Kornblith – Chapter 3 – Real Kinds in Nature

October 16, 2012 — Leave a comment

The concept of a ‘real kind’, being a collection of unobservable properties, united in nature, jointly responsible for observable properties by which we can classify objects into kinds, is the causal structure in the world required for inductive knowledge to be possible. It is a foundation for inductive inference. Hence the importance of determining the arguments for conventionalism and realism.

Homeostatic Property Clusters:

A concept suggested by Richard Boyd: “Scientific Realism and Naturalistic Epistemology” (1981) & “Realism, Anti-Foundationalism and the Enthusiasm for Natural Kinds” (1991)

“Organisms are so structured as to maintain themselves in certain states.” (Kornblith, p35)

So homeostasis means a cluster of properties, perhaps cells, or biological systems, which work together so as to maintain themselves even the face of changes in the environment. A self maintenance program. These self-maintenance ‘parts’ are unobservables. They give rise to the salient observable properties which draw attention. For Locke, this would be the arrangement of ‘insensible’ parts.

“A natural kind is a cluster of properties which, when realized together in the same substance, work to maintain and reinforce each other, even in the face of changes in the environment.” (Kornblith, p35)

A key point to understand is that not just any arrangement of ‘parts’ is possible. By understanding the details of arrangement of insensible parts (i.e. chemistry) we understand why some arrangements are stable and others not. For instance, H2O is a possible molecule, but HO2 is not. The clustering of observable properties is a direct result of configurations which are possible at the unobservable level. This is the path to explaining what it is about the world that makes it knowable.

“Because there are natural kinds, and thus clusters of properties which reside in homeostatic relationships, we may reliably infer the presence of some of these properties from the presence of others. In short, natural kinds make inductive inference possible…” (Kornblith, p36)

A problem arises:

Remember that in nature we have real kinds, and nominal kinds. Real kinds correspond to homeostatic clusters of unobservables, and nominal kinds are the abstract Idea to which the real kind/essence is attached. However, invoking philosophy of science and turning to unobservables, the question arises whether they are real properties in nature or merely nominal. Therefore we need an account for which unobservable, homeostatic clusters are real, and not nominal. Therefore the argument is postponed by homeostatic clusters, and not concluded.

Kornblith does not worry about such objections:

“Were the postulation of such underlying properties and relationships unrelated to the predictive, explanatory and technological successes of science, there would indeed be reason to think that appealing to such unobservables is nothing more than a sham. But in light of the intimate relationship between the postulation of unobservable structure and the various successes of science, one can no longer reasonably doubt the real existence of such structures.” (Kornblith, p41)


Kornblith suggests that the success of science is the direct result of the postulation of unobservable structure that underlies appearances (essence).


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