Hierarchy, causation and explanation: Ubiquity, locality and Pluralism

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The ubiquity of top-down causal explanations within and across the sciences is prima facie evidence for the existence of top-down causation. Much debate has been focused on whether top-down causation is coherent or in conflict with reductionism. Less attention has been given to the question of whether these representations of hierarchical relations pick out a single, common hierarchy. A negative answer to this question undermines a commonplace view that the world is divided into stratified 'levels' of organization and suggests that attributions of causal responsibility in different hierarchical representations may not have a meaningful basis for comparison. Representations used in top-down and bottom-up explanations are primarily 'local' and tied to distinct domains of science, illustrated here by protein structure and folding. This locality suggests that no single metaphysical account of hierarchy for causal relations to obtain within emerges from the epistemology of scientific explanation. Instead, a pluralist perspective is recommended-many different kinds of top-down causation (explanation) can exist alongside many different kinds of bottom-up causation (explanation). Pluralism makes plausible why different senses of top-down causation can be coherent and not in conflict with reductionism, thereby illustrating a productive interface between philosophical analysis and scientific inquiry.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)115-125
Number of pages11
JournalInterface Focus
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2012


  • Causation
  • Explanation
  • Hierarchy
  • Pluralism
  • Reductionism
  • Top-down


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