Downward Determination

  • Charbel Niño El-Hani


The problem of downward causation – i.e., the problem of the nature of the influence of a system or whole over its components – is highly debated in the literature on property emergence. Nevertheless, most treatments of downward causation do not really refer to causation at all, but rather to explanation and/or determination, as Menno Hulswit recently argued. In this context, it is quite important to search for an understanding of how the roles usually ascribed to systems relatively to their components, such as those of ‘constraining’, ‘selecting’, ‘organizing’, ‘structuring’, ‘determining’, can be connected with the idea of causation. In our view, the important relation here is that in all these cases we are dealing with some kind of ‘determination’. But it is required, then, to clarify what we mean by ‘determination’. For this purpose, we can take as a starting point a difference between the ideas of ‘determining’ and ‘causing’ which seems central to us, and was also highlighted by Hulswit: while ‘determining’ primarily involves the idea of ‘necessitation’ (in the sense of ‘it could not be otherwise’, or, in a somewhat weaker but more broadly applicable manner, ‘it does not tend to be otherwise’), ‘causing’ primarily refers – since the advent of Western modern science – to the idea of ‘bringing about’ some event. In this work, we propose that discussions about the influence of systems or wholes over their components can benefit from a move from the idea of downward ‘causation’ to that of downward ‘determination’. Downward determination can be understood in terms of constraints that the condition of belonging to a system-token of a given kind imposes on the behavior of the components. Thus, we move from an understanding of the influence of wholes over parts based on a neo-Aristotelian perspective, which introduces other causal modes than just efficient causes, to an understanding in terms of modes of determination other than causal determination. This immediately poses a number of questions, which should be faced in order to make this idea more precise. In this paper, we will only discuss two of them. First, we will strive for explaining in further detail what we mean by ‘determination’. We will address this problem here by exploring Peirce’s distinction between ‘causal’ and ‘logic’ determination. Second, we will establish in a clear manner the nature of the relata in downward determination. In the model we put forward here, the determiner, at the level of the system as a whole, is a general principle of organization, a universal, which is characteristic of the kind of structure observed in a type of system, and the determined, at the level of the parts, are particulars, namely, concrete processes involving the system’s components.