Causal Emergence and Vertical Causation

John Taylor

In reference to the then current scientific paradigm Nikola Tesla once said, “One can think deeply and be quite insane.” The spirit of this profound statement perhaps chimes most with the field of quantum mechanics (QM), and in particular the issue of how it should be understood.

Ever since QM’s conception, in the 1920’s, an abundance of ontologies have been developed to interpret the theory. Whilst all being vastly different in nature, it seems that most interpretations of quantum mechanics find shared commonality in the fact that they all employ a highly sophisticated and complex analysis in order to understand it. Perhaps no more so is this copiously present than in the work of David Bohm, who reconciles quantum mechanics with the concept of hidden variables, by virtue of aggressively modifying the underlying mathematical formalism of the theory itself. Arguably, such an approach represents the epitome of ad hoc resolutions, which are ubiquitously present within physics today.

However, there is one quantum ontology that is immune to this disease of sophistication. In an act of pure genius and simplicity Wolfgang Smith contended, in his 1995 book The Quantum Enigma, that the reason QM has bedeviled so many physicists for the past 100 years is because they generally presuppose that qualities are not an objective part of reality.1Philos-Sophia Initiative, 2023; pp. 7-77. It is only by embracing the idea that this concept is false that the true meaning of quantum physics will become apparent.

Thus, after identifying and refuting this premise Smith then dictates that reality actually entails two distinct ontological realms: the “physical” universe and the “corporeal” universe. The corporeal realm is the domain concerning perceivable qualities (e.g., green grass and blue skies), whereas the physical universe is exclusively what can be measured and described mathematically by the physicist.2Ibid., 7-52. Very often the corporeal and physical universes overlap and occupy the exact same region of space, whilst simultaneously being completely distinct in nature.3Ibid., p. 40. For instance, a green tennis ball X can be categorized in terms of a corresponding physical object SX, where SX is the ball’s quantifiable properties (e.g., its mass, radius, density, etc.).4Ibid., p. 34. Now despite being located in the exact same area of space, the corporeal object X and the physical object SX are different, since X is perceptible whilst SX is not.5Ibid., p. 34.

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But what exactly is it that allows for X to be distinguishable from SX in the first place? In order to broach this question it seems that the restoration of Thomistic philosophy is absolutely imperative.6Ibid., pp. 52-77. In light of this realization, it therefore transpires that what discriminates X from SX is that X is in possession of an essence or substantial form whereas SX isn’t, which in turn—according to Thomistic metaphysics—renders it mere potentiality.7Ibid., pp. 52-77. This philosophical analysis thus resolves the measurement problem by virtue of allowing it to be posited that a quantum particle is merely an object which lacks an essence, and that an act of measurement imposes a substantial form on it.8Ibid., pp. 52-77. Evidently such a hypothesis concords immaculately with the experimental data, which has shown ad nauseam that prior to observation particles are abstract mathematical waves of probability (and/or potentiality) that can be described by their own unique wave function. Henceforth, Smith resolves the “measurement problem” by resurrecting what has long been considered to be dead—Thomistic philosophy.

Lately, I have argued that Wolfgang Smith’s resolution of “the quantum enigma” has been independently verified by Dr. Erik Hoel’s research into “Causal Emergence.”9John Taylor, “The Measurement Problem: Evidence for the Existence of Corporeal Reality,” OSF Preprints, 7 June 2020. Causal emergence, as it is termed, is a phenomenon where the macro scales of a system have a more causally significant relationship to an event than its underlying lower scales do.10Natalie Wolchover, “A Theory of Reality as More Than the Sum of Its Parts,” Quanta Magazine, 1 June 2017. Specifically this effect is related to information theory, and thus involves higher scale macro structures having more information related to its causal structure than with its micro scale description.11Erik Hoel, “A primer on causal emergence,” Medium, 27 July 2018. Furthermore, the myriad of examples on causal emergence range greatly and it is even suspected that this effect might exhibit itself in psychological states, where desires and beliefs have more causal power over a system’s future than a lower level, more detailed description possibly could.12“A Theory of Reality as More Than the Sum of Its Parts,” op. cit.

Additionally, Hoel and his associates demonstrate the existence of causal emergence through a process known as “coarse graining.”  This consists of “grouping” micro states/elements so that rather than them being treated as individual constituent parts of a system, the collective is viewed as a system in and of itself.13“A primer on causal emergence,” op. cit. In addition to “coarse graining,” other methods include “black boxing,” where certain states are deliberately removed from a system so that it may be treated as a macro structure.14Ibid. Upon carrying out these types of analyses, it is consistently the case that there is more “Effective Information” (EI) associated with the higher level structures than with the more intricate lower level descriptions.15“A Theory of Reality as More Than the Sum of Its Parts,” op. cit. 16Erik Hoel, “When the Map Is Better Than the Territory,” Entropy 19 (5):188  (2017).  From this alone it can be inferred that there are causes that cannot be fully explained by materialism.

This profound research, conducted by Hoel, possesses a striking congruence with the research of Dr. Wolfgang Smith and consequently provides compelling evidence in support of his analysis. This is because the only actual difference between a coarse grained and a fine grained analysis of a system is in the Thomistic concept of “quiddity.”

To reiterate, the procedure of coarse graining involves no alteration whatsoever to the constituent parts of the system under inspection. The same, in effect, also applies to any other methods adopted by Hoel and his colleagues. Necessarily this therefore begs the question of what exactly is it that distinguishes a coarse grained analysis from a fine grained one, if it is not something material? The answer to this question seems to reside in the fact that a coarse grained and fine grained analysis differ only in terms of what the system’s nature is considered to be. Whilst a coarse grained analysis sees the system as being a thing in its own right, a fine grained analysis views it as being a collection of states or variables and not an entity in and of itself. Thus the difference between a coarse grain and a fine grain is not something quantitative but rather qualitative. And this something is “quiddity.”

Quiddity is an object’s “whatness”; it answers the question, “what is it?” Evidently the difference between a coarse grained and a fine grained examination of a system inspires a completely different view as to “what” the system in question is. Thus it can be deduced that viewing a system through the lens of coarse grained vision leads to distinguishable causal differences (i.e., “causal emergence”), because of the change that it precipitates in terms of a system’s “whatness” or quiddity. Moreover, and more fundamentally, what are actually being dealt with here are two separate objects, one in the corporeal realm and another on the physical level, which are divided by a difference in quiddity. Therefore, because the distinction between a coarse grained and a fine grained analysis resides solely in the concept of “quiddity,” it can ipso facto be concluded that the notion of substantial form is the reason behind the phenomenon of “causal emergence.”

In closing, the phenomenon of causal emergence provides independent evidence in favor of Dr. Smith’s analysis of quantum mechanics, and much more besides, by virtue of demonstrating that there is an effect that can only be explained by drawing upon the Thomistic notion of  “substantial form.” In addition to this, causal emergence also reveals that there exist relationships that are equivalent to the predicted affiliation between the corporeal and physical universes. The connection between these two realms can be best characterized by the idea that a corporeal object X and a physical object SX occupy the same region of space, whilst simultaneously being two ontologically different entities. This distinction is allowed to manifest by virtue of X possessing a substantial form, and SX not. Similarly, in causal emergence there is a phenomenon where two descriptions, separated only by a difference in quiddity (e.g., macro and micro), occupy the same area of space and act as though they are two totally different entities by virtue of yielding two completely distinct causal outcomes. Such a relationship is identical to the anticipated association between the corporeal and physical domains.

Therefore it must be deduced that causal emergence supports not only Smith’s examination of quantum mechanics, but Thomistic metaphysics in general; a conclusion that has enormous ramifications for “modern man” and will perhaps help to usher in a new scientific paradigm which finally acknowledges that qualities are an authentic part of reality. With this in mind it seems that we have at last reached the point where physics has gone full circle and thus it is now time for science, and the culture at large, to re-embrace what was for long the cornerstone of all scientific inquiry—namely, Traditional Philosophy!

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John Taylor hails from a family rich in physicists, and is a graduate student at the London School of Economics.

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The Philos-Sophia Initiative’s feature documentary chronicling the life and work of Dr. Smith, The End of Quantum Reality, is now available.

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1 Philos-Sophia Initiative, 2023; pp. 7-77.
2 Ibid., 7-52.
3 Ibid., p. 40.
4, 5 Ibid., p. 34.
6, 7, 8 Ibid., pp. 52-77.
9 John Taylor, “The Measurement Problem: Evidence for the Existence of Corporeal Reality,” OSF Preprints, 7 June 2020.
10 Natalie Wolchover, “A Theory of Reality as More Than the Sum of Its Parts,” Quanta Magazine, 1 June 2017.
11 Erik Hoel, “A primer on causal emergence,” Medium, 27 July 2018.
12, 15 “A Theory of Reality as More Than the Sum of Its Parts,” op. cit.
13 “A primer on causal emergence,” op. cit.
14 Ibid.
16 Erik Hoel, “When the Map Is Better Than the Territory,” Entropy 19 (5):188  (2017).