As a result of recommendations from both Nick (in his thesis) and Graham, I have been reading Roy Bhaskar’s remarkable Realist Theory of Science over the last couple of weeks. I am still trying to fully understand Bhaskar’s position and arguments, so if I misconstrue it in what follows I would greatly appreciate the input and clarification of those more familiar with his work. Bhaskar attempts to develop a position he refers to as “transcendental realism”, where it is argued that the entities and mechanisms discovered by science are not simply beings as they are for us or beings in terms of our access to these beings, but rather where these mechanisms or beings exist as they are regardless of human access to them. In a manner very similar to Meillassoux’s argument from the “Arche-Fossil”, Bhaskar argues that the intelligibility of science requires that mechanisms or entities discovered by science must be thought as belonging to a world without humans. In other words, according to Bhaskar, the existence of objects that are as they are independent of humans is a transcendental condition for the possibility of science. Just as Kant argued that we cannot account for how synthetic a priori judgments are possible unless we begin from the thesis that the mind imposes a priori forms of intuition and categories of the understanding on the manifold of sensibility, Bhaskar argues that objects completely independent of humans are a necessary condition for the intelligibility of scientific practice.
Bhaskar’s thesis is thus three-fold: First, Bhaskar is committed to the thesis that objects exist completely independent of humans. So far, with this first thesis, Bhaskar does not depart from the tradition of epistemological correlationism. The linguistic, social, or cognitive correlationist does not deny the existence of independent objects, only that we can have any direct or non-discursively mediated access to these objects. As Bhaskar sums up the correlationist argument,
…it might be objected that the very idea of a world without men is unintelligible because the conditions under which it is true would make its being conceived impossible. But I can think of a world without men; and I can think of a world without myself. No-one can truly say ‘I do not exist’ but that does not mean that ‘I do not exist’ is unintelligible; or that it cannot be meaningfully (sic.), just because it cannot be truly said. (47)
The epistemic correlationist holds that while it is true that a world without men exists, and while it is possible to think this world, it is impossible for us to know this world because our relationship to the world is always mediated by the concepts, language, history, or social constructs that we bring to bear on the world. As a consequence, we can only ever say what the world is for-us, not what the world is in-itself or for-itself independent of us. It is here that Bhaskar parts ways with the correlationist. For Bhaskar, we can come to know the world as it is in itself, as it is without humans, and not simply as it is for-us as mediated by human concepts, language, history, or social institutions. Bhaskar will call this form of knowing science. Moreover, he will argue that science is unintelligible if we do not being from these premise, and will go so far as to refer to the correlationist argument as a fallacy, where it is held that questions of ontology can be reduced to questions of epistemology.
Third, and this is perhaps his most provocative thesis, Bhaskar argues that while the objects discovered by science are independent of humans and possess these causal powers regardless of whether or not humans know them, the process by which humans discover these mechanisms is socially mediated. In other words, Bhaskar argues both that our relationship to the world is socially mediated (whether through concepts, history, language, or the social) and that science nonetheless discovers mechanisms that are as they are regardless of whether humans exist. Thus, where epistemological correlationism argues that we can only ever know and object as it is for us, such that we must remain skeptical of what it is in-itself independent of us, Bhaskar attempts to go one step further and argue that the mechanisms discovered by science are what they are regardless of our mediations and that these mechanisms are knowable for us (though there might indeed be limits to what we can know).
Bhaskar refers to these two dimensions of science as the “transitive” and the “intransitive”. The transitive refers to those changing dimensions of scientific experience such as different historical conceptions of the world (e.g., Ptolemy’s conception of planetary motion versus Copernicus’ conception of planetary motion), whereas the intransitive refers to those causal mechanisms science seeks to discover and which exist in-themselves regardless of whether or not humans exist. If, for example, the atomic model of oxygen is correct and oxygen does indeed have six electrons in its outer orbit and two electrons in its inner orbit, this is an ontological feature of oxygen atoms that is intransitive to our various theories and conceptions (the transitive) of oxygen. That is, according to Bhaskar, oxygen possesses these properties in-itself, not merely for-us, and these properties act and do their thing regardless of whether anyone knows it. Science is the search for these mechanisms, and requires a practice in order that they might be revealed or dis-covered.
To understand Bhaskar’s position it is necessary to know a bit about the underpinnings of correlationism and its ontology of causality. Bhaskar argues that the thesis of correlationism is ultimately based on a positivist– or what he often calls “actualist” –conception of relations of cause and effect derived from Hume. Hume had argued that our knowledge of cause and effect arises from the constant conjunction of sense-impressions in experience. Now, to say that one event causes another is to say that there is a relationship of necessity between the two events, such that counter-factuals emerge where it is asserted that had the first event not occurred, the second event would not have occurred. The problem is that there is nothing in our sense-experience that discloses this necessary relation. From the standpoint of my sense-experience, the act of drinking my morning coffee and the following event of the sun rising is indistinguishable from the event of the sun shining and the subsequent event of the sidewalk growing warm. Both of these sequences are successions of one event following another event, yet only the sequence contains a relationship of necessity. The question then becomes that of how we discover necessary relations between events based on sense-experience alone which only presents us with successions of impressions. As Hume famously puts it,
All reasonings concerning matter of fact seem to be founded on the relation of Cause and Effect. By means of that relation alone we can go beyond the evidence of our memory and senses. If you were to ask a man, why he believes any matter of fact, which is absent; for instance, that his friend is in the country, or in France; he would give you a reason; and this reason would be some other fact; as a letter received from him, or the knowledge of his former resolutions and promises. A man finding a watch or any other machine in a desert island, would conclude that there had once been men in that island. All our reasonings concerning fact are of the same nature. And here it is constantly supposed that there is a connexion between the present fact and that which is inferred from it. Were there nothing to bind them together, the inference would be entirely precarious. The hearing of an articulate voice and rational discourse in the dark assures us of the presence of some person: Why? because these are the effects of the human make and fabric, and closely connected with it. If we anatomize all the other reasonings of this nature, we shall find that they are founded on the relation of cause and effect, and that this relation is either near or remote, direct or collateral. Heat and light are collateral effects of fire, and the one effect may justly be inferred from the other.
If we would satisfy ourselves, therefore, concerning the nature of that evidence, which assures us of matters of fact, we must enquire how we arrive at the knowledge of cause and effect.
I shall venture to affirm, as a general proposition, which admits of no exception, that the knowledge of this relation is not, in any instance, attained by reasonings a priori; but arises entirely from experience, when we find that any particular objects are constantly conjoined with each other. Let an object be presented to a man of ever so strong natural reason and abilities; if that object be entirely new to him, he will not be able, by the most accurate examination of its sensible qualities, to discover any of its causes or effects. Adam, though his rational faculties be supposed, at the very first, entirely perfect, could not have inferred from the fluidity and transparency of water that it would suffocate him, or from the light and warmth of fire that it would consume him. No object ever discovers, by the qualities which appear to the senses, either the causes which produced it, or the effects which will arise from it; nor can our reason, unassisted by experience, ever draw any inference concerning real existence and matter of fact.
This proposition, that causes and effects are discoverable, not by reason but by experience, will readily be admitted with regard to such objects, as we remember to have once been altogether unknown to us; since we must be conscious of the utter inability, which we then lay under, of foretelling what would arise from them. Present two smooth pieces of marble to a man who has no tincture of natural philosophy; he will never discover that they will adhere together in such a manner as to require great force to separate them in a direct line, while they make so small a resistance to a lateral pressure. Such events, as bear little analogy to the common course of nature, are also readily confessed to be known only by experience; nor does any man imagine that the explosion of gunpowder, or the attraction of a loadstone, could ever be discovered by arguments a priori. In like manner, when an effect is supposed to depend upon an intricate machinery or secret structure of parts, we make no difficulty in attributing all our knowledge of it to experience. Who will assert that he can give the ultimate reason, why milk or bread is proper nourishment for a man, not for a lion or a tiger?
But the same truth may not appear, at first sight, to have the same evidence with regard to events, which have become familiar to us from our first appearance in the world, which bear a close analogy to the whole course of nature, and which are supposed to depend on the simple qualities of objects, without any secret structure of parts. We are apt to imagine that we could discover these effects by the mere operation of our reason, without experience. We fancy, that were we brought on a sudden into this world, we could at first have inferred that one Billiard-ball would communicate motion to another upon impulse; and that we needed not to have waited for the event, in order to pronounce with certainty concerning it. Such is the influence of custom, that, where it is strongest, it not only covers our natural ignorance, but even conceals itself, and seems not to take place, merely because it is found in the highest degree.
But to convince us that all the laws of nature, and all the operations of bodies without exception, are known only by experience, the following reflections may, perhaps, suffice. Were any object presented to us, and were we required to pronounce concerning the effect, which will result from it, without consulting past observation; after what manner, I beseech you, must the mind proceed in this operation? It must invent or imagine some event, which it ascribes to the object as its effect; and it is plain that this invention must be entirely arbitrary. The mind can never possibly find the effect in the supposed cause, by the most accurate scrutiny and examination. For the effect is totally different from the cause, and consequently can never be discovered in it. Motion in the second Billiard-ball is a quite distinct event from motion in the first; nor is there anything in the one to suggest the smallest hint of the other. A stone or piece of metal raised into the air, and left without any support, immediately falls: but to consider the matter a priori, is there anything we discover in this situation which can beget the idea of a downward, rather than an upward, or any other motion, in the stone or metal? (An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Section IV)
Bhaskar contends that correlationism, while not accepting Hume’s conclusions, nonetheless begins from his premise that claims about causality are claims about lawful or constant regularities between sensations or impressions. Hume, of course, argues that there is no principle of reason that allows us to arrive at the idea of necessary connection between two impressions, but rather this idea is arrived at from custom or habit such that necessary relations cannot be said to reside in the things themselves. With respect to the powers of the things themselves we must remain skeptical, acknowledging a limit to what we can know such that we can only ever say that two events have always been conjoined for us in a particular way but that we cannot know with certainty that they will be conjoined in this way in the future.
It is with Kant where we get correlationism proper. Kant accepted Hume’s thesis that cause and effect claims are claims about constant conjunctions of sense-impressions, but also recognized that nothing in sense-impressions themselves could ever lead to the idea of necessity. Regardless of however often two impressions follow one another, Kant contended, this constant conjunction of impressions or actual events would never lead to the idea of a necessary conjunction of events. Consequently, if we cannot arrive at the idea of necessity from sense-experience and we have no direct relation to objects as they are in-themselves, then the only recourse is to mind. It is here that we get Kant’s famous Copernican revolution. Necessity comes not from sensations, nor from the things themselves, but is rather an a priori category of the understanding imposed on relations between impressions.
There are, however, two inter-related problems with this thesis: First, Kant doesn’t seem to give us any criteria for imposing the category of causation on one sequence of impressions rather than another. In other words, Kant is able to tell us from whence the idea of necessity arises (it’s an a priori category of the understanding), but what is it that leads us to apply these category to one sequence of impressions rather than another? In other words, what we wanted in response to Hume’s skepticism was not an account of the origins of the idea of necessity, but some means of distinguishing those relations that are necessary from those that merely succeed one another in time. Kant doesn’t really help us in responding to this problem. We’re in the same boat as we were in the beginning, unable to distinguish necessary relations from non-necessary relations, and are just left with an account of where the concept of necessity comes from.
Second, and here Bhaskar really shines, is actualism or positive in fact reflective of the nature of claims about causality? Put differently, is it true that when making causal claims we are making claims about regular or lawful conjunctions of impressions? Are we claiming that given impression x, impression y always follows? Here Bhaskar argues in the negative. In a surprising move that resurrects the concept of cause so derided by Molière, Bhaskar argues that causes are not constant conjunctions of actual impressions in which one event invariably follows another, but rather that talk of causes refers to powers, mechanisms, or structures by which objects are capable of acting. A cause is thus to be understood not as a conjunction of actual events, but as a power belonging to a thing. Here I have to quibble with Graham a bit for, in correspondence, Graham has taken Bhaskar to task for championing potentiality and rejecting actualism. However, it seems to me that for Bhaskar causes are fully actual and acting at the ontological level, and are said to be potential only in terms of sense-experience which he equates with actualism, i.e., the idea that actual impressions have to be present to talk about a cause and effect relation.
Indeed, argues Bhaskar, were we to treat causes as constant conjunctions of events, our experience of the world as well as scientific practice would be rendered unintelligible. At the level of experience, actualism or positivism renders the notion of causality unintelligible because constant conjunctions of events between sense-impressions is the exception rather than the rule. That is, there are numerous occasions where the antecedent of a causal claim is present at the level of sensations and the consequent fails to follow. Yet, contrary to Popper, we do not say that this falsifies the causal claim, but rather that there must have been some other intervening cause that prevented the consequent from manifesting itself. Likewise, the thesis of actualism renders actual scientific practice unintelligible, for if causal claims were genuinely about constant conjunctions of impressions rather than powers, we would be unable to understand 1) why scientists put such immense effort into creating closed laboratory environments where the mechanisms or powers belonging to things can be triggered, and 2) why, despite the fact that mechanisms seldom behave in this way in open environments, scientists nonetheless conclude that the mechanisms discovered in the artificial and constructed environment of the laboratory are operative in these environments.
Consequently, the crucial distinction upon which much of Bhaskar’s argument depends is the distinction between open and closed systems. Science, under Bhaskar’s model, consists in the practice of constructing closed systems (where possible) to reveal or disclose the functioning of mechanisms or powers independent of other intervening causes which tend to clothe or hide the powers of various entities. Put in the language of my “onticology“, science strives to discover those differences that make a difference and the particular type of difference that type of object-ile makes. Thus, for example, we might not find water as H20 or atoms of oxygen anywhere in the world because oxygen and H20 belong to open systems where they perpetually mingle with other substances. This is especially true of oxygen because, by virtue of its atomic structure, it is very unstable and therefore prone to exchange electrons with other elements and to enter into assemblages with other atoms. What science does is create closed systems where objects of various sorts are isolated from other substances and forces, so that we can begin to discern the differences or powers belonging uniquely to these substances. The scientist then infers that these mechanisms are operative in open environments, though in a way that is clothed or hidden by virtue of interactions among various powers in an assemblage. Despite the fact that all sorts of human mediations are required for these dis-coveries (and there is something truly “alethetic” about Bhaskar’s conception of discover), despite the fact that the object-iles studied by science often exist nowhere in nature (e.g., pure plutonium, oxygen atoms not attached to atoms of any other elements, pure water, objects falling in voids without friction, etc), these “artificial” objects nonetheless mark the dis-covery of genuine mechanisms or powers in the depths of things that are both intransitive to other objects (they operate as they operate regardless of their composition with other objects) and which are intransitive to human theories as well. The crucial point for Bhaskar is that science requires labor or work, a provoking or triggering of differences, and not simply passive observation. It is because our bodies and instruments are material things that they can trigger difference in other objects under controlled conditions.
Bhaskar’s distinction between open and closed systems also allows us to see why Popper’s criterion of science as falsifiability fares so poorly. On the one hand, causal statements are falsified every day without undermining the legitimacy of these claims. Objects never fall as Newton describes them because there is friction and Newton’s laws apply only to ideal frictionless environments. Oxygen, under certain circumstances, fails to combust when we would expect it to, etc. These things occur because the object-ile in question is functioning, according to Bhaskar, in an open environment where other mechanisms or powers are at work as well. On the other hand, the crucial question to ask with respect to causal claims is whether we’re dealing with closed or open systems. If mechanisms investigated in fields like psychoanalysis, economics, sociology, etc., fail to provide us with lawful regularities, then this is because the systems or assemblages investigated by these fields are open by nature, such that powers can said to be operative while nonetheless not invariably manifesting a hypothesized effect. In short, one of Bhaskar’s most significant contributions to our understanding of causality is that of powers that operate without producing a particular effect.
We can thus see the vast difference between a Popperian or Kuhnian account of science and ontology, and Bhaskar’s and (arguably Latour’s and Stengers’) account of science. In the case of Popper we have the actualist regularity thesis that cuts away vast swaths of science in both the “hard” and “soft” sciences by virtue of being unable to contend with powers or mechanisms that act without producing the expected effect. Likewise, a philosophy of science such as we find in Kuhn makes a genuine contribution to our understanding of science by discovering the role played by the transitive dimension of scientific thought (the historical conditions in the form of paradigms, etc), but does not go far enough insofar as it refuses to acknowledge (at least in the reception of his thought) the intransivity of the causal mechanisms or powers belonging to the world. By contrast, Bhaskar’s, Latour’s, and Stengers’ conception of science is one in which scientific practice is both transitive in the sense of being socially produced and where conceptions of the world change over time, while nonetheless being ontological in the sense that the objects dealt with by science are real and intransitive actors in the world. The differences made by a difference are only dis-closed under very specific conditions, but they are nonetheless real (when they are dis-closed or dis-covered) and would be operative regardless of whether any humans were there to conceive or know them. The shift from system or social structure to assemblage is here very subtle. The transcendental realist does not deny the functioning of the transitive dimension or the social, but instead argues that the relationship between this transitive dimension and the intransitive dimension of natural powers is one of assemblic relations rather than system based relations. That is, it is not, for example, the Kuhnian paradigm or the Foucaultian episteme that makes Copernicus “right” or Freud “true”. If there is truth in these theories it is a real that operates regardless of whether any humans conceive it or conceptualize it. Rather, the movement of the planets, gravity, libido, etc., enter into an assemblage with human actors, human history, human concepts, human language, etc., in such a way that the intransitive nonetheless maintains its separation and independence. Such would be the beginnings of a non-naive realist conception of being that was also able to take the best from the social sciences.