The Causal Criterion of Existence in the Context of Passivism

Finally a real post!  Albeit actually just a question to the hive-mind.  It’s this.  It seems to me that anyone who wants to say, of either (putative) dispositional properties or (putative) categorical properties (“putative” so as not to assume anything about how many kinds of properties there are) — anyone who wants to say, of either, that putative properties of that kind don’t or couldn’t exist because they don’t meet a causal criterion for existence has to already be implicitly thinking of causation in productive, substance causal terms.


I mean, you certainly could run the test on a putative property type assuming some other account of causation, but it’s going to be a lot harder to say that a kind of property doesn’t exist in virtue of (its instances) flunking the test if you can’t say that flunking shows that (putative) properties of that kind don’t do anything.  Nothing actually does anything, according to the passivist.  And never coming first in a regular sequence, for instance, is significantly less telling against the existence of something than is never doing anything.

Plus, think of Alexander Bird’s current position: he doesn’t even think that there are causal relations at the fundamental level at which his so-called “potencies” exist!  Not only are they not potent (activity being only a metaphor, he says), they exist only in an a-causal realm.  Maybe you could get him out of it given that while they are not potent, and they exist only at a level at which causation does not obtain, they nevertheless (as he had it the last time I knew, at least) ground laws of nature.

But nothing hangs on the case of Alexander’s account in particular.  Just pick your favorite Humean passivist (or Kantian, for that matter).  I don’t think that you can use the causal criterion of existence to rule out the existence one or another of their purported property kinds; not without rejecting their own definition of “to cause,” I mean.

Interestingly, Roy Bhaskar, who appealed in A Realist Theory of Science (1975) to a causal criterion for the existence of powers took it as a given that this criterion would not be sanctioned by the Humean empiricists against whom he was arguing (though for him what was important about it was what it permitted, not what it ruled out, i.e., that it allows one to countenance the existence of non-observables).

Anyway, what am I missing?  Show me how a passivist can point to a property playing no causal role to deny its existence!  How they could do so and have it be compelling, that is.




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2 Responses to The Causal Criterion of Existence in the Context of Passivism

  1. Andrea says:

    Hi Ruth, nice one! Re: devil’s advocate, let me say that your reading seems to depend on a certain reading of the eleatic principle that begs the question against your “passivist”. They *do* have a formulation of the principle that is unproblematic (see Armstrong1997: 41; and funnily enough Mumford 2004: 190). Moreover, and here both passivist and non-passivist should agree, the principle is not explicit about which account of causation can be plugged into the principle, and so passivist would say that you are simply and illegitimately reading your productive account of causation from the principle.

    • rgroff2013 says:

      Hi Andrea,

      Thanks for the reply. I do acknowledge – did say – that you could plug a different account of causation in. My point was that the fact, if it were one, that one of x’s properties (r, say) is never the salient one that constantly precedes phenomenon y is far less compelling grounds for denying that it exists than is the claim that it never ever does anything.

      p.s. Edited to make my point clearer!

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