Advancing the reductionist conviction that biology must be in agreement with the assumptions of reductive physicalism (the upward hierarchy of causal powers, the upward fixing of facts concerning biological levels) A. Rosenberg argues that downward causation is ontologically incoherent and that it comes into play only when we are ignorant of the details of biological phenomena. Moreover, in his view, a careful look at relevant details of biological explanations will reveal the basic molecular level that characterizes biological systems, defined by wholly physical properties, e.g., geometrical structures of molecular aggregates (cells). In response, we argue that contrary to his expectations one cannot infer reductionist assumptions even from detailed biological explanations that invoke the molecular level, as interlevel causal reciprocity is essential to these explanations. Recent very detailed explanations that concern the structure and function of chromatin—the intricacies of supposedly basic molecular level—demonstrate this. They show that what seem to be basic physical parameters extend into a more general biological context, thus rendering elusive the concepts of the basic level and causal hierarchy postulated by the reductionists. In fact, relevant phenomena are defined across levels by entangled, extended parameters. Nor can the biological context be explained away by basic physical parameters defining molecular level shaped by evolution as a physical process. Reductionists claim otherwise only because they overlook the evolutionary significance of initial conditions best defined in terms of extended biological parameters. Perhaps the reductionist assumptions (as well as assumptions that postulate any particular levels as causally fundamental) cannot be inferred from biological explanations because biology aims at manipulating organisms rather than producing explanations that meet the coherence requirements of general ontological models. Or possibly the assumptions of an ontology not based on the concept of causal powers stratified across levels can be inferred from biological explanations. The incoherence of downward causation is inevitable, given reductionist assumptions, but an ontological alternative might avoid this. We outline desiderata for the treatment of levels and properties that realize interlevel causation in such an ontology.
Philosophy of biologyCausationOntologyReductionismAnti-ReductionismMolecular biologyCell biology