From Multilevel Explanation to Downward Causation

In Alastair Wilson & Katie Robertson (eds.), Levels of Explanation. Oxford University Press (forthcoming)
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The causal closure of the physical poses a familiar causal exclusion problem for the special sciences that stems from the idea that if closure is true, then fundamental physical properties do all the causal work involved in bringing about physical effects. In this paper I aim to show that the strongest causal closure principle that is not ruled out by some simple physics in fact allows for a certain kind of downward causation, which in turn makes room for robust special science autonomy. I focus on the case of vector composition, arguing that it involves irreducibly multilevel causation. To give a complete causal explanation of what goes on in cases that involve the effects of multiple forces, we need to appeal not only to the fundamental properties that generate those forces, but also to geometric properties that determine how multiple vectors compose. However, if all the causal work involved in such cases were due to fundamental physical properties, there would be a one-level explanation available. Hence, I argue, it cannot be the case that fundamental physical properties do all the causal work. The extra causal work, I suggest, comes from the fact that the causal powers bestowed by fundamental physical properties have irreducibly geometric manifestation conditions. I defend the resulting form of downward causation as a solution to the problem of special science autonomy, and discuss two potential accounts of its source, in terms of the debate between kinematic and dynamic theories of the origins of spacetime symmetries.

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David Yates
Universidade de Lisboa


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