Hierarchy, Form and Reality

Hierarchy, Form and Reality
Gang Chen
Department of Philosophy,
Huazhong University of Science and Technology,Wuhan, 430074, China
对形而上学和哲学具有明显的意义。夏法尔的论文“是否存在一个基础的层次?” 系统地
Abstract: Scientific progress in the 20th century has shown that the structure of the world is
hierarchical. A philosophical analysis of the hierarchy will bear obvious significance for
metaphysics and philosophy in general. Jonathan Schaffer's paper, "Is There a Fundamental
Level?", provides a systematic review of the works in the field, the difficulties for various versions
of fundamentalism, and the prospect for the third option, i.e., to treat each level as ontologically
equal. The purpose of this paper is to provide an argument for the third option, which is missing in
Schaffer's paper. The author will apply Aristotle's theory of matter and form to the discussion of
the hierarchy and develop a form realism, which will grant every level with "full citizenship in the
republic of being." It is also an argument against ontological and epistemological reductionism.
1. Introduction
The most significant scientific achievement for philosophy in the 20th century is the general
view that the structure of our world is hierarchical. In one direction, astronomers have proved that
the remote spiral nebulae are galaxies like our own Milky Way. Thus the Universe is one level
bigger than the Milky Way, and consists of galaxies as islands. Some day in the future they may
discover that there is more than one Big Bang. In the opposite direction, atomic physicists have
shown that, while everything consists of molecules and atoms, the atoms are not atomic. They
split the atoms and drilled down all the way through protons, neutrons and electrons, quarks and
leptons, ... and finally to super strings. Although they have no way to prove that a super string has
no internal structure, the tendency did lead us to postulate that it is an endless descending. After a
long journey in both directions, one thing is for sure: our world is multi-layered, i.e., of a
hierarchical structure of multiple levels. An analysis of the hierarchical model of the world
definitely bears an obvious significance for metaphysics and for philosophy in general.
2. Schaffer on Fundamentalism
Jonathan Schaffer's recent paper on NOǗS, "Is There a Fundamental Level?", does a
systematic review of the works by philosophers as well as scientists. It provides the context of the
problems and the entry point for the research in the field. As the title of the paper suggests, the
focus of his attention is on fundamentality. According to Schaffer, fundamentalism consists of
three theses: 1) the thesis of hierarchy, i.e., the world is hierarchical, stratified into levels; 2) the
thesis of fundamentality, i.e., there is a bottom level which is fundamental; 3) the thesis of primacy,
i.e., the bottom level is primarily real, other levels are only derivative (Schaffer 2003, p498).
Schaffer leaves the first thesis intact, does not pay much attention to the third thesis, but
thinks that the second thesis is the source of problem. Therefore, Schaffer’s key question is,
“whether science is actually in the process of discovering atoms”, “whether science indicates
atomism”, that is, whether the descending is finite or infinite (ibid, p502). From the current state
of science, we do not know if quark or super string is the fundamental building block. But the
history of science, as Schaffer admits, “is a history of finding ever-deeper structure” (ibid p503).
Whenever we had found a fundamental building block, atoms or quarks for example, soon we
always found that they have parts and an internal structure. Therefore it shows a tendency or a
trajectory that the descending is infinite. However, the tendency or trajectory, like induction, is by
no means a logical proof. Although I believe that there will never be a complete microphysics,
since scientific inquiry will never come to an end, I do agree with Schaffer that we should remain
agnostic about this issue.
With the thesis of fundamentality in doubt, Schaffer proposed three options as outlets: 1) that
a certain version of fundamentalism can be re-formulated without presupposing fundamentality,
that is, a fundamentalism without fundamentality; 2) that there might be evidence for a
fundamental something else, such as a fundamental supervenience base, which consists of more
than one level; 3) that we treat each level as equal and grant them “a full citizenship in the
republic of being”. After a detailed discussion of the options 1 and 2 by examining the four
versions of fundamentalism (physicalism, Humean idea atomism, epiphenomenalism and
atomism), Schaffer comes to the conclusion that the option 3 is the most desirable. In the end of
his paper, Schaffer shows the possible benefit and prospect for the third option.
The following quick comments are at our order: 1) Schaffer seems to think that only the
second thesis of fundamentality is question begging. However, the thesis of primacy is based on
the thesis of hierarchy and the thesis of fundamentality. If the thesis of fundamentality does not
hold, the thesis of primacy loses its ground. If we cannot identity the fundamental level, no level is
primary. 2) If there is an infinite descending in the hierarchy, it will pose a serious problem for
fundamentalism; however, if there is indeed a complete microphysics, it does not prove that
fundamentalism or reductionism is the only viable option. There might still be a room for
non-reductionism, because it does not require an infinite descending. 3) Schaffer only points out
the benefits and prospect for the third option, he provides no arguments for it. 4) Fundamentalism
is a reductionist interpretation of the hierarchical worldview. There might be a non-reductionist
interpretation of the hierarchy. That is, we accept the thesis of hierarchy, remain agnostic on the
thesis of fundamentality, but deny the thesis of primacy. While Schaffer takes fundamentality as
the focus of discussion, I think it is the issue of reduction that should be the real focus of
discussion. Our key question is not whether there is a fundamental level, but the relation between
two adjacent levels, namely, the relation is reductive or not. Therefore we move our attention from
the thesis of fundamentality to the thesis of primacy.
The purpose of this paper is to provide an argument for Schaffer’s third option, which is
missing in Schaffer's own paper. Firstly I will extrapolate Aristotle’s theory of matter and form in
the light of modern sciences, that is, to apply Aristotle's theory to the discussion of the hierarchy,
and develop a form realism, which will grant every level with a "full citizenship in the republic of
being". This is, at the same time, an argument against physicalism and atomism. Secondly I will
approach the problem of causation and provide a theory of causation according to form realism,
which constitutes an argument against epiphenomenalism. Finally I will shift the focus from
ontological reductionism to epistemological reductionism and provide an argument against
Humean idea atomism.
3. A Theory of Form Realism
Fundamentalism is a well-established tradition in the history of philosophy. It actually
dates back to the first Greek philosopher, Thales. The tradition continued to live on throughout
history in the hands of other Ionian philosophers, atomists, materialists, reductionists, the
advocators of mind-body identity theory, and eliminative materialists. However, there is another
tradition, which started almost at the same time and runs parallel to the reductionist or
fundamentalist tradition. It is the tradition of Pythagoras, Plato and Aristotle. They paid more
attention to immaterial issues such as harmony, relations, structures and forms. Both Plato and
Aristotle considered forms, however, Plato’s Forms are different from Aristotle’s forms. Plato’s
Forms are ideal, perfect, universal and ante rem; while Aristotle’s forms are empirical, particular,
individual and in re. If Plato is an objective idealist; Aristotle is more like a non-reductive
physicalist in 20th century. As a metaphysical concept, I prefer Aristotle’s form to Plato’s Form,
since Aristotle’s form is more compatible with the new progress in science, while Plato’s concept
of Form, as another kind of form realism, runs against the achievements in modern science. It is
ironic that modern science develops by breaking away from Aristotelian tradition. This is the case
at least for Galileo, Descartes and Francis Bacon. However, to cure certain symptoms of modern
science, we have to come back to Aristotle. I believe Aristotle’s metaphysics of matter and form is
quite potential. While most philosophers are looking for some kind of fundamental building
blocks for the world, Aristotle's theory explains not just what exists in the world, but why the
world is like this. While most philosophers are pursuing a reductionist approach, Aristotle's form
provides a hope for non-reductionism.
I would like to start an argument at the middle level in the hierarchy of existence, i.e., the
meso-cosmic objects of sensible magnitude. Let's take a chair for example. It has two components:
the wood beams (matter) and the design of a chair (form). When I bought a chair from IKEA, it
was hardly a chair. It came as a set of parts tightly packed in a flat box. It is not yet a chair. It was
not in the form of a chair. You cannot sit on it. It became a chair only when I finished the assembly.
As Aristotle points out, matter is the potentiality, form the actuality (Aristotle De Anima 412a10).
The chair is a composite of matter (the wood beams) and form (the structure of the chair)
(Aristotle Metaphysics 1013a25). Now the chair is an existence distinct from the existence of a
box of wood beams. A chair is not identical to a box of wood beams. The wood beams arranged in
certain form become a chair. Fundamentalists seem to think that the arrangement is not important.
Aristotle definitely thought differently.
Aristotle is absolutely right when he interpreted "matter" as "which in itself is not a this";
"form" as "essence, which is that precisely in virtue of which a thing is called a this" (Aristotle De
Anima 412a6-9). A chair is a chair, not because it is made of wood beams. Since a chair can be
made of steel or plastic; we also build a table or a house by wood beams. A chair is a chair because
it is in the form of a chair. We can find ample examples for Aristotle’s thesis. The essence of
Coca-cola is its formula of the secret ingredients, water, salt, and sugar. Form differentiates music
from noise, water from ice, a diamond from graphite, a Nikon FM2 from a Leica M6, and a Honda
Accord from a BMW 323i. When the neurons in a brain stop firing, the mind loses its existence.
Form determines what is what. Form is an indispensable component of the reality. Form is
immaterial but real.
If we apply Aristotle’s theory of matter and form to the hierarchy of reality and keep going
downward, we will get something unexpected. What is a wood beam? It is made of wood cells. A
wood beam is a foot for the chair, because its wood cells are arranged in the form of a foot; a
wood beam is an arm for the chair, because its wood cells are in the form of an arm. If we keep
going downward further and further, we get the following diagram:
Diagram: The Hierarchy of Reality.
What implications can we draw from the diagram? On the ladder of the downward analysis,
at each level, matter can always be further analyzed into forms and sub-matter. All that remains on
the ladder are forms. Matter almost resolves into forms, though not completely if we assume that
the descending is finite. Matter does not "vaporize" and disappear. It only "melts" down the ladder,
with some residues: electrons and quarks or super strings, assuming they are not penetrable. If we
think that only matter is real, then what exist in the world are nothing but electrons and quarks or
super strings. The whole world is nothing but the arrangement or properties of electrons and
quarks. If forms are not real, only matter matters, we can refuse to pay the bills for electricity,
telephone, Internet service, etc., since nothing material flows into my house from those services.
Music would be the same thing as noise. Software piracy would be perfectly legal, since we only
duplicate the magnetic patterns on our own floppy disc. It does not sound right. It runs against
most of our intuitions. Only by admitting the reality of forms, and looking upward, can we get the
existence of everything in the world. If form is real, then a chair is not identical to a box of wood
beams, because a chair is the wood beams plus something extra, i.e., the form of a chair. The
reality of forms as something extra also explains why in a system is more than the totality of its
[Addition: Some people may say that two things are different, partly because they have
different matter. The difference in matter is not a real difference, since the difference in matter at
one level is still the difference in form at a lower level. Form is the sole reason that determines
what is what. ]
If a chair is not identical to a box of wood beams, what is the relationship between them? To
name the relationship, we may employ the term "supervenience". This is a popular term in current
philosophy. Leibniz is the first philosopher who began to use the term "supervenire" in his Latin
text concerning his doctrine of relations. In the 1920s and the 1930s it was used by British
Emergentists as a stylish variant of “emergence” in their doctrine of "emergent evolution",
meaning a "non-reductive" relation. In 1952 it was introduced by R.M. Hare into ethics to describe
the “non-reductive” relation between moral property and descriptive property. In 1970, Donald
Davidson used the term to describe the “non-reductive” relation between mental property and
physical property. Most of them employ the term in the sense of "non-reductive" relation, which
conforms to the common sense meaning in the Oxford English Dictionary, that is, "to come on or
occur as something additional or extraneous after something else". However, Kim in his criticism
of Davidson argues that supervenience is a reductive relation. Though I am not on the side of
reductionism, I do think that Kim has made a contribution to the concept of supervenience. In
order to avoid the ambiguity in the discussion of supervenience, Kim clearly defines it as a
mereological relation (Kim 1998, p15). The only problem is that, supervenience defined as a
mereological relation may no longer be suitable to describe the relation between the mental and
the physical. For a typical mereological relation, both relata are physical. A typical mereological
ascending won’t give rise to the emergence of the mental. If we insist that the relation between the
mental and the physical is a special kind of mereological relation, then we have to spell out the
uniqueness in that special kind. Why for most merelogical relation the two relata are both physical,
but for that special kind, one relatum is physical, the other is mental. Obviously the mere notion of
“mereological relation” cannot explain the difference between the mental and the physical, why
something has both mental and physical properties while some other thing only has physical
If a choice has to be made, here is mine. I will employ “supervenience” solely for the relation
between a chair and its parts. “Emergence” is the dynamic process for the creation of supervenient;
“supervenience” is the static relation between the supervenient and the subvenient after the
process of emergence. Supervenience is naturally a mereological relation according to the
etymological meaning of the term. Since I have argued that a chair is not identical to its parts,
supervenience is a non-reductive relation. This choice thus combines two elements of the term,
“non-reductive” and “mereological”. Therefore, supervenience is a non-reductive mereological
relation. We have to choose another term to describe the relation between the mental and the
physical. If we apply the term supervenience to describe the relation, the chair is the supervenient;
the pile of wood beams is the subvenient. The chair supervenes on the pile of wood beams.
Several levels down the ladder, an atom supervenes on protons, neutrons and electrons. Several
levels up the ladder, a university supervenes on its departments. Since a chair is not identical to a
box of wood beams, the relation between the two relata is not reductive. The chair is located
somewhat higher on the ladder than its wood beams. It has one more extra real component, the
form. However, can we say that the supervenient is a stronger existence than its subvenient since
the supervenient has form as one more real component? If we admitted this, then electrons and
quarks would have the weakest existence. Any particle physicist will definitely say no to the
conclusion. Fundamentalists (atomists and physicalists) think that fundamental level is the only
thing real, or at least more real than upper levels. If that were the case, then Milky Way and spiral
nebulae would have the weakest existence or would not exist at all. This is obviously wrong.
Therefore, I would say that supervenient and subvenient are equally real. The hierarchy as a whole
is the totality of the reality. Each level is one layer of the reality.
4. How Causation Happens?
Epiphenomenalism in philosophy of mind is the theory that the physical has a causal effect
on the mental, but not vice versa. Epiphenomenalism as presented by Schaffer in the context of
metaphysics has a slightly different version, that is, all causal powers inhere at the fundamental
level. Epiphenomenalism seems to receive support from science. A professor of physics might also
tell us that all causation happens via one or more of the four fundamental forces: 1) strong
interaction where gluon is the agent, 2) weak interaction where neutrino is the agent, 3)
electro-magnetic interaction where photon is the agent, and 4) gravitational interaction where
graviton is the agent. Does this mean that causation happens only at the fundamental level? We
should not jump to that conclusion instantly. New progress in science may prove that the four
fundamental forces are not fundamental. With the thesis of fundamentality in trouble, the similar
perplexing question that epiphenomenalism has no way to answer is, “What is the hierarchical
level at which the causation really happens?” Has physics found the final causal agent and the
lowest level of causation for us? Again, there are two possibilities. If we assume that we have not
found the final causal agent and the lowest level of causation, it does not mean that our knowledge
about causation is zero. We already have a lot of knowledge, based on causation at the macro level.
If we assume that we have found the fundamental causal agent and the lowest level of causation, it
is doubtful to say that causation happens only at the lowest level. Scientists, especially physicists,
never hesitate to provide causal explanations at macro-levels. We already have conceivable causal
accounts at many levels on the ladder of reality. Each one of them is unique.
Now with form realism in hand, we face a different set of questions. Does form have any
causal power? Is form involved in causation? Can we say that forms at macro levels play no role
in causation? If form is real, it is better to assign some causal power to it. It is obviously not right
to say that forms at macro levels play no causal role. Still take a chair for example. A chair is solid
only if the design of the chair is good, the material is reasonably solid (which is determined by
forms at lower level), and the chair is used in the right way (which means the forms at upper level).
If the structure of a chair is not suitable, no matter how solid its wood beams are, it will crash. If a
chair is made of tofu or cheese, no matter how perfect the design is, it will not hold its shape. Even
a perfect chair cannot be abused. It follows that forms at each level are involved in causation. A
chair made of material that is perfectly solid but with a poor design may still hold a reasonable
weight. The forms on three adjacent levels are complementary to each other. What we get is the
collective effect of them all.
Form at macro level, or form at each level, plays a role in causation. Forms determine the
pre-condition before the causation and define the result after the causation. Forms determine or
define what kind of cause we have and what kind of effect we finally get. Forms are involved in
causation. Without the form of a chair, a box of wood beams will not serve as a chair. Form directs
the macro collective effect of the causation at micro level.
Although the hierarchy as a whole is the totality of the reality, each level is one layer of the
reality. When we describe the reality, or, when scientists formulate their theory, what one faces is
not the hierarchy as a whole, but always one layer of the reality. Each level forms a domain for
research and learning. Physicists, chemists, biologists, social workers, cabinetmakers, …they all
have their own domain of reality. Correspondingly, there is only one causation as a whole.
Causation perceived at each level is only one layer of the causation. However, it seems that
physicists and chemists can always provide a self-complete causal explanation for their own levels,
respectively. The reason is that, when they provide their theory, they always ignore the causation
at other levels. For example, when a physicist proposes a theory, he usually pays attention only to
the form at the levels for physics. He will ignore chemical reaction contained in physical change.
Within physics, when he writes a law for free fall, friction from air is ignored or minimized by
creating an ideal environment in his experiments. For the same reason, when a chemist writes an
equation for chemical reaction, the effect from atomic change is not taken into account.
Is there any causation across levels? Many philosophers believe that supervenience is a
causal relation. Davidson is obviously one of them (Davidson 1980). Searle frequently says that
the mental is “caused” by the physical. Kim (for him supervenience is a mereological relation)
also talks about downward and upward causation (Kim 1999). What comments can we make from
form realism? Since for form realism there is only one causation, causation at each level is only
one layer of the causation. So the new question is, is there any causation between the two layers of
reality at two adjacent levels? This is actually a new expression of the old question, is
supervenience a causal relation? I mean to argue that supervenience is not a causal relation. An
intuitive argument would be like this: it is awkward to say that a chair causes its arm to collide
with the rim of a table. A more theoretical argument would run as the following. There are two
notions of causation, perceived from macro perspective and micro perspective, respectively. Take
a loaf of bread for example, from macro perspective we see bread as an individual. The good
bread on Monday is the cause; the rotten bread on Friday is the effect. From micro perspective we
see the causal interaction between atoms. The first notion is based on the fact that cause happens
before effect, where cause and effect have different temporal locations. The second notion is based
on the model of interaction, where cause and effect have different spatial locations. For a chair and
its parts, there is neither temporal nor spatial difference. Therefore they cannot enter a causal
relation. There is a causal relation between a chair and a table, where two objects have different
spatial locations.
We have argued that forms at each level are involved in causation. Causation, or one layer of
causation, may exist at each level. We also argued that supervenience is not a causal relation, that
is, we have cut any causal linkage between levels. The only option is that we have to go
parallelism. That is, causation happens at each level where we can provide a conceivable causal
account. It is amazing that we can provide conceivable causal accounts at several levels and thus
get several chains of causation, and that they run parallel so well that we can formulate neat laws
to describe them. The reason is that when a scientist of one discipline describes phenomena at his
level, he ignores what is going on at other levels.
5. Epistemological Non-Reductionism
What is the relation between scientific disciplines? Is there a reductive relation between
concepts and theories of various disciplines like physics and chemistry? Humean idea atomism is
a conceptual reductionism??? His idea may mean both concepts and propositions. The theoretical
reductionists like Vienna Circle believe that all scientific theories can be derived from physics.
With form realism in sight, this is obviously wrong. Scientists in different disciplines have their
own layers of reality. Their major concerns are the forms at their own levels. Their theories are
designed to describe forms at different levels. Naturally there is no reduction between theories of
different disciplines. The solidness or solidity of a chair is determined by forms at three levels
collectively. One cannot say that it is only determined by micro forms. The theory about macro
forms is different from the theory about micro forms. We may say, all of our knowledge is
knowledge about forms.
We have to admit that the reductive approach, as a scientific method, is quite powerful some
times. Some macro properties can be explained by micro forms. For examples, the color of a chair
(or its wood beams) is a macro manifestation of a micro feature, which is determined by micro
forms; the solidness of wood beams is also determined by the micro structure of wood cells.
However, the macro properties determined by macro forms, such as the design of a chair, cannot
be derived from the description of micro forms. Occasionally scientists may go deeper into an
adjacent level for a better understanding of some macro properties and features. That is the
practice in physical chemistry or chemical biology. The discovery of DNA is one fine example of
this kind of cross-level work. The heredity as a macro feature can be partly explained by the
molecular structure of DNA. However, the three laws of heredity (such as the 3:1 ratio between
dominant phenotype and recessive phenotype) as the description of macro forms cannot be
derived from the structure of DNA alone. Can we imagine an account of social change in terms of
properties of chemical elements? Liu Chuang, in his discussion of phase transition as an emergent
property in physics, makes a distinction between collective phenomena and cooperative
phenomena, and argues that the property of collective phenomena can be reduced to the property
of its parts whereas the property of cooperative phenomena cannot be reduced to property of its
parts. Properties like color, temperature, pressure, and entropy are collective; properties like the
design of a chair, the increase of entropy, and phase transitions are cooperative (Liu 1999, p93).
Besides his mathematical demonstration, here is the philosophical explanation. For collective
phenomena, the relation between its parts does not matter; for cooperative phenomena, the
correlation (i.e., relation, structure, or forms) among its parts is real and substantial. It is a simple
fact that the theoretical reduction and the unification of sciences proposed by Vienna Circle did
not happen in the last 70 years.
There is a principle of the Closure of the Physical, which says that the physical system forms
a closed system. Physical theories should be able to provide a complete explanation of the
physical system without recourse to the mental. Since this paper is not about the relation between
the mental and the physical, the relation between the mental and the physical is different from the
relation between two adjacent levels within the physical, I will leave this psycho-physical question
alone in this paper and move our focus to another question. Within the physical world, there are
multiple layers of reality. If each level is only a layer of the reality, what about the discipline at
that level? Can we form a closed theory system for each layer? Is each level a closed system and
each discipline a self-complete theory system? The answer could be positive, if based on certain
conditions. For examples, a chemist can formulate his theory and write his equation of chemical
reaction on the condition that the chemical elements will not break, that is, there is no atomic
reaction; a cabinetmaker will do his design on a chair based on the condition that the timber is
reasonably solid and his chair will be employed in a proper way; the Law of Free Fall in physics is
true only on the condition that the friction from air is minimal and negligible. If the interference
from adjacent levels manifests, no theory is self-complete.
6. Conclusion
In this paper I have introduced the paper by Jonathan Schaffer, and tried to provide an
argument for his third option, which is missing in his paper. With the admittance of the reality of
form, we can treat each level as ontologically equal and grant full citizenship for each level in the
republic of being. Then we proceed from ontological non-reduction to epistemological
non-reduction and the problem of causation. Based on form realism, I argue that each level plays a
role in causation. Based on ontological non-reduction, I argue that some macro properties can be
fully explained by micro forms. The only remaining issue is the economical concern, that is, the
violation of the principle of parsimony will lead to the unnecessary proliferation of the reality. As
Schaffer points out, the economic concern is only a secondary concern. It should not be
Schaffer, Jonathan, “Is There a Fundamental Level?”, NOǗS 37:3 (2003) 498-517.
Aristotle, The Basic Works of Aristotle, ed. by Richard McKeon, Random House, Modern Library
Paperback Edition, 2001.
Davidson, Donald, “Mental Events”, in Essays on Actions and Events, Clarendon Press, Oxford,
Kim, Jaegwon, "Supervenience As A Philosophical Concept", Supervenience and Mind,
Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, 1990.
Kim, Jaegwon, Mind in a Physical World, The MIT Press, 1998.
Kim, Jaegwon, “Making Sense of Emergence”, Philosophical Studies 95: 3-36, 1999.
Liu, Chuang, “Explaining the Emergence of Cooperative Phenomena”, Philosophy of Science,
66(Proceedings) pp. 92-106, 1999.
Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK, 1989.