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Published on Oct 7, 2016
There are two difficult notions in metaphysics that are connected but typically treated as distinct. One is emergence and the other is top-down causation. The issue of emergence versus reductionism is kept apart from the issue of top-down versus bottom-up causation, partly because emergence or reductionism is a question of constitution, hence a synchronic matter, while top-down vs bottom-up is a question of causation, hence a diachronic matter. If one accepts the simultaneity of causes and their effects, however, the way is open for an understanding of emergent phenomena as top-down causes. How this can be so has seemed a metaphysical mystery but the case of social causes makes the issue easier to comprehend. The causal powers of wholes can be understood as more than sums of the causal powers of their parts. Societies are to be understood as wholes composed of, but not reducible to, a plurality of individuals. To constitute a society, a plurality must essentially be interacting, which is a condition of the emergent phenomena. Where social powers in turn then operate upon the individuals composing that society, we have a plausible case of top-down causation.