Macro/micro VS. actual/possible

In Uncategorized on March 3, 2010 by Lynn Chiu

I had a slight difficulty wrapping my head around the distinction and comparison made by Andre between macro/micro phenomenon versus actual/possible string of events.

In Putnam’s example of the peg and the hole, the reductionism debate was centered on whether micro-phenomenon, the molecular (or any level lower than the peg/hole) causal interactions, can sufficiently explain the macro-phenomenon of the peg going through the hole, substituting the explanatory power of the macro-level phenomenon.

In this context, if the explanandum is this particular peg going through this particular hole at this particular time (thus these particular molecules are interacting with these other particular molecules), then both macro and micro level explanations are explaining actual events.

That these explanations can serve to explain possible, not actual events, rely on whether they are aimed at explaining a type of phenomena or a token phenomenon. If the latter, then the explanation for this particular event (name it event P) cannot carry over to other unique events. If the former, then both macro and micro level explanations can carry over to other macro or micro level explanations. The macro level explanation could explain how other different token pegs and holes interact; the micro level how different molecule configuration types would interact.

Thus, the macro/micro distinction does not imply the possible/actual distinction (i.e., the micro explanation does not lay out the actual causal links while the macro explanation serves to explain possible high level phenomenon with different low level instantiations), I do not understand why they are lumped together.


2 Responses to “Macro/micro VS. actual/possible”

  1. I would agree. Unique events in space-time have unique explanations. The interesting thing here is this idea of generalized explanations. Here one is abstracting away commonalities that form a ‘type’ of phenomena. As the ‘type’ of phenomena is more generalized, our explanation will have to be less precise- applying Weisbergian principles here, if we think of our ‘explanation’ as a model.

    The difficulty then increases as we increase our generality. More possibilities are included in this explanation, but this does not cross into the realm of ‘how possibly.’

    The how actually and the how possibly dichotomy appears to be of a different kind altogether (and does not implicate optimality models- but that is another 200 word post). Given a limited knowledge of phenomena, we can generate a number of explanations, many of which might explain how the phenomena possibly came to be, but (if we believe in consistency) only one actually happened. Thus the set of possible explanations is not the explanation of type P, necessarily.

    The possible set of explanations for type P phenomena itself may itself be larger than the actual explanation for type P, given our limited understanding and knowledge of phenomena. Thus the how actually/possible investigation can occur at both the specific and general level of inquiry.

  2. Lynn,

    I am glad you raised this question. To be honest, I haven’t fully understood the distinction as well.

    It seems that the actual/possible explanation distinction depends on the dynamic process/equilibrium distinction. The actual explanation explains how the dynamic process happens while the possible explanation explains why the equilibrium is reached. In cases of optimality, if the target is the equilibrium, then the required explanation is the possible one.

    However, whether the actual/possible explanation distinction can be lumped together with the micro/macro explanation distinction, that may depend on the target phenomenon. You are right that Putnam makes the target phenomenon the same when he talks about reduction. It seems that this particular phenomenon can be understood both in a dynamic way and a static way. In a dynamic way, we need to explain “how does some atoms structured in such a way can interact with some other atoms structured in another way”. In a static way, we need to explain “why the peg can go through the board rather than stuck in the board”.

    It seems that because the target phenomenon can be understood in two ways that we can explain it both at the macro and the micro level.

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