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FQXi BLOGS
September 21, 2019

CATEGORY: Blog [back]
TOPIC: Downward causation: George Ellis at the 6th FQXi Meeting [refresh]
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Blogger Ian Durham wrote on Aug. 15, 2019 @ 21:05 GMT
For many years now FQXi member George Ellis has been patiently trying to sell me on the idea of downward causation. While I have never actively argued against this idea, I have come out strongly in defense of reductionism which is generally viewed as upwardly causal. I should note that in recent years Ellis has been arguing against the use of the terms “top-down” and “bottom-up” in favor of “downward” and “upward” since he is not entirely convinced that there is a top or bottom.
George Ellis describing downward causation at the 6th FQXi Meeting.


At any rate, my intense belief in reductionism has likely colored my view a bit. While I still firmly believe in the power of reductionism, I also have come to understand Ellis’ point. This year’s FQXi meeting was actually a bit of an epiphany for me in this regard. In fact I went out and grabbed two books on the subject, one written by Ellis and one co-edited by him, after the meeting. What I have come to realize is that the two approaches are entirely compatible. In fact I will go one step further and say that they are intimately intertwined in that we can’t have one without the other.

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Downward Causation. Cosmologist George Ellis investigates agency and argues that causation is a two-way process between the mind and lower level biological and physical functions. From the 6th FQXi meeting in Tuscany, in July.



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Let me first lay out what each of these approaches is about. In typical reductionist science, one starts with elementary particles and fields and the most fundamental level and works up from there. The behavior of the particles and fields as they interact causally lead to the formation of atoms. The interaction of the atoms then causally leads to the formation of molecules which, in turn, lead to more complex systems all the way on up to human beings, computers, ecosystems, and governments. The assumption in this view, which has been the overriding view in physics for the better part of the past 400 years (and arguably since the ancient Greek atomists), is that in order to fully understand, say, the human mind, we need to begin by understanding particles and fields. Only by fully understanding the underlying physics can we fully understand the mind, or so the argument goes. In this view, causation is an entirely upward process. The behavior of the particles and fields dictates the behavior of the atoms and molecules which, in turn, dictates the behavior of the cells, and so on. Hence the term “upward causation.”

In a more holistic view, higher level structures can affect lower level structures. For example, in computing, the actions of the computer program that is running on a particular computer at a given time are what dictate the behavior of the electrons and electromagnetic fields inside the machine. Each time I type a letter as I write this blog post, it triggers a cascade of signals that dictate just how the electrons are to flow in the circuitry at the most fundamental level. The causation, in this case, is downward. Similar logic and structures exist in biological systems. For example, the contextuality of branching in biological systems represents an example of downward causation. In fact, the term “contextuality” represents much of what downward causation embodies: the behavior of the lower level structures such as molecules, atoms, particles, and fields is determined by the context within which they reside at a given instant.
Upward and downward causation in biological systems.
As another example that Ellis gave in his talk, consider that the abstract design of a plane dictates how the physical object behaves. One of the key aspects of this is the existence of emergent phenomena, i.e. phenomena that only exist at a particular level. For instance, it has recently been argued that the fractional quantum Hall effect is the result of just such a phenomenon.

One of the key results of downward causation is that it allows for learning to take place through a process of adaptive selection and feedback. In fact, in his book, Ellis identifies five types of downward causation, three of which are variants on adaptive selection.

Ellis is the first to admit that a full understanding of how the world functions requires understanding both upwardly causal structures as well as downwardly causal ones. His point isn’t to dismiss reductionism. It is simply to point out that reductionism alone will not get us many of the answers we seek in science. Contextual, downward forcing exists and is an important part of any emergent, complex system. In fact he argues that the laws of physics themselves are actually at a rather high level and have a downward effect on the matter and energy within the universe.

I want to take a moment to clarify a point about downward causation that I misunderstood for a long time. A frequent criticism that I have heard of downward causation is that it is nothing more than intelligent design in disguise. As I have come to realize, this is not even remotely true. I suspect it is this misunderstanding that has partly led Ellis to prefer the term “downward” over “top down” since he is not even convinced that there is a top level anyway. His point is made particularly well on the second-to-last slide which is appropriately titled “Conclusion: Evolution is nothing but biology learning how to conscript physics for its purposes”. The real world consists of both upwardly causal as well as downwardly causal phenomena. A full understanding of this world, then, necessarily involves understanding both these classes of causal phenomena.

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Steve Dufourny wrote on Aug. 16, 2019 @ 16:15 GMT
Professor Durham,

It's fascinating seen like that, like a necessary balance between both causations. Ellis and you make a wonderful work.Thanks for sharing.

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Robert H McEachern wrote on Aug. 17, 2019 @ 18:51 GMT
At the most fundamental level, upward and downward causation must not only both exist, but must exist in a very specific form. In Shannon's Information Theory (the real thing - not the half-baked understanding found in the physics world) each single-bit-of-information consists of a combination of signal plus noise, resulting in an entity, that when feed into a decision-making process, is capable of yielding perfectly reproducible decisions, when detected via the exactly-required "decision" process. The "bit" is thus the bottom-up cause for the decision, and the "exactly required knowledge" necessary to CORRECTLY make the decision, is the downward cause of the decision.

Rob McEachern

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Steve Agnew wrote on Aug. 17, 2019 @ 20:04 GMT
At the fundamental level, precursors and outcomes always exist for usually very short times as quantum superpositions. This means that every moment is a superposition of the past and the future and so outcomes do affect precursors in a causal quantum universe.

Ellis does not mention quantum phase in his talk nor quantum superposition, interference, or entanglement. This is too bad because the outcomes of life are in some sense just as important as its precursors. In some sense, the possibility of life is what drives its inevitability...

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Peter Warwick Morgan wrote on Aug. 20, 2019 @ 19:17 GMT
Bottom-up causation can presumably only work if we know everything about the bottom, but we have no certain knowledge that there is a bottom, that there are not, indeed, "turtles all the way down". Bottom-up causation is equally uncertain if the bottom is in principle unknowable because it is noisily indeterministic, as some interpretations of QM maintain.

If there is no deterministic bottom, then what we know about higher levels may include information that is not contained in what we know about lower-level information: in that case the higher degrees of freedom at a given time are to some extent independent of the lower level degrees of freedom, so they can to that extent cause effects in the future evolution of lower level degrees of freedom.

If we adopt a superdeterministic model in which there are indeed turtles all the way down, the axiom of choice will play havoc with what we can say about the evolution of the whole system. I do not propose such a model, because it goes far beyond what finite experimental data can support, but neither can we rule out such ontologies. In this and in other cases, a careful garnering of interactions between degrees of freedom at different levels may be the best we can do.

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Blogger Ian Durham replied on Aug. 20, 2019 @ 19:33 GMT
Yeah, George makes that same point (that we don't even know if there *is* a bottom). I tend to agree with him.

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Robert H McEachern replied on Aug. 20, 2019 @ 20:51 GMT
We do know that there is a bottom and we know exactly what it looks like - a single bit of information (Shannon's definition of a bit, not physicist's)

As far as any cause and effect reductionism is concerned, it MUST stop there, because it is only the existence of information, that enables repeatable behaviors. Hence, once you eliminate that one last bit, repeatable behaviors cease to even be a logical possibility.

Rob McEachern

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Peter Warwick Morgan replied on Aug. 20, 2019 @ 21:12 GMT
Right, where you say "I should note that in recent years Ellis has been arguing against the use of the terms “top-down” and “bottom-up” in favor of “downward” and “upward” since he is not entirely convinced that there is a top or bottom." A little bit of Duh and sorry, but also I've not seen the point made that degrees of freedom at different scales can be genuinely independent in a dynamical model because of the ways in which they're constructed.

It seems as if that independence effectively makes such degrees of freedom dynamical equals, loosely but not perfectly related by something like decimation. Might decimation, which can be indeterministic or a statistic across many scales, both up or down, be a better referent than causality for the relationship between degrees of freedom at a given time? A person's name and address, for example, implicitly refers to and summarizes information about their position in their family and in their society as well as giving a summary variable that describes the color of their hair (ignoring a few gray hairs, despite their occasional importance in social interaction), which is arguably not a causal relationship.

It's not so much that causality is downwards or upwards as that the dynamics is between independent degrees of freedom, for which there may not be more than a partial ordering by "scale" if there are dependencies by independent decimations across multiple scales.

In any case, thanks for an interesting post and thanks for the reply.

My invocation of the axiom of choice may be problematic, of course, but determinism seems quite fragile on the face of it if the axiom of choice is applicable and/or necessary to state the initial conditions, particularly if in desperation in the face of a chaotic dynamics we try to use probability and measure theory.

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Eckard Blumschein wrote on Aug. 21, 2019 @ 03:52 GMT
Notions like bottom and top belong to particular models. Ellis is certainly correct in that they must not be generalized as to ascribe the world as a whole including initial conditions, Genesis, Big Bang, final conditions, Doomsday, etc., unless we still adhere to religion.

Likewise, backward causation merely belongs to artificial intelligence, not to reality. Active, i.e. downward in the sense of selective, hearing does not contradict to causality.

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Steve Dufourny wrote on Sep. 1, 2019 @ 10:09 GMT
Professor Ellis, Here is your paper that I read well on arxiv about this downward causation published with Barbara Drossel. I liked the generality of your ideas. The emergences appearing...

https://arxiv.org/pdf/1908.10186.pdf

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Anonymous wrote on Sep. 1, 2019 @ 12:57 GMT
Georgi,

That is a grey area. On one hand loss of cognitive ability deprives an individual of content about what a choice is about. On the other hand, If we didn't immediately forget all the minutiae our sensory perception constantly is subjected to (the color and its qualities, texture, apparent type of material; of every visible article of clothing on every body we pass at rush hour... and all the other sights, sounds, smells and tactile sensations) we wouldn't be able to function at all. Statistically there is a happy medium at least for focused attention. It has long been known that short-term memory can sustain a maximum of 7 simple elements, but to incorporate an additional element of the same sort usually requires an individual to 'refresh' and categorize the elements into groups or any one of the original elements will be dropped. That was the actual reason that the form of seven digit phone numbers was chosen. (If I remember correctly :-) ) jrc

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Lorraine Ford wrote on Sep. 6, 2019 @ 22:22 GMT
“The abstract plan is the causal agent which is making things occur”, “ …the causal power of abstract entities”, physicist George Ellis' Downward Causation podcast. George Ellis is a Platonist.

What are these Platonic entities that, according to Ellis, control the world? What sort of dualism best describes the world: do foreign Platonic entities control a dumb puppet matter, OR does matter itself know and build its own relationships from the ground up?

I’m not sure why Ellis and other physicists always prefer to believe in foreign control, and pseudo-free will, of matter.

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