Top-down causation

Discussions of science and religion can be fascinating, particularly when they become an occasion to see how the world works very differently than what our commonsense intuitions prompt us to think. Religious thought typically follows our commonsense, anthropomorphic expectations, so I figure that talking about science and religion has to include explaining how religions get it wrong. But the payoff is really the science, not the religion-bashing.

Sometimes, however, I confess that I don’t get it. Some of the religious arguments I encounter seem so wrongheaded on the face of it that I begin to wonder. Surely they can’t be making that simple a mistake. If so, it’s also disappointing for me. It’s one thing to try to sort out a subtle and interesting mistake and learn something in the process. It’s another to fend off trivial objections.

Lately it’s become popular among some theologians to talk about “top-down causation.” My impression is that this is closer to the trivial mistake department, particularly when they intimate that when causal influence from some sort of higher level affects a lower level this means a failure of “reductionism” or another of their ill-defined bugbears. Does anyone really think that if an organism (a “higher” level) affects the chemistry (a “lower” level) of its environment, that there is some vital force beyond mere physics that helps constitute life?

Anyway, when I wrote Science and Nonbelief, I just devoted a few pages to “top-down causation” arguments for supernaturalism. I don’t think it’s worth more, even if theologians are capable of going on about it at book length.

But lately I’ve been seeing echoes of such arguments in other contexts than the typical time-wastage of liberal apologetics. For example, there are a number of “nonmaterialist neuroscientists” who are so far out of the mainstream of their discipline that they associate themselves with the Intelligent Design movement. Mario Beauregard, Michael Egnor, and Jeffery Schwartz come to mind. And one of the major arguments they favor is the notion that since therapeutic interventions at a mental level lead to changes in the brain, that the mind is something other than what the brain does. In other words, there’s top-down causation, and therefore materialism is incorrect.

Again, it’s a very basic mistake. I keep my hand in atmospheric physics, among other things. Storms are reducible to lower-level physical and chemical goings-on, unless you want to announce that you’re founding a “nonmaterialist atmospheric physics” according to which storms manifest the spiritual presence of a Storm God. And yes, if you intervene in the atmosphere at the level of storms, say by doing something to promote or suppress storm systems, I dare say you’d find casual effects at the level of ozone concentrations and radiative transfer. That’s what you expect, precisely because storms are physical.

But seriously, I just don’t get it. I kind of expect theologians and intelligent design proponents to endorse just about any argument that supports their gods, regardless of its quality. But I’ve started to see this sort of thing influencing other areas as well. For example, I was just reading through a interesting religious studies text, Kelly Bulkeley’s Dreaming in the World’s Religions: A Comparative History. Then just as things start getting interesting, he throws in:

Neuroscientific reductionism fails to account for mental causation in dreaming (e.g, in dreams with volition and self-awareness) or in waking (e.g., biofeedback, placebo effect) . . .

All this leads Bulkeley to adopt “interactive dualism.” Because of the placebo effect. Because if minds are realized by physical systems, mental changes should not lead to physical changes? Sigh.

Either I’m missing something important here, or quite a number of smart people are making a very trivial mistake. I don’t like either possibility.

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About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University