Levels of explanation (was Re: Determinism)

From: Robin Faichney (robin@ii01.org)
Date: Tue Apr 17 2001 - 12:49:17 BST

  • Next message: Robin Faichney: "Re: Determinism"

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    Date: Tue, 17 Apr 2001 12:49:17 +0100
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    Subject: Levels of explanation (was Re: Determinism)
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    In-Reply-To: <3AD9CA15.5238.367E50@localhost>; from joedees@bellsouth.net on Sun, Apr 15, 2001 at 04:19:33PM -0500
    From: Robin Faichney <robin@ii01.org>
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    On Sun, Apr 15, 2001 at 04:19:33PM -0500, joedees@bellsouth.net wrote:
    > So you then support the idea of a Platonic Form of Causation
    > floating out there in the celestial spheres?

    On the contrary, there is no objective truth about causation, because
    it's a concept that is useful -- essential, in fact -- in everyday life,
    but dissolves upon close analysis. The dispute is about what is the
    most useful way to use the concept, and I say that my way is more useful
    than yours. But before you react to that, please read my attempt to
    restate my views as clearly as possible, below.

    > If you reject both
    > bottom-up and top-down causation, you are left with Spinozan
    > noninteractive parallelism, where it is just a happy coincidence that
    > anything whatsoever fits with anything else.

    Causal explanations work horizontally along "levels of explanation"
    (the terminology is no coincidence). What links the levels is that an
    entity or event on one level is composed of a number of lower level
    entities or events. Molecules are composed of atoms. The molecular and
    atomic levels are actually very close, only a few atoms being required to
    make a molecule, but in many cases the gaps between levels are quite vast,
    so the phenomena that occur on them are very different and require quite
    different explanatory frameworks, which is why different disciplines have
    evolved to deal with them -- physics, chemistry and biology deal with
    successively higher levels (actually, sets of levels) of explanation.
    If biological phenomena are analysed in sufficient detail -- which
    is not always desirable because it means losing sight of the bigger
    picture -- the explanatory framework of chemistry becomes more useful.
    To shift between levels is something we do for our own convenience.
    Phenomena on different levels are not entirely separate, but different
    conceptualisations of the same reality. You said yourself:

    > Levels are imposed upon objects; they reside in the constructing
    > mind.

    So how can you also claim that events on one level influence those on
    another, when the former *is* the latter? Unless, of course, this is
    diagonal causation, i.e. ordinary horizontal causation but with cause
    and effect viewed at different levels, as in the case of the PET scans.

    All I'm doing is drawing a clear distinction between causation on one hand
    and translation between different explanatory frameworks on the other.
    This is a classic application of conceptual analysis, a technique that is
    absolutely central to modern western philosophy.

    > I'm saing that
    > causation is not universal, but it is a useful concept for explaining
    > how it is that people can be asked to and assent to perform certain
    > cognitive tasks and the appropriate cortical areas subsuming such
    > functions routinely light up. The only difference between this and
    > control over more distal areas of the body (of which the brain is a
    > part), such as me thinking that I will type this sentence, and then
    > doing so, is a difference of degree, not kind.

    Of course it can be "useful" to consider the relationship between what
    a person is thinking about and activity in specific neural areas as
    causation (though that leaves open the question as to the direction of
    the causation -- which I'd suggest is most directly addressed by temporal
    considerations, cause preceding effect). It is equally useful to take
    it that my decision to start typing results in activity in the relevant
    motor neurons. But *if* we want to further analyse what happens in such
    cases (and you may not), we have to distinguish between causation and
    conceptual framework translation. Do you disagree with that?

    Robin Faichney
    Let http://www.ii01.org/causation.html cause a better understanding
    of causation!  :-)

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