Biology & Philosophy

, Volume 30, Issue 1, pp 39–58 | Cite as

Levels of organization: a deflationary account

  • Markus I. Eronen


The idea of levels of organization plays a central role in the philosophy of the life sciences. In this article, I first examine the explanatory goals that have motivated accounts of levels of organization. I then show that the most state-of-the-art and scientifically plausible account of levels of organization, the account of levels of mechanism proposed by Bechtel and Craver, is fundamentally problematic. Finally, I argue that the explanatory goals can be reached by adopting a deflationary approach, where levels of organization give way to more well-defined and fundamental notions, such as scale and composition.


Levels Levels of organization Mechanistic explanation Scale Composition Bechtel Craver 



I thank the following individuals for their helpful comments on earlier drafts of this paper and related presentations: Luca Barlassina, Laura Bringmann, Dan Brooks, Carl Craver, Bob Richardson, Raphael van Riel, and an anonymous referee of this journal. I also thank the Research Foundation—Flanders (FWO) for financially supporting the research that resulted in this publication.


  1. Alexander S (1920) Space, time, and deity, vol II. Macmillan, LondonGoogle Scholar
  2. Bechtel W (1994) Levels of descriptions and explanation in cognitive science. Mind Mach 4:1–25CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Bechtel W (2008) Mental mechanisms. Philosophical perspectives on cognitive neuroscience. Routledge, LondonGoogle Scholar
  4. Bickle J (1998) Psychoneural reduction: the new wave. MIT Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  5. Broad CD (1925) The mind and its place in nature. Routledge & Kegan Paul, LondonGoogle Scholar
  6. Campbell DT (1974) “Downward Causation” in hierarchically organised biological systems. In: Ayala F, Dobzhansky T (eds) Studies in the philosophy of biology. University of California Press, Berkeley, pp 179–186Google Scholar
  7. Churchland PS, Sejnowski TJ (1992) The computational brain. MIT Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  8. Couch MB (2011) Mechanisms and constitutive relevance. Synthese 183:375–388CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Craver CF (2002) Interlevel experiments and multilevel mechanisms in the neuroscience of memory. Philos Sci 69:S83–S97CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Craver CF (2007) Explaining the brain. Oxford University Press, OxfordCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Craver CF, Bechtel W (2007) Top-down causation without top-down causes. Biol Philos 20:715–734Google Scholar
  12. Craver CF, Darden L (2013) In search of mechanisms: discoveries across the life sciences. University of Chicago Press, ChicagoCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Emmeche C, Køppe S, Stjernfelt F (2000) Levels, emergence, and three versions of downward causation. In: Andersen PB, Emmeche C, Finnemann NO, Christiansen PV (eds) Downward causation minds, bodies and matter. Aarhus University Press, Århus, pp 13–34Google Scholar
  14. Eronen MI (2013) No levels, no problems: downward causation in neuroscience. Philos Sci 80:1042–1052CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Fazekas P, Kertész G (2011) Causation at different levels: tracking the commitments of mechanistic explanations. Biol Philos 26:365–383CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Glennan S (2010) Mechanisms, causes, and the layered model of the world. Philos Phenomenol Res 81:362–381CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Heil J (2003) From an ontological point of view. Oxford University Press, OxfordCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Hooker CA (1981a) Towards a general theory of reduction. Part I: historical and scientific setting. Dialogue 20:38–59CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Hooker CA (1981b) Towards a general theory of reduction. Part II: identity in reduction. Dialogue 20:201–236CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Hooker CA (1981c) Towards a general theory of reduction. Part III: cross-categorial reduction. Dialogue 20:496–529CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Kandel ER, Schwartz JH, Jessell T (2000) Principles of neural science, 4th edn. McGraw-Hill, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  22. Kim J (1992) ‘Downward causation’ in emergentism and nonreductive physicalism. In: Beckermann A, Flohr H, Kim J (eds) Emergence or reduction? Essays on the prospects of nonreductive physicalism. Walter de Gruyter, Berlin, pp 119–138Google Scholar
  23. Kim J (1998) Mind in a physical world. MIT Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  24. Kim J (2002) The layered model: metaphysical considerations. Philos Explor 5:2–20CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Kim J (2003) Blocking causal drainage and other maintenance chores with mental causation. Philos Phenomenol Res 67:151–176CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Kim J (2005) Physicalism, or something near enough. Princeton University Press, PrincetonGoogle Scholar
  27. Ladyman J, Ross D (2007) Every thing must go: metaphysics naturalised. Oxford University Press, OxfordCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Love AC (2012) Hierarchy, causation and explanation: ubiquity, locality and pluralism. Interface Focus 2:115–125CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Malenka RC, Bear MF (2004) LTP and LTD: an embarrassment of riches. Neuron 44:5–21CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. McCauley RN (2009) Time is of the essence: explanatory pluralism and accommodating theories about long-term processes. Philos Psychol 22:611–635CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. McGaugh JL (2000) Memory—a century of consolidation. Science 287:248–251CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Nagel E (1961) The structure of science. Routledge & Kegan Paul, LondonGoogle Scholar
  33. Oppenheim P, Putnam H (1958) Unity of science as a working hypothesis. Minn Stud Philos Sci 2:3–36Google Scholar
  34. Potochnik A, McGill B (2012) The limitations of hierarchical organization. Philos Sci 79:120–140CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Purves D, Augustine G, Fitzpatrick D, Hall W, LaMantia A-S, McNamara J, White LE (eds) (2008) Neuroscience. Sinauer, SunderlandGoogle Scholar
  36. Richardson RC, Stephan A (2007) Mechanism and mechanical explanation in systems biology. In: Boogerd FC, Bruggeman FJ, Hofmeyr JS, Westerhoff HV (eds) Systems biology: philosophical foundations. Elsevier, Amsterdam, pp 123–144CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Rueger A, McGivern P (2010) Hierarchies and levels of reality. Synthese 176:379–397CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Schaffner K (1993) Discovery and explanation in biology and medicine. University of Chicago Press, ChicagoGoogle Scholar
  39. Simon HA (1962) The architecture of complexity. Proc Am Philos Soc 106:467–482Google Scholar
  40. Wimsatt WC (1994/2007). The ontology of complex systems: levels of organization, perspectives, and causal thickets. In Wimsatt WC (2007) Re-engineering philosophy for limited beings. Piecewise approximations to reality. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, pp 193–240. Originally published in Can J Philos S20, 207–274Google Scholar
  41. Wright C, Bechtel W (2007) Mechanisms and psychological explanation. In: Thagard P (ed) Philosophy of psychology and cognitive science (volume 4 of the handbook of the philosophy of science). Elsevier, New YorkGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Centre for Logic and Analytical Philosophy, Institute of PhilosophyKU LeuvenLouvainBelgium

Personalised recommendations