Directions of explanation and of analysis

The other day U.Melbourne hosted an interesting talk by John Maier. In it he argued that a variety of ideas within philosophy of mind and action can be analysed in terms of the single primitive ‘X is an option for Y’. I’m just going to pick one strand out of the talk because it set me thinking about the nature of analysis. As an example, consider Maier’s suggested analysis of ability:

(1) S has the ability to A iff S normally, in virtue of her intrinsic properties, has A as an option.

Now, this biconditional looks true to me – indeed, necessarily true. Having an ability intuitively does entail there being something about you that is intimately related to the possible doing of A. When the ability to do some action A is lacking, it is (at least ‘normally’) the case that the intrinsic state of the agent does not meet a certain A-enabling condition.

True, perhaps, even necessarily true; but it doesn’t look like an analysis should. Several questioners expressed the feeling that ‘has as an option’ ought not to be analytically fundamental, but it wasn’t easy to pin down exactly why. Here’s my suggestion for why (1) is not a good candidate for an analysis of ‘ability’, regardless of its truth: it’s that the analysandum seems to be explanatorily prior to the analysans. That is, it seems that the having of an ability to A explains why S normally has A among her options, rather than that the presence of A amongst S’s options explains why S has the ability.

Maier wasn’t sure about this intuition about explanation, but he suggested that even if it is correct then that need not be a reason to abandon the analysis. That is, he thought that the direction of explanation over a bi-conditional need not match the order of analysis.

There is something disarming about this response. It reflects an unexpectedly modest conception of analysis. But there is also something unsettling about it. If explanatory considerations are orthogonal, what reasons could tell in favour of the claim that a given biconditional is or is not an analysis?

One response would be to point to the hierarchical nature of analysis: since the relation of analysis is non-symmetric and transitive, successful analyses will form a tree, with the most primitive notions at the base. Thus there might turn out to be lots of necessarily true biconditionals with clauses ascribing options to some subject S on one side and simple action-theoretic claims on the other, and few true biconditionals connecting (say) claims about capacities with simple action-theoretic claims. Recognizing that this situation obtains would give us reason to take having as an option as analytically basic. That, at least, is how I can best reconstruct Maier’s picture.

The problem with this response seems to be that it undermines the motivation for seeking analyses. Call an analysis where the obtaining of the analysans does not explain why the analysandum obtains a ‘mere analysis’. If some biconditional is a mere analysis, then what makes it more interesting than a necessarily true biconditional which is not an analysis at all?

A more promising defence of Maier’s biconditional as an analysis might be to grant that the direction of explanation and the direction of analysis coincide in all cases, but to argue that the normal availability of the option to S in virtue of one’s intrinsic properties does explain the ability to S. We might say that since to have the ability to S just is to normally have S as an option in virtue of one’s intrinsic properties, of course the latter explains the former – it implies it by subsumption under a general rule, which is (according to the D-N model) a form of explanation. This response will work in every case, as far as I can see.

What’s going on here is that, granting the truth of the analysis, the analysans obtaining is explaining how the analysandum obtains. But (and this is to point to one of the limitations of the D-N model) the analysans is not explaining why the analysandum obtains. So here is my half-baked proposed analysis of analysis*:

X is an analysis of Y iff 1) (necessarily) Y iff X and 2) X explains why Y.

* This reminds me of the questions following David Chalmers’ first Locke lecture earlier this year, where an obstreperous Carnapian seemed to think he’d refuted Chalmers totally by posing the question: ‘Ah, but what’s your analysis of analysis?’

– call an analysis where the obtaining of the analysans does not explain the obtaining of the analysandum a ‘mere analysis’
Directions of explanation and of analysis

One thought on “Directions of explanation and of analysis

  1. John says:

    This is a fascinating discussion, Alastair! Let me put in my two cents about the general questions about analysis that you raise, before turning to the alleged difficulty for my own analysis of ability.

    Consider some proposed analysis, e.g.:

    S knows that p iff S has a justified true belief that p

    (This biconditional and those following are to be read left-to-right: analysandum on the left, analysans on the right). This analysis, if correct, would accomplish at least two things. First, explanation: we would explain _why_ someone knows by the fact that she has a justified true belief. The second accomplishment is what we might call “decomposition”: we take an apparently simple relation, knowledge, and show that it is in fact constituted by several more basic relations (suitably arranged).

    Now we can ask what happens when explanation and decomposition come apart. You suggest that my proposed analysis of ability would be such a case. (It would clearly still be a decomposition, for it takes the apparently simple relation of ability and claims that it is in fact constituted by several more basic relations (suitably arranged)). Here are some other cases where decomposition appears to come apart from explanation.

    x believes that p iff S is disposed to assert p when asked whether p (under conditions of honesty, etc.)

    x is disposed to M when C iff if it were the case that C is applied to x then it would be the case that x manifests M

    In both of these cases, the order of explanation appears to run in the opposite direction from the order of decomposition. Someone is so disposed to assert _because_ she has the belief. Something satisfies the counterfactual _because_ it has the disposition.

    Now one thing to say here is: so much the worse for these alleged analyses (I want to say that too about these, though on independent grounds). That is the result that we get if we accept your proposed analysis of analysis. I am disinclined to say this, however. This is not because of my intuitions about analysis. It rather comes from thinking about what the role of analysis is supposed to be.

    What’s the endgame here? The endgame, I think, is to give a descriptively adequate account of the world from a sparse collection of basic relations. If that is the endgame, then analyses that are only decompositions (“mere analyses” in your terms) are fit to play this role. That is why I am inclined to accept such decompositions as genuine analyses; this would include, of course, my own, even if your judgments about the order of explanation here are correct. Decomposition is, as it were, essential to analysis, while explanation is accidental to it on this view.

    Part of what is behind my thinking here is a certain view of explanation, on which it is a pragmatic phenomenon, sensitive to the question under discussion and other factors. Analysis, I think, is not a pragmatic phenomenon in this way. This is why I would not want to build the notion of explanation into the definition of analysis in the way you suggest. You may be thinking of explanation in a different way, which perhaps is behind at least some of our disagreement here.

    I look forward to seeing you at the ANU soon, where I hope we can discuss this some more!


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