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Armstrong's Universals

In Armstrong's 'Universals as Attributes', he argues for a different way of
considering universals. He in part considers what kinds of universals there are:
are there disjunctive universals, or perhaps negative universals, and are
conjunctive universals somehow different from these? Armstrong lays out
relatively straightforward arguments for why disjunctive and negative properties
aren't universals. He considers only property universals, and assumes the
Principle of Instantiation (that every universal must be instantiated, either
past, present, or future) (200). A disjunctive property universal is a
disjunction of properties, say C (or) M. Suppose there are two objects, each
having one of the disjuncts but lacking the other. Then each has the universal C
(or) M. Armstrong says that "surely that does not show that, in any serious
sense, they thereby have something identical" (201). The point of a universal
was to talk about a thing that would be the same at all times it instantiated
that property. Therefore, it shouldn't be the case that a disjunctive property
is a universal. Further, there also seems to be a link between universals and
causal powers. A thing having a particular charge C (if C is a universal),
grants that thing particular causal powers. Say that it does not have mass M.
Then it has the disjunctive property of C (or) M. If this were a universal,
should it not likewise affect the object's causal powers? But this doesn't seem
to be the case: we haven't added anything to the object that would seem to
change its powers. The suggestion therefore is that C (or) M is not a genuine
universal, whilst C is. Armstrong thinks similarly for negative universals. If
an object having C is the instantiation of a universal, then not having C is not
instantiating a universal. Then is (not) C a universal? If we were to examine
all of the objects which lack a particular charge, is there anything common to
them all? While there may be a coextensive property that happens to align with
not having charge C, it doesn't seem that this is a factor in the objects
themselves; namely that they lack C. A causal argument can also apply. It seems
funny to say that absences of universals are universals because it doesn't
appear to be the case that absences have causal powers.  However, for cases of
the conjunction of universals, it _is_ the case that having both C (and) M is a
universal: every object that instantiates C (and) M instantiates both C and M,
and from the perspective of causality it will certainly have causal powers
because of this. It might even be the case that instantiating this universal
provides greater causal powers than having either C or M alone!

It seems that the strongest objection to Armstrong's view is his dismissal of
negative universals. While we are happy for instance to say that 'a lack of
water caused his death', but unhappy to say something like 'a lack of poison
causes us to remain alive', Armstrong says that in both of these instances, "if
the surface understanding of the first statement is correct, then the second
statement should be understood in the same way and thought to be true" (201).
Armstrong points out that, as these are causal truths, a counterfactual account
of them tells us "very little about the actual causal factors" (201) in each
case. But simply because these causal accounts aren't terribly insightful
doesn't make them any less true, they're simply less adequate accounts of the
causal relation that purportedly exists. The lack of poison is just one of the
causes of my being alive, along with properly functioning organs and an
environment conducive to sustaining life. These factors may all change:
certainly the introduction of poison to my system would have a notable kind of
cause, and so it isn't necessarily the case that there not being any poison
should be an uninteresting one. At the very least, an exploration of the change
in situation from 'a lack of poison' to 'there being poison' is an interesting
one, and so we shouldn't dismiss absences as causes outright, simply because
they aren't terribly informative out of a context.

Armstrong might find a suitable reply in several different avenues. One of the
trickier ones may be insisting that causal stories be informative ones, that
tell us about the factors involved in a situation to help us understand what the
relation is. This seems difficult, if not missing the point, being that a causal
story isn't necessarily a story about _the_ cause, but rather _a_ cause of an
event. I think Armstrong would rather appeal to the notion of bare particulars.
Armstrong says that a bare particular exists "outside states of affairs would
not be clothed in any properties or relations" (205). Particulars instantiate
universals, which is what gives them their "nature, kind, or sort" (206). Thus,
a particular of this kind wouldn't have any such nature or kind. There isn't
anything much to make of these kinds of particulars. An instance of this sort of
thing would be a void (at least on a certain understanding of the void). So in
cases such as the void being said to have causal powers, these statements would
only _seem_ to be instances of causal relations. In the actual world, however,
no such relation can attain, because there are no states of affairs in the world
that seem to bear this kind of relation. Now, in the cases similar to the
examples Armstrong gives at the beginning of the paper ('a lack of poison', for
instance), this might be harder to describe - this is one property that is
attribute to a particular - but it nevertheless could probably be properly
fleshed out in the way that Armstrong wants it to be.


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