Re: Levels of explanation (was Re: Determinism)

From: Robin Faichney (
Date: Wed Apr 18 2001 - 10:52:14 BST

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    Date: Wed, 18 Apr 2001 10:52:14 +0100
    Subject: Re: Levels of explanation (was Re: Determinism)
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    In-Reply-To: <3ADC64CE.2139.61499B@localhost>; from on Tue, Apr 17, 2001 at 03:44:14PM -0500
    From: Robin Faichney <>
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    On Tue, Apr 17, 2001 at 03:44:14PM -0500, wrote:
    > On 17 Apr 2001, at 12:49, Robin Faichney wrote:
    > > 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.
    > >
    > However, as I also have said, although the demarcations between
    > levels are fuzzy, and to a greater degree cognitively imposed by us
    > upon the observed than derived from it, there is still some truth,
    > reflected in utility, to having different theoretical expanatory
    > constructs for these various degrees of complexity and eventual
    > recursion; you yourself have said as much.

    I do indeed say as much. Let me quote myself from that last paragraph:

    > > the phenomena that occur on [different levels] are very different
    > > and require quite different explanatory frameworks, which is why
    > > different disciplines have evolved to deal with them...

    And that's why shifting between levels means exchanging one explanatory
    framework for another, which in turn is why tracing causation across
    levels is so fraught with difficulty.

    > The lower-level
    > explanatory schemas simply are not capable of sufficing to explain
    > what is happening in more complex and recursive milieus.

    Obviously not. Atoms don't reproduce.

    > You
    > can study individual neurons, axons and synapses until the cows
    > come home and lay down to die, and it will not help you to
    > understand free will, self-conscious awareness, or the human
    > bestowal of meaning upon a world of being, because such things
    > do not exist at that level, but at the level at which all the neurons,
    > synapses and axons are united as a material substrate for the
    > precession of a dynamically recursive patterned gestalt
    > configuration.

    Ah, Joe, you'll never use two syllables where five will do, will you? :-)
    But that aside, I'm in complete agreement with this (I think).

    > The bare bones fact is that what IS happening is
    > being initiated at the causal nexus level of human subjectivity, as
    > the temporal succession of verbal decision ("I'll begin reading the
    > text in seven minutes; at 4:30, doctor") and selective area/pathway
    > stimulation (at 4:30, as registered by PET-scan) clearly
    > demonstrates.

    Here we disagree. I'll let go the fact that you continually vacillate
    on whether dogmatic pseudo-objective statements can be made about
    causation in general, as well as specifically within complex systems.
    But my concept of diagonal causation perfectly explains the PET scan
    findings, with no need to charge recklessly across all the lanes of the
    explanatory highway, as you do. "My decision causes my neural activity,
    never mind exactly how, I'll just insist it's top-down causation, and if
    you don't accept that you're an irrational anti-scientist." Until you
    examine and find good grounds to reject diagonal causation, you *cannot*
    rationally claim that top-down causation is the only possible explanation
    for the PET scan findings.

    > > 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.
    > >
    > Because the decision to do X can be made before X is done and
    > the corresponding PET-scan noted cerebral changes are measured
    > for correlation with the subjective task, as I noted in the above
    > example.

    But that's perfectly explained by diagonal causation! You continue to
    dismiss what you haven't bothered to glance at!

    > What can be distinguished in theory is not always separable in
    > practice.

    Which is precisely why I say that, in practice, it's fine to consider
    neural activity to be caused by a decision. I said exactly that in
    the message you quote and -- theoretically -- are replying to here --
    while in practice it seems you didn't bother to read great chunks of it.
    But theory requires that we be much more analytic, and in particular,
    that we don't slip insensibly from one type of explanation, one conceptual
    framework, to another.

    > > 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).
    > >
    > This allows for both top-down and bottom-up, and I concur with it.

    Then it's a pity that both top-down and bottom-up are inexplicable,
    while diagonal causation, which fully accounts for all cases where cause
    and effect are on different levels, is itself quite easily understood.

    > > 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?
    > >
    > I do not think that lower-level schemas possess explanatory
    > capacities for higher-level phenomena, when they are sufficiently
    > separated by degrees of complexity and recursion.

    This again!! Not only do I agree with that, it's the foundation of my
    case -- that is precisely why top-down and bottom-up causation don't work
    -- but what I asked was whether you agree that "we have to distinguish
    between causation and conceptual framework translation". Why don't you
    answer that?

    > You are
    > welcome to try to understand the forest by deconstructing a cell in
    > a leaf if that's what you wanna do, but I doubt if you'll find out much
    > about its ecosystem that way.

    Can you quote one sentence of mine that would lead any reasonable person
    to think I have such a reductionist agenda?

    Robin Faichney
    Inside Information causes Enlightenment ;-)

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