George Molnar, Powers

I just finished reading George Molnar’s extraordinary book Powers. Reading an analytic philosophy book like this one reminds me, once again, that I am not a philosopher, even though I frequently write about philosophical texts. Good analytic philosophy tries to provide basic logical grounds or arguments for all of its assertions — something that I am incapable of doing. And it almost totally ignores what is interesting about classical philosophical texts: which is the implications of the metaphysical assertions. The point is that I am sure that any good analytic philosopher could point to the logical errors or ungrounded assertions in great speculative metaphysicians such as Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Leibniz, Kant, and William James. But such errors do not negate what is genuinely challenging and thought-provoking about these thinkers. (I am crudely echoing, here, some of the remarks that Graham Harman has made many times on his blog. But then, Harman really is a philosopher, albeit of the continental rather than analytic kind — which means that he is doing the kind of thing the aforementioned great speculative philosophers do, rather than what the analytics do. I, in contrast, am doing something that is closer to speculative fiction than to speculative metaphysics. I respind to philosophy texts in the same way that I do to science fiction novels). 

Nonetheless, although his book is mostly concerned with the usually analytic statement of the particular arguments needed to establish his assertions, Molnar’s metaphysical assertions are themselves fascinating and suggestive, and contribute a lot to current debates in “speculative realism.” (Indeed, I came upon Molnar in the first place because he was mentioned in the context of SR by Ben Woodard). (Molnar is also footnoted in the introduction of The Speculative Turn, in connection with Iain Hamilton Grant’s attempt to produce a “powers” metaphysics; but Grant himself doesn’t seem to mention Molnar, either in his essays in that volume or in his own book Philosophies of Nature After Schelling).

Molnar’s basic argument is that things (or OOO’s objects) possess causal powers that are ontologically real, and not just confined to the instances in which they are manifested. Salt contains the power of being soluble (dissolveable) in water; this power is a veritable property of the salt, even if it never encounters water and never actually gets dissolved. In insisting that powers are actual independently of their manifestation (even if they can only be described in terms of their manifestation), Molnar rejects the skeptical (empiricist, and especially Humean) hypothesis that talk of powers has no meaning apart from the conditional statement that, e.g., if the salt is put into water, then it will dissolve. The classic Early Modern reproach to medieval philosophy was to ridicule the latter for allegedly saying, for instance, that opium puts people to sleep because it has a dormative power — and to claim that this sort of explanation is utterly meaningless. Molnar is arguing, in effect, that opium really does have something like a “dormative power.” This is not to deny that such a power can be analyzed, e.g., in terms of particular neurochemical events that take place in the brain of somebody who has smoked opium. But such an analysis of the “dormative power” does not get away from the attribution of powers, since it simply replaces the power of opium per se with a more detailed account of the powers possessed by particular molecules in the composition of opium. 

In this way, Molnar asserts a realist ontology, one that is directed against the skeptical empiricism of the whole tradition derived from Hume (and one still adhered to by a large number of analytic philosophers today). The parallels with speculative realism go further; Molnar insists, as much as Graham Harman does, that a thing, or an object, is not just a bundle of properties or characteristics, but exists in its own right apart from and in addition to these. (Although Molnar, unlike Harman, endorses the basic scientistic move of reducing objects to their ultimate subatomic constituents, he doesn’t make the claim that this somehow renders objects of the sort that we can see and touch illusory). 

In this way, Molnar offers something like the actualism, and the “flat ontology,” insisted upon by Delanda, by Latour, and by OOO (in contrast to the eliminativist impulses, both of many analytical philosophers, and of Ray Brassier or other more scientistically-inclined speculative realists). But there’s a difference. Molnar writes: “While ontologically there is nothing over and above individuals and their properties (actions), causally there is.” (George Molnar). The insistence on actual causality, and on actual relations (causality being one form of relation), makes for a significant difference between Molnar and Harman. Contra Harman, Molnar rejects any sort of “occasionalism”; he insists that causality is direct — and not merely “vicarious.” Like Harman and against Deleuze, Molnar claims that powers, even when they are not being exercised, are entirely actual qualities of things — they cannot be regarded as “virtual” or “potential.” They fully exist even when they are not manifested in particular events, as a result of particular relational encounters. But against Harman, Molnar insists that relations are as primary an ontological category as things or objects are. 

To put this another way: Harman, in his critique of Latour, opposes the Deleuzian notion of the virtual (together with related notions of the potential) to what he sees as Latour’s “Megarian” actualism. Although he applauds this actualism, he rejects what he claims is Latour’s relationalism, or denial that his discrete entities have any nonrelational substance. But Molnar adds another option to this picture. For Molnar, things do have a substantial reality that is outside of, and anterior to, relations — but this substantial actuality is largely composed of “powers,” or of causal abilities to do things (and thereby to interact relationally with other substances). There is nothing besides individuals and their properties; but since many of these properties of individual things are powers, they make direct causality possible, i.e. when they do contingently encounter other things or substances, they produce real effects.

Molnar asserts that “laws of nature” are supervenient upon the powers of actually-existing things. Against post-Humean skepticism, “laws of nature” are objective features of the world, not mental impositions. This thesis is therefore, once again, realist and anti-correlationist; it affirms that reality is mind-independent and human-independent.  But, in opposing Hume, Molnar also implicitly opposes Quentin Meillassoux’s return to, and alleged solution of, “Hume’s problem.” Something like Leibniz’s law of sufficient reason, or Whitehead’s ontological principle, is preserved against Meillassoux’s all-too-Humean insistence that anything can happen with no reason whatsoever. This is because, for Molnar, it is not that things obey pre-existing laws of nature (which is the thesis that Meillassoux rejects), but rather that “laws of nature” are themselves the consequence of the actual powers actually possessed by individual entities. We might say therefore, that Molnar’s powers are like Spinozian/Deleuzian abilities to affect, and to be affected by, other things. (The Spinozian part of Deleuze, unlike the Bergsonian part, does not involve virtuality). 

In addition to all this, Molnar claims that powers need not be grounded, and indeed that the ultimate powers of things are ungrounded. He argues this on an empirical, rather than a priori basis: the subatomic particles of which, according to contemporary physics, the universe is composed, do not seem to possess any grounding. An electron or a photon is nothing over and above its powers. If the powers of “composite” or everyday objects are themselves grounded (e.g. in physical, non-dispositional properties of these objects), the grounding does not continue downwards infinitely, but ultimately meets the ungroundedness of the powers of elementary particles.

Now, this might well be the place where OOO thinkers would argue that Molnar reveals himself to be a scientistic reductionist after all, but I think that such a criticism would not be entirely fair. This can best be understood, perhaps, by looking at the role that ungrounded powers play in Iain Hamilton Grant’s metaphysics (see Grant’s response to Harman in The Speculative Turn; this is also the place where Ben Woodard, as cited above, associates Molnar with Schelling and Grant). The crucial point we can take from Molnar is that powers need not be grounded in order to be real; and this makes for a crucial step in Grant’s argument, against Harman, that one can trace the anteriority of forces that generate objects, without thereby “undermining” objects and reducing everything to some sort of undifferentiated blob. From another direction, Molnar’s sense of ungrounded powers might also be used to defend Latour’s ontology against Harman’s criticisms. When objects are understood as possessing intrinsic powers, they can be separate and actual without being “withdrawn” in Harman’s sense. Objects possess real forces, which they exert against other, equally real forces being deployed by other objects. Without going so far as to make the difficult claim that Latour and Grant can be reconciled with one another, I think that they both can be defended against Harman’s various criticisms of them on the basis of an appeal to something like Molnar’s insistence upon the actuality, and not-needing-to-be-groundedness, of causal powers.

There’s also another, weirder direction in which one could take all this. For Molnar, subatomic entities like electrons and photons have intrinsic powers, but they don’t have any intrinsic qualities other than their powers. Indeed, this is precisely what he means when he asserts that their powers are ungrounded. If the powers of salt and opium and human beings and (to use Harman’s examples) tar and hailstones are grounded, this is because such entities have intrinsic qualities that are not powers, in addition to their intrinsic powers. I think, however, we can reduce the difference between subatomic entities and the sorts of entites that we can apprehend directly by adopting some form of panpsychism (as I have argued before — of course, Molnar would have hated this). That is to say, I want to argue for a thesis that Molnar explicitly rejects, but which is not incompatible with his main points. The thesis is what Molnar calls “dual-sided theory”: “all properties [of objects] have something about them that is irreducibly and ineliminably dispositional [i.e. is a power], and something (else) about them that is irreducibly and ineliminably non-dispositional or ‘qualitative’… A power is only a face/facet/side of a property that also has a qualitative face/facet/side.” Molnar rejects this thesis primarily because he doesn’t think that subatomic particles (or “field-densities”) have a qualitative side: they are only dispositional (they only have powers without any “grounding” or innerness). But a major argument of 20th century panpsychists, from Russell on to Strawson, is precisely that all entities must have an inner as well as an outer side, even if physics only gives us the latter. For panpsychism, there is a qualitative or experiential dimension to everything, including electrons and photons; just as there is a “dispositional” dimension, or the intrinsic possession of powers, to everything. Such a dual-aspect theory would grant interiority to subatomic particles, while also suggesting that the interiority of mesocosmic and macrocosmic entities need not be thought of as the “ground” of these entities’ powers, but as coextensive with them. Such an account both rescues Molnar’s overall argument from the vestiges of “smallism,” while at the same time preserving the intrinsicality and independence of objects without asserting that they are “withdrawn,” and without asserting that their causal relations are merely “occasional” or “vicarious.” For me, this is a way of taking Harman’s questions seriously, while at the same time giving more credence to the assertions of Latour (on the one hand) and Grant (on the other hand) than he is willing to; and of taking Meillassoux’s critique of correlationism seriously, without accepting his claims that mathematics = the absolute, and that things can and do happen for no reason. The occasionalism of both Harman and Meillassoux is rejected in favor of a Whiteheadian duality of determination and decision.