A Universe of Causes [Interview with Physicist George Ellis]


We assume that effect follows cause. But could this most basic of beliefs be mistaken?

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Mathematician George Ellis made his name focusing on some of the big questions of cosmology and relativity. Along with Stephen Hawking, he co-authored 1973’s The Large Scale Structure of Space-Time, which attempted to describe the very foundations of space itself.

More recently, Ellis has been focusing on top-down causation – the process by which higher level organised systems, such as humans, interact with their own component parts. His theories have important repercussions across many fields of research – from consciousness and free will to understanding quantum phenomena. Ellis is also an active Quaker and was a vocal opponent of apartheid during the 1970s and ‘80s.

We spoke to Ellis about his theories, their implications, and the reasons behind certain resistance to these ideas.

What exactly is top-down causation?

A key question for science is whether all causation is from the bottom up only. If forces between particles are the only kind of physical causation, then chemistry, biology, and even our minds are emergent, bottom-up properties of physics. On the other hand, it might be that these emergent higher level structures, such as cells, neurons, and the brain, have causal powers in their one right.

In the first instance, all the higher levels are epiphenomena – they have no real existence – and so the idea that you are responsible for your actions is false. But in fact top-down causation takes place all the time, with the higher levels controlling the lower levels, not by any magic force, but by setting constraints on lower level interactions. This means that higher levels such as cells, neurons, and your brain have real causal powers, and this means you can indeed be held accountable for your actions.

The scale of modern physics ranges from superstrings to the edges of the observable universe and beyond; is top-down causation present across all orders of magnitude, or is it confined to macroscopic phenomena?

You can find the full interview here at IAI News.

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