Upward and Downward Causation from a Relational-Horizontal Ontological Perspective

Axiomathes 25 (1):23-40 (2014)
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Downward causation exercised by emergent properties of wholes upon their lower-level constituents’ properties has been accused of conceptual and metaphysical incoherence. Only upward causation is usually peacefully accepted. The aim of this paper is to criticize and refuse the traditional hierarchical-vertical way of conceiving both types of causation, although preserving their deepest ontological significance, as well as the widespread acceptance of the traditional atomistic-combinatorial view of the entities and the relations that constitute the so-called ‘emergence base’. Assuming those two perspectives with no reserves, we are condemned to confine our debate to the question of whether reified wholes can have the power to downwardly change or influence their lower-level parts, a question which seems profoundly misleading to me. I therefore propose an alternative relational ontological view, assuming a straightforward horizontal and intra-level way of representing those putative cases of cross-level causation. I finally confront two recent replies to Kim’s well-known objections to DC—Craver and Bechtel and Kistler :595–609, 2009)—, emphasizing their global positive approaches, as well as the reasons why their accounts still seem insufficient to me. I conclude arguing that both Kim’s principle of the causal closure of the physical domain and its allegation of an overdetermination in cases of DC can be surpassed by the new relational ontological perspective presented here.



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Gil Santos
University of Lisbon