Generative Science

Putting the Fire in the Equations; Generating multilevel dynamical processes in Physics and Psychology

Physics Articles / Talks / Bibliography   |   Psychology Articles / Talks / Bibliography  |  Search

next up previous contents index
Next: 8. A Theory of Up: 7. Potentiality Previous: 7.2 The Analysis of


7.3 Kinds of Potentialities

The implications of the previous section, you should need no reminding, amount to a causal or dispositional analysis of the sequence of events. Some philosophers do not believe that such an analysis is necessary, desirable, or even possible, as they see the realistic notions of `power' and `propensity' used here as not sufficiently scientific or definite to be satisfactory.   I have argued, however, in a previous paper (Thompson [1988]), and in chapters 2 & 3 above, that some notions of `real dispositions' are necessary for activities in both science and elsewhere, and that, however much we may dislike these ideas, they need to be examined closely and used carefully. I argued that, for both theoretical and practical reasons, we do have to take certain modal considerations seriously, and find realistic foundations for them. The implications listed above are an attempt to analyse closely the structure of real dispositions in the physical world.

  By `power' of course is not meant `energy flow per unit time', but a general `capability' or `dispositional property' to act in a certain manner,     as in Harré [1970a] or Ducasse [1964]. The notion of `power or propensity' here has a long pre-scientific history as the specific `potential', `active force', `motive power', `drive', `impetus', `spring of activity', or `dynamicism' for change. For the purposes of analysing events on a causal basis, however, from these ideas I take simply `that which is necessary to make any change in fact occur'.

I could take the opportunity now to explain in outline my different uses of the terms `disposition', `power', `potentiality', `propensity' and `possibility'.   I use `disposition' as an umbrella term to describe the overall category of all these properties, where the term has been chosen because its neutral history does not automatically invoke ideas of `occult powers'.         It therefore replaces the general word `power' of Locke, Ducasse [1964], Harré [1970a] and Harré & Madden [1975], but in fact has a similar technical connotation.         The term `potentiality' comes from Aristotle and Aquinas, but I use it in the new technical sense of `that which is actualised, and thereby transformed into actuality'. This sense is new, as it only been derived earlier in this chapter.   `Propensity' is usually regarded as that kind of power or disposition which manifests itself probabilistically,   following Popper [1959]. Because, however, our world is really a quantum world, and practically all quantum processes are probabilistic, propensities will be seen everywhere. I therefore use it in a general sense as `that of which potentialities are made'. Potentialities, we shall see in chapter 9, are propensities in certain `field' forms.   Finally, `possibility' in the present context refers to real possibilities inherent in the natural processes. If they are deterministic, there will be only one possibility at each stage, whereas if they are indeterministic or probabilistic, then there will be more than one possibility for future events. The notion of `possibility' does not included any of the `active' component that makes changes in fact occur (rather than remain only possibilities!). We are often tempted to say `mere' possibilities, but, as explained in the next chapter, a great deal can be derived just on the basis of the `possibility' component of potentialities.

In traditional philosophy, the concept of `power' or `propensity' has had a varied history. It appears mostly in the works of   Aristotle,   Locke 7.3,   Leibniz, and the proponents of `dynamic matter' such as   Boscovich [1763],   Priestley [1777], and   Faraday (see   Levere [1968]). In this century, it has been advocated by   Bergson,   Ushenko [1946] and   Harré [1970a], but not all of these accounts are equally satisfactory for the present purposes.   When Whitehead uses `real potentiality', for example, he emphasises the `possibility' aspect, and ignores the `power or propensity' component. In Whitehead's event philosophy, as Ushenko and Leclerc pointed out, there is no concept of active power.

In the sense that we require, `power' and `propensity' must mean more than `passive capacities' for being formed   (as in the Thomist schools).   We need to include the active powers that are in an agent that could actually initiate such forming.   Any passive capacities or `liabilities' can be regarded as special cases of a more general sense. They could be regarded as `weaker powers', for example, compared with those of an active agent.

One criticism of the use of powers and propensities is that they are used in a very general sense to refer to any capacity for any change, and that this sense is so general that its theoretical and empirical content for any explanation is low. It becomes too easy, the critics say, to postulate many distinct ad hoc powers which have no specific mutual relations: one for each change possible. Just how many distinct capabilities does a complex biological organism have, considering the great many situations in which it may be found, and the great many internal states that are possible for it?   And how many powers does opium have, along with its `dormative virtue'?

  This criticism is justified, but that does not mean that there are no such things as powers or propensities. The world would be a very peculiar place if people and objects had no capacities or propensities apart from what they actually did. In the history of the sciences of matter, admittedly, the notion of `power' tended to be abolished in favour of matter as corpuscular and purely actual. However elegant the motives and results of this tendency may have been, it is nevertheless inadequate both empirically and theoretically. Scientists from Newton on soon found themselves compelled to postulate powers of attraction and repulsion, and Faraday found that for electric and magnetic effects more complicated notions of forces and potentials are required. The task of science should be to reduce the number of different types of propensities needed to explain experimental phenomena,   but for reasons given in Thompson [1988], this number will never be reduced to zero.    

next up previous contents index
Next: 8. A Theory of Up: 7. Potentiality Previous: 7.2 The Analysis of
Prof Ian Thompson


Author: I.J. Thompson (except as stated)