Integrative Levels of Reality

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Michael Kleineberg:

"In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the idea of integrative levels finds widespread application in various research fields and is often discussed under the label "levels of reality," for example, within the discourse on emergent evolution among scholars like Conwy Lloyd Morgan, Samuel Alexander, C. D. Broad, William M. Wheeler, or Roy W. Sellars (Blitz 1992). According to David Blitz (1992), most approaches agree about at least three main levels of reality that can be summarized as matter — life — mind, whereas some argue for a preceding level of space-time and some for a succeeding level of society or even deity.

Arguably the most comprehensive and most detailed analysis of levels of reality is offered by Nicolai Hartmann's (1940) Der Aufbau der realen Welt (The structure of the real world) in which he introduces the hierarchical sequence of matter — life — psyche — spirit, the latter as the tripartite but inextricable unity of personal (individual), objective (collective), and objectivated (materialized in artifacts) spirit. Hartmann rejects the principle of continuity and restricts the scope of the idea of integrative levels, which he calls superformation (Überformung), to the levels of matter and life, while introducing the idea of superposition (Überbauung) where the higher level depends on the lower level but without integrating its essential properties. Most importantly, in his analysis two fundamental border lines between categorically orthogonal domains are identified, namely, a psychophysical border line between exterior life and interior psyche, and a border line between the individual personal spirit and the collective objective spirit (Kleineberg 2016).

Nevertheless, some authors defend the principle of continuity and, therefore, the integrative character of levels of reality by interpreting these border lines as boundaries between co-evolutionary correlates rather than emergent levels.

For example, Morgan (1923, 26) maintains the view that through all levels of reality from matter to life to mind both exterior physical and interior psychical dimensions develop simultaneously:

- This means, for me, that there are no physical systems, of integral status, that are not also psychical systems; and no psychical systems that are not also physical systems. All systems of events are in their degree psycho-physical.

Corresponding to such a panpsychism, Wheeler (1928, 39) proposes a kind of pansociality assuming different degrees of the social along all levels of reality in the sense of a co-evolution of the individual and collective dimensions: "Indeed, the correlations of the social — using the term in its most general sense — even extend down through the inorganic realm [...]."

A further important aspect of the idea of integrative levels is stressed by Wilhelm Dilthey's ([1910] 2002) The Formation of the Historical World in the Human Sciences in which he compares the natural order investigated by the sciences with a reconstructed historical order studied by the humanities with the goal to defend a nomothetic approach to the latter. Inspired by Hegel while rejecting his metaphysics, Dilthey ([1910] 2002, 351, 184) is concerned with a critique of historical reason by analyzing the structure and development of human thought, for example, in terms of universal "stages of consciousness" or "stages of historical intelligibility." The importance of such an idea of integrative levels of knowing for human-related research fields is also emphasized, among others, by James M. Baldwin's (1906) Thought and Things, Wilhelm Wundt's ([1912] 1916) Elements of Folk Psychology, Ernst Cassirer's ([1923] 1955) Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, Max Scheler's ([1924] 1980) Problems of a Sociology of Knowledge, Norbert Elias's ([1939] 1994) The Civilizing Process, and Gaston Bachelard's ([1940] 1968) The Philosophy of No (see also Appendix C).

Integrative levels

To some extent independent from the sketched history, Joseph Needham invents the term "integrative levels" for an idea that is outlined in his famous Herbert Spencer lecture Integrative Levels: A Revaluation of the Idea of Progress in the sense of "successive forms of order in a scale of complexity and organization" (Needham 1937, 3–4) that cover the whole known universe and the way in which it has come into being from the inorganic to the biological to the social. What is a whole at the lower and older level becomes a part at the next higher and newer level (e.g., protein crystals — cells — metazoan organisms — social units). In this way and with reference to Karl Marx's and Frederick Engels's materialist version of Hegelian dialectic, he also suggests different levels of integration within the social order in terms of both productive forces (basis) as well as cultural and cognitive aspects (superstructure).

A major contribution is achieved by James Feibleman's (1954) essay Theory of Integrative Levels in which thoughts by Joseph Needham, Ludwig Bertalanffy, or Alex Novikoff are systemized into a dozen laws of the levels (excerpted from 1954, 59–63):

  1. Each level organises the level or levels below it plus one emergent quality.
  2. Complexity of the levels increases upward.
  3. In any organisation the higher level depends upon the lower.
  4. In any organisation, the lower level is directed by the higher.
  5. For an organisation at any given level, its mechanism lies at the level below and its purpose at the level above.
  6. A disturbance introduced into an organisation at any one level reverberates at all the levels it covers.
  7. The time required for a change in organisation shortens as we ascend the levels.
  8. The higher the level, the smaller its population of instances.
  9. It is impossible to reduce the higher level to the lower.

An organisation at any level is a distortion of the level below.

  1. Events at any given level affect organisations at other levels.
  2. Whatever is affected as an organisation has some effect as an organisation.

At the same time, Feibleman argues for a revision of the linearity of the level sequence due to occurring branchings and dead ends. For example, the development from the level of molecules seems to branch into both biological phenomena with increase of complexity as well as astronomical phenomena without increase of complexity.

As already mentioned, alternatives to strict linear sequences of integrative levels are also proposed by approaches that emphasize the notion of co-evolution of different categorically orthogonal domains. Some theorists argue for a co-evolution of the physical and the psychical in the broadest sense (Morgan 1923; Brier 2003), some others for a simultaneous emergence of the psychical and the social from the physical including the biological (Emmeche, Køppe, and Stjernfelt 1997; Poli 2001), again others even for interrelated developments of the physical, the psychical, and the social (Wheeler 1928; Wilber [1995] 2000; Kleineberg 2016). In particular, there are good reasons to assume a multi-leveled co-evolution of brain, cognition, and culture (Deacon 1997; Greenberg et al. 1999; Donald 2001), of material society and immaterial culture (Habermas 1979; Dux [2000] 2011), or of microsystems (e.g., atom — molecule — cell — complex organism) and macrosystems (e.g., star — planet — ecosystem — population) (Jantsch [1979] 1980; Wilber [1995] 2000).

After all, there seems to be no consensus on the idea of integrative levels, neither on the conceptual definition and theoretical foundation nor on the sequence and architecture of level models (Wheeler 1928; Greenberg and Kenyon 1987; Poli 2001). As a matter of fact, its utilization as organizing principle often reveals inconsistencies or exceptions for practical reasons (Spiteri 1995; Dousa 2009). Nevertheless, the theoretical interest in the idea of integrative levels continues until today, even though many domain-specific discourses appear to be isolated from each other using different terminologies within different more or less restricted fields of research (Yao 2009, see also Appendix B). These include, without claiming comprehensiveness, biology (Kummer 1987; Lobo 2008), ecology (Rowe 1961; Esbjörn-Hargens and Zimmerman 2009), comparative psychology (Tobach 1987; Campbell 1990; Pisula 2009; Tomasello 2014), developmental psychology (Overton 2006; Commons 2008; Lourenço 2016), neuropsychology (Feinberg 2011), neuroanthropology (Deacon 1997; Donald 2001), social anthropology (Hallpike 2008), cognitive archaeology (Mithen 1996; Trigger 2003), macrosociology (Steward 1972; Nolan and Lenski 2015), sociocultural evolution (Sahlins and Service [1960] 1988; Habermas 1979; Dux [2000] 2011), general systems theory (Bertalanffy 1968), self-organization (Jantsch [1979] 1980; Fenzl et al. 1996), emergentism (Blitz 1992; Pettersson 1996; Bunge 2003), and hierarchy theory (Koestler 1967; Salthe 2009).

Integrative levels as organizing principle

Principles of organization:

Knowledge organization systems require organizing principles. Mathematician and library scientist Shiyali R. Ranganathan (1937, 183) specifies the following eight principles of organization for helpful sequences: later-in-time, later-in-evolution, spatial contiguity, quantitative measure, increasing complexity, canonical sequence, literary warrant, and alphabetical sequence. One advantage of the idea of integrative levels might be seen in its ability to combine several of these principles, namely, the relations of later-in-time, later-in-evolution, and increasing complexity (cp. Gnoli 2017).

The principle of increasing complexity is reflected by Feibleman's (1954) first and second laws of the levels stating that integrative levels are cumulative upward in terms of both properties and structures, while adding an emergent quality at each higher level. In the case of cumulative properties, this principle is compatible, as suggested by Broughton (2008, 49), with Bliss's principle of gradation by specialty that following Comte describes a sequence from the most general to the most specific, also known as genus-species relation. In cases of cumulative structures, however, one might speak of the principle of successive parthood that describes an "organisation as itself a part of some higher and more complex organisation" (Feibleman 1954, 61), also known as part-whole relation. A corollary of the principle of increasing complexity is expressed in Feibleman's (1954) third law stating that each higher level depends upon the lower level(s) but not vice versa, a relation that could be labeled in Comtean terms as the principle of successive dependence (cp. Gnoli, Bosch, and Mazzocchi 2007). Furthermore, Feibleman's eighth law stating that the population of instances decreases with each higher level (e.g., there exist fewer molecules than atoms, and fewer cells than molecules) could be termed the principle of decreasing span in correspondence with the principle of increasing depth, adopting Arthur Koestler's (1967, 342) terminology of "depth" (here a synonym for height or altitude) as the number of levels that an entity comprises and "span" as the number of entities at a given level. Since levels of integration are supposed to constitute evolutionary or developmental stages (Needham 1937; Feibleman 1954; Aronson 1987; Salthe 1991), it follows that they are also in line with Ranganathan's principle of later-in-evolution which in turn implies the principle of later-in-time, also expressed by Austin's (1969b, 114) "principle of consecutiveness."

Note that the two main principles of increasing complexity and later-in-evolution seem not to be reducible to each other. On one hand, not every order of complexity presents an evolutionary or diachronic sequence of entities but sometimes a rather synchronic one (e.g., tissue — organ — organism) that comes into being concurrently.

For that reason, Austin (1969c, 88) rephrases Feibleman's fifth law:

For an organisation at any given sublevel [for Austin a "sublevel" means a part of a whole but not itself a whole, M.K.], its mechanism lies at the level below the whole of which it is a part, and its purpose is defined by a need of the whole of which it is a part.

On the other hand, not every evolutionary or developmental change means a change toward increasing complexity (e.g., a new species of bacteria). This is why Wilber (2000, 66) emphasizes the distinction between "translation" and "transformation", echoed by Overton's (2006, 25) distinction between "variational change" and "transformational change," according to which only the latter leads to an emergence of novelty and increasing complexity.

There might be other principles of organization that are compatible with the idea of integrative levels but one should carefully analyze to what extent these are constitutive. For example, Jolley (1973, 72) speaks of a "dimensional fallacy" for the tendency to consider aggregates like gross material bodies with an increase in the spatial dimension as increasingly higher levels of integration. Not to mention that the spatial dimension applies exclusively to material structures but not at all to mental structures (Richmond 1965; Kyle 1969). Another popular candidate is a sequence of increasing value (cp. Gnoli 2015), as exemplified by the historical idea of the Great Chain of Being in terms of an approximation to God stating that an increasing height of levels reflects an increasing godlikeness and value (Scrivner 1980). Such value rankings, however, appear to be rather accidental since integrative levels can be equally described in non-evaluative terms. For example, one can acknowledge that human beings are more complex and belong to a higher level than other life-forms without claiming that they are normatively superior or have more intrinsic value (Conger 1925; Aronson 1987).

In short, the organizing principle of integrative levels in a proper sense can be expressed in terms of evolutionary order based on the combined principles of gradation by specialty (genus-species relation), successive parthood (part-whole relation), and later-in-evolution (developmental relation) presenting "a conceptual progress from the general to the specific, the simple to the complex, and the past to the present" (Dousa 2009, 76).

In order to illustrate these inherent relations, various diagrammatic models and metaphors are in use evoking notions like "lower" and "higher", or "deeper" and "shallower" such as a nest or a spiral, a pyramid or a staircase, a chain or a ladder, each emphasizing certain aspects at the expense of some others.

For example, similar to Russian dolls or Chinese boxes, a nesting of concentric circles depicts levels of integration in a way that each level as a whole is included as a part in the next more complex level, just as atoms are included in molecules which in turn are included in cells. This two-faced aspect of a given level has been aptly called "holon" — from Greek holos "whole" and the suffix –on suggesting a part or particle like in proton or neutron — meaning a simultaneous whole and part relative to the view along the level hierarchy or "holarchy" (Koestler 1967, 48, 103).

In contrast, the same sequence of integrative levels can be illustrated by a pyramid where each higher level rests and depends on the more fundamental lower level(s), while the population of instances or the span decreases at each higher level, just as there are fewer molecules than atoms and fewer cells than molecules (cp. Feibleman 1954; Blitz 1992).

Another way to represent the same sequence of integrative levels is a simple chain that can be depicted horizontally or vertically with an increasing or decreasing sequence. In Figure 1, the chain is reproduced vertically as inverse sequence of the pyramid beginning with the most fundamental and most general level at the top in order to illustrate that it constitutes the root class of a "specification hierarchy" (Salthe 2009, 87) in which each sub-class presents a specification of the preceding more general class, just as the physical level (e.g., atomic matter) is specified by the chemical level (e.g., molecular matter) which in turn is specified by the biological level (e.g., cellular matter) without claiming that one of them can be reduced to any other.

While it seems to be true that the idea of integrative levels is compatible with a broad range of well-known principles of organization, it appears to be equally true that different aspects are often combined without sufficient qualification which might lead to serious inconsistencies in modeling hierarchical sequences of integrative levels."