Re: [OPE-L] Anita's Chocolate Cake

From: Howard Engelskirchen (howarde@TWCNY.RR.COM)
Date: Fri Nov 18 2005 - 20:08:22 EST

Hi Jerry, Hi Steve, Hi all,

Jerry, you point out that 'more or less' is a matter of quantitative difference.  Yes, this is so, but  it is (1) a relation and (2) one that is additive or aggregative.  I want to draw a distinction between that sort of relation and the way we have to talk about constitutive causality.  Steve's point goes further to qualitative, not just quantitative difference, and I want to challenge that as well.  Here is the thing he says:

STEVE:  I see your point in your example above, but I am bit cautious of your use of "minor importance" and "great explanatory power".  If you work with the idea of overdetermination or constitutive causality (as I do and I recognize most others don't), then the ranking, layering, or creating a hierarchy of causes, whether deterministic or stochastic, is problematic.  Causality is a matter of qualitative difference, and to say something is more or less causally important is a category mistake, from the POV I am working with.  END QUOTE.

This is the approach I said was a non-starter.  Here is a fuller explanation of it:

STEVE:  Overdetermination implies, then, a theory of causality, one where everything constitutively determines everything else. This theory of causality is clearly not the dominant notion of causality today, which instead is one where a billiard ball metaphor of mechanistic causality applies, where some things come first and others follow. It is not a theory where you can single out a prime mover(s) and argue that "X" is the cause of "Y," or even that "X" explains, say 46 percent of Y. Obviously, there is an implicit critique here of classical statistical inference. The emphasis is on qualitative analysis, by which I mean non-reductive differences and a refusal to characterize events by formally comparable metrics, whether that implies scalar or vector dominance.
Another way of thinking about this is that overdetermination is a critique of "depth models" of social explanation-a critique of essentialism if you want-where one level of analysis is explained by a different level and is somehow thought to be prior to and independent from the first.  END QUOTE. 

The first problem here is the limit of Steve's target of attack -- we've learned a lot about causality in the last half century and people no longer limit their observations about it to studying Hume in a pool hall.  Billiards has never worked in social theory anyway, and Marx understood that.

So if Steve is going to challenge levels and layering, he will have to take on not just empiricist forms of positivism, but also realist forms of emergent materialism.    At least some of these forms will make constitutive causality exactly the thing that best explains emergence.

As I pointed out in my response to Steve, relations, whether quantitative or qualitative, were important insofar as they could be causally grounded.  We compare a relation with something constituted by saying oh the other is 'just' a relation.  So you can do all the 'more or lesses' you want with the aggregate features of the difference between people and apes but the point is that these are constituted as different causal structures.  And there is a relation of emergence between them.  There is an ordering and a layering.   A tailbone is part of being human and reflects the fact that we emerged from creatures that had tails.  Is it impossible to say that this is a less important part of our anatormy?  Or the appendix whose primary contribution to human flourishing seems to be in generating surgical fees.

You support Steve's equation of the constitutent elements of a cake -- both the flour and the chocolate are essential and you can't say one is more important than the other.  This example though disintegrates pretty quickly.  Suppose  I make an apple pie.  The butter is contingent.  I can substitute other oils, etc.  But apples are pretty indispensable to constituting that which I'm trying to make.  Suppose chocolate is in fact addictive.  If you and I and Steve keep pestering Anita about chocolate cakes, then it is not because of the flour!

The real point is a serious one.  The thing that made me want to respond again to Steve recently was the news item about Kathleen Harris being responsible as a government official for a six months study of a substance called Celestial Drops which looked exactly like water but was supposed to cure a canker on citrus fruits.  Kathleen Harris was the Florida Secretary of State who was instrumental in Bush's 2000 election and is now a member of the US Congress.  It turns out this was a hoax.  Celestial Drops not only looked like water, they were water.

Now suppose the claim was authentic.  Suppose even though Celestial Drops looked and tasted just like water they in fact cured a canker on citrus fruit.  Steve wants to say that there is no distinction between surface and depth, no layering in nature, and therefore if the Drops cure the canker why doesn't water cure the canker?  Each is constituted in the same way by wetness, colorlessness, odorlessness, etc.  Fools gold was made for folks who won't distinguish between surface and depth!

Obviously if a substance that had all the appearance qualities of water were nonetheless to cure a canker it would be because its molecular structure was different.  But then that means we find the molecular structure more important than the properties in which that structure is phenomenally manifest and a distinction of levels is one way to talk about this.

Suppose we want to explain the fact that whales have vestigal hind feet and sharks don't.  We will have to appeal to the fact that whales are mammals and sharks are fish.  Putting aside questions of saying some feature is causally more or less important, Steve tells us he is nervous about differential claims of explanatory power.  Notice, that is exactly what we do when we distinguish a genus and a species.  There are causal structures common to all mammals to which we appeal.  That means our explanations in that respect will have a broad range since we can reach from mice to whales.  But if we want to explain the adaptation of mice to an environment, we will need to appeal to exactly those causal features that distinguish a mouse from other mammals.  We will sacrifice the scope of our explanation for greater explanatory power.

It would be easy to multiply examples.  Notice that the potential for category mistakes rests precisely in ignoring differences in levels in the emergence of society from nature.  Here's a pretty well known example:  people who deal in jade use the same term to apply to two different minerals.  Unbelievably the unique qualities that make jade distinctive are generated on the one hand by a combination of sodium and aluminum, jadeite, and on the other by a combination of calcium, magnesium and iron, nephrite.  

Shall we say that jade is like the category "citrus fruit" in that there are several different kinds of citrus fruit, lemons, oranges, etc.. and jade is a genus, also a kind?

The geologist will say no.  Jade is a non-natural category made up of two natural kinds.  There is no common causal structure to which they appeal.

But the art historian could very well say that jade was a social kind.  But now the causal structures appealed to would be social structures, not natural ones.  And a person would make a category mistake not to recognize the difference.

We can never situate the social sciences if we don't take on board the levels and layers of the natural order.  Layering and levels are a way of giving expression to the fact that we explain some aspects of the world by giving an account of others that generate them or cause them or from which they are emergent.

In solid,


  ----- Original Message ----- 
  From: Jerry Levy 
  Sent: Friday, November 18, 2005 9:27 AM
  Subject: Re: [OPE-L] Anita's Chocolate Cake

  Hi Howard:

  Replying to Steve, you wrote:

  > Steve, the idea of constitutive causality is right on target, but 
  > without taking on board the levels of organization we find in 
  > nature it's a non-starter.  You say, for example, that causality is 
  > a matter of qualitative difference and thus to say that something is 
  > more or less causally important is a category mistake.  But I don't 
  > really know what you mean by 'qualitative difference''; the concept 
  is vague.  Do you mean just 'more or less'?  

  'More or less' is expressive of a _quantitative_ difference, isn't it?

  I suppose we could say that people are 'more or less' similar to apes.
  While that statement could be _specified_, can it be _quantified_?  
  Unless it is quantified, then it is difficult to assign _rankings_ to 
  the  factors which constitute similarities and differences between 
  people and apes.

  As far as the (direct) ingredients for Anita's chocolate cake are concerned,
  I think Steve is quite right to say that sugar, flour, milk, eggs, and
  chocolate are all constitutive elements of the cake and it would
  be folly to say that, for instance, flour is any more or less important
  than chocolate for the coming-into-being of the cake.

  > Biology is full of relevant examples.  Think of DNA.  

  Well, from that perspective I think it would be _fair_ to say that both
  the in-grain toenail and heart disease are equally constitutive of 
  Anita's  health _to the extent that_ both are a consequence of  Anita's 
  genes!  Of course,  the heart disease -- unlike the in-grown toenail --
  might not be caused by DNA but rather by cultural factors, e.g. diet,
  lack of exercise, etc.    Other factors -- e.g. overweight -- may be due
  to a combination of  genetics _and_ culture _or_ one or the other.

  Marx used the analogy of the "economic cell-form".  Yet,  the cell 
  assumes for its existence DNA (unknown at the time of Marx). And,
  tracing it further back, DNA assumes for its existence atoms and 
  sub-atomic particles, etc.  Then, there is a chicken-and-egg problem:
  which came first,  human DNA or human reproductive activity?
  But, scientists -- who obviously recognize these issues -- don't throw
  up their hands, shout "We can never know!" and give up.  Instead, they 
  proceed with the acquisition of knowledge through theorization 
  (including deduction), research, and testing anyway.  

  In solidarity, Jerry

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