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powers, Aristotle and the incarnation

Interview by Richard Marshall.

Anna Marmodoro is the Clynelish single malt of the philosophy of powers universe. She takes on some of the most fundamental questions coming out of the classical authors, thinking about progress in philosophy, power metaphysics and the various puzzles that arise, property dualism and property monism, regresses, causality, Aristotle on perception, his subtle realism, the relationship between his metaphysics of perception and his metaphysics of substance, how all this links with contemporary theories and how the theory of the extended mind connects with philosophical issues regarding the Incarnation.This one leaves a warm glow in the mind as winter bears down and darkness falls…

3:AM: What made you become a philosopher? And is your preferred style lone brooding or the dialogic arguing – or something completely different from those?

Anna Marmodoro: Reading the ‘classics’ of Western thought at school drew me into it. By classics I mean Plato, Aristotle and the like. (This was back in Italy, where history of philosophy is a core component of the high school curriculum).

These classical authors arose my interest because they address fundamental questions in most areas of philosophy; they disagree quite radically on most answers; and their arguments are often preserved as tantalizing fragments, or at any rate in a literary form that demands much homework from the reader to reconstruct/develop the argument in full. These texts were both fascinating and challenging to me.

Reading these texts was an amazing training ground and multiplied my own why-questions exponentially. And because I felt that there were many of these questions that I could not answer, I wanted to do more, and more, and more philosophy.

Coming to the second part of your question, making progress with philosophy seems to me to require both lone brooding and dialogical arguing. Philosophical results demands testing, as in any other subject of inquiry. The way philosophical theories can be tested is by means of counter-examples, thought-experiment and the like. Here is where dialogical arguing plays and essential role in making progress. What we need and can contribute to each other is the critical testing of one’s thoughts. Additionally, big questions need to be examined from different angles, and teamwork is the most efficient way to achieve variety of expertise. I do believe that philosophy is a science, with its own standards of methodological rigour; its lab for testing hypotheses; and its community of experts.

3:AM: You’re a major voice in the philosophy of ‘powers’. This is metaphysical country isn’t it? So first can you just set the scene by telling us just what you take powers to be and what’s at stake? Is Hume’s view about causality on the line here?

AM: Power metaphysics is in a way a country of its own, in the sense that it is a clearly mapped out domain of inquiry in philosophy. On the other hand, powers are part of the fabric of the universe, to the same degree that causation is; thus power metaphysics is central and relevant to philosophy tout court, and in this sense it is not a country of its own.

What do powers do (philosophically) for us? In a nutshell, they are primitives in the ontology which causation (one of the holy grail of philosophy) can be metaphysically reduced to.

Powers are properties that enable their bearer to bring about or suffer change. Each (type of) power is defined by the (type of) change it is ‘responsible’ for. The change is the manifestation of the nature of the power. Importantly, manifesting is one of the two different states a power may be in; the other is being inactive. Powers are real even if never manifesting. Even a changeless universe may be powerful.

On my view, the activation of a power is a ‘transition’ of the power itself from one state to the other. Its manifestation is simply the power’s being active. (Powers manifesting change the overall causal profile of the world, as new powers too may come about from the manifesting of the original ones).

Powers get activated when paired up in appropriate conditions with one or more manifestation partners. Thus powers never manifest singly; the manifestation of the one is a necessary condition for the manifestation of the other. (The two manifestations have the same life spans too; even if there may be additional effects that outlast the end of a power’s manifesting). This is an important tenet in my theory because, I argue, it underpins better than competing theories two key features of causation: reciprocity and asymmetry.

On my view powers are not relations or relational properties (regresses loom close for those who hold this view); rather, for me powers are monadic properties. Yet powers exist in nature as structured, which does not mean that are connected by relations or that they are relational in nature. Rather, they are structured because one serves as a necessary condition for the other’s manifestation. The structure is not an extra entity in the ontology; it is not what powers are grounded on; nor it is the case on my view that the identity conditions of each power are given by its location in the structure; rather, structured is simply the way powers exist in nature.

At this point I hope I have given enough context to return to my initial definition of powers, to add a further specification. The fundamental powers in nature do not have a more primitive bearer, or bearers, as macro-level properties do. They are not self-standing entities either; they simply exist as part of the structure and empower it.

Mine is not on ontology without substances; it is an ontology where substances are metaphysically derived from (i.e. constituted by) structured clusters of powers, which of course have their own powers too and operate as causal agents.

I come now to your question about Hume. On my view causation is a real feature of the world we live in. It is to be accounted for in terms of the activity of causal powers. In this sense there is a stark contrast between Hume’s stance and current power-based accounts of causation, which are realist ones. In addition to this main issue, Hume’s views are often discussed among power metaphysicians, in particular with respect to the question of whether two entities with distinct existences can or cannot be connected by necessity. This other question is not so relevant to my own position; on the other hand it is relevant to those who think that the manifestation of a power P is a further power Q (e.g. Stephen Mumford and Rani Anjum). Given the general assumption in power metaphysics that the manifestation of a power is what essentially defines it, for those who think Q is a new entity that comes about when P manifests, there are two entities with distinct existences (P exists even if Q never does) that are connected by necessity. The reason why this concern does not apply to my view is that I take the manifestation of a power to be the power itself in a different state.

3:AM: What is the question of grounding asking us to consider?

AM: In the context of power metaphysics, some find puzzling the idea that powers in potentiality are real properties in the world, even if they are subsequently manifested. There are epistemological and metaphysical issues to be teased apart here. We cannot know that powers in potentiality exist. We come to know them only when they manifest. But this is not a valid reason to conclude that powers in potentiality need ontological support of some kind. They do not need metaphysical grounding in a different type of property that is free of potentiality – one that does not have two states, potential and activated, but rather is what it is at all times and in all circumstances: a categorical property. I do not find problematic the notion of potentiality being real, and hence do not see a need for positing grounding categorical properties. To the question: ‘what do powers do when they are not manifested?’ I have replied in press that they are there doing nothing. They simply exist un-manifested; they are real but not active (or actual). Clarity on this point is very important: I distinguish being real from being actual, and I use the latter to refer to the state of active powers or powers that are manifesting.

I have no metaphysical work for categorical properties to do in my ontology, if by categorical properties we mean inert ones that are supposedly needed to ‘anchor’ in reality. In this sense I hold a ‘pure’ powers view: all there is to a power is what it can do or is doing, with no additional causal base needed. Others of course disagree. But suppose, with them, that it is the categorical base of a power that gives it its causal oomph: what is a power then if it needs empowering by something that is supposedly causally inert?

3:AM: There are two kinds of answers to this aren’t there? Can you first tell us what the Property Dualists say?

AM: Again, in the context of power metaphysics a property dualist would claim that there are properties of two irreducibly different kinds: the categorical and the dispositional. A further question is what the relation between the two is, namely whether our ontology would better include both pure powers and categorical properties; or rather, powers that are all grounded in categorical properties serving as their causal base. One of the main reasons why even those who hold that powers are pure think that there need to be some categorical properties too is space-time. Some think that spatio-temporal location cannot be a dispositional property. On the other hand, there are also arguments to the contrary in the literature. Let us say that the jury is still out on this issue.

3:AM: Opposed to the Property Dualist is the Property Monist. These say that there’s just one kind of property don’t they. But then that spawns the follow-up question – what is it. What are the main approaches to this?

AM: In the context of power metaphysics there are two varieties of monism. There are those like myself who think that there are powers only, and also those who hold that the dispositional and the categorical are two distinct but necessarily correlated theoretical roles that one and the same property can play when we consider it in different contexts of explanation. The former is a mainstream view; the latter has among its supporters C. B. Martin, John Heil, William Jaworsky etc.). The main argument against the latter view has been voiced by David Armstrong: it is a category mistake to think that the same property may be a power and a categorical property at once.

3:AM: Regresses are key to arguments about fundamental properties. Can you outline how these different regresses work?

AM: Regresses are a philosophical tool that we find in the paradoxes of Zeno of Elea, in Plato, in Aristotle etc. (To give you an example of an ancient use of regresses, in book X of the Republic Plato argues that if there were more than one Form for each character in the world, an infinite sequence of Forms would follow. But an infinity of Forms (of the same type) is inconsistent with how Forms are essentially defined. Thus there are metaphysically a priori reasons for the necessary uniqueness of each Form. Else, the very definition of what Forms are has to be abandoned.) Basically regresses are a way of testing philosophical claims within a system: they are undesirable because they are ‘bottomless’, i.e. without foundations; when they arise, they bring out weaknesses in the system. As a philosophical tool, they are applicable to any philosophical domain, and not only the metaphysics of fundamental properties.

3:AM: You have engaged with a regress argument put forward by Stathis Psillos. You draw on Aristotle to respond don’t you? So what’s your argument that denies that powers are incoherent because they always regressively need further powers?

AM: Psillos was trying to demonstrate the incoherency of a monist view of properties (see what we discussed above) according to which all properties are powers and powers are pure. His thought (here simplified for brevity) was that if powers are essentially related to their manifestations, and their manifestations are themselves powers, they too would be essentially related to other powers and so on, and this would generate a infinite regress whereby nothing has an essence. The mistake in this argument is to assume that powers are related to their essences, as if essences were something other or external to the thing they are essence of. In other words, Psillos’ key assumption that supposedly gets his regress started is in fact a non-starter, for general metaphysical reasons that apply to any entity and any metaphysical system (except non realist ones). Aristotle brings out these reasons cogently: an entity is what it is because it instantiates a type; its oneness is this instantiated type; and it does not make sense to posit a relation ‘dividing’ the entity from what it is.

3:AM: So do you think everything reduces to powers or are there non-powers? And where does that leave Hume’s ideas about causality – are there causal powers or are they fictions?

AM: Causal powers are real properties in the world; they are the true cement of the universe because they account for what causation is. I don’t have yet a firm view on whether space-time are powers or not, but I veer towards thinking their being such.

Hume’s views on causality (i.e. that causation is not real, because unobservable) represent an attitude towards the epistemology of science that would block a large number of fundamental entities, too, from the ontology, because we know them only from their causal trails.

3:AM: Is your interest in Aristotle’s account of the structure of experience driven by your interest in the powers controversy, and again, to help orientate us, can you sketch out what the issue is that we’re discussing when we talk about ‘the structure of experience’?

AM: My interest in philosophy of mind and in particular perception got sparked off during my graduate studies; while metaphysics in general has fascinated me since the moment I learned what it was about. It was very exciting to me to discover that the metaphysics of powers has much to contribute to the philosophy of perception. Perceiving is an instance of causal interaction, between the subject of experience and the objects in the world. Aristotle uses perception as one of his primary examples to explain his theory of causation, which is power based. So the two strands of thinking came naturally together for me. Delivering a philosophical account of perception requires addressing many difficult questions; one of them is about the status of the qualities of things we perceive: are they real properties of objects in the world, or projections from our mind? The spectrum of possible answers is very broad; with Aristotle, I think that such qualities are real causal powers of things to generate our experiences of them. But how do we perceive them?

According to Aristotle, each sense is identified by the type of perceptible quality it is sensitive to. So sight for the visible, touch for the tangible, etc. One way to put this is to say that there is a one to one correspondence between type of sense, type of quality in the object, and type of perceptual content of experience (e.g. sight, colour, visual content). But if so, how is it possible for the subject to perceive, in one and the same perceptual content, multiple types of qualities, structured in a certain way (as for instance when perceiving objects)? The challenge is to explain how perceptual experience can be qualitatively complex (visual, tactile etc.) and structured (in a tree-way, cat-way etc.), even if it is acquired exclusively via the senses, which are each sensitive only to one type of quality. For the curious reader, the answer is in my latest book on Aristotle on Perceiving Objects.

3:AM: Aristotle has, you say, a ‘subtle realist view of perception.’ What’s this? What’s the rival view?

AM: Aristotle pioneers a view on perception that is akin to McDowell’s, to draw a connection that might help the reader to place it on the map. The view is an upbeat one, and can be encapsulated in the title I gave one of my articles: It’s a colorful world! In general terms, Aristotle holds that the world really is as we perceive it to be; in other words, when we perceive it as noisy, smelly, colourful etc. the contents of our perceptions are just like the world is. Hence the view is a realist one.

The perceptible qualities of objects are, as all properties, causal powers; they, too, interact causally with the perceivers, and perception itself is the activation of the relevant powers in the perceiver by the powers of objects of perception. The activation of the object’s perceptible qualities (e.g. sound) and the activity of the corresponding perceptual organ, giving rise to perceptual experience in the agent, are mutually dependent in a variety of ways. (Recall the manifestation-partners idea mentioned above, of one power’s manifestation being a necessary condition for he manifestation of its partner power). In this way, although the perceptible quality of an object (e.g. a sound it makes) is not ‘in’ the perceiver’s experience, as the traditional secondary properties account would have them, it is dependent on the perceiver.

This is ‘subtle’, rather than ‘robust’ realism. The contrast lies in the fact that the perceptible qualities are not fully activated at all times, but only when perceived by the perceiver. (To reconnect with the earlier part of our conversation, we could cast the contrast in terms of powers versus categorical properties: on a robust realist view, perceptible properties, e.g. colour, would be categorical ones).

Subtle realism has a further dimension, which I cannot fully articulate here (allow me to re-advertise my book for the curious reader) regarding the veridicality of our perceptions. The world is colourful not only because colours are real properties of objects, but also because objects have as many colours as the viewers see. (I hope the prima facie tension here between realism and relativism is obvious enough to the reader that s/he will want to read more on the topic).

Aristotle’s subtle realism in perception may also be contrasted to non-realist views, for instance projectivism, which hold that the world is not like it appears to us; rather its appearances are ‘projections’ of our mind and we are systematically deluded in thinking we have a good grasp of how it really is. The contrast to projectivism is why I called the view I endorse, with Aristotle, an upbeat one ☺

3:AM: How do his views on powers help him explain the structure of experience – and how does his metaphysics of perception differ from his metaphysics of substance? Is this a problem for the unity of his theorizing?

AM: Aristotle’s metaphysics of powers underpins not only to his subtle realism in perception, but also his account of the structure of experience. Complex perceptual content results from the simultaneous activation of additional perceptual powers of the perceiver (over and above the powers of the sense organs), whose defining activity is to precisely bind, discriminate, contrast etc. the perceptible qualities that activate each individual sense singly. The basic idea is that complex perceptual content requires positing more than the five perceptual powers (to hear, to see, etc.) that are embodied in the five senses. More powers, but not more senses. (This is something that has eluded other Aristotelian scholars examining his account of perception). Now, recall that the challenge is to account for a perceiver’s unified complex perceptual content that we all enjoy. More is to be said about what unifies and facilitates co-operation among all these powers in perception; about how they are all embodied in the five senses; about how they operate or interact etc. What I call in my book the substance model is Aristotle’s way of accounting for the unity of the perceptual system as a whole, by applying the same holistic metaphysics that on my reading accounts for the unity of substances. A substance has many functional parts and the perceptual system has many senses and powers at work. Yet they are both unified wholes and not mereological sums of independent items. (The overall metaphysical view is that causation underpins connectivity in nature, and is embodied in substances; but on the other hand substances have a sui generis holistic unity and this unity is not causal).

The powers model explains what it takes, on Aristotle’s view, to account for complex perception, that is, more than the sense-organ powers; the substance model explains how all these powers constitute a unified perceptual system, which allows for complex perceptual (experiential) contents, enabling the perceiver to have full perceptual grasp of the world.

In sum, rather than disunity, we see a cooperative framework within which Aristotle addresses a number of core philosophical questions. His metaphysics of powers is in my view fundamental: powers account for the constitution and operations (including perception) of substances.

3:AM: Can his model for explaining perception extend to all our experiences or is it just seeing?

AM: Yes it can, only because it is a model Aristotle that applies to all powers.

3:AM: Why is this relatively unexplored territory until you came along? And does it offer anything helpful for contemporary theorists trying to explain the structure of experience – people like Jesse Prinz for example and his notion of attention? And hovering around in all this I guess is the question whether you think science looking at perception needs to address metaphysical issues like these – won’t cognitive scientists just find out what structures perception eventually by getting brain science finished and have no need for the metaphysical ideas of philosophers? Why heed the philosopher – even one as esteemed as Aristotle, or yourself?

AM: Within the study of Aristotle’s psychology or philosophy of mind, his account of complex perceptual experience was relatively unexplored territory, in stark contrast for example with his metaphysics of substance. (By contrast, in contemporary philosophy of mind, the issue of complex perceptual content is much investigated and a variety of views have been put forward).

There are many reasons I guess for this relative lack of interest (or worse, even lack of understanding) in Aristotle’s position. One can really only speculate: possibly because his thoughts are ‘scattered’ in a variety of texts across the corpus, so those scholars who concentrate on one main texts only might oversee the rest of the picture; possibly because Aristotle develops his view by trying one avenue, and then finding counterexamples or difficulties for the view, and then making a fresh start etc. – in other words, his thinking is not ‘linear’. In truth, his text shows that he struggled with complex perceptual content – but this is because he pioneers a new domain of inquiry.

You ask whether Aristotle’s views on perception have something to offer to contemporary philosophers working in the same area. This is a question I am still exploring myself; to the degree I can answer it for now, I have tried in a short article and hence on a small scale to show that Aristotle had insights regarding perception that do bear on current discussions; this is in my ‘It’s a colorful world’ paper. Aristotle’s account comes to the problem of awareness, which is the domain of Prinz’s theory of attention and consciousness, and there Aristotle delivers a fundamental breakthrough for our understanding of the workings of the mind: he develops a metaphysical model, based on his account of powers, of the possibility of self-awareness – a challenging model, indeed!

More generally, should science take notice of our philosophical broodings on perception and the workings on the mind? This question would require much elaboration, but in brief I can say that yes, I do believe science and philosophy can fruitfully go hand in hand in working out the nature of the material and of the mental.

3:AM: You’ve engaged in the debates about the incarnation – which even to the non-theologically inclined raises interesting questions about what it is to be human and what it would take for a human to be divine – so how does the metaphysics of the extended mind in ontological entanglements help us talk to that weird and wonderful issue?

AM: Let me bring the problem of the incarnation a step closer – if prosthetic surgery enhanced human mentality, what metaphysical account could explain this phenomenon? My approach to the incarnation and the trinity is indeed non-theological, and rather metaphysical. The thesis that a divine mind is embodied in an individual human being, who is essentially human and divine at once, is philosophically extremely challenging, especially for someone who like me endorses a generally Aristotelian and realist metaphysical framework. This is why I felt very excited when learning about the Extended Mind theory, from the authors themselves in fact (from Andy Clark in the graduate seminars at the University of Edinburgh, and from David Chalmers during a research stay at ANU).

The Extended Mind theory is concerned with the question of where the human mind stops and the rest of the world begins. Its key insight is that one’s mind, even in ordinary situations of everyday life, is enabled to carry out a variety of cognitive processes by its reliance on mechanisms or devices, not only of the brain, but also external to the brain; for example, when doing complex mathematical calculations using a calculator. And when the cognitive processes can be carried out either with no reliance on external devices, but also with reliance on them, is the nature of such processes the same?

For example remembering a date: whether one does it by means of one’s biological memory or by accessing a notebook where the information is stored; is the grounding of the mental on the physical of the same metaphysical type in both cases? When the mind does rely on external devises for its activities, it ‘extends’ beyond the outer limit of one’s skin and skull, hence it is an ‘extended mind’.

If the human mind can extend and be grounded beyond the limits of the human body, could the divine mind extend beyond its own limits, onto a human being? My idea was to investigate the prospects of thinking God’s incarnation in Jesus along the lines of a (divine) mind ‘extending’ onto an external device (Jesus) to carry out (some of) its mental activities.

By thought experiment (building on the case of Kasparov’s playing chess with Deep Blue), we can generate cases of extension of the human mind onto the world, which raise metaphysical difficulties parallel to the difficulties we encounter in accounting for the incarnation. If so, there might be a common analysis of what is required for a solution.

When a substance extends on another, the extension, while systematic, can be to different degrees and in a variety of ways. The significance of the variation in degree and manner of extension is that the enabling substance can have varying causal effects on the extended substance. Minimally, it can simply assist it in carrying out certain tasks by making a partial contribution to the means for the realization of its activities. But maximally, it can change the nature of the activities of the extended substance. If this happens to a maximal extent with respect to the majority of the activities of the extended substance, it can affect the nature of the substance itself. As a consequence, extension can have an effect on the identity and distinctness of the substances involved in it, so that varying degrees, extent, and types of extension may result in different ways in which one can individuate and count entities (e.g., is Jesus one or two, and if either, one or two what?).

My point in upshot is that the Extended Mind theory, when studied in its application to the question of the incarnation, leads us to explore how use (or means) can affect the nature of the user (or end). The user-used or means-end relation is reversible: if the extension is radical, the means can determine the end. This thought applies to a variety of domains of philosophical interest; not only the relation of a god to the human being in which it is incarnate, but also the relation of a human mind to e.g. computer on which the mind extends.

3:AM: And for the readers here at 3:AM, are there five books you could recommend that will take us further into your philosophical world?


1. Plato’s Republic
2. D M Armstrong Universals: An Opinionated Introduction
3. David Wiggins’ Sameness and Substance Renewed
4. Thomas Nagel The view from Nowhere
5. David Chalmers’ The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory

Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

Buy the book here to keep him biding!

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, November 8th, 2014.