The Autonomy of the Special Sciences

Byron Kaldis
Hellenic Open University, Greece

The recent debate in philosophy over the validity of the supervenience argument (SA) and, what is more, of the threatening possibility that it may be seen to generalize at all levels of reality (whereby higher order properties turned out to be epiphenomenal unless they are reduced) thus rendering the special sciences redundant, has been at the centre of the more general field of discussions regarding the autonomous or not status of the special sciences (and the causal role or independent causal efficacy of their principal items).

The different viewpoint adopted in this talk puts to the forefront two things: first, it focuses on the higher special sciences, those squarely social, namely, those situated at levels above psychology, stressing the need for the discussion to move on to those levels where social action takes place, while second, it introduces a crucial element in this analysis: the extended mind thesis and distributed cognition. The latter is shown to play a pivotal role in the analysis of the uniqueness of the protagonists of those higher levels of the (explicitly social) special sciences, i.e. joint actions (especially those carried out by organized groups, i.e. institutions and other structured social wholes).  Joint or shared action, widely construed to stand for a certain, central, kind of social wholes and social events (‘wholes’ and ‘events’ here used purportedly in the strict ontological sense) instantiates one of the more promising cases of extended and distributed cognition.

Supervenience is a relation that leads to causal inefficacy whereby the supervenient (non-physical) properties allow their subvenient (physical) base to carry all the causal weight itself; hence the former add nothing to the causal pool, i.e. nothing special of their own, since causation is taken care by the items at the base (e.g. group properties or mental ones vs. individual members’ properties or brain ones, respectively). This places the special sciences (employing non-physical or superveneient properties as explanatory) in jeopardy. Their autonomy is compromised.

In the standard discussion of the Supervenience relation reality is divided into, on the one hand, a hierarchy of levels of part/whole relations or mereological relations of macro-micro levels and, on the other, a hierarchy of orders couched in terms of second-order properties of some object and their realization by first-order properties of the same object (e.g. mental states vs. brain states).

(i) The first part of the talk deals with the discussion of the level-hierarchy and examines how particular criticisms voiced against the strategy of uncoupling supervenience from the macro-micro property relations, fare with respect to the case of joint action. 

(ii) The second part of the talk challenges the dominant assumption that the second, the orders-hierarchy, is irrelevant in our domain.