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

From: Howard Engelskirchen (howarde@TWCNY.RR.COM)
Date: Sun Nov 13 2005 - 02:03:54 EST

Hi Steve, Jerry, Andrew, Rakesh and all, 

To quote an astute social theorist, "Sorry for not replying sooner, but life gets very busy at times . . . . "  

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'?  Then this is a comparative relation and inadequate to handle the discussion of causality.  Much more is at issue.  We could say that relations of qualitative difference become significant only when they are causally grounded, but in doing so we reach for ontological distinctions.  

Early Bhaskar gives an example of what I mean -- in fact he showed that it was precisely a category mistake to suppose that all causes are created equal:  Suppose you want to turn litmus paper red.  You dip it in acid and it turns red.  You are a cause of this event.  But you are not a cause of the chemical processes that are responsible for the transformation, and it is a category mistake to place these on the same footing.  There are processes of nature that, in the process of transforming nature, we manipulate but do not transform.  This points to a distinction in the category of being.  

I would agree that what counts as being reduces to the way things are causally constituted, but not everything constitutively determines everything else, as Jerry's examples make clear.  You use an example from the tort of negligence and Jerry worries about toenails, so I can take an example mixing breakfast, judicial opinions and contract law.  There's an old saw that says that judicial decisions are not predictable because they may depend on what a judge had for breakfast.  But the legal rule of consideration, a rule which determines whether a contract will be enforced or not, has existed in pretty much the same form for over 400 years.  Now if I want to enforce a promise, I won't be able to predict the decision of a judge who hears my case no matter how well I have satisfied the requirements of the doctrine of consideration.  But science in this case is about explanation, not the prediction of a single outcome, and I can explain why the social relation that determines how promises are enforced -- a relation of force -- has survived intact for that long.  (It is caused by the social relation of value.)

But the explanation appeals to a distinction between an underlying generative mechanism and the surface phenomena by means of which it is realized.  A dyspeptic breakfast may generate an outlier, but social reproduction depends on the reliable operation of the underlying mechanism.  Private property requires the prohibition of theft.  That doesn't mean every thief will be caught or every theft punished.   There's a distinction at work between surface and depth.  

You say we could as easily hold the tree responsible for the auto accident; it also is a constitutive cause.  So let's follow your suggestion.  We cut down all the trees.  But now the guy hits a bus bench.  So we remove all those.  Then it's a utility pole and a street sign.  Etc.  Something's wrong here.  You want to say that it's a matter of policy which solution we choose.  On the one hand, this suggestion does move in the right direction because it is a matter of our practice and interest in transforming the world that drives our effort to refer accurately to its causal structure.  But you'll be brought up short by relativism's pragmatic impulse.  Policy considerations might save Southern California's trees, but there is no tendency inherent in the pragmatic considerations that drive them to look, say, into the social mechanisms that systematically manifest themselves in inattention, whether it be drinking, speed (saving labor time), or whatever.  We might come upon such things, but not because we are led from the phenomena encountered to a causally grounded understanding of generative social structure.  

Biology is full of relevant examples.  Think of DNA.  DNA carries the code responsible for the unbelievable diversity of life.   But for itself, it's a bit passive.  It's proteins that do the work.  DNA carries the information necessary to build organisms and codes for specific amino acids.  Now there's a decisive point here -- this relationship is one way.  Changes in DNA cause different protein configurations and these can lead to different consequences for an organism.  But proteins don't cause changes in the structure of DNA.  So we causally ground our understanding of how proteins are driven by the structure of DNA, but not the other way around.  To be sure these things work together and proteins make DNA replication possible, but there is nonetheless a direction to the causal flow that has to be taken into account.  

It is true that the question of finding one thing more important than another is a question of how we as humans evaluate the world.  But we avoid the relativist implications you draw from this by ensuring that our judgments of importance are causally grounded.  if we say the genetic code determines the assembling and structuring of proteins but not the other way around, we are identifying a way to slice nature at its joints.  Having done so we can make a consequent judgment of priority and importance.  But that judgment is fallible and revisable.  We could get it wrong.  So the judgment of importance *is* relative.  But not the causal ground of our judgment.  That is a matter of the way the world is.  

It would be easier no doubt if the Scylla of mechanical reductionism and the Charbdyis of superorganic holism were the only ways possible to conceive of the levels of organizational hierarchy we find in nature; like Odysseus we could then strap ourselves to the reliable mast of relativism, so flexibly sturdy it is in whatever wind.  But, as Andrew suggests, a non-reductionist emergent materialism also offers an account of the open and causal structure of the world.  This impulse really does give us a chance to deal with the profound significance of constitutive causality.  

In solidarity, 


  ----- Original Message ----- 
  From: Stephen Cullenberg 
  Sent: Tuesday, November 08, 2005 8:55 PM
  Subject: Re: [OPE-L] Anita's Chocolate Cake


  Thanks for your reply and nice example of Anita's Chocolate Cake.  By emphasizing Anita's labor in the production of the cake, I think you've extended my example.  Some might say that your extension is evidence of layers, or levels, of causality, but I would resist that.  You've added to the complexity of the event (the cake) that I first specified, but that does not to my mind mean that you have added another level (more primary? you didn't say that exactly, but many would) of causality.  You've asked a lot of hypothetical questions and shown a certain a priori bias, some of which seem so obvious that to deny them would seem ridiculous (an in grown toenail vs. heart disease).  But to really explain the (differential) effect of each of the examples or conditions of existence that you mention would require an empirical analysis, one which could lead to potential surprise, and recognize the importance of variation or difference.  I would suggest that our insistence on one or another condition of existence as "more important" than another is a political or aesthetic choice and not an ontological one.  Ontology cannot tell what aspect(s) of reality or social life we want to change, only we can do that.

  Let me ask you a question in return.  Granted Anita's labor is one of the constitutive elements in the making of the cake, but so too is flour.  If I told you that the flour used in Anita's cake was bought from a large national wholesaler, etc., etc., would that extension of the conditions of existence of the cake be any more or less important than the extension you much more vividly detailed?  Perhaps more important for the politics of labor or exploitation, but any more important for the constitution of the cake? 

  Interstingly, my example of the cake can also be found in Lewontin, Rose and Kamin's Not in Our Genes, and I think is consistent with the overall approach of Lewontin and Levins in their Dialectical Biologist (by no means am I trying to imply that they are postmodernists, but I do think their approach is close to what I think).

  There is a nice review in the May 2005 MR of Dialectical Biologist:  Dialectical Nature: Reflections in Honor of the Twentieth Anniversary of Levins and Lewontin's The Dialectical Biologist by Brett Clark and Richard York.  If I could just quote from part of the review, I think Clark and York capture well what I have called constitutive causality and provided a hint of the scientific approach of experimentation or cause and effect that Ian has supported.

  "A dialectical stance is essential in order to understand the material world in terms of its own becoming: recognizing that history is open, contingent, and contradictory. In a time when ruling-class ideology permeates every pore of the social world and genetic explanations reign as justifications for social differences and inequalities, the work of Lewontin, Levins, and Gould liberates scientific research and social knowledge from the social constructs of "bad science." 

  In The Dialectical Biologist, Levins and Lewontin reject one-sided notions of mechanical reductionism and superorganic holism (common in ecology) and the hierarchical conceptions of life and the universe that they both generate. In presenting their approach, they critique both idealism and reductionism within the natural sciences. Instead Levins and Lewontin argue for a dialectical and materialist approach that understands that the world "is constantly in motion. Constants become variables, causes become effects, and systems develop, destroying the conditions that gave rise to them" (279). The universe is one of change due to existing and evolving contradictions, which force transformation in the conditions of the world. "Things change because of the actions of opposing forces on them, and things are the way they are because of the temporary balance of opposing forces" (280). "

  Perhaps we could talk about what is right or wrong with Lewontin and Levins rather than the more loaded term postmodernism, because for me they come very close to how I think.

  BTW, I fully understand Paul Z.'s concern and am happy for the list to move on to more pressing topics. 


    OK, let's consider this example more.  To begin with, the "ingredients" for the cake
    not only include those you mentioned.  Making a cake is a productive and re-
    productive activity.  One therefore has to include labor activity as an ingredient. 
    To do that, one must recognize that the baker, as the creator of the cake,  is also
    constitutive of the cake.  To the extent that the cake is a product created by
    an individual baker, then all matters which are constitutive of the individual baker
    are also constitutive of the cake.
    With this as background, let us see whether it is or is not possible to rank 
    an individual factor in the creation of the cake as more or less causally important 
    and having a greater or lesser explanatory power as all other factors.
    Suppose the chocolate cake is being made by Anita De Los Santos, a chef 
    in Caracas who grew up in a wealthy family in  San Juan, Puerto Rico,  and 
    was trained at a famous culinary school in Paris.  Her specialty is pastries.
    Do you want more detail?  OK.  Anita has been a feminist since she was in 
    her teens.  When she first became a socialist in 1975,  her role models were
    Lolita Lebron and Rosa Luxemburg.  She has three children (2 girls and 1 boy,
    ages 4, 7, 9),  is divorced, and is 48-years-old.   She moved to Caracas 2 years 
    ago in order to support the Bolivarian Revolution.  Although a  socialist and a
    feminist, she is also a devout Catholic and supporter of Liberation Theology.
    She attends church every Sunday.  The cake that she made is for a birthday 
    party for her 7-year-old,  Mariarosa. 
    Anita, being a middle-aged person, has various health problems, including
    an in-grown toenail, dandruff, and heart disease (she had a mini-stroke a 
    year ago). 
    I could provide more detail if you wish.
    As planned, Anita returns from work in the evening and bakes the 
    chocolate cake for Mariarosa.   The date:  Wednesday, November 5,
    Now, is it or is it not possible that some of the above factors are more or
    less causally important in the constitution of the cake?
    I'm going to stick my neck out and say that the fact that Anita has an
    in-grown toenail is probably of  little importance in the baking of the
    cake?  Do you agree?
    I'll also go out on a limb and add that for the constitution of Anita
    herself,  the fact that she has heart disease and had a stroke is
    more important (and has greater explanatory power in considering her
    overall health condition) than the fact that she has dandruff and an in-
    grown toenail.  Do you agree?
    I'll further stick my neck out and claim that the proportion in which
    she added sugar, flour, milk, eggs, water and chocolate has greater
    explanatory power in considering the outcome (the quality of the
    cake) than the fact that she at one point in her life wanted to grow
    up to be like Lolita Lebron.  Do you agree?
    I'll further stick out my neck and assert that what temperature she 
    cooked the cake and for how long has greater explanatory power for 
    considering the outcome than the fact that Anita is a Catholic who
    goes to church on Sundays.  Do you agree?
    I'' further claim that the skill she acquired as a chef having trained at
    a Parisian culinary school is now more important in terms of  the quality
    of the cake than the fact that Anita is divorced.  Do you agree?
    Now, I will agree with you that it is difficult or impossible to develop a 
    legitimate _scale_ for accurately and quantitatively ranking all of the factors
    (direct and indirect) that went into the baking of the cake.  _Despite that_,
    I still think it's possible in some legitimate but unscientific way to attach 
    greater or lesser causal importance to some variables.  Do you agree?
    In solidarity, Jerry
  Stephen Cullenberg              
  Professor of Economics        
  University of California           
  Riverside, CA 92521             

  Office:  951-827-1573
  Fax:      951-787-5685

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