Levels of Reality
Saturday, November 13, 2010 -- 4:00 PM
John Perry

If you think about it, reality comes in many levels, each level involving different kinds of things, having different kinds of properties. Perhaps most people would think of things like dirt at the bottom level, then us at the next level, and the sky at the highest level. But philosophers have a different, more abstract concept of levels of reality. Here are some examples:

• You and I---or at least our bodies--- along with tables and chairs and cities and towns and planets. This is what philosophers call the level of medium size objects. This level of reality is what most of our lives are concerned with. The sorts of things we can perceive with our senses, and so forth.

• Contrast that with a level called quantum reality. Objects like quarks that we can’t see, having properties like spin that we can barely make sense of.

• On the level just above quantum physics, we find electrons and atoms; then there’s the level of chemical facts, where you have chemicals and bonds; then the level of biology, where you have cells.

• Higher levels too, like maybe involving minds, societies, nations…

• And there are angels and God… and numbers for that matter. So we’ve got lots of levels!

Intuitively each level has a characteristic kind of object, characteristic kinds of properties and facts, and usually a different profession for people that study or work with it: quantum physicists, solid-state physicists, chemists, biologists, psychologists, sociologists. Nearer the top, mathematicians and theologians. And then, at least according to Aristotle, at the very top: philoophers. He put philosophers there because we think about Being --- that is, the whole shebang, and we try to figure out how the different levels are related. Most contemporary philosophers feel more in the middle than at the top. And their approach to the issue of levels of reality focuses on the topic of reduction.

We can set God and the angels aside; philosophers who believe in them aren’t likely to suppose they are reducible to something else, and those who don’t believe in them don’t worry about their reducibility either. We can also set numbers aside, since neither Ken nor I have any firm ideas about them. Then, physicalists like Ken and I both tend to be, think that the rest must be one big reality, physical reality. Facts about chemicals really are just facts about atoms and electrons, and they are really just facts about subatomic particles, or whatever else turns out to be at the bottom. And the same with biology and chemistry; psychology and biology; sociology and psychology.

The divisions are based on how humans interact with the different phenomena, the tools we use, the interests we have, and, of course, the National Science Foundation budgets involved. and Ultimately, metaphysically, philohically, there is just one reality, matter in motion --- or whatever quantum physicists replace matter with, or whatever they replace motion with.

One might think of this as depressing and mysterious. I don’t feel like a complex of quarks. Of course, there is another theory. It’s the competitor to Reductionism. It’s called Emergence. That’s the idea that each level in some way emerges from the one below, under certain conditions. And when emergence happens, truly new objects, properties, and facts are involved.

One might favor reductionism over emergence on the basis that in some cases, the reductions though not yet discovered,  are in principle to be had.  Biologists have known since Mendel that something, which they called `genes', are responsible for inherited characteristics. But for a long time, there were debates about whether genes could really be explained by physical and chemical properties. Many biologists thought that genes could never be fully explained just in terms of physics and chemistry.   They thought, in other words, genes were emergent, and not reducible. But with the discovery of DNA and the development of molecular biology, we know this isn't so. The structure that Watson and Crick discovered has allowed scientists to explain how genes work without appealing to anything but the principles and properties of physics and chemistry.

If everywhere some philosophers see emergence, scientists will eventually provide reductions, emergence will just be another idea in the dust-bin called the history of philosophy. But that grand result would require a biological understanding of consciousness and all the other mental phenomena. Should would-be physicalists like Ken and I really be so confident of that? Is it so obvious that it even makes sense?

Luckily we have an expert on all of this to help us think about it, Tim O’Connor, author of Theism and Ultimate Explanation.

Comments (18)


Guest

Saturday, November 13, 2010 -- 4:00 PM

Set "God and the angels aside." A bit simplistic,

Set "God and the angels aside." A bit simplistic, don't you think? Doesn't that imply a separate reality? I might be misunderstanding your post (it's been known to happen on rare occasions :), but what about the idea that God is All That Is and more... the sum of its parts and more?
I would also point out that just because something is larger in size than another does not mean it's more complex.

Guest

Saturday, November 13, 2010 -- 4:00 PM

For my part I wonder if this discussion shouldn't

For my part I wonder if this discussion shouldn't connect up with the classic substance-attribute debate. I mean, the thorough-going reductionist might feel compelled to reduce even seemingly fundamental substances like electrons to mere bundles of properties (a charge trope, and a mass trope, and a spin trope, etc....), with nothing over and above (or beneath and below?) those attributes. But this certainly strikes me as counter-intuitive. Moreover, if we suppose that consciousness can't be reduced to the physical (I personally doubt that it can), then we seem faced with the same problem, but with the phenomenal. Could consciousness just be a bundle of qualia, as Hume seemed to think? Doesn't experience entail an experiencer?

Guest

Wednesday, November 17, 2010 -- 4:00 PM

Beyond your uncertain levels of reality is the abs

Beyond your uncertain levels of reality is the absolute level of truth.
=
MJA
Reno

Guest

Wednesday, November 17, 2010 -- 4:00 PM

A mild beef with reductionism: Suppose I wish to

A mild beef with reductionism:
Suppose I wish to convince persons to vote on a measure. To do so I won't reference solutions to chemical problems. It is possible to conceive that our social problems are, at base, physical problems, but that doesn't imply that they are this way.
Coming from the other direction, I'm not going to stomp on a solution to a physical problem I'm interested in because it might conflict with a physical problem at a more basic level. I'm going to see how far the solution can take me, and leave it at that, level-contradiction be damned.
I guess I just don't think that pointing to a smaller level of reality constitutes an explanation. An explanation constitutes an explanation, whether it be a mathematical model or a qualitative concept. Of this set of explanations there exists a subset of explanations titled "the thing that makes the thing we're interested in does this" -- in Aristotelian terms, a "material cause" -- which seems to model what a reductionist explanation consists of. One may build their model with other levels in mind, and science tends to do this because it appears more consistent (which I think is nice), but it doesn't have to be the case.

Guest

Thursday, November 18, 2010 -- 4:00 PM

Will the previously announced program "Derrida and

Will the previously announced program "Derrida and Deconstruction" air at a later date?
It was scheduled for the week of 11/14/10.

Guest

Thursday, November 18, 2010 -- 4:00 PM

Shouldn't explorations involving "levels of realit

Shouldn't explorations involving "levels of reality" focus primarily on realities we can confirm empirically or analytically...realities we can share with little or no disputation...and realities that are, by and large, merely points of view that cannot be confirmed as, for example, true universally?

Guest

Thursday, November 18, 2010 -- 4:00 PM

I have a question as a scientist. Why does an acc

I have a question as a scientist. Why does an acceptance of reductionism require "a biological understanding of consciousness" and more over, why do some think that such understanding does not exist? The understanding is not complete, but the science exists. Where it not so, modern medicine would not exist. Perhaps it is difficult to comprehend or accept, but that does not change it. One may not understand the computer one uses, so, would that not constitute a seperate reality?
Fundamentally, I also wonder how much this discussion is not the result of attachments to western theology. Zen teaches us to accept what is without trying to fit it into our understanding. It is quite the opposite and I find it quite comforting. I also don't have attachments to the concepts of God and angels.
I am not afraid that my consciousness is not something distinct and somehow separate from the world around me. I am comforted by the idea that I am part of a common thread of existence. My consciousness is part of the universe as it is part of me. It is too complex for me to enumerate, but that does not make it less so.
I guess being a scientist places me firmly in the reductionist camp. I just wonder how, if one thinks critically, one could dismiss the physical nature of our existence.
This does not, of course, mean that there are not still greater questions. My question, though, again, being a happy convergence of quanta, and the foci of the universal forces that have, over eons conspired to create my consciousness, all of which now result in the question, what does any-one's concept or understanding of reality have to do with it at all?
Forgive me please, if I just don't get it.

Guest

Friday, November 19, 2010 -- 4:00 PM

When reductionists can look at my (or someone's)CA

When reductionists can look at my (or someone's)CATscan (or whatever-scan may be someday available) and say, correctly, "Ah, you are now thinking of the 2nd step in Euclid's proof that there is no greatest prime number,which step is XXX" then I'll accept reductionism. Until then, Emergence rules the roost.

Guest

Saturday, November 20, 2010 -- 4:00 PM

Reality is at the absolute equal or same level as

Reality is at the absolute equal or same level as truth.
And every other level untrue.
What level are you?
=
MJA

Guest

Saturday, November 20, 2010 -- 4:00 PM

Emergence Theory, is not religious friendly, but w

Emergence Theory, is not religious friendly, but will explain, I think, how "rituals" aid the human psyche.
Emergence is not going to explain the Monotheistic Interpretation of Reality, because the arguments for the existence of the Monotheistic God, have all been recognized as fallacious. Arguments which hold no credence in the Twenty-First Century.
Emergence Theory can validate the perennial philosophy that has sustained the liberal mind for centuries. To stand counter to those who have a monopoly on the "after-life", we lay individuals, must realize this fact.

John Perry

Saturday, November 20, 2010 -- 4:00 PM

A couple of things. 1) We will air the Derrida s

A couple of things.
1) We will air the Derrida show before long. I got sort of overcommitted with foreign travel leading up to the scheduled date, so we decided to postpone it, rather than have me show up more than usually exhausted and incoherent.
2) For similar reasons, I've been slow to do my comment-screening, so forgive the delays in getting your comments up.

Guest

Saturday, November 20, 2010 -- 4:00 PM

Levels of reality? Yes, I guess so. Illustration:

Levels of reality? Yes, I guess so. Illustration: Reality Level One-You put my head under water for longer than I can hold my breath. I drown. This is factual reality.
Reality Level Two-you are an adherent of Catholicism, I am a Zen Buddhist. You believe in Christ, Mary, and so on; I think they don't really matter. This is conditional reality.
Reality Level Three-quantum physics and quantum mechanics consider those things that are infinitely small and infinitely speedy---so small and so speedy that we cannot know where they are, only where they may have been. This is theoretical reality.
Certainly, there are more kinds of reality than these. But most of us will never care. And that is as it ought to be. Most of us have no reason to care about any reality, save that which enters our lives each day. And though we may harbor philosophical thinking, we are not philosophers. That too is as it ought to be.

Guest

Saturday, November 20, 2010 -- 4:00 PM

A philosopher is a lover of truth, and I as are m

A philosopher is a lover of truth,
and I as are many are true lovers too.
=

Harold G. Neuman

Sunday, November 21, 2010 -- 4:00 PM

Heisenberg's and Walton's comments seem to agree w

Heisenberg's and Walton's comments seem to agree with one another in principle. And, Ahles is astute with his Haiku-like couplet. But, philosophers also tend to ask questions. Better, we think, than assuming to know all the answers.

Guest

Monday, November 22, 2010 -- 4:00 PM

I only know One answer, the truth. And it took mo

I only know One answer, the truth.
And it took more questions than the great Socrates asked, to find The Way.
Keep asking, and maybe you'll get lucky too.
Be One,
=
PS: But who should One ask about the truth?
Who knows the Way?
Where can we find the great sage of today?
The answer quite beautifully and simply,
Is You!

Guest

Monday, November 22, 2010 -- 4:00 PM

"FUG" (see above) raises a question about "explana

"FUG" (see above) raises a question about "explanation" that I would modify with the necessary/sufficient distinction (I often find this distinction useful, but I have no idea where it comes from or if it is philosophically respectable. Can anyone help me?)
Take the example of the writing in these blogs. Reductionism can chart the "necessary" physical conditions that make this writing possible. But reductionism is not "sufficient" to explain the content of these particular blogs at this particular time.

Harold G. Neuman

Tuesday, November 23, 2010 -- 4:00 PM

Sorry. Can't help with the reductionism terminolog

Sorry. Can't help with the reductionism terminology. I could not grasp Habermas either. However, physical conditions have little to do with when and what I write (unless I am caught in an earthquake with no pen, paper or laptop). The content of my writing, if/when I get the substance of a post, is dependent on my understanding of and/or opinion(s) about the content of the post. Temporal proximity comes and goes. Happy Thanksgiving!

Guest

Saturday, December 4, 2010 -- 4:00 PM

I appreciate the point made by R. Wess. I don't k

I appreciate the point made by R. Wess. I don't know that I need explanation to accept it or anything. Scientifically, neither can be complete. We can not completely describe the universe. We can simplify the universe and describe some aspect thereof, either as a whole or in quanta or we can close of a portion and call it a closed system. Either way, we are smaller than the universe and can not contain it. I don't think I understand either concept, but I can see that neither can be complete.
On another tack, Phiwilli states he will accept reductionism when a person's thoughts can be detected on the order of "Ah, you are now thinking ... Euclid's ... prime number ... XXX". Much of what I heard on the radio came down to the ability to determine thought in such terms. I would like to point out that I rarely hear anyone (R. Wess a rare exception) who doesn't fall back to the safety of the superiority of the mind. No one, for instance states that they doubt biology because we can't tell how many leaves a tree will have by scanning the seed. Nor have I heard anyone doubt gravity because we can not tell where a leaf on a tree will land once it falls. We listen to weather reports without doubt, yet no one can tell where any drop of rain will land. We have no better understanding of any other complex system which for the most part we accept.
That last weather report example is bad. No one really believes the weather.
I am reminded that man kind did once believe trees had souls. Such things are seen as quaint myths. So, I am sure, will our current attachments be dismissed. We will need a much greater level of understanding of our own minds and the universe at large for most of us to let go of our personal myths.
The point is, I find it more fascinating that people are comfortable not knowing some things and entirely uncomfortable not knowing others and likewise afraid of knowing ourselves. The theories are less interesting than the reasons we need them.

 
 

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