Integrative Levels Classification project scheme monograph references

« Integrative levels

Emergence and the nature of levels

The theory of integrative levels consists in acknowledging a series of different orders of phenomena within reality: that, eg, animals belong to a realm substantially different from stones, or poems. Each of these domains behaves according to sets of characteristic laws, holding within it but not necessarily outside. Animals undergo a birth and a death, while stones do not. Stones have a specific weight and are subjected to gravity, while poems do not. All this suggests that the different orders of phenomena have to be represented in a KOS in different ways.

A key intuition is that these orders can be arranged in a series, where the higher ones are derived from the lower ones in terms of historical origin or, more generally, of logical priority, in the way one cannot conceive a hexagonal prism without the prior notions of solid, symmetry, and the number 6. Higher levels can thus be seen as logically deeper, in Charles Bennett's terms: before getting to them, a certain path must have been necessarily covered through a series of previous steps [Ben87-88; Dav87].

The higher-lower metaphor comes from building, in the sense that the higher elements of a construction need to rest on the lower ones, in order to stay at their place without falling by gravity. The world can thus be seen as a big building, growing upwards as new elements are progressively added on the existing floors. Animals are more complex than molecules, but could not exist without the prior existence of molecules.

We say that the derived order of phenomena is a higher level, the existence of which presupposes that of lower level phenomena, but at the same time adds something to it. Indeed, describing the new phenomenon only in terms of the previous ones would not be completely satisfying: the description would fail to account for the novel properties, like birth and death in living organisms, which did not exist in their constituents alone. Such reductionistic descriptions, though useful to understand the internal structure of a phenomenon, are incomplete, until the additional properties of the higher level are acknowledged. Explaining that organisms are made of molecules is useful, but is not enough, as the definition of molecules do not include the notions of birth and death.

Many authors in the history of knowledge seem to have been aware of the existence of levels, at least vaguely. Often these are just mentioned in a discourse, without any specific analysis of their identity, nor any attempt of a complete list of them. Traces of a notion of levels can be found already in presocratic Greek philosophers (~600-400 BC) [Mou86]. The naturalistic works of Aristotle (384-322 BC) then outline an ontology structured into different planes. Chinese philosopher Zhu Xi (Chu Hsi, 1130-1200) acknowledged that each category of things has its own special essence (li): some things do not have a mind, while others have, and yet others like brushes are not natural products; still all things, both natural and spiritual, including people, depend on the same ultimate reality (taiji). Among modern philosophers, ideas of this kind can be found variously in Pascal, Leibniz, Hegel, Mill, Comte, Spencer, Bergson, Whitehead, Teilhard de Chardin, Smuts, Jaspers, Peirce, Hartmann, Popper, Meehl, Bunge [Gro61; Jua08].

The transition from lower to higher level phenomena is often called emergence [Lov27; Bar04; Bed97-02; Bon95; Bun01; Cha02; Cla06; Cor06; Cun01; Dav04; Fro04-05; Gol99; Hol98; Jan80; Joh01; Mee56; Mor02; OCo94; Salk83; Say04; Sot06; Ste92]. This term was adopted in this sense, it seems for the first time, by the English philosopher George Henry Lewes in the second half of the 19th century [Lew1875]. The most spectacular and cited examples of emergence are those of life on matter, and of minds on living organisms. The idea of emergence can be interpreted either in a strong sense, as the appearance of something substantially new in the world, or in weaker senses, until reducing it to a supervenience, or an epiphenomenon (a secondary effect), of the basically material substance, which is acknowledged priority in the physicalism of much contemporary analytical philosophy [Bec92; Hum96-97; Rue00; Wim94-98].

Emergence has something mysterious, just in that the appearance of the new properties cannot be explained in terms of the pre-existing properties. Usually one limits herself to observe and describe the presence of the new phenomenon, before attempting any explanation for it. One feature common to many, perhaps all, emergent phenomena is that they are originated from the interaction of elements of different kinds, which are involved in some "synergy" [Cor06]: while adding oxygen to oxygen just produces more oxygen, combining oxygen with hydrogen can produce water. Lewes already observed that, while the combination of similar elements gives a resultant quantity of the same thing, the combination of elements of different kinds can produce new emergent things, which differ in quality, not only in quantity, from their original constituents. Thus, higher levels are the result of particular rearrangements and organizations of several elements of lower levels.

The idea that levels are "greater than the sum of their parts" has become popular among scientists, particularly in the context of biology. Indeed, the coexistence of different organic levels (genes, cells, tissues, organs, organisms, populations, species, ecosystems) and their substantial differences from lower material levels are evident. Despite the reductionism widespread in physics, organic phenomena cannot be described satifyingly by the laws of physics; they need different planes of explanation, requiring biology to be an autonomous science with equal status than physics [Jen27, Woo29-37; Red42; Ger42-45; Nov45; Herri49; Jac70; And72; Med74; May82; Salt85; Emm97; Sha98].

As the perspective of biological evolution, introduced in the English culture of 19th century by Darwin, Wallace, Huxley, and Romanes, had become more widespread in philosophy of science, it could be combined with the observation of emergent phenomena. The evolution of organisms, from simpler to more and more complex and sophisticated forms, appears as a sequence of emergent transitions [Hux47, Smi97], and many have thought that such notion can be extended beyond the organic realm, to the whole universe. Indeed, we speak today of an "evolution" of the universe, from the Big Bang to increasingly more complex and extended object; as well as an evolution of particular objects, like stars, soils, languages, or cultural artifacts [Gno06c].

Our levels are not anymore a static state of things, where we just observe the contemporary coexistence of phenomena laying on a series of levels; rather they are seen, at least roughly, as derived the ones from the others, in the same way as the Linnean tree is now acknowledged to be an evolutionary tree [section 2.3]. A movement of supporters of an "emergent evolution" took form in the first decades of the 20th century; its most known representatives are probably Samuel Alexander and Conwy Lloyd Morgan [Hob1901; Mar1912; Ale20-21; Tho20-25; Llo23-33; Lov24-27; Con21-33; Broa25; Rei25; Sel26-59; Whe26-28; Mon29]. The origins and development of this movement are reconstructed in detail by Blitz [Blit92; McL92]. Some of these authors, while listing levels, put at the end of the series a spiritual or supernatural level, usually impersonal, like Alexander's "deity".

Some years later, biochemist and science historian Joseph Needham spoke about integrative levels, in the context of a materialist worldview in which the logical next step of progressive evolution would have been the fulfillment of social cooperation [Nee36-45; Pet96]. Another materialist author, psychologist James K. Feibleman, formalized the "theory of integrative levels" and the basic laws of relationships between levels [Fei51-65]; the notion was then applied in the behavioural sciences by Theodore Christian Schneirla [Sch49-72; Gre84-88]. The word integrative refers to the fact that elements of a lower level, when combining, form not just an aggregate of lower level stuff, but a new integrate with different properties and nature. This idea is easily understood with reference to natural phenomena, but has also been extended by some to the social domain (persons, families, social groups, villages, states, international organizations), or the elements of languages (phonemes, morphemes, words, phrases, sentences, texts) [Fos63]. A generalized notion of systems as wholes made of lower level parts was introduced by general systems theory [Ber68; Bun79], which has been especially applied in engineering (control theory, cybernetics, low/high level programming languages).

Another suggestion that reality should be investigated at different levels is provided by quantum physics. Phenomena occurring at the subatomic level cannot be described in the usual deterministic terms of mechanics, but require probabilistic treatments. This would happen because they belong to a different kind of reality, possibly also extending to the free will characteristic of the human mind [Hei42; Nic88-06; Thi95].

In the separate tradition of German philosophy, a powerful theory of levels has been provided by Nicolai Hartmann, as a main element of his renewed ontology, that is theory of the structure of reality [Har40-42]. Unless the British naturalistic tradition, Hartmann emphasized the separation between the four main levels of reality (the material, organic, mental, and spiritual strata) more than their continuity, although claiming that each level bases its existence on the lower ones. Hartmann does not describe his strata in evolutionary terms, but these are easily interpreted in such perspective by Konrad Lorenz, author of basic research on animal behaviour as well as a general outline of the evolution of knowledge abilities [Lor73-81]. Not liking the term emergence, as its etimology implies a false notion of something preexisting that now comes out, Lorenz prefers that of fulguration.

Lorenz shares with Karl Popper and Donald Campbell both the view of a levelled structure of reality, and an evolutionary conception of epistemology [section 2.1; Pop72-94; Cam90]. Popper's levels are called "World 1", including matter and life, "World 2", the conscious mind, and "World 3", the creations of the human intellect, such as art works and theories, corresponding to Hartmann's "objectivated spirit". The acknowledgment of this last stratum and its autonomy is an original contribution of these continental thinkers, as most English-speaking authors concluded their lists with the mental and social activities of humans. Campbell also contributes the notion of downward causation [Cam74-90; Emm97; Bed02], claiming that higher levels can have causal influences on lower ones, like when political decisions at the social level affect the greenhouse gas concentration at the material one.

Ontological research with reference to levels has been recently resumed by Roberto Poli and others [Pol96-in prep; Herre; Bai07; Mat08]. Of the four strata of Hartmann, Poli merges the first two (material and organic), and suggests that the other two (mental and social) are not in a series but in parallel, as they reciprocally influence each other [section 2.4.2]. These authors also consider the information science meaning of the word ontology, believing that philosophical ontology, including the theory of levels, can provide useful foundations for knowledge organization and management [section 2.4.3].

Layers and strata »


Integrative Levels Classification. Philosophy. Integrative levels. Emergence and the nature of levels / Claudio Gnoli – ISKO Italy : <> : 2009.01.09 - 2011.07.29 -

  Integrative Levels Classification project scheme monograph references