Doing Away with Dispositions: Powers in the Context of Modern Physics

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Steven French
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I first outline the standard dispositionalist account and indicate how this account has been extended from the everyday to the realm of modern physics – from vases to quarks, in effect. Here I note a fundamental obstacle: the role of symmetries as constraints on the fundamental laws in physics. One of the great virtues of the standard dispositionalist account is that it supposedly yields laws from dispositions but it remains unclear, at best, how it can accommodate such symmetry principles. I then outline some ways the dispositonalist might try to do that but in effect I close off each option by indicating how the problem merely gets pushed back a step or two. Ultimately, the dispositionalist will have to ascribe her dispositions to objects that are metaphysically very ‘thin’, in the sense that they are mere placeholders within the physical structure, and also give up the standard Stimulus + Manifestation account. Of course, that will be music to the ears of certain other critics within and outwith the powers camp and I conclude by considering some recent proposals and evaluating whether they might be ‘fit for purpose’ within the context of modern physics.

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