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Exploring the Concept of Causal Power in a Critical Realist Tradition

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This article analyses and evaluates the uses of the concept of causal power in the critical realist tradition, which is based on Roy Bhaskar's philosophy of science. The concept of causal power that appears in the early works of Rom Harré and his
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   1 This is the penultimate draft of the paper that has been published in Journal for the Theory of Social  Behavior 37(1): 63-87 in 2007. Exploring the Concept of Causal Power in a Critical Realist Tradition Tuukka Kaidesoja ABSTRACT This article analyses and evaluates the uses of the concept of causal power in the critical realist tradition, which is based on Roy Bhaskar’s philosophy of science. The concept of causal power that appears in the early works of Rom Harré and his associates is compared to Bhaskar’s account of this concept and its uses in the critical realist social ontology. It is argued that the concept of emergence should be incorporated to any adequate notion of causal power. The concept of emergence used in Bhaskar and other critical realists’ works is shown to be ambiguous. It is also pointed out that  the concept of causal power should be analysed in an anti-essentialist way. Ontological and methodological problems that vitiate Bhaskar’s transcendental account of the concept of causal power are examined. Moreover, it is argued that the applications of the concept of causal power to mental powers, reasons, and social structures in the critical realist social ontology are problematic. The paper shows how these problems might be avoided without giving up the concept of causal power. Introduction The historical srcins of the philosophical concept of causal power are traceable to everyday language concepts such as ability, capacity, and readiness. In the Western philosophical tradition, one of the earliest systematic treatments of this concept can  be found in Aristotle’s philosophy; his concept of efficient cause can be seen as an ancestor of the modern concept of causal power. ‘Efficient cause’ is, however, only one of the four types of causes (or causal explanations) in Aristotle’s classification of them. The others are formal, material, and teleological cause. From this perspective, it is rather surprising that many current advocates of the concept of causal power tend to see the variable causal powers of things as the only kind of causes there is. This assumption is also largely accepted in the   2 critical realist tradition based on Roy Bhaskar’s philosophy of science. As is well known, Bhaskar espoused the concept of causal power along with some other ideas from Rom Harré, who was his teacher in philosophy. Therefore, the roots of this concept in the critical realist tradition can be found in the early works of Harré and his associates (e.g. E.H. Madden, P.F. Secord). For the sake of clarity, it is useful to distinguish the ontological problem of causality from the epistemological problem. The former problem concerns the question: what is causation? A solution of this problem should specify, among other things, the differentiating characteristics of causal relations from other kind of relations. I agree with critical realists that the concept of causality cannot be eliminated from any viable ontology and that the ontological problem of causality is therefore a genuine one. The latter problem, by contrast, deals with the question: how is it possible to acquire knowledge concerning causal relations? Here, we are interested in the empirical identification of causal relations and empirical testing of hypotheses and explanatory theories that putatively refer to causal relations and causal mechanisms. Nevertheless, the ontological and the epistemological problems of causality are not entirely independent, as our solution to one of them constrains the domain of possible solutions to the other. The concept of causal power in the critical realist tradition is designed to address the ontological problem of causality. Critical realists commonly believe that, in order to develop adequate epistemological and methodological views, ontological questions must be answered first. Following this order of exposition, I herein analyse and evaluate the uses of the concept of causal power in this tradition mainly from the ontological point of view, although I also have occasionally something to say about the epistemological and methodological implications of these uses as well. I begin by investigating Harré and E.H. Madden’s Causal Powers  (CP), in which they present a detailed analysis of the concept of causal power. Then I examine the doctrine of human powers that Harré and P.F. Secord put forward in their book, The Explanation of Social Behaviour   (ESB). There is, however, somewhat a controversial issue as to whether these two books be classified as belonging to the tradition of critical realism or not. Be this as it may, these books have certainly been influential in the forma tion of Bhaskar’s early philosophy of science and the critical realist concept of causal power. Indeed, I also attempt to show that some of the problems that vitiate the applications of the concept of causal power in Bhaskar and other critical realists’ wo rks already appear in CP and ESB. Furthermore, I point out that there are also some interesting contrasts between the concept of causal  power found in Harré and his associates’ early works and the concept of causal power that is developed in the works of Bhaskar and other critical realists (e.g. lack of the concept of emergence in CP and ESB). Next, I turn my attention to Bhaskar’s first book,  A Realist Theory of Science  (RTS). I   3 argue that his transcendental account of the concept of causal power is both ontologically and methodologically problematic. I also show that his version of the concept of emergent causal power is ambiguous. Finally, I examine how the concept of causal power is used in the critical realist social ontology that was first articulated in Bhaskar’s book, The Possibility of Naturalism (PN). In this context, I also briefly address the criticism that Harré and Charles C. Varela (e.g. 1996) raise against applying the concept of causal power to social structures in the critical realist social ontology. Although I largely accept their criticism, I nevertheless argue that the concept of emergent causal power might be applied in a certain way to the system-level properties of certain kind of concrete social systems. I also try to show that the relations between the structure of the concrete social system and its component agents may be considered as causal on the condition that we give up the idea that there is only one adequate ontological analysis of the concept of causality. Harré and Madden on the concept causal power In recent discussions dealing with critical realism, it is sometimes forgotten that Harré (e.g. 1970) already uses the concept of causal power in the late sixties and early seventies. However, the most detailed analysis of this co ncept in Harré’s works can be found in CP, which he wrote jointly with E.H. Madden. I think that the analysis presented in CP is compatible with Harré’s earlier accounts of this concept and for this reason I focus, in this section, on the analysis of the concept of causal power that was put forward in CP. According to Harré and Madden, the concept of causal power adequately represents the metaphysics presupposed by modern natural sciences. They contend that the world studied by natural sciences should not be understood as merely consisting of passive matter in motion, or regularly conjoined atomistic events, but rather of causally interacting powerful particulars. They argue that these powerful particulars generate not only the observable patterns of events and the nomic regularities but also the properties of things. Furthermore, Harré and Madden argue that powerful particulars possess essential natures in virtue of which they each necessarily possess a certain ensemble of powers. They also maintain that, in certain conditions, the powers of a certain powerful particular manifest themselves in observable effects necessarily. Examples of such powerful particulars include fields of potentials, chemical substances, ordinary material objects, and biological organisms. Harré and Madden (1975, 86) analyse the ascription of causal power to a thing as follows: “’X has the  power to A’ means ‘X (will)/(can) do A, in the appropriate conditions, in virtue of its intrinsic nature ’.” In other words, causal powers are prope rties of concrete powerful particulars, which they possess in virtue of their natures. One consequence of this analysis is that abstract entities such as   4 numbers, moral values, meanings, and social classes cannot possess causal powers. However, the term ‘can’ incorporated into the previous analysis is meant to secure the extension of this analysis to the ascription of causal powers to people (ibid. 87). I will come back to this extension later. By the concept of intrinsic nature, Harré and Madden (e.g. ibid. 101-102) refer to the real essences of powerful particulars. These real essences are constitutions or structures of particular things in virtue of which they each posses a certain ensemble of causal powers. They also believe that it is, in principle, possible to divide objects of natural scientific research into natural kinds according to their real essences (ibid. 16-18, 102). An important feature of Harré and Madden’s account of causality is that they conceive the relationship between the occasion for the exercise of the certain power and the manifestations of that  power in observable effects as naturally necessary (ibid. 5). They state that; “[t]he ineliminable but non- mysterious powers and abilities of particular things […] are the ontological ‘ties that bind’ causes and effects together” (ibid. 11). The natural necessity that connects causes to their effects in causal relations is, according to this view, a real feature of the world and not a feature that the mind has somehow projected onto reality. Harré and Madden also argue that the relationship between the ensemble of causal powers of a powerful particular and that its essential nature is naturally necessary and, therefore, they also contend that it is physically impossible for a powerful particular to act or react incompatibly with its own nature (ibid. 13-14). Furthermore, Harré and Madden (ibid. 19-21) distinguish the concept of natural necessity from the concepts of logical, transcendental, and conceptual necessity. They nevertheless maintain that the conceptual necessity embedded in our historically developed conceptual systems may reflect a natural necessity grounded in the essential natures of things when empirical knowledge, acquired via scientific research into these natures, is used in real definitions of natural kinds (ibid. 6-7, 12-14, 16-18). It follows from this that the propositions describing natural necessities are different from the logically necessary propositions, because the former are necessarily a posteriori  and the latter a priori . Harré and Madden’s notion of natural necessity is compatible with our common sense intuitions concerning causal relations. We do believe, for example, that it is somehow necessary that a sample of water boils in normal air pressure when heated to 100°C by virtue of its chemical structure (i.e. H 2 O molecules interacting in certain ways). Harré and Madden use these kinds of intuitions heavily when they try to establish the superiority of their position to that of Human regularity theory, which, according to their interpretation, reduces causal relations to the constant conjunctions of observable events and denies the existence of the natural necessities. It is not, however, entirely clear whether Harré and Madden’s theory is in fact an adequate ontological  analysis of the concept of causality. For   5 example, Raymond Woller (1982) argues that this theory is problematic since Harré and Madden’s treatment of the concept of natural necessity is multifarious even though they use it as it were unified. I propose that there is indeed some wavering in their use of this concept, but I also contend (contra Woller) that its different uses are quite tightly related to the two main uses previously mentioned. Be this as it may, I also suggest that their analysis of the concept of causal power is problematic or is at least insufficient in other ways. To picture this more clearly, we need to think of some complex material thing, say a eukaryote cell, which can be decomposed into parts (e.g. organelles), which are also complex things that can be further broken down into parts (e.g. organic molecules) and so forth. Now, it may be asked: what is the intrinsic nature (or structure) of the eukaryotic cell in virtue of which it necessarily possesses a certain ensemble of causal powers? If the causal powers of this cell are ontologically dependent on the non-relational powers of its component organelles, in the sense that the powers of the cell do not exist unless the powers of its organelles exists, as it is reasonable to assume, then it may be asked: are the powers possessed by the cell nothing but the ontological resultants (or mereological sums) of the non-relational powers of its component organelles ? If this is the case, then the powers of the cell are not ontologically grounded in the nature of the cell, but rather in the natures of its component organelles due to the fact that the powers of the cell can be ontologically reduced to the powers of its component organelles (i.e. in the last analysis they are nothing but the resultants of the powers of the organelles). If we assume for a moment that this view is correct, then it implies, methodologically, that it is, in principle possible, to explain the properties of the cell solely by investigating the non-relational causal powers of its component organelles without considering their specific and complex organisation (e.g. their non-linear, complex, and relatively permanent dynamic relationships). If the causal powers of the organelles are also nothing but the resultants of the powers of their components, then this ontological reduction can be repeated by reducing their causal powers in a similar way to the powers of their component organic molecules. The same applies to the powers of the organic molecules, which can be again reduced ontologically to the powers of the atoms that constitute them. If the causal powers of the eukaryote cell and its component organelles, and the component molecules of these component organelles and so forth, are all merely the ontological resultants of their components, then this regression may go on ad infinitum  or it may stop to such ultimate entities that are plain powers which lack intrinsic natures or structures. In either case, complex things such as an eukaryote cell are not able perform any real causal work because, according to this interpretation, their alleged causal powers are always ontologically reducible to the causal powers of entities that are ontologically more fundamental. 1
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