The Return of Causal Powers?

In Stathis Psillos, Benjamin Hill & Henrik Lagerlund (eds.), Causal Powers in Science: Blending Historical and Conceptual Perspectives. Oxford University Press. pp. 168-185 (2021)
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Powers, capacities and dispositions (in what follows I will use these terms synonymously) have become prominent in recent debates in metaphysics, philosophy of science and other areas of philosophy. In this paper I will analyse in some detail a well-known argument from scientific practice to the existence of powers/capacities/dispositions. According to this argument the practice of extrapolating scientific knowledge from one kind of situation to a different kind of situation requires a specific interpretation of laws of nature, namely as attributing dispositions to systems. My main interest will be to discuss what characteristics these dispositions need to have in order to account for the scientific practice in question. I will furthermore assess whether the introduction of dispositions in the context of the extrapolation argument can be described as a ‘revitalization’ or as a ‘return’ to those notions repudiated by early modern philosophers. More particularly I will argue for the following claims: I. In repudiating scholastic terminology, including substantial forms with their causal powers, post-cartesian philosophers focussed on a concept of causation that was much stronger than 21st century conceptions of causation. For this reason alone, whatever ‘causal’ is supposed to mean in today’s causal powers, embracing causal powers is not a simple return to a pre-cartesian notion. II. The dispositions presupposed in scientific practice need not (and should not) be construed in causal terms (whether strong or weak). III. While some early modern philosophers contrasted the characterisation of the natural world in terms of substantial forms (and their causal powers) on the one hand and a mathematical characterization on the other and suggested that these approaches are incompatible, the dispositions postulated by the extrapolation argument to account for scientific practice are themselves characterized in mathematical terms. More precisely: The behaviour the systems are disposed to display is – at least in physics – often characterized in mathematical terms. IV. The dispositions assumed in the law-statements in scientific practice are determinable rather than determinate properties.

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Andreas Hüttemann
University of Cologne


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