Journal for General Philosophy of Science

, Volume 48, Issue 3, pp 453–468 | Cite as

Making Sense of Interlevel Causation in Mechanisms from a Metaphysical Perspective

  • Beate KrickelEmail author


According to the new mechanistic approach, an acting entity is at a lower mechanistic level than another acting entity if and only if the former is a component in the mechanism for the latter. Craver and Bechtel (Biol Philos 22(4):547–563, 2007. doi: 10.1007/s10539-006-9028-8) argue that a consequence of this view is that there cannot be causal interactions between acting entities at different mechanistic levels. Their main reason seems to be what I will call the Metaphysical Argument: things at different levels of a mechanism are related as part and whole; wholes and their parts cannot be related as cause and effect; hence, interlevel causation in mechanisms is impossible. I will analyze this argument in more detail and show under which conditions it is valid. This analysis will reveal that interlevel causation in mechanisms is indeed possible, if we take seriously the idea that the relata of the mechanistic level relation are acting entities and accept a slightly modified notion of a mechanistic level that is highly plausible in the light of the first clarification.


Mechanisms Interlevel causation Metaphysics Part-whole relation 



I am thankful to Daniel Brooks, Alexander Dinges and Felipe Romero for comments on earlier versions of the paper. Furthermore, I thank the audience of the Carnap Lectures 2015 in Bochum and Albert Newen and my colleagues at RUB for helpful discussions on that topic. Finally, I have to thank four anonymous referees for their constructive feedback. Working on this paper has been supported by the Research Training Group 2185 "Situated Cognition - New Concepts in Investigating Core Mental Phenomena" (Speaker: Albert Newen).


  1. Baumgartner, M., & Casini, L. (2016). An abductive theory of constitution. Philosophy of Science, 84(2), 214–233. doi: 10.1086/690716.Google Scholar
  2. Baumgartner, M., & Gebharter, A. (2015). Constitutive relevance, mutual manipulability, and fat-handedness. British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, 67(3), 731–756. doi: 10.1093/bjps/axv003.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Bechtel, W. (2008). Mental mechanisms. philosophical perspectives on cognitive neuroscience. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  4. Casati, R., & Varzi, A. (2015). “Events.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N Zalta, Winter 201. Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University.Google Scholar
  5. Craver, C. F. (2007). Explaining the Brain: Mechanisms and the mosaic unity of neuroscience. New York: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Craver, C. F. (2014). “The Ontic Account of Scientific Explanation.” In Explanation in the Special Sciences: The Case of Biology and History, edited by Marie I Kaiser, Oliver R Scholz, Daniel Plenge, and Andreas Hüttemann, 27–52. Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands. doi: 10.1007/978-94-007-7563-3_2.
  7. Craver, C. F., & Bechtel, William. (2007). Top-down Causation Without Top-down Causes. Biology and Philosophy, 22(4), 547–563. doi: 10.1007/s10539-006-9028-8.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Eronen, M. I. (2015). Levels of organization: A deflationary account. Biology and Philosophy, 30(1), 39–58. doi: 10.1007/s10539-014-9461-z.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Gebharter, A. (2015). Causal exclusion and causal bayes nets. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research. doi: 10.1111/phpr.12247.Google Scholar
  10. Gillett, C. (2010). Moving beyond the subset model of realization: The problem of qualitative distinctness in the metaphysics of science. Synthese, 177(2), 165–192. doi: 10.1007/s11229-010-9840-1.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Gillett, C. (2013). Constitution, and multiple constitution, in the sciences: using the neuron to construct a starting framework. Minds and Machines, 23(3), 309–337. doi: 10.1007/s11023-013-9311-9.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Glennan, S. (2010). Mechanisms, causes, and the layered model of the world. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 81(2), 362–381. doi: 10.1111/j.1933-1592.2010.00375.x.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Illari, P. M., & Williamson, J. (2013). In defence of activities. Journal for General Philosophy of Science, 44(1), 69–83. doi: 10.1007/s10838-013-9217-5.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Kaiser, M., & Krickel, B. (2017). The metaphysics of constitutive mechanistic phenomena. The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, 68(3), 745–779. doi: 10.1093/bjps/axv058.
  15. Kim, J. (2005). Physicalism, or something near enough. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  16. Krickel, B. (Forthcoming). Saving the Mutual Manipulability Account of Constitutive Relevance. Special Issue in Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A.Google Scholar
  17. Krickel, B. (Under Review). The Metaphysics of Mechanisms.Google Scholar
  18. Leuridan, B. (2012). Three problems for the mutual manipulability account of constitutive relevance in mechanisms. British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, 63(2), 399–427. doi: 10.1093/bjps/axr036.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Lewis, D. K. (1973). Causation. Journal of Philosophy, 70(17), 556–567. doi: 10.2307/2025310.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Lewis, D. K. (1986). Events. In L. David (Ed.), Philosophical papers (Vol. II, pp. 241–269). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  21. Lewis, D. K. (2000). Causation as Influence. The Journal of Philosophy, 97(4), 182–197.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Machamer, P., Darden, L., & Craver, C. F. (2000). Thinking about mechanisms. Philosophy of Science, 67(1), 1–25.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Psillos, S. (2004). A glimpse of the secret connexion: Harmonizing mechanisms with counterfactuals. Perspectives on Science, 12(3), 288–319. doi: 10.1162/1063614042795426.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Quine, W. V. (1948). “On What There Is.” The Review of Metaphysics 2 (5). Philosophy Education Society Inc.: 21–38.
  25. Robb, D., & Heil. J. (2014). “Mental Causation.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N Zalta, Spring 201. Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University.Google Scholar
  26. Romero, F. (2015). Why there isn’t inter-level causation in mechanisms. Synthese, 192(11), 3731–3755. doi: 10.1007/s11229-015-0718-0.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Simons, P., & Melia, J. (2000). “Continuants and Occurrents.” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supplementary Volumes 74. [Aristotelian Society, Wiley]: 59–92.
  28. Woodward, J. (2003). Making things happen: A theory of causal explanation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  29. Woodward, J. (2015). Interventionism and causal exclusion. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 91(2), 303–347. doi: 10.1111/phpr.12095.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Philosophy II, DFG Research Training Group “Situated Cognition”Ruhr-University BochumBochumGermany

Personalised recommendations