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A website for the book by Ian J Thompson:

"Rational Scientific Theories from Theism"


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6.1 Dispositions as units of understanding

Dispositional essentialism asserts that that each object has some properties that are inherently dispositional. These include the causal base properties that enter into scientific laws. However, this basic dispositional essentialism by itself, we saw in Chapter 4, leaves unanswered two important questions. The first question is whether all, or only some, of an object’s properties are dispositional. The second question concerns ontology.

If we want to know what exists, then philosophy has traditionally pointed to the concept of substance. But what properties does a substance have? And what do these properties do? Traditional definitions of substance have been based on one or more of the following requirements:

  1. Endurance over time and survival of changes,
  2. Independence, as being capable of existing independently and requiring no external cause for its existence, and
  3. Underlying substratum for properties, so properties can be of some substance.
The difficulty is that none of these three requirements gives a good idea of active power or of causation. There is something like active power in the ideas of Aristotle and in the ideas of the corpuscular physicists when they talked about solidity and rigidity as primary qualities.

Chapter 4 described a simple pragmatic or Eleatic approach to ontology whereby what is necessary and sufficient for the dispositional causation of events is interpreted realistically and postulated to exist. We identify propensities or powers with substance-stuff, so that particular objects are unions of dispositional powers and categorical forms. This development, following on from dispositional essentialism, leads to a general concept of substance, Aristotle’s underlying matter, as being constituted by dispositions and not just being the bare subject for those dispositions. We see how to understand objects as made of propensity-substance in the form of some structure or field, so that things in the world may consistently be bearers of both dispositional and formal properties.

No longer are substances defined by endurance, independence or as what underlies: none of these three definitions points in any way to the causal powers that we know are held by substances. Instead of those three, our ‘unit of understanding’ is the concept of disposition. An understanding of the theses of this book has as its prerequisite the concept of disposition, also known as potentialities, powers, or propensities. The history of this concept will be briefly discussed in Section 6.2 below.

6.1.1 Generation + selection as a pattern

The operation of a disposition A is conditional on some circumstance being sufficient and, after it does operate, some new effect is generated. This effect may be an event (like a fragile vase breaking), or it may be the existence of another disposition B (such as a force being produced by an electric potential). We always have this pattern of generation + selection, and that pattern is fundamental to dispositions: our unit of understanding.

The fact that we can have a pattern of generation + selection between two kinds of existing things (A, B) is an important philosophical step in our understanding of ontology. By our dispositional-substance ontology, A and B are two distinct kinds of objects, so this means that distinct kinds of objects can exist but still be related in law-like ways. It cannot be the case that a ‘sharp metaphysical distinction’ between two kinds of objects forbids there to be causal relations between them. In the cases examined so far, we find that the causal relations are not symmetric: it is not the case that A causes effects of B, and B causes effects in A in the same manner. Rather, it appears that these causal relations between metaphysically distinct kinds of objects are asymmetric and are described by the pattern of generation followed by selection, which I denote by ‘generation + selection’. This means that A causes effects of B by generation, and that, in a distinguishable manner, B causes effects in A only by selection. In both cases, the active dispositional powers are ascribed to A only, and the ability of B to influence by selection resides entirely in the fact that the configurations of B provide the sufficient circumstances for the conditional operation of A.

6.1.2 Mentality as desire-thought-action

In Section 4.8 we asked what could be the ‘true mental dispositions’ that constitute our mental life, especially those which do so in a ‘more fundamental’ manner. The answer to this question is needed now because whatever turns out to be the most fundamental disposition will be the actual substance of which minds are formed.

In the light of Section 5.4, we must consider the possible role of derivative dispositions in our mental life and whether there are multiple generative levels within minds. In order to do this, we must see whether there are multiple patterns of generation + selection within psychological activities. The complete proposal for psychology will be presented in Chapters 11 and 22. For now it is most useful to just examine the relations between desires, thoughts and actions in mental life, to see whether they may be ordered as generative levels linked by operations of generation + selection.

We note first, following the analysis of Ryle (1949), that minds as a whole are akin to dispositions, and hence the actions of a person are the effects of those dispositions. This implies that our minds and our actions may be seen as forming two generative levels. They are linked by generation, as our minds generate our actions, and also linked by selection, as our thinking is constrained by what we actually choose to do.

We should also consider the relation, within the mind, between desires and thought. That relation should be the same as that between willing and understanding, since we generally think that willing is in accordance with our desires and with our loves and motivations: we will by means of desires. We also generally think that our understanding is in accordance with our thought: we understand by means of our thoughts and ideas.

But does desire generate thought, or thought generate desire, or neither? There is room for debate on this, but there are psychological, philosophical and theological arguments to lead to the conclusion that it is desire which generates thought, rather than the opposite.

The psychological evidence stems from the fact that persons tend to think about what they want: their desires lead their dreaming, thinking, planning and eventually acting to get what they want. This suggests that desires generate the streams of thought that occur in the understanding, rather than that our thinking dictates what we want, love, or desire. Thought may influence what we desire but only by selection. Our thoughts select which desires can be feasibly brought nearer satisfaction.

Some will disagree, saying that it is primarily thought that makes our desire, and that we tend to desire things that we have thought up. This is true, but what is the causal determiner of what we think up? Thoughts seem to pop into our heads, and thoughts about what we desire are much more likely to do so! We interfere at this point sometimes and reject thoughts as unsuitable, but that rejection itself also requires motivation or desire. We do not clearly see our desires in our consciousness, but only our thoughts and actions, so we tend to forget about the essential role of dispositions and desires.6.1

Philosophically, we could argue from the Aristotelian view that thought is the entertaining of the forms of things. Then, since forms themselves have no causal power, we could say that all the power must belong to whatever is doing the thinking and not to the thoughts themselves. This implies that thoughts themselves are not dispositions. The honor of being dispositions belongs to desires or loves. Desires are more similar to dispositions than are thoughts.

A related theological issue is that it is more fundamental to say that God is love rather than that God is thought. Aristotle believed that the Unmoved Mover, as pure intellect or Logos, consisted of pure contemplation, but the theistic traditions have asserted a more fundamental role to love than to intellection. These issues, as they relate to theism, will be addressed again later, especially in Section 11.3.

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