Downward Determination

Charbel Niño El-Hani


The problem of downward causation – i.e., the problem of the
nature of the influence of a system or whole over its components – is highly
debated in the literature on property emergence. Nevertheless, most
treatments of downward causation do not really refer to causation at all,
but rather to explanation and/or determination, as Menno Hulswit recently
argued. In this context, it is quite important to search for an
understanding of how the roles usually ascribed to systems relatively to
their components, such as those of ‘constraining’, ‘selecting’,
‘organizing’, ‘structuring’, ‘determining’, can be connected with the idea
of causation. In our view, the important relation here is that in all these
cases we are dealing with some kind of ‘determination’. But it is required,
then, to clarify what we mean by ‘determination’. For this purpose, we can
take as a starting point a difference between the ideas of ‘determining’ and
‘causing’ which seems central to us, and was also highlighted by Hulswit:
while ‘determining’ primarily involves the idea of ‘necessitation’ (in the
sense of ‘it could not be otherwise’, or, in a somewhat weaker but more
broadly applicable manner, ‘it does not tend to be otherwise’), ‘causing’
primarily refers – since the advent of Western modern science – to the idea
of ‘bringing about’ some event. In this work, we propose that discussions
about the influence of systems or wholes over their components can benefit
from a move from the idea of downward ‘causation’ to that of downward
‘determination’. Downward determination can be understood in terms of
constraints that the condition of belonging to a system-token of a given
kind imposes on the behavior of the components. Thus, we move from an
understanding of the influence of wholes over parts based on a
neo-Aristotelian perspective, which introduces other causal modes than just
efficient causes, to an understanding in terms of modes of determination
other than causal determination. This immediately poses a number of
questions, which should be faced in order to make this idea more precise.
In this paper, we will only discuss two of them. First, we will strive for
explaining in further detail what we mean by ‘determination’. We will
address this problem here by exploring Peirce’s distinction between ‘causal’
and ‘logic’ determination. Second, we will establish in a clear manner the
nature of the relata in downward determination. In the model we put forward
here, the determiner, at the level of the system as a whole, is a general
principle of organization, a universal, which is characteristic of the kind
of structure observed in a type of system, and the determined, at the level
of the parts, are particulars, namely, concrete processes involving the
system’s components.

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