What is a manifestation?

Neil E. Williams

There is widespread agreement among friends of irreducible powers that powers are properties, and intrinsic ones at that.  But when it comes to the exercising of powers, little has been said about what sort of ontological category these ‘manifestations’ belong to, and even less agreement is to be found.  A few recent proposals treat manifestations as processes or protracted events.  Though these proposals boast a number of virtues, I argue that any view that understands manifestations this way has unsavoury consequences that outweigh any virtues on offer.  Instead I propose that we think of manifestations as being extremely short-lived, either as states of affairs or very brief events.

I start by considering a very simple case of a power’s being exercised: that of an attempted poisoning foiled by an antidote administered shortly after the poison is ingested.  After dismissing minor quibbles concerning the use of macro-powers as test cases, I ask what we ought to say about the manifestations in cases like this, wherein circumstances required for the power’s triggering have been satisfied, but the anticipated causal chain has been frustrated.  One the one hand it seems mistaken to say that the power has been manifested, as the manifestation that is characteristic of poisoning is one of death for humans who ingest sufficient quantities.  But on the other hand its seems equally wrong to claim that the power was not manifested, given that the conditions required for the display of the power were met, and the expected causal process had begun, despite failing to run to completion.  I then test the example against the typical options for thinking about manifestations, and argue that only an ontology that treats them as extremely short-lived can do proper justice to our intuitions about antidote cases.