivism that I am eager to discuss in class.
  • Additionally, it is interesting that Chang goes into this conversation about what is really knowable through the entry point of language. I don’t believe he provides enough justification of this decision, if I’m understanding it correctly. He says, “All we can really talk about are conceptualized objects, which are in the realm of Kantian phenomena rather than things-in-themselves” (20, emphasis mine). The things-in-themselves cannot be articulated, but can they be conceptualized? He seems to want to say they “can be.” If they can be conceptualized, how is it that they cannot be articulated? Can they merely not be subject to language? Is it that, if science is a human activity, a non-perspectival reality can exist so long as we understand science in the framework of perspectival realism?

Then, Chang elucidates what he sees as the three layers of perspectivism, and he states that each is consistent with some formulation of pragmatism. But since Chang laid out his views on pragmatism so thoroughly, we are able to see how his “deeply empirical” conception of pragmatism is tethered to the third, “deepest” layer of pragmatism.

  • The first layer: Same content can be expressed in different ways (i.e. in different languages), but connotations will differ and will lead to divergent consequences
  • The second layer: Different perspectives will lead to different specialized focuses (and will lead, naturally, to the inattention to other facets), but this does not put up an insurmountable barrier to truth
  • The third layer (and the one to which his view of pragmatism is connected): The objects we study are not necessarily (here, I mean “necessarily” in a strong sense) “out there” in themselves, independent of our cognition, actions, and concepts within our selected conceptual framework (and selected frameworks are perspectival and may be incommensurable)

It is in this way that Chang argues ontology is perspectival, and he argues that only noumena—things-in-themselves—transcend selected frameworks and pertain to some absolute reality, if one exists. This strong, third conception of perspectivism is clearly pluralistic and values its pluralism.

Questions/objections: So, ontology seems to dually be perspectivist and to have some objective elements in this formulation. Similarly to a question above, I am still interested in if Chang and Chakravartty are conceptualizing “ontology” in the same way. It does not seem fair that Chang charges Chakravartty with simultaneously denouncing perspectivism and being a perspectivist because it seems you can be a perspectivist about what is known or experienced and not be one about what is real—about things-in-themselves. Though, perhaps Chang knows this and only means to validate perspectivism in the sense of what is known.

4. The ultimate aim of this paper: an integrated history and philosophy of science

Chang invokes his discussion of pragmatism as “deep empiricism” to argue that—since all learning comes from experience—then “learning about how to learn can only come from a study of the history of learning.” Inquiry takes on a rather identifiable and consistent structure, and “empirical processes of learning” are self-corrective and iterative in a historical understanding of learning. Knowledge, being the end of inquiry, must be understood historically in this way, as well, since knowledge develops iteratively, too. The relationship between the history of science and the philosophy of science is reciprocal, seeing as the history of science—in understanding how historiography is fundamentally impacted in all directions by the thought of its time—must be impacted by the philosophy of science.

He argues finally that pragmatism and/or perspectivism—rather than “the old internalism,” which focused on theories, diminished the importance of practice, and honed in on a propositional conception of knowledge—should be the philosophies governing our historiography of science, being deeply humanistic.

(I’ve noted some preliminary questions here, but I may post more to the blog tomorrow!)

Knowledge Under Ontological Uncertainty

  • Inconsistent Ontologies and Incompatible Beliefs

Some quick reminders: ontology is the philosophical study of what exists. But ontological claims require an epistemology: when is one justified in claiming that something exists? Here, we have seen that ontological claims are justified via metaphysical inference, and metaphysical inference is influenced by judgments of epistemic risk. Epistemic risk, in turn, is finding an optimal balance between empirical answerability (“vulnerability”) and explanatory power. But what one considers an optimal balance is stance dependent. Consequently, there is a continuum of ontological claims that different philosophers and scientists will deem justified given their different stances.

If one accepts this picture of ontological justification, then two kinds of uncertainty are likely to arise.

  • In which ontological domains is belief justified and which is it not? For example, should we be realists about DNA and antirealists about processes?
  • Given inconsistent descriptions of a given object, event, process, etc. within a domain, which description are we justified in believing? For example, are fluids continuous media or collections of discrete particles? This kind of uncertainty is Chakravartty’s focus in this chapter.  

Focusing on the latter, note that stance voluntarism has ample room of “reasonable” or “faultless” disagreement: individuals with different stances may have inconsistent beliefs, yet both are justified in those beliefs.

Chakravartty contrasts the stance voluntarist’s approach to reasonable disagreement with a neighboring position called perspectival realism.

  • Belief and Ontological Pluralism/Perspectivism

Suppose that we have a pair of inconsistent descriptions D and not-D. Perspectivists propose to resolve some of these inconsistencies by thinking of these two descriptions as elliptical for:

            According to Perspective A, D.

            According to Perspective B, not-D.

Note that these two “according-to claims” are consistent. For instance, imagine that A and B are standing in a line with a third person, C, in between them. To use a non-scientific example, according to A’s perspective, C is on the right, but according to B’s perspective, C is on the left. There is no contradiction in this. The same thing can be said in science, but perspectives won’t simply be spatial positions: they will include models, instruments, and the like.

As Chakravartty (2017, 174) notes, “not all cases of inconsistent models give rise to the worry of incompatible beliefs.” First, an underlying theory can explain away the apparent inconsistency. Second, one of the inconsistent models may be on better footing than the other, such that the inconsistency clearly counsels rejection of the latter model. Third, where the inconsistent models appear to be on a par, then suspension of belief is appropriate. However, at least the first two cases are catch as catch can. As such, perspectivism might well be the preferred strategy when those alternatives are unavailable, and suspension of belief seems inappropriate.

Chakravartty considers two kinds of perspectivism:

P1. Knowledge of scientific ontology is bound within specific contexts because our epistemic abilities do not extend as far as perspective-transcendent knowledge.

P2. Knowledge of scientific ontology is bound within specific contexts because there are no perspective-transcendent ontological facts or states of affairs to be known.

Note that P2 implies P1, but not vice versa.

  • Perspectivism’s Trilemma

Chakravartty claims that perspectivism of this sort will end up with one or more of the following untoward consequences:

  • Irrelevant: While certain aspects of scientific practice are perspectival, they frequently have no ontological upshot. For instance, the following is a bad inference: Lavoisier proposed the theory of oxygen from a particular perspective. Therefore, our epistemic abilities do not extend as far as perspective-transcendent knowledge that oxygen combusts.
  • Unstable: A putatively perspectival ontology collapses into a non-perspectival or deflationary ontology upon closer scrutiny.
  • Incoherent: Some perspectival claims do not really resolve the problem of inconsistent models; a contradiction still lurks.

Chakravartty’s goal: to show that these problems arise for the key arguments for P1 and P2. Let’s consider three arguments for P1 and P2, and Chakravartty’s objections to them.

  • Argument from Partial Modeling
  • PM1. If scientific modeling only provide partial representations of their targets, then non-perspectival facts are unknowable.
  • PM2. Scientific models only provide partial representations of their targets.

P1.       Therefore, non-perspectival facts are unknowable.

  • Chakravartty’s Objection: PM1 is false. It’s possible to have knowledge of non-perspectival facts even if complete representations are impossible. Consequently, perspectivism is irrelevant or unstable.
  • Argument from Conditioned Detection

CD1.    If different detectors produce (seemingly) inconsistent but equally acceptable descriptions of the same target system, then non-perspectival facts are unknowable.

CD2.    Different detectors produce inconsistent but equally acceptable descriptions of the same target system.

P1.       Therefore, non-perspectival facts are unknowable.

Perspectivism and CD1: Suppose that Detector D1 indicates that a target system T has property x, while Detector D2 indicates that T has property y, and that nothing with x can also have y or vice versa. Then, to avoid a contradiction, we should adopt perspectivism: According to D1, T is x; According to D2, T is y.

Chakravartty and CD1: Scientists can frequently show that detectors are describing one and the same perspective-independent target. In this case, once again, perspectivism is either irrelevant or unstable.

  • Argument from Meaning & Reference

MR1.   If the structure of the world depends on the concepts we impose upon it, then there are no non-perspectival facts to be known.

MR2.   The structure of the world depends on the concepts we impose upon it.

P2.       There are no non-perspectival facts to be known.

  • Chakravartty’s Objection:
  • Suppose that one person’s concepts entail that T is x, and another’s, that T is not x.
  • If the structure of the world depends upon the concepts we impose upon it, then T is both x and not-x.
  • So, either (a) everyone’s concepts entail the same thing for every target system or (b) the structure of the world does not depend upon the concepts we impose upon it.

In the first case, (a), we seem to have a perspectivism that only allows one perspective, which isn’t really perspectivism at all (incoherence). In the second case, (b), MR2 is false, and so there’s no good reason to accept P2 (instability).

  • Context-Transcendent Pluralism About Ontology

The uncertainty with which we began still requires pluralism about ontology. However, Chakravartty takes the preceding arguments to indicate that this pluralism should not be perspectival. He offers two alternatives.

  • Pluralism about Packaging

First, there is pluralism about packaging, the position “that entities and kinds of entities may come in different sorts of packages, corresponding to different aggregations, even at one and the same level of analysis” (190). Which package is appropriate depends on the particular prediction, explanation, or other scientific aim is relevant.

Regardless of whether one thinks of the aggregate as merely conventional or having reality over and above its constituents (anti-reductionism), there is no difficulty with the problem of inconsistent models. For conventionalists, this collapses into a deflationary ontology, where only the lower-level entities exist and the higher-level talk is merely convenient. For anti-reductionists, there is no inconsistency, because different aggregates are different things, and thus no inconsistency arises.

  • Pluralism about Behavior

Second, there is pluralism about behavior. This hinges on dispositional realism. Suppose that a target T has a dispositional property, such that, if condition C1 is the case, then T behaves like an x; if C2, then T behaves like a y, where x and y are incompatible properties. (Note that objective conditions are playing the same role of dissolving the contradiction that perspectives played for perspectivists.)

  • Not Perspectivism

Neither pluralism about packaging nor pluralism about behavior are perspectivist, since on either view, one can transcend one’s context/perspective when making ontological claims. There are a number of perspective-independent facts out there, and context/perspective functions more like a spotlight for focusing on particular facts of interest. Just as facts do not fade out of existence when we turn our spotlights elsewhere, these pluralist positions do not claim that aggregates or dispositions depend on perspectives for their existence.

  • Ontological Explanation and Contrastive Why-Questions

Chakravartty concludes by showing that pluralism about ontologies lead to “anything goes” about ontology. For instance, pluralism about packaging requires any description of an aggregate to serve some scientific goal (explanation, prediction, etc.) Since dispositions are out there in the world, packaging about behaviors are objectively constrained.

Chakravartty proposes a theory of contrastive why-questions that is compatible with a harmless form of perspectivism: “Investigative contexts afford perspectives, which in turn facilitate knowledge of non-perspectival facts.” (197)

On such a view, questions of the form, “Why P?” are often elliptical for questions of the form, “Why P rather than Q?”, where context frequently indicates the value of Q (often called the foil of a why-question). Note that A may correctly answer this question, but not be a correct answer to the question, “Why P rather than R?” For instance, “Why did Khalifa (rather than Chakravartty) teach the seminar in Middlebury’s philosophy department?” only needs to point to the fact that Khalifa is a Middlebury faculty member. However, this fails as an answer to the question “Why did Khalifa (rather than Besser) teach the seminar in Middlebury’s philosophy department?,” which would have to point to certain teaching rotations in Middlebury’s philosophy department. Note that the two answers are compatible but their truth does not hinge on perspective. Regardless of your perspective, Khalifa is a member of the Middlebury Philosophy Department, and Chakrvartty is not, for example. So a kind of non-perspectival pluralism emerges.

OSR and Economics

  1. Ontic Structural Realism and Economics
    1. Aims of Economics

Ross rejects the Kuhnian view of scientific progress as a series of paradigm shifts driven by scientific consensus. He argues that progress in the field of economics comes from developments in our understanding of abstract structures. Furthermore, Ross conceptualizes two distinct ideals of economics:

  1. Debrivan economics, also referred to as neoclassical or Walrasian economics, identifies economics as “the body or application of theory that generalizes over the behavior of some specified class of people or their aggregates when they take actions to optimize or improve their well-being with respect to recruitment of scarce assets.” This is seen as the established view of economics taught at American, Western European, and Indian universities in the mid to late 1900’s. This perspective of economics often held the assumptions of a favorable view of the free market, perfect information among suppliers and demanders, and rational actors in the economy. 
  2. Anti-neoclassical: Anti-neoclassical economists often associates themselves with ideals of economics from before the dominance of neoclassical economics. In particular, Adam Smith is seen as a key figure in the anti-neoclassical ideal of economics for his social-psychological emphasis. Keynes is another figure held in high regard by anti-neoclassical economists. Keynesian economics challenged the traditional view of free markets and argued for monetary and fiscal policy to stimulate the economy in times of recessions and depressions. Anti-neoclassical economists, such as Sen, argue that neoclassical economics is needlessly atomistic and that the view of economics as an interlocking system of markets wherein selfishly rational entities are acting to maximize their utility is not reflective of the real world. 

* It should be noted that these two distinctions are not as clearly defined as Ross initially states. Subfields of economics, such as game theory, are seen by some as an extension of the traditional neoclassical tradition and by others as a fundamental shift in the study of economics. 

Ross then describes the history of economics through the description of key figures in refining our idea of field. Ross describes two perspectives on this development:

  1. Whiggish: The whiggish perspective of history that views history as a story of progress. Under the Whiggish framework, economics progresses through a series of technical advances that build upon one another. In time, this leads to an increasingly accurate and unified science whose scope has also improved and increased.
  2. Kuhnian: The Kuhnian perspective would identify two distinct paradigms within economics: one that accounts for psychology utility and one that does not. In Ross’ conception of the history of economics, psychological hypotheses are gradually fazed out. 

Ross argues against the criticism levied by anti-neoclassical economists that economics assumes inherently selfish actors. By his lights, the individual in economics is comprised of a constant, in a situation to interact with commodities that would improve their state, and an end state that can be achieved through exchanges of limited resources. This individual doesn’t have any normative obligation to be selfish or rational. In fact, if economics was viewed as simply a mathematical equation, there is no obligation to do anything at all. Ross argues that economics, properly understood, is not rooted in selfishness despite popular conceptions. He identifies two main factors that drive this misconception of economics: the structure of economic education and an association with the Chicago School. In particular, Freidman, Stigler, Coase, and other economics hailing from the Chicago School held a libertarian ideology that at least partially motivated their policy prescriptions. Ross holds that libertarianism is a political philosophy, not an assumption of economics and generally supports the dissociation of the Chicago brand with economics/ neoclassical brands as a whole. He views Chicago economics as economic engineers while he views his domain as economic science. The core distinction between the two is that economic science describes the “revealed preferences” of firms of countries as opposed to the traditional conception of individual actors. Though not explicitly stated, I understood economic engineering to be policy recommendations or normative statements about what one ought to do given economic science. 

Objection/ Comments: In page 4 of the reading, Ross claims that “Adam Smith had a deeper understanding of human behavior than many modern psychologists, but he did not know much economics by contemporary standards”. This seems like an overreach by Ross in making a controversial comparison without much evidence or support. 

Objection/ Comments: The summary above encapsulates Ross’s perspective of economics. However, given that economists would actually group Keynes into the neoclassical tradition (sometimes referred to as neoclassical synthesis or Neo-Keynesian Economics), it seems to me that the distinction of anti-neoclassical and neoclassical economists is blurry at best and inaccurate at worse. Furthermore, in terms of the characterization of a decrease in psychological utility, it seems that Ross ignores developments in behavioral economics, which challenge the idea of perfectly rational actors with complete information. What are your thoughts?  How accurate do you think Ross’ characterizations are?

  1. OSR as the Ontology for Economics

Ross views the basic questions asked in economics as optimization problems. Given a state of affairs with scarcity, a hierarchy of favorable outcomes, a goal to maximize utility, and other assumptions, these “games” seek to create the best possible buddle of results. These games are a series of relationships whose relata are mathematical representations that do not reflect real life individuals. Thus, the discussion of individual behavior and motive are simply useful shorthand as reference points. This is in line with what OSR would predict as the ontology for economics- relationships without entities. A comparison made by Ross is that economics treats humans in a similar way to how physics treats rocks or tables. Modern physics doesn’t deny the existence of rocks but rather denies that fundamental reality bottoms out at existences like rocks or tables. Instead, modern physics seems to argue that reality bottoms out at a collection of smaller existences. 

Question: I had some initial thoughts and objections to this section linking OSR to economics. In particular, I found that the comparison between humans in economics and rocks or tables in physics to be suspect. In economics, the issues that arise from modeling individual behavior come from the irrationality of human behavior and of fundamental assumptions such as consistent never-changing preferences and distinctive properties. In physics, it seems that rocks and tables are composed of properties which when understood accurately predicts and describes phenomena in the real world. The difference, in my eyes, is that it seems individuals in economics are in need of additive properties as the current model does not include key characteristics of the human experience. 

Structures: science as a constraint on scientific ontology

  1. Fundamental physics and ontology

The Standard Model of particle physics posits entities you may have heard of such as quarks and gluons. Prior to its inception, the world was thought to consist of four fundamental forces:

  • strong forces (the force that holds between, e.g., a proton and a neutron in an atomic nucleus)
  • weak forces (the forces at play in radioactive decay)
  • electromagnetic forces
  • gravitational forces

The Standard Model unifies the first three.

The philosophical task is “to describe the ontology of fundamental physics in a way that is compatible with the notion that it has some causal or physical oomph.” (135)

Although Chakravartty is agnostic about nearly every aspect of this “oomph,” he notes one important commitment shared by all “traditional” theories of causation: that causation involves entities. Entities are broadly construed to include objects and events, construed in myriad ways.

This entity-based ontology stands in tension with structuralism, which frequently downplays the importance of entities in order to emphasize relations or structures.

2. “Particles”

Colloquially, the Standard Model is frequently thought to posit a variety of particles—protons, neutrons, electrons, bosons, mesons, etc.

However, these should not be thought of as point-like entities bouncing into each other. That would be to impose classical mechanics on the quantum world. In the Standard Model, “particles” are modes of excitation of a quantum field. 

Rather, “particle” is merely a placeholder for the properties associated with them (mass, charge, spin). This is an occasion for ontological theorizing, where various puzzles arise because quantum mechanics is weird. One of the biggest puzzles is permutation invariance:

  • Swapping one particle for another of the same type within a system does not constitute a new physical arrangement. But if it is impossible to distinguish particles in this way, are they really distinct? So, it’s not even clear what we are claiming is real when we say, e.g., that electrons are real.

  • 3. Structuralist interpretations

The standard (non-structuralist) picture holds that relations ontologically depend on their relata, the entities that stand in those relations.

  • For instance, take the relation “is a student of”. If you and your professors (the relata of this relation) did not exist, then this relation would be empty. If you did some add/drop gymnastics such that you took courses with a different professor, the relation would change. (Notice the difference with fundamental particles: on the non-structuralist/standard picture, “is a student of” is permutation variant.)

Non-eliminative structuralism inverts the standard picture: entities ontologically depend on the relations in which they stand.

  • Entities are just positions (locations, nodes) in patterns or structures. They have no intrinsic properties.
  • It is opposed to particles having “kind identities.” While everyone agrees that different kinds of particles are individuated by mass, charge, and spin (among other properties), non-eliminative structuralists are unique in taking these to be extrinsic properties.

Eliminative structuralism goes even further: everything is a relation; nothing is an entity.

  • Talk of entities is merely a convenient shorthand/useful fiction for referring to relations/structure.

Structuralism does a nice job with the Standard Model. If a particle can’t be individuated in a physical arrangement, then the most we can say is that it plays some role in that arrangement. But arrangements are just sets of relations, i.e., structures.

  • 4. The Dilemma

Chakravartty presents a dilemma to both kinds of structuralism:

General schemaEliminative structuralismNon-eliminative structuralism
Given a version of structuralism, determine the locus of causal efficacy.Concrete structures are the locus of causal efficacy.Entities are the locus of causal efficacy.
In evaluating this view, encounter a metaphysical challenge.How can structures be concrete if they have no relata? (cf. the standard picture.)For this to be structuralist, entities must be defined entirely in terms of their extrinsic properties. But what kind of entity is that?
In replying to the challenge, posit a contentious ontological primitive.Posit “relations-in-themselves” or concrete structures.Posit “internally extrinsic entities.”
Dilemma: accept the contentious posit, or reject this version of structuralism.Accept relations-in-themselves or reject eliminative structuralism.Accept internally extrinsic entities or reject non-eliminative structuralism.
  • 5. Dissolving the dilemma

Chakravartty uses the framework from Part I of the book to show how one can adopt different attitudes to different claims about subatomic particles. Most realists will endorse “that there are subatomic particles, conceived as entities subject to various detections, measurements, manipulations, and novel predictions” (159). There can be varying degrees of tentativeness in one’s attitude toward the more specific structuralist (eliminative and non-eliminative) proposals about particle ontology.

As you might have guessed, the varying degrees of tentativeness are a reflection of one’s epistemic risk, which in turn is determined by one’s stance. Chakravartty notes that suspension of belief is compatible with other kinds of epistemic attitudes. For instance, one might suspend belief about the structuralist ontology of particles, but still adopt “a pragmatic attitude toward theorizing about the finer-grained ontological natures of subatomic particles” that serves to “elaborate conceptual pictures of the ontology of fundamental physics in different ways, which may then be heuristically fruitful for scientific investigation down the road” (162).

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.

Dispositions: Science as a Basis for Ontology

  1. Dispositions in the Philosophy of Science

Goals of this chapter: to show how the framework in Part I of Scientific Ontology (a sliding scale for metaphysical inferences indexed to differing degrees of epistemic risk) applies to actual work in scientific ontology (in this case, dispositions).

  1. What is a disposition?

A disposition is “a causal power” (100) that is only manifested under certain conditions.

  • For example, salt is soluble = salt, when immersed in water, dissolves.
  • So, salt has a disposition to dissolve in water.

Dispositional properties are contrasted with categorical properties, which are not manifested under specific conditions.

  • For example, salt’s property of being a sodium compound is categorical.
  1. Dispositional realism

Realists about dispositional properties justify their position via metaphysical inference: dispositions are alleged to best explain a number of things including:

  • Empirical generalizations,
  • The overlap between different realist positions,  
  • Scientific practices of explanation, extrapolation, and the use of inconsistent models.
  1. Dispositional antirealism

Some find dispositional properties too mysterious. They might even be realists about instances of dissolving salt while denying that there is a dispositional property, solubility, standing over and above these instances. Or they might hold that salt’s molecular structure (a categorical property) exists and that solubility is just a way of describing that structure, but once again, this doesn’t require an extra commitment to solubility.

  • Explanatory Power I: Unifying Scientific Realism

Chakravartty uses dispositional realism to provide a unified account of several theses and concepts in the metaphysics of science. As he notes, however, whether one is moved by this depends on one’s stance.

  • Unifying Entity and Structural RealismBackground.

Let’s begin with a brief history of scientific realism.

Scientific realism holds that our best scientific theories provide approximately true descriptions of both the observable and unobservable world.

Its chief challenge is the Pessimistic Induction, which roughly stated, runs as follows holds that today’s most successful theories are false because our most successful theories in the past were subsequently discovered to be false. Typical realist responses involve two moves:

  • To raise the standards of “most successful.” Two “high-grade successes” are:
    • Experimental intervention. Intervening to produce an effect in a well-designed experiment.
    • Novel prediction. Making a bold prediction, unique to the theory, that is borne out.
  • To narrow which parts of a theory are “approximately true.” Only those parts of the theory indispensable to the high-grade success warrant realist commitment.

This is called selective realism. The two most prominent kinds of selective realism are:

  • Entity realism. This holds that specific entities are real (typically the ones that figure in successful experimental interventions). It frequently denies that other parts of a theory—including many of the descriptions of entities—are accurate.
  • Structural realism. This holds that we should be realists about the relations between entities, but should be agnostic about the entities that stand in those relations. Furthermore, it is only the abstract (mathematical) structure of these relationships that gets preserved over time in science, and this is the only thing we should be realists about.
  • Unifying entity and structural realism.

On the face of it, entity realists should be pessimistic about structures, and structural realists should be skeptical about entities. But this needn’t be so. Chakravartty argues as follows:

U1.      If entity realism is true, then entities can be detected or manipulated.

U2.      If an entity is detected or manipulated, then scientists have knowledge of the detector or the manipulation’s causal powers.

U3.      Causal powers = dispositions.

U4.      If scientists have knowledge of dispositions, then dispositional realism is true.

U5.      So, if entity realism is true, then dispositional realism is true.

U6.      If dispositional realism is true, then there is a relation between that entity, the effect it produces when its causal power is manifested, and the conditions in which that power is manifested, and that relation is typically expressible in mathematics.

U7.      If there is a relation between that entity, the effect it produces when its causal power is manifested, and the conditions in which that power is manifested, and that relation is typically expressible in mathematics, then structural realism is true.

U8.      If dispositional realism is true, then structural realism is true.

Comment: This is a pretty unorthodox “unification.” Typically, A unifies B and C if B and C follow from A. (Think of how Newtonian mechanics gives a unified account of the tides and planetary orbits.) In this case, dispositional and structural realism follow from entity realism. So, entity realism should be the unifying framework!

Possible reply: The reasoning offered here doesn’t capture the fact in greatest need of explanation—namely how both entity and structural realism could simultaneously be true.

  • Unifying Properties, Causation, Laws of Nature, and Scientific Categories

C1.       Entities participate in causal processes.

C2.       That entities have disposition-conferring properties best explains why they participate in causal processes.

C3.       So, entities have disposition-conferring properties.

K1.      Science routinely succeeds in categorizing entities in ways that allow for reliable generalizations (laws) and predictions using those categories (natural kinds).

K2.      That entities have disposition-conferring properties best explains this success.

K3.      So, entities have disposition-conferring properties.

  • Stances Enter the Fray

These unifying arguments only have force if one subscribes to entity and structural realism (in §2.1) and causation, laws, and natural kinds.

Furthermore, one might be unimpressed by how empirically unconstrained (no “empirical answerability”) these explanations/unifications are.

This is a matter of one’s stance.

  • Explanatory Power II: Giving Scientific Explanations
    • Transcendental Argument for Dispositions: Big Picture

P1.       Science explains many phenomena.

P2.       That science explains many phenomena presupposes the existence of dispositional properties.

C.         Therefore, dispositional properties exist.

  • Dispositional Regress Argument
  • If C is a categorical property and D is a dispositional property, then for every explanation of D in terms of C, C causes D under some circumstances but not in others.
  • For all X and Y, if X causes Y under some conditions and not others, then X is disposed to cause Y.
  • So, every explanation of a dispositional property presupposes another dispositional property.
  • Dispositional Exercise Argument
  • It sometimes appears that no disposition is being exercised when there is good reason to believe that it is. (see electron example from Cartwright, p. 116)
  • The explanation of such phenomena presuppose counteracting dispositions.
  • Argument from Abstraction
  • Science abstracts away some parts of a system in order to explain how a system would behave if the remaining parts were the only operant causes.
  • So, abstract explanations presuppose dispositions.
  • Stances, Again

The dispositional antirealist will claim that these arguments only show the indispensability of dispositional language, not of dispositional properties.

Many of these arguments beg the question against the dispositional antirealist.

In many cases, disposition-talk can be swapped out for non-disposition-talk. For example, putative dispositions of an isolated system are not manifested in more complex systems. So, abstraction might merely be a useful tool for guiding research, but it need not be construed as describing dispositions.

However, are dispositions even necessary here? “Behaviors like [those of enzymes] are surely amenable to dispositional description, but they are also surely amenable, if one is that way inclined, to description simply in terms of entities with categorical properties.”

  • Explanatory Power III: Consolidating Scientific Knowledge
  • Science uses inconsistent models of the same phenomenon.
  • That these phenomena have dispositional properties (i.e., that they behave differently under different circumstances) best explains why science can use inconsistent models effectively.

This, too, runs into the typical stance-y treatments. Among other things, empiricists don’t think that theories need to accurately describe unobservables, so they won’t be bothered by models that are inconsistent about unobservables. (It will kind of be like using a Philips and flathead screwdriver under different circumstances.)

  • Property Identity

Chakravartty suggests that dispositional realism will only work with certain kinds of empiricism:

  1. Either dispositions determine a property’s quiddity, i.e., why that property is what it is, or quiddities are fundamentally unknowable.
  2. In science, quiddities are assumed to be knowable.
  3. So, if dispositional antirealism is true, then science regularly fails to produce knowledge of scientific properties.

Chakravartty suggests that dispositional antirealists who hold that scientists produce knowledge of scientific properties are guilty of self-sabotage. A more promising dispositional antirealist should deny that questions about quiddities should be answered.

Bryant’s Epistemology for Scientific Metaphysics


In response to Chakravartty’s defense of a scientific metaphysics, Amanda Bryant believes that there is a need for an epistemological infrastructure for this field of philosophy. She then goes through options for constructing this infrastructure. First, she gives the option of using an empiricist epistemology, saying “we should tie metaphysics to science because the road to knowledge is empirical, and because science seems to be a paragon of empirical investigation.” However, this would not be a great option, as mixing metaphysics and scientific evidence would not call for the need of scientific evidence. Also, science isn’t always purely empirical. Bryant uses the examples of evolutionary biology, string theory, and cosmology to support her point. 

Another option she goes through is one in which scientism is the only way of knowing: “if it were the case that science should guide all inquiry, then of course it should follow that it should guide metaphysics.” However, this view quickly becomes difficult to defend, as it is far too strong. Just as we would expect a philosopher to appeal to the sciences to prove their points regarding the nature of reality, we would not expect a philosopher to appeal to science when investigating subjective things, such as justice, beauty or morality. I did, however, take issue with the idea that beauty is not something that can be scientifically proven, as there are ratios and aesthetic patterns that have proven attractive to the human eye. Because of the flaws of these two prima facie options, Bryant believes that a weaker epistemic infrastructure can do the job of supporting naturalistic prescriptions and establishing scientific metaphysics as the better option. 

Scientific Metaphysics

Bryant then begins to explain what she means when she says “scientific metaphysics.” She uses its contrast, “free range metaphysics,” which is only nominally constrained by science and focuses on “simplicity, consistency, intuitive plausibility, and explanatory power” (4) to highlight the fact that scientific metaphysics is closely associated with science. Scientific metaphysics is, in every way, engaged with science. Basically, Bryant believes scientific metaphysics to allow the philosopher to behave like a scientist, incorporating scientific data into metaphysical theories, drawing philosophical conclusions on the basis of scientific data, and other things. Any metaphysics that does some of these things that Bryant prescribes is a scientific metaphysics. Bryant believes that, while there are numerous ways that people can perceive scientific metaphysics, the common ground they can all agree on is that metaphysical speculation should be reigned in (4).

Epistemic Principles

Bryant then goes into the epistemic principles of a scientific metaphysics. It is at this point where  there could be a split in how Bryant’s scientific metaphysics could be perceived. Much of science is done in an exploratory manner. In order to understand the world, scientists need to be exposed to everything that is in this world, even if they do not officially understand it. However, the principles that Bryant lays out are not conducive to discovering new things. Instead, they are focused on justifying, and certifying, the things that scientists have already been exposed to. Her goal for scientific metaphysics is a “convergence towards a theory consilient with and strongly confirmed by the best available evidence at the time” (5). This is where Bryant and Chakravartty most strongly agree. While scientists might not understand the nature of a thing, dispositions allow them to understand what a thing does, which is better than having nothing at all.

            In order to achieve this goal, Bryant believes that science needs theoretical constraints. Theories should be adequate with, and be able to explain, the data. She also acknowledges that science sometimes requires that the theories need to be in line with political or ideological goals, which does not seem very scientific, at least to me.

            Bryant posits that these constraints fall on a spectrum of strength, with data being the affecting variable. The reason being, the more data there is, the less theoretical content there will be. Having a robust theory with fewer atomic propositions (less permissive) will lead scientists to develop stronger theories. Bryant uses the metaphor of a bouncer at a club, saying that a club that lets anybody in is not a good club. Basically, she says that by limiting the scope of inquiry, science can develop stronger theories. However, she does not claim that these more constrained theories are superior. She acknowledges that extremely constrained theories “cannot say much at all” (7). Bryant just wants there to be limits for what a theory should include; while metaphysical claims should be allowed, science should lean more towards aligning with the available data.

            Bryant’s gripe with permissive theories is that they have very little explanatory power. There is too much going on. Contrast that with a robust theory: given the fewer things going on, the theory can focus on its most relevant aspects. Bryant does allow that simply being robust is not a good reason to adopt a theoretical constraint. Neither should we give up on a constraint only because it is permissive. This stipulation brings up an important ethical question: if the selection of theoretical constraints should be well-motivated, how can the scientific community ensure that the motivations they have are good ones? This issue is immediately confronted when Bryant says that a theory that allows “too many claims for the purposes of explanation” is not strong enough. That seems to be a dangerous proposition. There should be room for every kind of reaction — the good ones should get the most attention.

Constraint Principles

Bryant posits three constraint principles: weak, moderate, and strong. Explaining the three theories, Bryant says “the weak principle makes robustly constrained theories preferable ceteris paribus, the moderate principle makes them preferable full-stop; the strong principle makes robust constraint a necessary condition of what I call epistemic adequacy” (8). In order to be epistemically adequate, people should be able to rationally adopt a policy concerning the theory or its component parts. Bryant explains that this is why her scientific metaphysics would not be conducive to discovery. Regarding justification, Bryant states that robust constraints might lead to the discrediting of some theories. As the amount of available data grows, the theory might get disconfirmed. Due to this fact, Bryant worries that constraint might not be the best way to go about justifying theories. This makes no sense to me, as justifying a false theory seems to be an ethical issue in an of itself. Thankfully, Bryant does want to allow disconfirmation to be a part of the process, which takes care of that issue. 

Epistemic Principles Defended

Much like Okham’s Razor, Bryant believes that by limiting the theoretical contents in a theory, the more likely the theory is to be true.

Argument for Statistical Likeliness

P1) Ceteris paribus, relatively simple theories are statistically likelier to be true than their more complex rivals

P2) Ceteris paribus, statistically likelier theories are epistemically preferable

P3) Robustly constrained theories are relatively simple

P4) Robustly constrained theories are statistically likelier to be true than their more complex rivals

C) Ceteris paribus, robustly constrained theories are epistemically preferable

Bryant understands that there are trade-offs for her theory. While there are many desires for a theory, “it is better to have a descriptive and explanatory theory this is only somewhat likely than to have a theory that is not particularly descriptive or explanatory, but a good deal likelier” (12). Instead, the desire is to have a principle that leads us to align with the theory that is simpler, all other things being equal.

Argument from Agreement

P1) Ceteris paribus, relatively simple theories are more conducive to agreement

P2) Ceteris paribus, theories that are more conducive to agreement are epistemically preferable

P3) Robustly constrained theories are relatively simple

C) Ceteris paribus, robustly constrained theories are epistemically preferable

By following this argument, Bryant sees two valuable outcomes: greater statistical likeliness and greater consensus. Given that these values are important for epistemic aims, it follows that robustly constrained theories should be preferred, ceteris paribus.

Argument from falsehood avoidance

P1) The more content we exclude from a theory and the less we permit, the more likely we are to avoid substantial falsity

P2) Ceteris paribus, theories that are more likely to avoid substantial falsity are epistemically preferable 

P3) Robustly constrained theories exclude relatively many putative theoretical contents and permit relatively few

C) Ceteris paribus, robustly constrained theories are epistemically preferable  

By saying less, one is less likely to say something false. Theories aim to acquaint their audiences with facts, and it is more efficient to randomly state things in the hope that they will turn out to be true.

Argument from methodological expediency

P1) Theories that better target the relevant facts are epistemically preferable 

P2) Ceteris paribus, robustly constrained theories better target the relevant facts

C) Ceteris paribus, robustly constrained theories are epistemically preferable

By adopting this argument, this allows scientists to more effectively target facts. However, not looking at certain things does not in and of itself lead to more efficient targeting. Bryant uses the metaphor of shining a flashlight in a dark room to illustrate her point.

Scientific Metaphysics and Robust Constraint

By aligning itself more with science, scientific metaphysics naturally adopts more robust constraints. These constraints do not rule out crank hypotheses, but that does not mean it encourages them. Instead, they are simply not paid any attention, or at leas they should not. It also discourages science to engage with claims that cannot be empirically proven. Now that scientific metaphysics is robustly constrained, there is now an epistemic infrastructure that allows us to properly pursue it.