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

  • David B. Ellis

    You’re right, its a trivial mistake.

    As a thought experiment, though, it would be interesting to try to come up with a way to scientifically test for whether top-down causation exists.

    I’m not sure its even possible. Off-hand I can’t think of any useful ways to approach the question.

    Maybe a test to see if a thought occurs prior to the brain activity associated with it—but we certainly don’t have the brain scanning technology nor knowledge of the brain to do so now.

  • R

    “As a thought experiment, though, it would be interesting to try to come up with a way to scientifically test for whether top-down causation exists.”

    Yes, but the only way Ï can think of is by checking that “normal” causes cannot account for the physics of a phenomenon. But anyway, there is no physical phenomena that needs top-down causation. No experiment has ever shown “missing” top-down causes. There is no physics of top-down causes. There is no energy conservation applied to top-down causes. There is nothing, just philosobable!. Biofeedback and the rest are just silly mistakes. It’s not the physics but the theist philosophers who need top-down causation, that’s why they look for them so desperately.

    “Maybe a test to see if a thought occurs prior to the brain activity associated with it—but we certainly don’t have the brain scanning technology nor knowledge of the brain to do so now.”

    According to the famous Libet’s experiment (and a recent one that has just replicated it), it is the other way around: brain activity predates the thought.

    It is also funny to see free-will defenders (usually theists, but not always) complain about materialist philosophers and physicists for being careless in their interpretations. For them, applying tons of reality-distorting “philosophy” is beign careful.

    If this universe is the only one, this supports theism. But if this universe belongs to a multiverse, it also supports theism. If the universe is fine-tuned to produce life, this supports theism. But if it is so contrary to life that it needs a creator to create life directly, this also support theism. You can’t win!.

    I recently read an article from a theist philosopher where he tried to show that Hawkings’ no-boundary cosmology supports theism even better than the traditional Big-Bang-with-singularity model. You just can’t win with these guys!


    I’ve noticed the same kind of thing with the theistic philosophers. Extremely trivial conceptual mistakes. I get the same feeling you do it seems. Am I nuts or are these guys really nuts? Because you just don’t want to believe intelligent adults are that flippin stupid.

  • chippamo

    God is not a person. God is an entity. Jesus was 100% God and 100% man. Jesus could not be all knowing because he (God) only allowed himself to have the knowledge needed while in the earthly realm. What people know of us is only what we allow them to know. Our perception exists, but it is only known to others through our limited capacity to communicate to others in a manner in which they can properly understand its existence. God is an intangible entity that can only be known by way of his communication. Since people were not understanding his true intent, he came into the earthly realm via a virgin human female. He placed his DNA in one of her eggs. He allowed the human race the chance to choose a greater way of life, but they refused and killed the human messenger body, but they didn’t kill the God entity. Picture a scientist who is attempting to communicate with ants. He trys many methods to help the ants understand his desires for them. He uses food, water, and other things to entice them to move in certain directions. However, his great miracles are misunderstood. Finally, he dicovers a method that will allow him to become an ant. He transforms himself into an ant. He begins teaching the ants great wisdom. Even so, the Queen doesn’t like what he is doing. She has him stung and ripped apart by the other ants. This how I see Jesus. That is, except the scientist was just a person who died and could not ascend back to his first state of being. I know my perception and/or thoughts exist, but until I allow them to be heard or read, no one believes that they exist. My thoughts are a fact, but they have no form and cannot be sensed by anyone other than me. So, if someone believes that my thoughts don’t exist merely because I have not spoken, is that person correct? Our existence is based solely upon the thoughts of God. If he decides to stop the thought of us, we will no longer exist. Our existence is much like the existence of our own thoughts. If we have a thought that we like, then we speak it. Because of that, it becomes a reality to others and to ourselves. If we support that thought, it may become known as a fact. God wants all of us to become a fact. He supports us. However, since we have the right to deny him, he can erase his writtings or change his mind. Then, any person (thought) that is not what God wills, will no longer exist. A thought has no mass or weight and it doesn’t take up any space. It is neither matter or antimatter. It cannot be measured. Yet, we all know that thoughts exist. How can any type of science prove the existence of a thought. Additionally, what is a thought other than nothing until it is spoken or written? How we perceive the world may not be that which others perceive. When I see a color that I am taught is red, but the color I see is not a color in the normal spectrum of perception, how does anyone know what color I see? They assume it is the same red that they see, but I don’t see red at all. I see an unnamed color. The red color that others see doesn’t exist in my perception. Likewise, I believe others see what I see. So, you see, we don’t really know what exists in the minds of others. If god doesn’t exist in your mind, then he doesn’t exist. However, you do exist in his mind, and he will not like your denial. Think about it and allow your perception to be known. Otherwise, people who choose to believe in only what they can sense will not believe that you can have a thought or perception.

  • J Buckley

    I chanced across this blog while looking for a thought experiment about causation.

    Chipammo's post is interesting because it goes straight to the problem of how long and how hard you continue to argue with people when they don't appear willing to stand to reason. There are so many bits of half-understood, half-misrepresented borrowings from philosophy in what he says that it would take the patience of a secular saint to disentangle and then rebut them.

    Just giving up on chippamo seems to show him no respect, and to be the death of dialogue. But although he's posted some words, I don't think he's really in the dialogue anyway, as there doesn't seem to be any prospect of him changing any opinions in response to what anyone says.

    I wonder if there's some sort of standard/ ground rules that people coming into a discussion have to have in order for it to be fruitful. Maybe taking one point at a time would be a good start.

  • Metacrock

    The problem is you don't understand the issues. First, who are you calling a theologian? I bet you you are not talking about a Ph.D. from Harvard you are talking about a preacher man or an apologist on the net right? Did you know Harvard has them? So does Yale, Northwestern, Oxford all major universities of the world have theologians teaching there did you know that?

    Secondly, Top down causation is a fact it is a scientific fact it doesn't have to be proved. Here's a quote form journal of consciousness studies:

    "Take the matter of 'downward causation' to which Harman gives some attention. Why should this be an issue in brain dynamics? As Erich Harth points out in Chapter 44, connections between higher and lower centers of the brain are reciprocal. They go both ways, up and down. The evidence (the scientific evidence) for downward causation was established decades ago by the celebrated Spanish histologist Ramon y Cajal, yet the discussion goes on. Why? The answer seems clear: If brains work like machines, they are easier to understand. The facts be damned!"[Miller quoting Rosenberg, Journal of Consciousness Studies,]

    It pertains to brain/mind issue. The argument being that something which governs consciousness seems to be above the process of autonomic function and thus is beyond mere brain chemistry. That's not an argument for the supernatural. Its' just an argument that the mind is not reducible to chemistry. One need not be a supernatural to believe that. The friend who taught me taht was a Ph.D. student at MIT>

    We also don't need proof of the supernatural. The "supernatural" is a mistake, a problem created by the enlightenment. The real theological term is "supernature it's not a magic realm.

    Supernature is nothing more than the experiences of mystical nature that one has which are called "mystical" and which elevate one to a higher level of conscoiusness. There's a huge body of empirical work hat proves these are real experiences.

  • Metacrock

    WAR_ON_ERROR said…

    I've noticed the same kind of thing with the theistic philosophers. Extremely trivial conceptual mistakes. I get the same feeling you do it seems. Am I nuts or are these guys really nuts? Because you just don't want to believe intelligent adults are that flippin stupid.

    that's a real coincidence. I find that atheists who are really brain washed by the ideology of the hate group are hyper vigilant about finding trivial mistakes and blowing totally out of proportion. you probably approach the words of any religious person with total suspicion and comb everything they say to find the least little mistake then use that to bolster your world view, religious people are stupid but you, because you are so brilliant that you don't believe in God you are so wise, that just proves your greatness.

    Of cousre you don't look much mistakes in atheists, even though of course they make them all the time.

    the blog post here is filled with major mistakes in that they don't know the real use of top down causation or that it is estabilshed in scinece.



    Or…I practice what I preach and you don't know me. I think the last time I commented on your blog I did the exact opposite of everything you've just imposed on me here in your ignorance. So please, chill out.


  • Metacrock

    Or…I practice what I preach and you don't know me. I think the last time I commented on your blog I did the exact opposite of everything you've just imposed on me here in your ignorance. So please, chill out.

    that's a nice cryptic meaningless statement. what are you talking about?

  • Metacrock

    It is simply a huge mistake to downward causation is a mistake and it doesn't tell us anything in relation to certain religious beliefs. It's equally a huge mistake to think that SN needs some kind of proof or that you could prove it even if it needed it.

    The whole problem vis religion vs scinece is the arrogant nature of scientific attitude that is an outgrown of historical events in the enlightenment that are based upon mythology of that era, modern semitropical secular minded scientific types never understood or got past the fact that these hysterical attitudes toward religion that most atheists exhibit are based upon myth.

    The Monty Python "if she weighs the same as a Duck" thing is just BS mythological clap trap made up by the enlightenment philosophes to humiliate the Catholic hierarchy. They had nothing to do with historical truth. There was any kind of big systemic persecution of scientifically minded people. There was quite of scinece done in the middle ages none of it was persecuted.

    In addition your great learning in scinece you guys should learn some history.

  • Guest

    You of course realize that the biggest advocate of top-down causation is George Ellis, the same one who, together with mentioned by you Stephen Hawking, wrote a extremely important paper on the nature of space-time?

    According to this 500+ scientific papers shmock with which there is no argument, who is one of the most important cosmologists of our times (like, you know, top scientists), the evidence for top down causation is everywhere, especially when systems become very complex. Natural selection is a basic example of that – environment affects organisms and genes and controls what gets accepted and what gets denied, shaping life on a genetic level. See, sometimes small affects big, sometimes big affect small. In other words, life is more complex than Richard Dawkins would like you to believe. You probably think that most scientists believe gene is the basic unit of natural selection, right? Richard says so in his pop-science books, it must be truth!

    The only ones you can’t win against is people who don’t do their homework before playing higher ground on the internet. The real arguments don’t matter much to them, it seems so. If you think you’re much different from those religious freaks then you are very wrong, sir. You’re just another misinformed guy with a banner fighting your holy wars. Except your banner is different and your knowledge only slightly more based on scientific reality. It’s nice to have someone to hate though, isn’t it?

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