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I apologize for the Scribd format of this post.

Unfortunately I was unable to figure out


how to post a chart in Wordpress, so I had to use Scribd to upload this chart. In my view this
chart draws some useful distinctions for thinking the objects of object-oriented ontology, as well
as for distinguishing questions of epistemology and ontology. In Realist Theory of Science, Roy
Bhaskar presents the following chart to distinguish the different domains of reality (RTS, 13):

Figure 0.1: Domains of Reality


Domain of Real Domain of Actual Domain of Empirical
Mechanisms X
Events X X
Experiences X X X

The domain of the real refers to agencies that are independent of both mind and society. The
domain of the actual refers to events that take place. While the domain of the empirical refers to
what is observed or sensed by human beings.

For Bhaskar, the agencies belonging to the domain of the real consists of what he calls
“generative mechanisms” or “causal mechanisms”. The generative mechanisms are mind- and
society-independent in the sense that they function or act regardless of whether or not anyone
observes them or knows about or observes them. The point here is not that humans cannot relate
to these mechanisms-- such relations are the whole point of inquiry --but that these generative
mechanisms are not dependent on humans to exist and act. In Bhaskar’s language, these
generative mechanisms are intransitive to the human. “Intransitive” is just a fancy way of saying
that they are independent of minds and the social. Thus, for example, the generative mechanisms
of various diseases do not themselves change with our theories of these diseases. If the causes of
certain fits of shaking uncontrollably are neurological, our shift from explaining these fits in
terms of demonic position to a neurological disorder (epilepsy) is not a shift in the generative
mechanism itself. The generative mechanism is what it always was. It’s the theory that changes.

Consequently, the intransitive dimension of generative mechanisms is to be distinguished


from what Bhaskar refers to as the transitive dimension. The term “transitive” should, above all,
evoke connotations of “transition”. Where the intransitive dimension refers to mind-independent
generative mechanisms that act regardless of whether or not they are observed or known, the
“transitive” refers to the domain of the social where we have shifting and changing theories
striving to get at this intransitive dimension.

The domain of the actual, as opposed to the real, refers to events that are caused by these
generative mechanisms. Here, for example, we might think of the difference between a lightning
strike and the generative mechanism by which that lightning strike is produced. The lightning
strike belongs to the domain of the actual. It is an event that takes place in nature. By contrast,
the domain of the real is the generative mechanism by which the lightning is produced.
Likewise, we might consider the difference between genes and a phenotypal characteristic such
as eye color or hair color produced by genes. Genes here are the generative mechanism, while
the hair or eye color is the actuality. If Bhaskar draws a distinction between the real composed
of generative mechanisms and the actual composed of events, then this is because generative
mechanisms can be present, along with the conditions for the actualization or triggering of these
generative mechanisms, without the accompanying event coming-to-be or being actualized. All
the conditions can be ripe for lightning without lightning coming to pass. More on this another
time.

Finally, the third domain is that of the empirical, which consists of what is experienced or
observed. Lightning can strike without anyone ever observing it and thus belongs to the domain
of the actual. However, it is also possible for lightning strikes to be observed.

The key point for Bhaskar is that these three domains of reality both can overlap and
diverge. It is possible for generative mechanisms to act and be present without producing any
actual events or experiences. In fact, Bhaskar argues that this is the norm rather than the
exception. If this is the case, then it is because nature is an open system where other generative
mechanisms intervene preventing or disguising the appearance of the accompanying event in the
domain of the actual. This is the point, contends Bhaskar, of scientific experience. Scientific
experiment attempts to isolate generative mechanisms from other generative mechanisms so that
the powers of these generative mechanisms might be discovered. In other words, scientific
experiment attempts to create a closed system where generative mechanisms are isolated so that
they might be observed. Likewise, if there is a distinction between the actual and the empirical,
then this is because events can occur and mechanisms can function without being observed.

Here, then, we get a sense with what Bhaskar is getting at with the epistemic fallacy. The
epistemic fallacy does not consist in raising epistemological questions. Rather, the epistemic
fallacy consists in holding that ontological questions are really epistemological questions of
access. Take the example of Hume. Hume argues that causality is merely a constant conjunction
of our sense-impressions or sensations. In short, Hume only acknowledges the third column in
Bhaskar’s graph. Yet if we make this move, all sorts of mischief emerges. Constant
conjunctions of sense-events are the exception rather than the rule in our sense-experience.
Consequently, if we took Hume at his word, we would have to reject entire swaths of causal
claims on the grounds that they do not produce constant conjunctions of sense-impressions. If
we are to avoid this intolerable result, then it is necessary to hold that generative mechanisms can
act without producing their consequent and this by virtue of the fact that nature is an open system
where other causal mechanisms intervene, veiling, disguising, or preventing generative
mechanisms from producing the events we encounter in the laboratory. Yet here we have passed
from the empirical realm of what is observed to the ontological realm of what is. Without this
ontological realm that is independent of our experience we are unable to render intelligible all
sorts of aspects of our experience.

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