Argumenta – Journal of Analytic Philosophy

Questioning, Rather Than Solving, the Problem of Higher-Level Causation

Topics: Epistemology, Metaphysics, Ontology, Theoretical philosophy
Keywords: Alexander’s Dictum, Causal powers, Causation, Emergence


In Metaphysical Emergence, Jessica Wilson recognises the problem of higher-level causation as “the most pressing challenge to taking the appearances of emergent structure as genuine” (2021: 39). Then, Wilson states that there are “two and only two strategies of response to this problem” (2021: 40) that lead to Strong and Weak emergence. In this paper, I suggest that there might be an alternative strategy—not opposite, but different in kind—to approach this difficulty. As noticed by Wilson, the problem of higher-level causation was formulated and made central by Jaegwon Kim. However, Kim’s arguments were grounded on distinct metaphysical principles—including Alexander’s Dictum and its analysis in terms of causal powers. Rather than following Kim’s formulation and responding to the problem he raised in his own terms, a different approach may be to question the pertinence of the metaphysical framework in which these arguments were originally grounded. The problem of higher-level causation, in other words, might be less “pressing” if ontological emergence came with a less strict and univocal view of causal novelty and ontological relevance.

Jessica Wilson’s Metaphysical Emergence (2021) is devoted, as the title suggests, to the analysis of metaphysical forms of emergence. Wilson’s focus is on special science macro-entities, whose ontological and causal autonomy are issues close to her heart. She ascribes two features to these entities. First, they depend upon certain complex configurations of fundamental entities, being cotemporally materially composed by them. Second, despite this dependence, special science entities exhibit some ontological and causal autonomy, being “[…] distinct from, and distinctively efficacious with respect to, the micro-configurations upon which they depend” (2021: 2). Special science entities, in short, present both (i) cotemporal material dependence on micro-configurations, and (ii) ontological and causal autonomy. The coupling of these features provisionally defines metaphysical emergence because (i) and (ii) are real features of…


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