FraMEPhys Workshop, April 3 2019: Levels of Explanation

On 3 April 2019, the FraMEPhys project hosted a one-day workshop on Levels of Explanation at the University of Birmingham. Any queries concerning this event can be directed to .


9.00-9.30 – Coffee and pastries

9.30-10.30 – David Yates (Lisbon), “Multilevel explanations and the causal completeness of the physical”

The causal closure of the physical poses a familiar causal exclusion problem for the special sciences: special science properties are distinct from their physical realizers, but if the physical domain is causally closed, then what causal work is left for such properties to do? In this talk, I begin by making explicit a widely held assumption relating causal closure and causal explanation, viz. that causal closure entails causal-explanatory closure. I then suggest that there are irreducibly multilevel explanations in physics, involving both basic physical properties and multiply realizable higher-level properties. Such explanations violate the causal-explanatory closure of the basic physical domain, so either the basic physical domain is not causally closed, or causal closure does not entail causal-explanatory closure. This in turn depends on how the closure principle is formulated, in particular on how we elucidate the claim that basic physical properties do all the causal work required to bring about basic physical effects. I argue that on a reasonable powers-based closure principle, the causal closure of the basic physical domain is consistent with a form of downward causation in which higher-level properties act as irreducible constraints on the manifestation of basic physical powers. This kind of closure principle does not entail causal-explanatory closure, and poses no problem of causal exclusion for the special sciences.

10.30-11.30 – Karen Crowther (Geneva), “Levels of Fundamentality in the Metaphysics of Physics”

Judging by how physicists use the term, there are many different conceptions of what it means for a physical theory to be ‘fundamental’. Yet, it has been argued that none of these imply metaphysical fundamentality. Here, I argue that there is a plausible sense of relative fundamentality in physics that corresponds to a fairly standard conception of relative fundamentality according to metaphysics. I discuss what the implications of this are for our understanding of ‘levels’ of fundamentality and explanation.

11.30- 12.00 – Break

12.00-1.00 – Christian List (LSE), “Levels: Descriptive, Explanatory, and Ontological”

Scientists and philosophers frequently speak about levels of description, levels of explanation, and ontological levels. In this paper, I propose a unified framework for modelling levels. I give a general definition of a system of levels and show that it can accommodate descriptive, explanatory, and ontological notions of levels. I further illustrate the usefulness of this framework by applying it to some salient philosophical questions: (1) Is there a linear hierarchy of levels, with a fundamental level at the bottom? And what does the answer to this question imply for physicalism, the thesis that everything supervenes on the physical? (2) Are there emergent properties? (3) Are higher-level descriptions reducible to lower-level ones? (4) Can the relationship between normative and non-normative domains be viewed as one involving levels? Although I use the terminology of “levels”, the proposed framework can also represent “scales”, “domains”, or “subject matters”, where these are not linearly but only partially ordered by relations of supervenience or inclusion.

1.00-2.00 – Lunch

2.00-3.00 – Lina Jansson (Nottingham), “Selection of Explanatory ‘Grain’: How to Favour the General but not the Disjunctive”

On the one hand, we seem to value generality in explanations. On the other hand, we seem to disvalue disjunctive explanantia. This raises the challenge of spelling out how exactly we settle the right level of explanatory generality. In this article I suggest how we can do so in a way that avoids endorsing disjunctive explanantia from within an epistemic account of explanation focused on providing dependence information.

3.00-4.00 – Eleanor Knox (King’s), ” From Abstraction to Explanation to Levels: some thoughts”

This talk explores the prospects for extending an account of emergence based on explanatory novelty (Knox 2016, Knox and Franklin, 2018) to an account of levels. I examine in particular whether we can see this view as a matter of metaphysics and hence as offering an account of ontological levels. I conclude that, as long we don’t expect too much from our levels, the prospects for an account of levels centred on the Knox-Franklin view on emergence look good.

4.00-4.30 – Break

4.30-5.30 – Alex Franklin (King’s/Bristol), “How do levels emerge?”

Science describes the world at a number of different levels, but questions remain over how such levels are constituted. In this paper, I offer an account of levels which allows higher levels to be both emergent from and reducible to lower levels. I argue that two descriptions of the world are at different levels if one is autonomous from the other: that implies that prediction and explanation at the higher level may proceed without reference to details required for lower-level descriptions. Following Franklin and Knox (2018), I claim that higher levels are emergent if they also give rise to novel explanations. I further claim that a level is reducible if we are able to explain its autonomy from the bottom up. One feature of my account is that the instantiation of levels depends on context: this has the upshot that top-down causation is ruled out. I explore this consequence with reference to Mitchell (2012).

7.00 – Dinner at Cherry Reds