Andreas Bartels: Cognitive abilities, dispositions and powers

Some cognitively relevant mental properties, e.g. the mental property to possess a certain concept, can be analysed as cognitive abilities. For instance, a cognitive system possesses a perception concept like 'red', if it is able to react in particular ways to test conditions, in which different visual scenes with red objects are provided. In dealing with the interpretation of experiments, the notion of 'ability' is more or less taken to be the notion of folk psychology. But when it comes to questions like 'Are those cognitive abilities mental causes of the respective behaviour?", it has to be asked what sort of metaphysical assumptions concerning 'abilities' we would need in order to serve as a basis for the claim of causal efficacy. The talk will give arguments to the effect that dispositions which are grounded in some physical, 'categorical' basis, and which are only contingently connected to their behavioural manifestations, will serve that aim sufficiently. 'Powers', i.e. ungrounded dispositions that cause their manifestations with metaphysical necessity, are not only unnecessary to support mental causation, but, moreover, they do not fit to the causal profile of cognitive abilities. It is claimed that powers are inappropriate as a metaphysical conception to be applied not only to cognitive abilities, but also to mental properties in general. Finally, I shall discuss, whether the conception of powers may be suited at least to understand fundamental physical properties. The answer will be negative even in that case.

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