“I could make that shot standing on one leg”
said Troy as Martin’s basketball swished through the net. He was far more skilled than Martin, and it was an easy shot; unfortunately, today standing on one leg sent a shooting pain through his back, causing him to miss every time.
Finking is a philosophical term for when an object loses its disposition to x whenever the stimulus conditions for x-ing arise. A typical example would be something such as ‘a sorcerer (our fink) is guarding a fragile glass, if the glass is about to be knocked in such a way that it would normally break then the sorcerer will make it shatter-proof for the duration of the impact. This kind of case is problematic for what is called the simple conditional analysis of dispositions.
It’s hopefully quite obvious that objects have dispositions; glasses are fragile, sugar dissolves in water etc. These properties are modal (to do with possibility) in that in order for a glass to be fragile, it need never actually manifest it’s fragility by breaking, sugar need never actually dissolve in water in order to be water-soluble. How then are we to make sense of these properties? What is it that makes my wine glass fragile and therefore means that I ought to be careful when handling it? A simple solution is that dispositions such as these are grounded by the truth of certain conditional statements. So, for instance, a glass is fragile if it will break when dropped onto the floor.
Finking cases, pose a problem for this analysis in that they present a case in which if the stimulus conditions for a disposition are met, the object in question will fail to manifest the relevant behaviour: Take the sorcerer case again. A glass is fragile if it would break when dropped, but if we were to drop our glass, the sorcerer would make it shatter proof for just the moment of impact and so it would not break. Does that mean that the glass is not fragile, taking into account that the glass is just like any other in every moment other than the one in which it hits the floor? It seems odd to say that it isn’t at any rate.
A similar simple conditional analysis can, and is sometimes, offered of abilities. Troy has the ability to make the basket just in case if he were to try to make the basket then he would make the basket. Supposing that Troy is an extremely able basketball player and the shot he is trying to make is very easy, it seems that he is able to make the shot. However, the pain in his back when he stands on one leg (a pain that is triggered by the stimulus conditions specified for the ability) prevents him from making the shot. So on a simple conditional analysis we would be forced into saying that Troy lacks an ability to make the basket.
What ought we to say about Troy though? Does he have or lack the ability to make the shot in this case?
ED: having finally illustrated this, I can’t help but wish I’d written the finking example about a wizard who will be making several more appearances on this site. Maybe I’ll re-write at some point in the future.