Date of Award


Document Type

Honors Project

University Scholars Director

Dr. Jeff Keuss

First Advisor/Committee Member

Patrick McDonald

Second Advisor/Committee Member

Rebekah Rice


layered model, biological emergence, downward causation


The layered model of the world—the view that the physical universe is in some important sense ontologically stratified into levels—has commonly been applied in a variety of philosophical contexts, particularly in discussions of reductionism about causation, properties, or theories in science. In this paper I question whether this model, as traditionally understood, adequately reflects a contemporary scientific understanding of the world. Utilizing the layered model, philosophers have tended to focus on composition as the salient interlevel relationship, and to describe systems at temporal instants; while biologists stress the importance of the spatiotemporal scale of description and the environment in governing complex processes. The result of these differing frameworks are widespread conceptual disconnects regarding issues such as how questions about reduction are articulated, how we assess different scientific methods, and how we understand concepts like emergence and downward causation. I illustrate these differences between the philosophical and biological literature with various examples, including emergence as a case study. I conclude that the traditional layered model is inadequate for the discussing the behavior of complex biological systems.


A project submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements of the University Scholars Program.


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