On rejecting one’s powers-based cake but wanting to eat it too

My theory is that most people – even most philosophers – in fact hold a productive, powers-based conception of causation.  Most people, that is (to switch from causation to causes), assume that causes actually bring about effects (when they do bring them about).  I think that people hold this view so deeply, and so intuitively, that when they are faced with an alternative definition (Hume’s, say), according to which that is not what causation is at all, they imagine that the anti-powers account is just a different way of talking about the same phenomenon, i.e., a different way of conceptualizing genuinely productive causation.

This maneuver (not available to those historical figures who were engaged in robust ontological debate with Aristotelians about the nature of the world) makes it be that one can pronounce oneself a Humean – of one contemporary stripe or another – without actually having to give up the phenomenon of productive causation.

Nice, huh?

But it’s bogus.  If you reject a powers-based definition of causation, you reject productive causation.   That’s just what it is to reject a powers-based definition of causation.

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4 Responses to On rejecting one’s powers-based cake but wanting to eat it too

  1. Olav Eikeland says:

    Show it! I think this is the challenge of discussing “powers” more “transcendentally” or “immanently critically”. This was your strategy in discussing Hume and Humeanism, wasn’t it?!

    • rgroff2013 says:

      Interesting. Yes and no. That is, in *Ontology Revisited* I showed (I think) that various major thinkers, including but not limited to Hume himself, who either reject the existence of powers or are ambivalent about accepting them nonetheless rely, for their own purposes, upon the reality of productive causation.

      In the post above, though, I was making a different, more general point, which is that a definition of a stipulated/purported “something” (here productive causation) according to which the “something” is correctly understood to be its contrary (in this case not productive causation at all, but rather counterfactual dependence, constant conjunction in this or all possible worlds, transcendental order, etc., etc.) — such a definition, if true, negates the stipulated/purported existence of the “something.” You can’t consistently reject a powers-based account of causation whilst affirming the existence of productive causation. It is patently contradictory.

      To go back to your example of the immanent critique that I engaged in in *OR*, I would say that it’s one thing to show that a thinker rejects powers yet relies for their own purposes on productive causation — i.e., to show that they were not able to pull off the rejection. I think you’re right that I did do that.

      But it’s another thing altogether to be expected to “show” that p & ~p is indeed contradictory, or that it does, indeed, violate the law of non-contradiction. I don’t think that one is required to show that an interlocutor who both denies (tout court) the existence of x and accepts (tout court) the existence of x thereby holds a contradictory view. That’s just what a contradictory view is.

      To my mind, a certain amount of a certain kind of contemporary philosophy consists of turning a blind eye to such contradictions. [I have an independent meta-philosophical interest in how this has come to be. Maybe one day I should try to write a paper on it. “On Having One’s Cake & Eating It Too: Analytic Reductions, Definition and the Law of Non-Contradiction in Analytic Philosophy.” Something like that. :-) ]

      But I also think it can happen inadvertently, in the way that I described in the post, if one loses track of what has happened at the level of ontological inventory when something is “defined” as being its contrary.

  2. Olav Eikeland says:

    Ruth: for some reason, I don’t get notified about answers. I’ll get back to this one as well.

    • rgroff2013 says:

      Ok! Try clicking the little block below your reply, that says “Notify me of follow-up comments …” If you have already, then I’m useless for ideas!

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