Hostname: page-component-797576ffbb-jhnrh Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2023-12-01T08:57:45.103Z Has data issue: false Feature Flags: { "corePageComponentGetUserInfoFromSharedSession": true, "coreDisableEcommerce": false, "useRatesEcommerce": true } hasContentIssue false

Action as Downward Causation

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  16 May 2017

Helen Steward*
University of Leeds


In this paper, I try to argue that the recognition that non-human animals are relevant to the free will problem delivers interesting new ways of thinking about the central metaphysical issues at the heart of that problem. Some such dividends, I suggest, are the following: (i) that the problem of free will can be considered to be just a more specific version of a general question concerning how agency is to be fitted into the natural world; (ii) that action can be usefully regarded as an especially interesting form of downward causation; and that (iii) the metaphysical possibility of downward causation, and hence, indirectly, also of free will, can be illuminated in valuable ways by thinking about the hierarchical structure of, and systems of functioning within, biological organisms.

Copyright © The Royal Institute of Philosophy and the contributors 2017 

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


2 Justin Caouette, ‘Free Will: A Philosopher's Take’ at, accessed 19.07.2016.

4 Richard Holton,, accessed 19.07.2016.

5 Of course, we can remonstrate with our pets, and try to train them into behaving as we would wish them to do – but when a puppy chews one's favourite slipper, it isn't really appropriate to think that the puppy is to blame in any very deep way. One might punish him, perhaps, to try to stop him doing it in future – but surely no one really thinks that a dog can be morally responsible for its actions, even if he can fail to respond as hoped to a training programme.

6 See, for example, Nicomachean Ethics, I 13, which develops the Aristotelian view of humanity as the rational animal species.

7 For sceptics, I recommend watching the problem-solving feat managed by a rather remarkable New Caledonian Crow at It is almost impossible not to ascribe a deliberative thought process to the crow when watching it perform this task.

8 See my A Metaphysics for Freedom (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012)Google ScholarPubMed for the development of this concept.

9 Ekstrom, Laura, Free Will: A Philosophical Study (Boulder, CO: Westview Press): 105Google Scholar.

10 I have dealt in some detail with what seem to me to be the most considerable of them in my A Metaphysics for Freedom.

11 See also my A Metaphysics for Freedom, Chapter 8, from which the main lineaments of some aspects the argument which follows is taken.

12 Sperry, Roger, ‘A modified concept of consciousness’, Psychological Review 76 (1969), 532–6CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

13 Kim, Jaegwon, ‘Making sense of downward causation’, in Andersen, P., Emmeche, C., Finnemann, N. O. and Christiansen, P. V., Downward Causation (Aarhus: Aarhus University Press, 2000), 305–21Google Scholar.

14 Kim, ‘Making sense of downward causation’, 318.

15 See Campbell, Donald, ‘“Downward causation” in hierarchically organised biological systems’, in Ayala, and Dobzhansky, (eds) Studies in the Philosophy of Biology (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 179–86)Google Scholar.

16 For detailed accounts of some of these cellular processes, see Moreno, A. and Umerez, J., ‘Downward Causation at the Core of Living Organisation’, in Andersen, P., Emmeche, C., Finnemann, N. O. and Christiansen, P. V., Downward Causation (Aarhus: Aarhus University Press, 2000), 99117 Google Scholar.