Making Sense of Interlevel Causation in Mechanisms from a Metaphysical Perspective


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.

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  1. 1.

    Following Quine (1948), one might distinguish between metaphysics and ontology by assuming that ontology is about what there is (Which kinds of things do we have to assume?), whereas metaphysics addresses the features, relations etc. between these things (e.g., What is causation if we take it to be a relation between these things?).

  2. 2.

    Note that there is some ambiguity in the mechanistic literature, whether the phenomenon just is the behaving mechanism, whether it is a behavior of the mechanism, or whether ‘S’ refers to a system that contains the mechanism (see Krickel (under review)). For the sake of argument, I will ignore this ambiguity here, and assume that the phenomenon is a behaving mechanism.

  3. 3.

    Many authors argue that the mutual manipulability account and interventionism are incompatible (Leuridan 2012; Baumgartner and Gebharter 2015; Baumgartner and Casini 2016; Romero 2015). Therefore, it remains controversial how to understand the claim that phenomena and mechanisms mutually depend on each other (note that promising attempts have been made to save the combination between constitutive explanation and interventionism; see (Baumgartner and Gebharter 2015; Baumgartner and Casini 2016; Krickel (forthcoming)). Here, I will ignore these problems for the sake of argument. Furthermore, as I will argue below, since interventionism is not a metaphysical account, it might be possible to accept the incompatibility of interventionism and mutual manipulability, while keeping the mutual manipulability criterion by providing a metaphysical analysis of manipulability (e.g., in counterfactual terms along Lewisian lines).

  4. 4.

    However, Craver admits that further pragmatic considerations might be necessary to draw the line between background conditions and components (Craver 2007, 157).

  5. 5.

    A further metaphysical reason to deny interlevel causation in mechanisms that is independent of the interventionist approach is the causal exclusion argument (Gebharter 2015; Romero 2015; Kim 2005). I will not address this objection here because, first, the objection discussed in this paper is more fundamental than objections based on exclusion worries. The present objection, roughly, is that the level-relata do not even qualify as possible candidates for causal interactions. The exclusion argument starts with the assumption that things at different levels, prima facie, are candidates for being causes and effects. Hence, if it turned out that the objection discussed in this paper goes through, there is no need to talk about exclusion worries at all because mechanistic interlevel causation turns out to be impossible for more fundamental reasons. Of course, if it turns out that the objections discussed here can be rejected, one has to meet the challenge posed by the exclusion argument. To see how this could be done in the context of mechanistic levels see Krickel (under review).

  6. 6.

    It is not entirely clear how Craver and Bechtel understand the difference in dependency between causes and effect, on the one hand, and wholes and their parts, on the other. This is what they write: „It is a widely accepted condition on accounts of causation that they account for the asymmetry of causal dependency. The sun’s elevation causes the length of the shadow, but the length of the shadow does not determine the elevation of the sun. The virus produces the spots on the skin, but the spots on the skin do not cause the infection with the virus. […] While at least some cases of intralevel causation are asymmetrical, all of the interesting cases of interlevel causation are symmetrical: components act as they do because of factors acting on mechanisms, and mechanisms act as they do because of the activities of their lower-level components.“ (Craver and Bechtel 2007, 553).

  7. 7.

    One might contest that causation and the part-whole relation indeed have the features assumed in premises 7 and 8. For the sake of argument, I will accept the truth of these premises. I take these statements to be summaries of Craver’s and Bechtel’s considerations.

  8. 8.

    Note, that when introdcuing (STI) it is not Leuridan’s aim to reject interlevel causation in mechanisms. Rather, he seems to embrace this idea.


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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).

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Krickel, B. Making Sense of Interlevel Causation in Mechanisms from a Metaphysical Perspective. J Gen Philos Sci 48, 453–468 (2017).

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  • Mechanisms
  • Interlevel causation
  • Metaphysics
  • Part-whole relation