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Thursday, 17 March 2016

Kinds

It is usually said that some generalizations carry nomic capacities - associated by Goodman with the capacity to enable counterfactuals - and therefore express a law, or a physical necessity. The difference between universal statements with and without a law-like character is hard to spot in a roughly formal way because often it relates to the terms used in the statement. Laws are formulated in sanctioned terms - which are sometimes called "kinds", or "natural kinds". Hence there could be laws with "mammals" but not with "my favorite animals" or even with "pets", there could be laws with "heavy bodies" but not with painted bodies. If laws are formulated with kinds, causal relations genuinely occur between things that can be described as kinds - hurricanes and tempests but not headlines of Monday and news on Thursday, to recall an example given by Davidson to show that a causal relation between two events is not expressed by a law in every description of those events. The difficulties concerning spotting what statements are laws are inherited by those about pointing out which terms are kinds. Things seem even more difficult when I take on board that I always thought there is a continuum in both cases that would enable one to talk of degrees of lawlikeness, degrees of kindlikeness.

I woke up wondering whether the conception of causality as a mode of perception, that Whitehead recommends, would help out here. The differences that make a lawlike difference are those that could be perceived not only by us but also by other perceivers. A mammal is a kind because ticks prey on them (and not on pets), tomato is a kind because parasite plants seek them - mammals and tomatoes are constituted by whatever trigger causal and perceptual relations with them. Degrees of kindlikeness could be understood in terms of how much a perceptual similarity is detected by different perceivers - say, by non-human perceivers, or episodes of perception in the mode of efficient causation. Pets support some generalizations, mammals support more. Laws - and kinds - would then be about a common vocabulary we share with other perceivers. Yes, more about vocabularies and less about the furniture of the universe.

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