Thursday, March 06, 2008

Intrinsic properties

Mark Rowlands has an interesting couple of articles on Secular Philosophy contra scientism: Certainty and Stupidity: The Moral Case for Skepticism and The Limits of Science?.

One of the points he makes is that science talks only about relational properties and doesn't discuss intrinsic properties.
[Physics] does not, and cannot, tell us anything about the natures of the entities that enter into these relations – nothing over and above the relations they enter into. Any entities we identify are simply place-holders for further relations, and are analysable as a nexus of relations.

However, intuitively, not certainly by any means, but this is the way we tend to think about things – reality contains more than just relations. When things enter into relations, they do so because of the natures of the things that are related. Relations are ontologically dependent on things, and things have natures that explain the relations those things enter into. I don’t know: maybe it is all relations – but that is another thing that would surprise me; and if scientism is based on that premise, maybe it’s best to bring it out into the open, because I suspect that it is indefensible (independently of a discredited form of verificationism).
Rowlands does have a point, but I'd like to investigate his notion of intrinsic properties further.

In science, there are two kinds of properties: purely relational properties, such as position, momentum and wavelength, and "pseudo-intrinsic" properties, such as rest mass, charge and spin. I call the latter "intrinsic" properties because we can reduce a lot of relations to a particular set of irreducible properties that are the same in all frames of reference. They are "pseudo-intrinsic" because they can always be restated as a set of relations: The rest mass, charge and spin of an electron are just another way of talking about how electrons relate to (among other things) electric and magnetic fields (and the pseudo-intrinsic properties of the fields are just another way of talking about how electrons relate to the fields).

I think Rowlands is being fair in saying that science talks only about relational properties, that is just those properties that can, in principle, always be restated as relations. To state these properties as "intrinsic" is more convenient, but it's definitely the case that it's not logically necessary to do so.

The question for Rowlands then is whether our intuitions about intrinsic properties just refer to these pseudo-intrinsic properties. (If so, then discourse about intrinsic properties is just discourse about pseudo-intrinsic properties, and thus fully commensurate with science, and does not require a method other than science.) If not, are we justified in taking our intuitions about truly intrinsic properties as veridical or are these intuitions merely mistaken?


  1. Interestingly (from my point of view), I take morality to be a relational property.

    Value is a relationship between states of affairs and desires. Desires are propositional attitudes. States of affairs have value to the degree that the propositions that are the objects of the more and stronger desires are true in that state of affairs.

    Morality is grounded on the relationship between maleable desires and other desires. We have reason to promote desires that fulfill other desires, and inhibit desires that thwart other desires.

    So, I would say that Mark Rowland's arguments are grounded on a false assumption.

  2. I don't know yet precisely what premises Rowlands bases his argument, so I don't know yet if they're false. He refers to intrinsic properties, but doesn't define them rigorously. I'm hoping that he'll soon give us more detail.

  3. Interesting point. I think I'll investigate those links, but I have some reactions right off the bat.

    I've posted a response on my blog, but here's the main point in an excerpt:

    I agree that science is ultimately about relational, not intrinsic properties (considering pseudo-intrinsics to be relational). Science reduces to measurements and logic. And all measurement is inherently relational - how could it be otherwise? Measurement is always relative to some standard, which itself may or may not be fixed to intrinsics. Of course, if the standard does happen to be an actual intrinsic, this itself is unverifiable (e.g. unmeasurable). To measure a property as intrinsic, the standard for measurement must itself be intrinsic. And so on for ever and ever. Amen.

    Just to make the statement, as Mark does, that physics does not "tell us anything about the natures of the entities that enter into these relations" is to presuppose the conclusion that they have an ultimate nature to begin with. This is unscientific. As you say, though, this is the intuitive view. This intuition seems to be the only support that Mark has going for his implicit assertion that intrinsic properties might be there to be ignored by science. On what grounds does he trust his intuition that intrinsic properties exist in the first place? As I've explained, he certainly has no evidence (e.g. measurements) to support this.

    So this whole issue boils down to measurement versus intuition, which is another way to say "evidence versus faith".


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