Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Levels, layers, levelism

(This is one of these posts where I just put up miscellaneous odds and ends as a way of making some of my reading more interactive. I drafted it back in March and didn't post it then.) 

Exploring Floridi's references in his chapter on "The Method of Levels of Abstraction" (Chapter 3 in The Philosophy of Information*). Text in blue is from Floridi

*Floridi, L. The philosophy of information Oxford University Press, 2011

1     p47 line 2.  "Reality can be studied at different levels, so forms of ‘levelism’ have often been advocated in the past [Brown 1916]"

Brown, Harold Chapman Structural Levels in the Scientist's World The Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Methods, Journal of Philosophy, Inc., 1916, Vol. 13(13), pp. 337-345

I enjoyed this paper. It is basically putting forward arguments for the importance of emergence.
"Each level of the physical world, above the electronic, is then to be looked upon as containing entities constituted by an integration of entities on a lower level in accordance with the lawful forms of their behavior. But it is to be noted that the consequent behavior of these aggregates is not the behavior of the elements of which they are composed: electrons do not have valency, atoms have not molecular properties, and, for the molecule, surface tension or the solid, liquid, and gaseous states are meaningless. Even when a property seems to be present on several levels, as a mutual attraction between entities, its description is markedly different in the different cases, as was the case in the now outlived "distance coefficient" physics." [p 339]
"[N]o genuine whole is merely the sum of its parts, but is a consequence of the integration of its parts, and such integration is not, in general, expressible entirely in terms of the parts and their relations. Because picking a pocket involves movements of physical masses at varying velocities and therefore could be studied from the point of view of mechanics, and chemical and organic processes that might make it of interest to the chemist or the physiologist, it does not follow that it is not also a real fact for the student of human conduct from a social point of view and that for him it may not constitute an event the significance of which can not be expressed in terms of the sciences previously mentioned. Also the reaction of any integrated group or whole to any other such group is something quite different from the reactions of any of their constituents to each other or from any fact that can be ex- pressed in terms of such reactions." [p 341]
It all seems reasonable to me.  One oddity, from the perspective of 2017 anyway, is the comments on ether: "... while there can be little doubt that the ether concept represents something physically real...". I better not get side-tracked, but the Michelson–Morley experiment was in 1887 and this paper was published in 1916, so had people not abandoned ether by 1916?

2  p47 ll 10-24

Consider the following varieties of levelism currently available in the philosophical literature:

  1. epistemological, e.g. levels of observation or interpretation of a system;
  2. ontological, e.g. levels (or rather layers) of organization, complexity, or causal interaction etc. of a system;[Poli (2001) provides a reconstruction of ontological levelism]
  3. methodological, e.g. levels of interdependence or reducibility among theories about a system; and
  4. an amalgamation of (1)–(3), e.g. as in Oppenheim and Putnam (1958).
The current debate on multirealizability in the philosophy of AI and cognitive science has made (3) controversial, as Block (1997) has shown; while Heil (2003) and Schaffer (2003) have seriously and convincingly questioned the plausibility of (2). Since criticisms of (2) and (3) end up undermining (4), rumours are that levelism should probably be decommissioned.

I agree with Heil and Schaffer that ontological levelism is probably untenable. However, I shall argue that a version of epistemological levelism should be retained, as a fundamental and indispensable method of conceptual engineering (philosophical analysis and construction) in PI, albeit in a suitably refined version.

Poli, R. The Basic Problem of the Theory of Levels of Reality Axiomathes, 2001, Vol. 12(3), pp. 261-283

I struggled with this paper. Probably because I don't have philosophical background so don't have a firm enough foundation in ideas of things like ontology and epistemology, but maybe also it not such a well-written paper? The idea I take from it (which may be a completely misunderstanding) is that we should consider alternative (ontological) hierarchies to that of a hierarchy based on aggregation. If that is what Polis is saying, then, fine, I'm sort-of OK with it.
[T]he predominant opinion is that there is only one multi-dynamic (multi-layered) system: the one described by the natural sciences. Other forms of knowledge are scientific to the extent that they can be located in the progressive series of supraformations (groups of groups of groups of items, each with its specific kinds of interaction). Hence the alternative: a discipline is scientific to the extent that it can be located in the series of aggregation levels – if so it can be more or less easily reduced to the base level – or it cannot be thus located and is consequently not a science: it has no citizenship in the realm of knowledge and is scientifically stateless.

We shall see that this is not so, and that the opinion just described is simply wrong. The progressive array of levels, in fact, has breaks in it where the frame of reference is categorially modified. The only way to handle this is to acknowledge that the hierarchy of levels of granularity is only one of the hierarchies of reality. A satisfactory theory must obviously recognize the former, but it must recognize the other forms of organization into levels as well. For this reason too, a categorial approach is more promising than an ’objectual’ one base on items of some kind in interaction. [p266]

Schaffer, J. Is There a Fundamental Level?. Nous, 2003, Vol. 37(3), pp. 498 - 517

Another really good read!
Talk about "the fundamental level of reality" pervades contemporary metaphysics. The fundamentalist starts with (a) a hierarchical picture of nature as stratified into levels, adds (b) an assumption that there is a bottom level which is fundamental, and winds up, often enough, with (c) an ontological attitude according to which the entities of the fundamental level are primarily real, while any remaining contingent entities are at best derivative, if real at all. Thus the physicalist claims that microphysical theory (or some future extension thereof) describes the fundamental level of reality on which all else supervenes; the Humean claims that all supervenes on the distribution of local, fundamental qualities in spacetime; the epiphenomenalist claims that all causal powers inhere at the fundamental level; and the atomist claims that there are no macroentities at all but only fundamental entities in various arrangements. 
I find the hierarchical picture of nature in (a) plausible as reflected in the structure and discoveries of the sciences, and consider the ontological primacy of the fundamental entities in (c) a natural (though not inevitable) conclusion. In any case I will not discuss these issues here. Rather I will discuss the assumption (b) that there exists a fundamental level; first because it is almost entirely second because, as I will argue, there is no evidence in its favor; and third because the hierarchical picture minus (b) yields a far more palatable metaphysic in which, contra (c), all entities are equally real. [p498, emphasis in the original]
Schaffer proceeds to present an argument that (i) suggests there is no reason to cling to atomism and (ii) rejects the idea that there is any reason to suppose that physics is approaching a complete microphysical theory.

I am tempted to quote lots from it because it is so nicely written. (And, in terms of (ii), accords with my own thinking. I’d simply not thought about (i)). However, instead I just encourage any reader to read the paper for themselves. But, some key conclusions:
So I conclude that we do not, right now, have any evidence for atomism. We now have no evidence that there will be a final theory, no evidence that such a theory will postulate anything that could serve as a mereological atom, and no evidence that such a theoretical postulate will correspond to an ontological atom as opposed to a boringly decomposable composite. Evidence for fundamentality is lacking thrice over. 
In short, there are at least two perfectly good conceptions of the hierarchy of nature: fundamentality and infinite descent. The empirical evidence to date is neutral as to which structure science is reflecting. And so, concerning the proposition that there exists a fundamental level of nature, one should withhold belief. [p505-506]
And then
[First line of retreat] [C]an certain fundamentalist doctrines be (re)formulated without presupposing the existence of a fundamental level? I will consider physicalism, Humeanism, epiphenomenalism, and atomism in turn, and show that all presuppose fundamentality in some sense.
BTW, a handy links: supervenience 
As a second line of retreat, the fundamentalist might maintain that, while there is no evidence for mereological atoms, there may yet be evidence for a fundamental something else. I think that there is one particularly interesting form of this retreat, on which this "something else" is a fundamental supervenience base. In any case I will limit my discussion of this retreat to this particular maneuver. [p509]
So it is in fact worth distinguishing (at least) three metaphysical pictures: full-blown fundamentality, supervenience-only fundamentality, and full- blown infinite descent. Should we not discover a complete microphysics (or should we at least continue to discover ever-deeper novel structure) this would provide evidence for infinite descent. Should we discover a complete microphysics, this would then provide evidence for supervenience- only fundamentality, and allow for physicalism and Humeanism. Should the complete microphysics also turn out to postulate particles, and should these particles turn out indivisible, this would then provide evidence for full-blown fundamentality, and allow for epiphenomenalism and atomism in addition. For now, all of these outcomes must be regarded as live possibilities. [p512]
And, finally
What would a metaphysic of infinite descent look like? The most striking feature of an infinite descent is that no level is special.25 Infinite descent yields an egalitarian ontological attitude which is at home in the macro- world precisely because everything is macro. Mesons, molecules, minds, and mountains are in every sense ontologically equal. Because there can be no privileged locus for the causal powers, and because they must be somewhere, they are everywhere. So infinite descent yields an egalitarian metaphysic which dignifies and empowers the whole of nature.

Treat infinite descent as a working hypothesis, and since all entities turn out to be composite, supervenient, realized, and governed, it emerges that these attributes cannot be barriers to full citizenship in the republic of being.

The macroworld, once regained, is not easily lost, even should real evidence for fundamentality arrive. Here I am, a human organism, a macro- entity, but in no sense unreal for that. I believe that I am both composed of and dependent on certain cells, which are in turn both composed of and dependent on certain molecules, which are in turn both composed of and dependent on certain atoms, which are in turn both composed of and dependent on certain subatomic particles, which are in turn both composed of and dependent on certain quarks and leptons. We just don't know whether this chain stops. But from this perspective it seems obvious that my realness does not in any sense turn on whether there are preons and so on below, or not.

To see that there is no evidence for fundamentality is already to regain the macroworld.


Phil Goetz said...

I think all this debate about levels is still stuck on two wrong tracks that Western thought has been stuck on since the ancient Greeks: the denial of the continuum and the resulting conception of knowledge as justified true belief, and the belief in essences and the associated attribution of magical powers to language.

Everyone knows that knowledge is not certain in their own life, yet when Westerners think philosophically, they insist knowledge be 100% certain. Hume's observation that you cannot be certain the sun will rise tomorrow (or whatever examples he used) was correct, but irrelevant. If there's a 1 in 1 trillion chance the sun will go nova during the night, and a 1 in 1 million chance a burglar will kill you during the night, you'd do better to lock the door than to worry about the Sun.

This belief in true and false is related to the ancient Greek denial of the existence of continuums. Western philosophers can't conceive of certainty as a continuum, because they will not conceive of continuums, because philosophy majors don't study differential equations.

Another main wrong track is attributing magical powers to language. The quote below is just re-opening the medieval debate about nominalism and trying to re-mystify language as having the power to create, as all idealists have believed it does since the Egyptian creation myth of Ptah:

"But it is to be noted that the consequent behavior of these aggregates is not the behavior of the elements of which they are composed:..."

That's a denial of nominalism. It says that when we create words to denote abstract concepts, we create those things. This is wrong. We are materialists and nominalists, not animist idealists.

"...electrons do not have valency, atoms have not molecular properties..."

... and, of course, the denial of nominalism is based on an Aristotelian ontology in which observable phenomena magically become essences that exist somewhere once they are reified by language. This argument could have come from a Yale post-modernist.

The definitions of higher-level concepts provide information, which enables better prediction of sensory data. There's no need to worry where the Aristotelian essences of valency and surface tension are.

The next issue is that chemistry can't be "true" if physics can overrule it. But this is just going back to "true" and "false". Theories are not "true" or "false", as shown by the example which led Popper into error, of relativity replacing Newtonian mechanics. Newtonian mechanics isn't "true", but you shouldn't conclude from that, as epistemologists and Popper do, that it's "false".

Theories & concepts compress information & predict sensory data. The better they compress information and predict new information, the better theories they are. (This is why alchemy is not a theory--it can't predict any information that isn't already implicit in the data used to construct the "theory". All the information is in the empirical data such as "Sulfuric acid dissolves metals" which were used to construct the theory.)

"What would a metaphysic of infinite descent look like?"

Exactly the same as a metaphysic of finite dissent, because Hume. If you reach the bottom, you can never know that. If you're living in the Matrix, you can never know that. We have only names we made up for operationalizations we defined that improve predictions of sensory data.

Once one realizes that theories are not true or false, that the words in them don't refer to Forms but are mere names, and that they're names all the way down--we cannot know whether there are finite or infinite levels--there are no more worries about the ontological or epistemological status of the words we use at different levels.

Phil Goetz said...

Oh, re. "it is to be noted that the consequent behavior of these aggregates is not the behavior of the elements of which they are composed":

I was denying the notion of emergence as "essences emerge at higher levels", but the statement above is technically correct. That's because we observe the higher level first. In some cases, the lower-level concepts are really aggregates of observations of the higher-level concepts. The dependence runs in both directions. There is no problem with this; causal loops are not a problem to people who understand physical motion or infinitesimals. They are only a problem to Aristotelians.

Phil Goetz said...

"I better not get side-tracked, but the Michelson–Morley experiment was in 1887 and this paper was published in 1916, so had people not abandoned ether by 1916?"

Eddington observed the eclipse verifying general relativity in 1919 & published the results in 1920. There was no evidence for special or general relativity prior to that other than the M-M experiment AFAIK.

Also, re. my comment on my comment on "it is to be noted that the consequent behavior of these aggregates is not the behavior of the elements of which they are composed": Oops, the statement is not technically correct. It would be if it said that the behavior at a higher level may not be predictable from the components of a lower level. But this is true only because the notion that we have the compositional structure right may be mistaken. The concepts used may have been constructed in such a manner that the concepts at the higher level are not strictly composed of the concepts at the lower level, or the concepts at both levels may be imprecise enough that regularities can be perceived at the higher level which are truly not predictable from observations made in terms of the lower-level concepts.

An example of the former might be pacing in novels. Pacing is usually associated with scenes, and is thought to be a function of how "fast" the scene is moving. In this respect it's composed of a host of properties of words which have never been fully enumerated, except perhaps by poets: their length, ease of pronunciation, ease with which they flow into each other, information density, and so on. But it's also composed of other issues which authors aren't even aware it's composed of, and which aren't things they usually keep track of: How many questions are raised in a scene (questions slow pacing), how many are answers (answers increase it), how predictable is it (predictability slows pacing)? The high-level concept is not clearly composed of identified lower-level ones.