Top-down causation: an integrating theme within and across the sciences?
George F. R. Ellis, Denis Noble, Timothy O'Connor
Published 21 December 2011.DOI: 10.1098/rsfs.2011.0110
This issue of the journal is focused on ‘top-down (downward) causation'. The words in this title, however, already raise or beg many questions. Causation can be of many kinds. They form our ways of ordering our scientific understanding of the world, all the way from the reductive concept of cause as elementary objects exerting forces on each other, through to the more holistic concept of attractors towards which whole systems move, and to adaptive selection taking place in the context of an ecosystem. As for ‘top’ and ‘down’, in the present scientific context, these are clearly metaphorical, as some of the articles in this issue of the journal make clear. Do we therefore know what we are talking about? The meeting at the Royal Society on which this set of papers is based included philosophers as well as scientists, and some of those (Jeremy Butterfield, Barry Loewer, Alan Love, Samir Okasha and Eric Scerri) have contributed articles to this issue. We would like also to thank those (Claus Kiefer, Peter Menzies, Jerome Feldman and David Papineau) who contributed only to the discussion meeting. Their contributions were also valuable, both at the meeting and by influencing the articles that have been written by others. We include a glossary with this introduction, composed by one of us (O'Connor). The clarification of the use of words and their semantic frames is an important role of philosophy, and this was evident in the discussions at the meeting and is now evident in many of the articles published here. Moreover, philosophical analysis is not limited to the papers by the professional philosophers. The idea of top-down causation is intimately related to concepts of emergence; indeed, it is a key factor in strong theories of emergence.
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