Hume tried to reduce questions of being to questions of sensation or experience. Everything had to be traced back to experience. For Hume causality is just a constant conjunction of sensations. Kant shared Hume’s premise that there is no knowledge apart from sensibility, but noted that sensibility alone could never give us the idea of necessity. Paraphrasing Kant’s famous statement, “while it is true that all knowledge begins with experience, and that knowledge is impossible apart from experience, it does not follow that all knowledge arises from experience.” If we want to understand why experience or sensation alone is inadequate for grounding the relations of necessity asserted in causal judgments, we need only look at the logic of the lower portion of Aristotle’s square of opposition. Quite frankly I’m shocked that it took nearly two thousand years after Aristotle developed the square of opposition for philosophy to arrive at Hume’s skeptical conclusions.
From the observation that sensation alone cannot ground relations of necessity in causality, and that experience is all we have to go on, he inferred that the idea of necessity comes not from sensibility but is contributed by mind. Like Hume, Kant holds that causality is a constant conjunction of sensations. Unlike Hume, he argues that minds contributes the category of causal necessity that links these sensations. The thesis that judgments of causality are judgments about the constant conjunction of sensations is positivism.
Here’s the problem: The concept of causality and knowledge producing practices become incoherent if causality is understood as a constant conjunction of sensations. This for three main reasons:
First, outside of astronomy we very seldom encounter a constant conjunction of sense-events, yet we still hold that causal relations are functioning in the world unobserved. Sex, for example, doesn’t inevitably lead to conception, but without sex (setting aside artificial insemination) conception cannot take place. Antibiotics don’t inevitably get rid of an infection, but we still hold that antibiotics have the power to kill infections. If we take seriously the thesis that causal claims are constant conjunctions of sense-events we would be forced to reject the thesis that sex, antibiotics, and many things besides have causal powers.
Second, many events are constantly conjoined in experience, but we hold that they do not possess a causal relation to one another. I get up before the sun rises and make a cup of coffee for myself. The sun then rises. Why am I not led to the conclusion that making coffee causes the sun to rise? It might be argued that I do not assert a causal relation here “because there have been occasions where you haven’t made coffee before the sun rises, yet the sun still rose.” However, returning to our first problem with positivism or the thesis that causality is a constant conjunction of sense-events, we see this doesn’t work. Why? Because the failure of a consequent to occur after the antecedent occurs is not grounds for rejecting a causal relation. The antibiotic is taken (antecedent) and the sickness does not go away. Yet we do not, on these grounds, arrive at the conclusion that there is no relation between the antecedent and the consequent. In short, the positivist theory of causal relations doesn’t allow us to distinguish genuinely related sense-events from unrelated conjunctions of sense-events. This is true even under the Kantian model.
Third, the thesis that causal statements are simply constant conjunctions of sensations does not explain why scientific experimentation is necessary. If causality is a constant conjunction of sensations then the idea of engaging in experiments in a controlled and isolated setting makes little or no sense. What would be gained from such a strange activity?
Bhaskar’s thesis is that the problem with the empiricist thesis is that it conflates causality with sense-experience, when in fact, the two are very different things. Recall the first argument: it is possible for antecedents to occur without the consequent occurring, yet for there to still be a causal relationship between the two terms. What is being said here? In our practice we are saying that the causal mechanism is independent of 1) whether or not we experience its consequent, and 2) whether or not the consequent takes place as an event in nature.
In other words, we have three terms: The causal mechanism, natural events that may or may not be experienced by anyone, and experiences. The sense-data empiricist tries to collapse the first two into the third. The problem is that if we do this we are unable to explain 1) how it is possible for something to exercise its causal powers without producing the accompanying natural event, and 2) how it is possible for something to exercise its causal powers without us experiencing it. In other words, this model, according to Bhaskar, fails to distinguish the real, the actual, and the empirical, instead trying to collapse the other two into the third.
Here we can finally return to the question “why is scientific experimentation necessary?” Bhaskar’s answer to this question spins on a distinction between open and closed systems. According to Bhaskar, if it is possible for 1) an antecedent to be triggered without being actualized in a natural event, or 2) an antecedent to be actualized in experience without producing the consequent event, then this is because most causal mechanisms function in open systems where other causal factors intervene, overdetermining the event. As a result, the other causal factors prevent the causal mechanism from actualizing itself in a natural event or an experience for an observer. This is the reason, contends Bhaskar, that it is necessary to engage in experimental activity. Experiment creates a closed, artificial system allowing the inquirer to trigger the causal mechanism to determine what consequent it produces without the intervention of other causal mechanisms.
So returning to Bhaskar’s question “what must the world be like for knowledge to be possible?” we now have a thumbnail sketch of an answer to this question. First, it is necessary to distinguish between the real, the actual, and the sensed. Second, it is necessary to distinguish between causal mechanisms, natural events, and sense-events. Third it is necessary to distinguish between open and closed systems. The ontological dimension of Bhaskar’s epistemological problem lies in the transcendental claim that the condition under which science is possible is the existence of causal mechanisms that can function or act without producing a corresponding natural event or consequent. It is only on these grounds, argues Bhaskar, that 1) our engagement in scientific experimentation, and 2) our claim that certain entities like antibiotics have causal powers even when they fail to successfully cure illness are intelligible or coherent. Experiment creates a controlled and isolated environment in which causal mechanisms can be triggered without the interference of other causal mechanisms. When or if these mechanisms are found they are then accorded the status of “transfactuality”, which is to say they are treated as functioning in the ordinary world of open systems even when they do not actualize themselves in an event.
These are specifically ontological claims about the nature of the world, not epistemological claims about how we come to know the world. Without these ontological claims, argues Bhaskar, we can’t render our epistemology intelligible.
Before wrapping this up there are two crucial points to be made:
First, the ontological claim that causal mechanisms exist and that it is possible for causal mechanisms to act without being actualized in a natural event makes no claim as to what causal mechanisms exist. In addition to the existence of these causal mechanisms, Bhaskar argues that these mechanisms must be differentiated, structured, and stratefied (more on that another time). Finally, he argues (and this gives Harman fits because he’s an actualist, I’m not sure where I shake down on this issue though I tend towards potentialism) that these causal mechanisms must have powers (capacities, “able-to-do’s”) that can go unactualized. The discovery of what causal mechanisms exist, their differentiation, their structure, and their stratification is the responsibility not of philosophy, but of actual experimental inquiry. All the transcendental argument purports to demonstrate is that causal mechanisms exist (because knowledge exists) and that these causal mechanisms are mind-independent and continue to function regardless of whether any human perceives them.
Second, within the domain of experimental inquiry the claim that such and such an entity is a causal mechanism is not infallible. It can turn out that subsequent inquiry shows that such and such a claim that “x is a causal mechanism” was, in fact, mistaken. All the transcendental realist is committed to is that causal mechanisms exist and can function without being actualized in natural events. He is not committed to the claim that specific knowledge-claims about causal mechanisms are infallible or that we have direct access to these mechanisms. Getting at the causal mechanisms is, for Bhaskar, hard work. It requires the laborious construction of closed systems that allow for the causal mechanism to be triggered, producing both a natural event and a sensible event independent of intervening causal mechanisms in open systems where the contribution of the causal mechanism being sought is ordinary disguised or mute in its functioning.
Here I think we get at one of the central failings of traditional epistemologies. For whatever reason they begin from the premise of a passive observer that simply has sensations that it links in some way or another. What is missing in this intellectualist model of knowledge acquisition is the work it takes to produce salient experience. Basically, what is missed is the crucial role that the fact that we are embodied (and therefore ourselves causal agents), that we act on the world, that we use instruments to trigger these mechanisms, and that we carefully build closed systems to trigger events. But here’s the central point: We strive to create closed systems that allow us to trigger the causal mechanisms we’re searching for, but no system is entirely closed and subsequent experimental inquiry might reveal that there were intervening causal mechanisms that led us to misinterpret the triggers. In other words, Bhaskar’s position is fallibilist, allowing for the possibility of error.
Alright, that’s enough for now. What do you all think? I’m still working through Bhaskar’s arguments myself, but I confess I find them deeply appealing and convincing.
Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason is, I think, one of the most unjustly neglected works in political theory. I’m really not sure why this is or what happened here. There is, of course, the infamous Levi-Strauss review. And the language of the text is barbarous (but what text in Continental philosophy isn’t?). And I’m certainly aware that the work is prized highly by Jameson, Badiou, Bourdieu, and Deleuze and Guattari. Nonetheless, it seems like a text that somehow fell through the cracks, never having the impact or hearing it deserved. With any luck there will be a resurgence of interest in the work.
My love of it has always been because of the manner in which it conceptualizes groups in fusion and the practico-inert. With neo-Marxist theory, especially that coming out of the Althusserian school, I’ve always felt that there’s too little focus on group formation and too much emphasis on critical breaks and whatnot. I’m not sure how social structures are to be changed without flourishing group formations or the formation of subject-groups. But if you begin paying attention to questions of group formation, then all sorts of questions arise as to how groups are formed and maintain themselves. I don’t see these questions really being posed at all in contemporary theory. As a result, what you get is a critique of reigning social conditions, how capital functions, ideology, and whatnot, but you don’t really get much in the way of an account of praxis as to how these “structures” might be changed. This is, in part, exactly what Sartre is trying to do in The Critique of Dialectical Reason. While he certainly develops a critique of the contemporary world, his mode of analysis is squarely focused on questions of praxis or how group formations (what he calls “subject-groups”, think Marx’s thesis that the proletariat is the “subject”) come into being and take of the force of transforming “structures”. This is a very different sort of question than the critical question or the question of ideology. Deleuze and Guattari try to complete this project in Anti-Oedipus, yet their nods at Sartre and his subject-groups are far too impressionistic to really provide much in the way of a well developed theory of praxis.