Intrinsic Dispositional Properties and Immanent Realism

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and have recently argued that immanent realism is incompatible with the existence of intrinsic but (at least partially) relationally constituted genuine dispositional properties. The success of Tugby’s and Yates’ arguments depends either on a strong or on a weak assumption about the interworld identity of dispositional properties. In this paper, the author evaluates the strength of the arguments in question under those two assumptions. He also offers an alternative metaphysical picture for the fundamental dispositional properties which rejects these assumptions and, consequently, undermines the arguments themselves.


Tugby (2013a) and Yates (2016) have recently argued that immanent realism is incompatible with the existence of intrinsic but (at least partially) relationally constituted genuine dispositional properties. The success of Tugby’s and Yates’ arguments depends either on a strong or on a weak assumption about the interworld identity of dispositional properties. In this paper, the author evaluates the strength of the arguments in question under those two assumptions. He also offers an alternative metaphysical picture for the fundamental dispositional properties which rejects these assumptions and, consequently, undermines the arguments themselves.

1 Introduction

A number of metaphysicians of properties are realists;1 that is, they maintain that properties (and relations) exist as mind-independent universals. There are two versions of realism: According to the Platonic version, property-universals exist “outside” of space-time, and particulars exemplify them, while according to immanent (or “Aristotelian”) realism, property-universals exist only “in” actual particulars as non-spatial parts or aspects of those particulars.

Another distinction in the metaphysics of properties which cross-cuts the above-mentioned division is the categorical/dispositional one. Dispositional realists accept the existence of irreducible, ontologically robust, dispositional properties (henceforth, powers). Dispositional realists believe that powers, contrary to categorical properties, can exist unmanifested. Furthermore, many dispositional realists believe that at least some powers are intrinsic features of their bearers.2 Finally, most dispositional realists claim that powers are (at least partially) relationally individuated (or constituted) by their characteristic manifestation relations. Tugby (2013a) and Yates (2016) have recently argued that immanent realism is incompatible with the aforementioned beliefs. Granting the success of their arguments (as well as putting aside an extreme nominalistic view about properties in general, according to which there are no properties at all), dispositional realists seem to have two options: either embrace Platonic realism for all powers or opt for a trope-theoretic account of all powers.3

In this paper, I shall not examine the merits of the alternative options cited above. Rather, I shall concentrate on the arguments themselves. In doing so, I shall focus on one of the issues related to the aforementioned beliefs of dispositional realists, the issue concerning the interworld identity of properties. Consequently, I shall not examine three routes to undermine the arguments in question which are closely related to the other two previously mentioned beliefs: the first is to insist that dispositional realism is false (that is, there are no actual powers); the second is that, though there are some actual powers, no power is an intrinsic feature of its bearer; and the third is that the existing powers are continuously and (perhaps) necessarily manifested. All of these theses have been defended in the relevant literature (at least for the case of the fundamental properties): the first thesis has been defended by categorical monists who argue that at least all fundamental properties are categorical (see, for example, Armstrong 1997; 2004), the second by French and McKenzie (2012), who have recently argued against the intrinsicality of all fundamental charges, and the third by Esfeld and Sachse (2011), who have suggested that all fundamental powers are continuously and necessarily manifested by creating (and maintaining) force-fields.

The first aim of the present paper is to evaluate the strength of the arguments in question under different assumptions about the interworld identity of properties upon which the success of the arguments depends. The second aim is to offer an alternative metaphysical picture for the fundamental powers which rejects the above assumptions and, consequently, undermines the arguments themselves.

The structure of the paper is as follows: First, in section 2, I expound the arguments presented by Tugby and Yates. Then, in section 3, I show that, if the arguments under scrutiny presuppose the view that the interworld identity of powers is exclusively relationally constituted, they can succeed only provided that plausible responses to two serious objections can be offered (§ 3.1), whereas, if they presuppose the view (popular among dispositional realists) that the interworld identity of powers is exclusively determined by their causal role, they cannot succeed for science-based reasons (§ 3.2). In the next section (§ 4), I examine whether the arguments under consideration can plausibly presuppose a weaker relational view about the identity of powers. Sub-section 4.1 discusses Yates’ tentative suggestion (ultimately refuted by him) on how a dispositional realist can deny even the weaker view. In § 4.2, I introduce an alternative version of dispositional realism in the context of which a dispositional realist may plausibly reject even the weak assumption about the identity of powers. Given that the arguments examined in this paper presuppose either the strong or the weak assumption, their strength is significantly reduced by the conclusions reached here (which are briefly presented in section 5).

2 Tugby and Yates against Immanent Realism

Tugby (2013a) argues that only a kind of Platonic dispositional realism is compatible with the fact that at least some powers are intrinsically possessed by their bearers and may also exist unmanifested. In order to reconstruct his argument, in what follows, I set out its main assumptions:

  1. (a)Some powers are intrinsically instantiated by their bearers.
  2. (b)The identity of each power is determined by its directedness towards a (some) specific manifestation(s).
  3. (c)The directedness of any power must be specified in terms of relation(s) holding between the universal associated with the power and the universal(s) associated with its manifestation(s).

Given assumption (a), Tugby urges us to consider an intrinsically possessed power P which is manifested in the actual world. For Tugby, P is an intrinsic property of an object x if and only if x’s having P is independent of the existence of other particulars and x’s relation to them. Due to its intrinsic character, P (or its counterpart) should be still instantiated by x (or its counterpart) in any possible world where either particulars distinct from x change (in number or in their properties or both) or x’s relations to them change or both.4 We can imagine, however, possible worlds where, due to some of the above-mentioned changes (vis-à-vis the actual circumstances), there is no instantiation of (any of) its manifestation-universal(s). The immanent realist should admit that in these worlds, the manifestation-universal does not (or all manifestation-universals do not) exist and, given (b) and (c), P has no nature and identity. Taking also into account the Quinean assumption that lack of identity entails lack of existence, we get as a result that P does not exist in the worlds under consideration. This, however, cannot be true since, by Tugby’s definition, we cannot make a particular object x lose any of its intrinsic properties simply by altering particulars that are distinct from x or x’s relations to them (or both). Since, for Tugby, assumptions (a), (b) and (c) are true, the conclusion of the argument is a reductio for the thesis of immanent realism for powers.

Yates (2016) also discusses the putative incompatibility between intrinsicality, immanence and (at least in part)5 relational individuation of powers. In his own words (Yates 2016, 145):

If powers are ontologically dependent on each other, then the existence of a power at a world requires the existence of those powers upon which it depends. But for Aristotelians, a power exists at a world only if it has instances at that world, so for any x to possess a power P, there must exist bearers of all powers upon which P depends. But in that case P is not intrinsic, because Ps are not possibly lonely.

For Yates, thinking of powers as (at least partially) relationally individuated (or constituted) by their characteristic manifestation relations compels one to conceive them as ontologically dependent on their characteristic (dispositional) manifestation-universals. If that is the case, then the existence of a power P at a world w requires the existence of other powers at w. Granted immanent realism, these powers should be instantiated by inhabitants of w, and, so, there cannot be a lonely object instantiating P at w. Though Yates suggests that powers can be intrinsic on some understanding of intrinsicality that does not require loneliness, he nonetheless highlights the fact that many accounts of intrinsicality introduce the loneliness condition ‘if a property P is intrinsic then, possibly, there exists a lonely P’ (Yates 2016, 140) as a necessary condition on intrinsicality (ibid., 139–141). Given that fact and the above-mentioned conclusion (that there cannot be a lonely object instantiating P at w), it seems that P cannot be intrinsic.6

3 An Evaluation of the Arguments

As I have already said in the introduction, I intend to assess the strength of the arguments by focusing on their shared assumption about the interworld identity of properties. This assumption may take either a strong or a weak form. According to its strong version, the interworld identity of (at least some) natural properties (in particular, powers) is exclusively relationally constituted. For convenience, let us call this view erc. Most often, the content of this strong version of the view is confined to the claim that the identity of (at least some) properties is exclusively determined by their causal role (clarificatory details on how we can define the causal role of properties are given below in § 3.1).

According to the weak version of the view, the interworld identity of (at least some) properties is only partially relationally constituted. Provided that it is agreed that the causal role identity-conferring element is structural in nature, according to this weak version, there must be a non-structural identity-conferring element. For convenience, let us call the view that the interworld identity of (at least some) properties is partially relational prc.

3.1 Conceptual Arguments against erc

Let us first suppose that the arguments presented by Tugby and Yates rely on erc. In this and the following sub-section, I argue that this supposition undermines the arguments under scrutiny because we have reasons to reject erc.

To begin with, there exist at least two powerful arguments in the literature against erc, when the latter is intended to apply to all properties. The first of them has been introduced by Robinson (1993, 23), restated clearly (but briefly) by Lowe (2006, 138) and discussed in Bird (2007a; 2007b). In a nutshell, the objection to erc is that if the identity of any property is exclusively determined by its relations to other properties, then either there is an infinity of properties or there is circularity in this relationship of identities.7 Setting aside the view that there are infinitely many actual fundamental properties, Bird endeavours to address the worry that the circularity involved seemed to show that our attempt to provide determinacy for the identity of any property ultimately failed. To this end, Bird argues that a holistic 8 determination of a property’s identity can be uniquely determined, provided that the set of second-order relations between the property in question and other properties can be represented by an asymmetric graph (for the original idea, see Dipert 1997).

Bird’s suggestion came under (a convincing, in my view) attack by Oderberg (2011) who shows that it has unpalatable metaphysical consequences. In particular, Oderberg argues that, under an immanent realist interpretation of fundamental properties, the whole world would go out of existence if every instance of enough fundamental powers were destroyed so that the remaining ones constituted a symmetric graph. While, under a platonic realistic interpretation of fundamental properties, if a single fundamental power was not instantiated at all, no power could manifest itself and all change in the world would cease.9

The second argument against erc highlights the problems that emerge from the possibility of properties’ having symmetric nomic roles. As I shall point out right after, these nomic roles can be defined via the nomic relations among the properties of our world. One may also appeal to a limited version of the argument in question by restricting the range of the relevant roles to the causal ones. In that case, one can invoke only the causal relations among properties in order to define their causal roles. Though the causal version of erc is quite popular among dispositional realists, in what follows, I shall discuss the more general argument. The main reason is that I find the restriction to the causal roles rather implausible. As far as I can see, one may have two motivations to embrace such a restriction. One may hold either that all laws are causal or that only the causal roles can confer identity to properties. Both views, however, are highly controversial. It is not at all clear, for instance, whether we can construe the conservation laws or the global physical principles (such as the principle of least action) as causal laws. Furthermore, as I shall argue in § 3.2, there exist actual fundamental properties and relations which confer no causal dispositions to their bearers, and as a result their identity cannot be provided by the causal version of erc.10 In any case, the same difficulties arise irrespective of the version of erc we happen to hold. Hence, in the following discussion, one may feel free to replace the terms ‘nomic’ and ‘laws’ with the terms ‘causal’ and ‘causal laws’, respectively.

To understand the source of the difficulties, let us present some necessary details. In his (2001), Hawthorne suggested that the identity of properties can be exclusively determined by their nomic11 roles, where the latter can be represented in a structuralistic manner via a construction based on the so-called Ramseyfied lawbook of the world. In rough terms, the procedure is the following: We start by building the Ramseyfied lawbook of the world by conjoining all the laws of the world (that is, all the nomic relations among properties) and then replace each property name (namely, each predicate that does not express a nomic relation) by a distinct variable and prefix each variable with a quantifier. The open sentence that we get by dropping the existential quantifier prefixing the variable denoting a property represents the nomic role of that property. Yet, as Hawthorne himself points out, there is a difficulty lurking in the background. Let us use the subscript N as a symbol for the nomic relation between properties and consider a toy world with exactly four properties, A, B, C and D related as follows:


In that possible scenario, properties A and B play the same nomic role and consequently, according to the structuralistic criterion of identity, should coincide. Yet, as Hawthorne argues, they must be distinct properties because it is only their joint instantiation that brings about property D.12 Hawthorne suggests that the defender of the structuralistic account may meet the difficulty by appealing to the nomic profile of the whole world (that is, a complete description of the nomic structure of the world). On that account, the nomic profile of a world exhausts facts about which properties play which roles. This, in turn, means that there cannot be two possible worlds that have the same nomic profile but differ in which property plays which role. By going global, one can allow for the possibility of symmetric roles within the same world, but, surely, one moves beyond the original view according to which properties can be uniquely interworldly identified by their nomic roles.

3.2 Science-based Arguments against erc

Irrespective of the success of the arguments of the previous section, we have convincing science-based reasons for refuting erc when the identity-conferring structure is confined to properties’ causal roles. To illustrate that, let us first suppose that the causal-role-based account of interworld identity applies to all fundamental properties and relations. In that case we have at least two problems with the alleged universality of the account.

First, there is the case of spatiotemporal relations for which it can be plausibly claimed that, though they are fundamental, they confer no causal dispositions to their bearers. Even within the context of General Relativity (whose findings have recently been used to defend the causal affection of spatiotemporal relations on material bodies,13) the spatiotemporal structure (better, the metric-compatible affine structure of spacetime) cannot causally affect matter because all it can do is to determine the purely inertial motion of material bodies, in which no forces operate at all. In other words, all the geometry of spacetime does is to determine which paths are available to bodies when moving inertially (geodesics); it does not force bodies to move in a certain way. Inertial motion, therefore, is explained geometrically, not causally. Bartels (2013) rejects this kind of reasoning because he thinks that one cannot argue against the causal influence of spacetime on matter on the basis that the former applies no force on the latter. In his words (Bartels 2013, 2005; emphasis added):

[…] in General Relativity, metrical (affine) structure is the means by which the gravitational field couples to matter. Spacetime affects matter not by means of classical forces, but by means of its metrical (and affine) structure which brings about tidal forces producing paradigmatic causal effects like spatial deformations of material bodies. Thus, the claim maintaining a causally active role of metrical properties can be defended against general objections […].

For Bartels, then, my line of thought presupposes what General Relativity allegedly denies, namely, that, in the context of classical physics, the notion of cause is necessarily related to the concept of force. Bartels thinks that one of the innovations of General Relativity is precisely that, contrary to earlier classical theories, it introduces a notion of cause14 independent of the notion of force. This claim, however, seems to me to be unwarranted. Currently, there are three plausible interpretations of what, according to General Relativity, the influence of spacetime on matter amounts to (see Lehmkuhl 2008 for details): some physicists and philosophers think of General Relativity as “geometrising” away the gravitational force, while others think of it as showing that all spatiotemporal phenomena are expressions of the gravitational field. Finally, there is a third view according to which, in the general relativistic context, there is a conceptual identification of the gravitational field with the proper spatiotemporal geometrical structure. In none of these interpretations do we have an indication that General Relativity dissociates the concept of the cause from forces.

The second difficulty related to the alleged universality of the causal-role-based account of interworld identity of properties concerns the case of some of the so-called quantum numbers of elementary particles. In my view, these fundamental properties confer no causal dispositions to their bearers. Consider, for instance, the quantum number of strangeness S. This quantum number is conserved only in strong and electromagnetic interactions (not in weak ones), and its existence is postulated to explain two specific phenomena concerning kinds of “strange particles”. Ryder (1985, 7) explains:

The original laboratory production of “strange particles” in 1954 yielded, amongst other things,

(1.3) π– + pΛ + K 0

with such a large cross section that this reaction must be due to the strong interaction. When the Λ and K0 particles decay, however,

(1.4) Λp + π–K 0 → π+ + π–

the lifetimes are so long (~10–10 s) that the decays must be due to the weak interaction, even though all the particles involved are hadrons. Why? Hadrons decaying into hadrons of a lower mass will surely do so by the strong interaction – unless violation of a conserved quantity is involved. We therefore introduce a quantum number S called ‘strangeness’, assign S=0 to π and p, S=–1 to Λ and S=+1 to K0, and invent the rule, strong interactions conserve S, weak interactions change it. Then it will be seen that, in reaction (1.3), the algebraic sum of S on both sides of the reaction is zero, so S is conserved, and it is a strong interaction – as found. In the decays (1.4), however, S changes from –1 to 0 or +1 to 0, so the decays cannot proceed by the strong interaction, and so are weak.15

There are two phenomena that appear in the above quotation and can be explained via the postulation of S: the fact that particles Λ and K0 are produced in pair and the further fact that they have long lifetimes. Lewis (forthcoming) claims that these facts are related to dynamical features of the particles and the proposed explanation shows that strangeness confers specific causal dispositions to its bearers. Yet, as far as the first fact is concerned, how can the coming into existence be related to any causal dispositions particles themselves have? Perhaps we can say that there is a global physical constraint on the production of the particles in question, but how is that constraint related to their causal dispositions? Turning to the second fact, it seems that strangeness, due to its limited conservation, determines that particles Λ and K0 cannot decay via the strong force but only via the weak force. Isn’t this fact related to the causal dispositions particles have in virtue of possessing a certain value of strangeness? The possession of (a certain value of) strangeness does not, however, determine the kind of causal interactions these particles may enter to. It rather determines the degree of their stability. (The same point holds for other conserved quantum numbers, such as the baryon number.) Yet it is debatable whether this degree of stability is associated with any kind of causal dispositions a particle may possess. Even if we appeal to Williams’ (2005) static dispositions (that is, dispositions whose manifestations involve no change) to secure the stability of objects, it is not at all clear why these dispositions should be causal.16 So, pace Lewis, I think that properties such as strangeness (or the baryon number) confer no causal dispositions to their bearers and, as a result, their identity cannot be determined by their causal roles.

Given that the previously mentioned difficulties convince us that the account under scrutiny cannot be universally applied, the only remaining option for its defenders is to hold that the account applies only to those properties which dispositional realists themselves often invoke (that is, mass, electric charge, spin etc.). More precisely, the claim would be that the interworld identity of all members of a particular set of fundamental properties is exclusively determined by their causal roles. Yet, even that weaker claim is false since, as I shall argue in the sequel, there is an alternative way of determining the interworld identity of those properties which is independent of their causal roles.

To elaborate my point, let me start from the observation that contemporary physics provides the means for the identification of fundamental properties such as mass, electric charge and spin in a causal-role-independent manner as invariants under the action of transformations associated with fundamental symmetries.17 In particular, the rest mass and spin of elementary particles can be identified as invariants under the action of the transformations of the spatiotemporal Poincaré symmetry, while electric charge can be identified as a conserved quantity related to the so called U(1) symmetry.18 The relevant procedures of identification are purely mathematical and so it is reasonable to claim that they are independent of properties’ causal roles.

As an objection to this claim, one may point out that there is a certain sense in which invariance under the action of symmetry transformations does implicitly involve causal roles. To illustrate that, one may start from the undeniable fact that in order to empirically establish the invariance in question, one has to compare specific magnitudes before and after certain operations. The values of these magnitudes ultimately come from the readings of scientific instruments. Hence, says the objector, when we say that a physical quantity is invariant, what we actually mean is that a particle (perhaps an elementary one) interacts with an instrument in the same way in different (yet related by symmetry transformations) circumstances. In other words, certain symmetry-related circumstances do not affect specific causal roles of the measured property of the particle. We have, therefore, an implicit introduction of these causal roles in the suggested procedure of identification, which turns it into a kind much like the one accepted by the defenders of erc. Nevertheless, this objection relies on an “operationalistic” approach to the issue of invariants. According to this view, in order to find whether a quantity is invariant or not, we have to measure its value in different circumstances and compare the results. Yet, as I have previously remarked, there is a purely conceptual/mathematical way of finding the invariants under certain transformations, given the mathematical structure describing the effects of their repeated application. Hence, insofar as we do not have to measure anything in order to find the invariants (in the case of mass, charge etc.), it is reasonable to claim that the suggested procedure of identification is independent of properties’ causal roles.

Returning to the issue of the interworld identity of properties, I suggest that, given the aforementioned scientific findings, we may plausibly claim that second-order invariance-features such as ‘being invariant under the action of the Poincaré group of symmetry transformations’ and ‘being invariant under the action of the U(1) group of symmetry transformations’ can ground the interworld identity of those fundamental properties which dispositional realists themselves invoke. Thus, we can reasonably challenge the view that the interworld identity of each power is exclusively determined by specific manifestation relations constituting its causal role.

To conclude this section, I should make a crucial point. Though the “traditional” approaches most often relate erc to the properties’ causal roles, the arguments against the dependence of symmetry-based identifications on causal roles cannot show by themselves that there is any non-structural element in the determination of the identity of a power. For the above-mentioned invariance-features may indeed be independent of causal roles but nonetheless structural. So, it seems that eventually symmetry-based arguments cannot threaten the viability of erc in general (that is, erc not confined to the causal-role-based-identity-conferring-structure). A defender of erc may insist that there are two kinds of structural elements that determine any (fundamental) power’s interworld identity: causal roles and invariance-features. In that case, however, one should meet the conceptual difficulties arising from the conceptual arguments presented in § 3.1. (Recall that both difficulties presuppose that the relations constituting the identity-conferring structure hold between properties. Plausibly, that is also the case with the structure which is allegedly associated with the invariance-features.) Nevertheless, if a plausible solution to the aforementioned difficulties can be provided, then I admit I have no extra arguments against erc in general.

To recap, I have so far argued for the following: On the one hand, if the arguments presented by Tugby and Yates presuppose the version of erc that is limited to causal roles, they cannot succeed because this view is false. If, on the other hand, the arguments in question presuppose erc in general (not confined to causal roles), they can succeed only provided that adequate responses to the conceptual arguments presented in section 3.1 can be given. Otherwise, their defenders should rest content with prc. Yet, as I shall show in the next section, dispositional realism does not necessitate the truth of prc either; for, there is an alternative account of powers which is compatible with the rejection of prc and, if true, undermines the arguments presented by Tugby and Yates.

4 prc to the Rescue?

Let me start this section with an obvious point. Since by definition (recall what I have said in § 3.1) the causal role of powers is structural in character, dispositional realists can easily adopt prc. For even if the previously introduced invariance-feature proved to be non-structural, the causal role can be the basis of a partially relationally-constituted identity for powers. Does, however, dispositional realism necessitate the truth of prc? Yates examines some reasons which might support a negative answer to this question but finds them wanting. Pace Yates, I think that there is an alternative version of dispositional realism that is compatible with the denial of prc. Before presenting this alternative account, and in order to naturally introduce it, I will discuss Yates’ tentative suggestion on how a dispositional realist can reject prc.

4.1 Yates on the Possible Rejection of prc

Yates (2016, 148) suggests that one way for the dispositional realist to deny prc is to hold that causal roles are not identity-conferring elements because properties are contingently the powers they are. If that were true, he says, they could not be ontologically dependent on each other and, consequently, the intrinsicality-problem19 for the unmanifested powers would not arise.

Yates’ claim, however, is equivocal; one way to understand it is that, though necessarily dispositional, properties contingently possess their actual dispositional profile. Since that kind of interpretation respects the “orthodox” view that ontological distinctions (including, besides the dispositional/categorical distinction, the universal/particular distinction and the abstract/concrete distinction) refer to features that entities possess necessarily, let me call it the Orthodox Interpretation (henceforth, oi). Yet, there is another way to conceive his claim; it may mean that properties themselves can be contingently dispositional. Let me label that second construal the Contingent Dispositionality View (henceforth, cdv).

Can the ontological independence of powers on other powers be achieved under both oi and cdv? Despite first appearances, it is only by following cdv that we can secure the ontological independence of powers on other powers. To illustrate that, consider what Hendry and Rowbottom (2009) have called Dispositional Contextualism. According to Dispositional Contextualism, the having of a power implies the possession of a single set of actual and possible dispositions, rather than just a set of actual dispositions. Dispositional Contextualism is a metaphysical position that respects the common view according to which powers possess dispositionality necessarily; it simultaneously allows, however, a kind of interworld variation in a power’s dispositional profile. A dispositional contextualist might claim that, in each world in which a specific power exists, it is ontologically dependent on a set of other powers; that set, however, is only a subset of all powers that constitute the interworld causal profile of the power in question. Hence, according to Dispositional Contextualism, though powers contingently possess their actual profile, they are in fact ontologically dependent on other powers. Therefore, I conclude that oi does not secure the ontological independence of powers on other powers.

4.2 The Contingent Dispositionality View

Given the last upshot of the previous sub-section, let me now focus on the option of contingently dispositional properties. The first thing I would like to point out is that cdv is not a disguised version of the traditional neo-Humean view according to which, in each possible world w, the metaphysically contingent laws of w enforce a particular dispositional character upon any fundamental natural property of w. To make clear the difference between the two views, consider, for example, the property of having positive electric charge. To say that this property is contingently dispositional is not to say that ‘attracts negatively charged bodies’ is a contingent second-order feature of the first-order property in question. It is rather to claim that dispositionality itself contingently characterises this fundamental natural property.

By embracing cdv, a dispositional realist can secure the ontological independence of powers on other powers. Consider again the case of positive electric charge. According to cdv, positive electric charge could not have been dispositional in all possible worlds in which it exists (provided, of course, that it is dispositional in the actual world after all). Think now of a possible world w in which the (allegedly) dispositional property of positive charge is categorical. In that world, positive charge qua categorical is not ontologically dependent on other properties; categorical properties are ontologically independent because, though contingently related to other properties in all worlds in which they exist, it is not by their own nature that they are related to any of them. Granted that the relation of ontological dependence is metaphysically necessary and that there is at least one world in which positive charge is not ontologically dependent, I conclude that according to cdv positive charge is not ontologically dependent tout court. Securing in that manner the ontological independence of an actual power has, however, disastrous consequences for Yates’ argument against immanent realism since the argument in question rests upon the ontological dependence of powers on other powers. To put the same point in other terms, Yates’ argument presupposes that positive charge (and, of course, any other fundamental property considered dispositional in the actual world) is relationally constituted in all possible worlds in which it exists. This cannot be true, however, since positive charge is categorical in w and categorical features are externally (and contingently) related to other properties in all worlds in which they exist; they are not relationally constituted.

Yates has two points against cdv. According to his first objection, the appeal to cdv does not offer a solution for the intrinsicality-problem at all, since a contingently dispositional property is in fact a categorical property. Let me call this view the Identification Assumption (henceforth, ia). According to ia, cdv is a non-starter, since (obviously) an immanent realist cannot turn powers into categorical properties in order to address the intrinsicality-problem for the (unmanifested) powers. A crucial presupposition of ia is that a natural property is not genuinely dispositional unless it has a (dispositional) essence exhausted by its causal role(s). That is admittedly a “natural” assumption to make since it is just the most popular criterion of dispositionality (among dispositional realists). According to this criterion, the mark of dispositionality of any fundamental power is the necessity of its causal roles, while the latter are also essential features of the power which (given that essence determines the interworld identity) exclusively constitute its identity in every possible world in which it exists. In my view, however, we have reasons to reject this criterion exactly because of its intimate relationship with the corresponding problematic account of properties’ interworld identity (recall the arguments of section 3). I conclude, then, that ia fails to show that the immanent realist cannot appeal to cdv in order to meet the intrinsicality-problem for (unmanifested) powers.

Yates’ second objection to cdv consists in an argument grounded (to a certain extent) in a difference between fundamental and non-fundamental powers and related to the conditions of applicability of the concept of contingent dispositionality. He claims that we can easily ascribe to a non-fundamental property (such as the property of sphericality) a contingent dispositionality provided that: (a) we can “capture” its nature in terms independent of its causal role (for instance, sphericality is the property of being an x such that all points on x’s surface are equidistant from a fixed point), and (b) we can do this in a way that makes it apparent why the property causally relates in the way it actually does to other properties. For Yates, the first condition of applicability of the notion of contingent dispositionality is not met in the case of fundamental properties such as mass and electric charge. In contrast to the case of sphericality, we cannot (in Yates’ view) “capture” the nature of mass and charge in terms independent of their causal roles. Hence, even if we have managed to solve the intrinsicality-problem by invoking the idea of contingent dispositionality, our solution would have been limited to the case of non-fundamental properties. In his own words (Yates 2016, 148f.; his emphasis):

[…] our most fundamental characterizations of such properties describe them solely in terms of causal-nomic relations to each other.

[…,] we are at a loss to say which property mass is without saying what it does.

The first thing I want to point out is that Yates’ claims rest on the implicit assumption that we can reach metaphysical conclusions about the nature of (fundamental) properties from their scientific characterisations. I grant Yates this crucial assumption although the appeal to scientific findings and practice must be done with caution even within a science-sensitive metaphysical context. If we also assume, for the sake of the argument, that Yates is right about the conditions of applicability of the notion of contingent dispositionality, then, if his claim about the fundamental properties is true, we cannot ascribe to properties such as mass and charge a contingent dispositionality. Yet, as I have argued in the previous section, his claim is not true. It is just false to assume that the most fundamental scientific characterisations of properties such as mass and charge involve solely their causal/nomic relations to other properties. Therefore, there is no obstacle, even according to Yates’ own lights, to ascribe a contingent dispositionality to the fundamental properties of mass and electric charge.

In fact, we cannot even assume that Yates is right about the conditions of applicability of the notion of contingent dispositionality. Consider, for instance, the case of non-fundamental powers, such as solubility, which are by definition related to a specific causal role. According to cdv, the property of solubility, which is dispositional in the actual world, may be non-dispositional in another possible world. In that world, which may have radically different laws from the actual, there is no assurance that solubility confers to its bearers the same causal dispositions that it actually confers. Since, by hypothesis, solubility is non-dispositional in that possible world, it is the alien laws of that world that determine the behaviour of objects that instantiate solubility. Hence, in the world in question, an actual soluble object may fail to dissolve (in the appropriate circumstances) despite the fact that it instantiates solubility. But is it not absurd to claim that objects may instantiate solubility and not dissolve in the appropriate circumstances? The case of fundamental properties (such as mass or charge) does not raise such a difficulty since they are not by definition related to a specific causal role. So, pace Yates, it is only in the case of fundamental properties that the notion of cdv might be applied without raising absurdities.20

To conclude, given a suitable interpretation (the contingent dispositionality one), Yates’ suggestion that causal roles may not be identity-conferring elements because properties may be contingently the powers they are makes room for a version of dispositional realism which allows the rejection of prc. Given however that prc is the minimal view which he (and Tugby) should embrace for his (and Tugby’s) argument to run, the case against immanent realism for powers is significantly weakened.

5 Conclusion

Both Tugby’s and Yates’ arguments rely on metaphysical assumptions about the identity of powers. I have argued that under the stronger of those assumptions (erc), the arguments in question either fail (if they assume a version of erc that is limited to causal roles) or succeed only provided that adequate solutions to some serious conceptual difficulties can be given (if they assume erc in general). In order to avoid these conclusions, the defenders of these arguments may embrace a weaker assumption (prc). However, the proposed Contingent Dispositionality View (cdv) shows that, in the case of fundamental powers (where the implementation of cdv does not have unpalatable consequences), dispositional realism by itself does not necessitate the adoption of prc. Given all that, I conclude that the strength of the arguments presented by Tugby and Yates is lessened to a large extent. Perhaps immanent realism is after all an untenable view about the nature of properties. But what (I hope) the arguments of this paper show is that the opponent of immanent realism cannot uncontroversially defend her thesis simply by allowing the possibility of intrinsically possessed (unmanifested) powers.

Earlier versions of this paper were presented at the Fifth Italian Conference in Analytic Ontology (Padova 2016) and the Panhellenic Ontology Conference (Patras 2017). I would like to thank the participants for their helpful comments. I am also grateful to anonymous referees for their useful feedback.


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The term ‘realists’ has been established in the relevant literature (see, for instance, Orilia and Swoyer 2017). A less popular one is the term ‘universalists’.


Molnar (2003), for instance, thinks that intrinsicality is one of the five basic features of powers.


There is, however, also the option to embrace inclusivism. This term has been introduced by Orilia (2006) in the context of the discussion of the nature of particulars. Its application in the context at hand yields the view that Tugby’s and Yates’ arguments (if sound) do not prove that immanent realism is false simpliciter but only that it is not the proper account of the nature of powers, whilst it is (probably) the most plausible account of the nature of categorical properties. This move is in principle permitted, provided that (a) not all properties are ­powers, and (b) there are cogent arguments (overriding the objection from the putative unnecessary proliferation of the ontological views) for the case of categorical properties qua immanent universals. Though I think that the case for the first condition is strong enough, I cannot see how one may argue that immanent realism is exclusively compatible with categoricality. So, I think that in the case under examination metaphysical inclusivism is implausible.


As far as I can see, for Tugby’s argument, it seems to be irrelevant whether its defender is an interworld identity theorist or a counterpart theorist about particulars or/and properties.


Yates (2016, 139, fn. 4) makes clear that though he does not exclude the possibility of a fully relational individuation of powers, he is not committed to such a view.


Pace Tugby, Yates (2016, 149–153) thinks that there exist at least two ways to keep intrinsicality, (at least in part) relational individuation and “Aristotelian” immanence for power-­universals. Consequently, he claims (ibid., 143) that Platonic realism about powers is one way to secure their intrinsicality, but not the only way.


Barker (2013, 627) claims that the identity-objection arises only if we assume that each property derives its identity from other properties which in turn rest on others etc. For Barker, however, the structuralistic account is not committed to such an asymmetrical dependency of the identity (nature) of a natural property from the identity of other natural properties. Rather, properties altogether gain their identities by their unique positions in a network of relations. Nevertheless, Barker raises another serious difficulty for the structuralistic account of identity; he extensively argues that the account in question cannot fix an important part of the essence of a property, its adicity.


Besides Bird, philosophers who embrace kinds of power holism are Mumford (2004), Williams (2010) and Tugby (2013a). As Bigaj (2010) (who also holds a similar view) points out, the holistic turn moves beyond the original intuition about the determination of the identity of any power.


See also the debate between Oderberg (2012) and Shackel (2011) about the cogency of Oderberg’s arguments. Furthermore, some of the specific details of Bird’s proposal have been ­criticised as well (see, for instance, Tugby 2013b). Such a critique, however, has no considerable impact on the issue discussed here since it targets the efficiency of Bird’s view for accommodating intuitions concerning exclusively dispositional properties, whereas, in my view, the difficulties besetting the structuralistic account of identity emerge indiscriminately for all kinds of properties which are structurally identified.


For examples of such properties which are not mentioned in § 3.2, see Berenstain 2016.


Though Hawthorne defends the causal version of erc, he offers (2001, 370) a definition of the nomic role of any fundamental property.


In his (2006b, 457), Psillos presents an argument akin to Hawthorne’s. In his words: ‘[Suppose] that two properties A and B acted in tandem to generate a certain nomic profile Q. Suppose, further, that A or B, taken individually, did not have any further nomic role. Causal structuralism entails that, all else being equal, a world W1 with A&B having nomic profile Q would be identical with a world W2 in which a single property C had nomic profile Q. We may never be able to figure out whether we live in W1 or W2, but to make sense of this metaphysical difference we need to go beyond nomic roles.’


See Bird (2007b; 2009). For a defence of the view that, pace Bird, spatiotemporal relations cannot be plausibly regarded as having dispositional essences, see Livanios (2008; 2017).


Though in the second sentence of the quotation Bartels talks vaguely about spacetime affecting matter, in the last sentence he makes clear that the affection in question is causal in character.


Hadrons are elementary particles that interact by the strong interaction. They are composed of quarks and classified as baryons or mesons. The proton (p) and the lambda particle (Λ) are baryons, while pions (π+, π) and the kaon (K0) are mesons.


One should probably commit oneself to a controversial immanent causation between temporal parts of an object in order to allow a causal interpretation of static dispositions that secure the object’s stability. Incidentally, Williams (2005, 307) thinks that the generation and the annihilation of objects involve dynamic dispositions. He does not argue, however, that the relevant dispositions are causal.


For a nice presentation of the relevant mathematical notions, see Costa and Fogli 2012. For the technical details related to the mathematical procedures that yield the specific results mentioned in the text, one may consult Ryder 1985, 87–93, and Hamermesh 1989, 318.


From now on, I refer to the alleged incompatibility of some features of powers (intrinsicality and ontological dependence on other powers) with immanent realism as the intrinsicality-problem.


Yates’ objections do not exhaust the difficulties concerning cdv. However, due to lack of space, I cannot examine here further potential problems. For a more detailed discussion, see Livanios 2017, Ch. 6.

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