Exploring Levels of Reality: A Metanexus Conference in Madrid (July 2008)

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by Carlo Scognamiglio*


The session “Exploring Non-Reduction and Levels of Reality”, within the Metanexus event “Subject, Self, and Soul: Transdisciplinary Approaches to Personhood” (Madrid, 13-17 July, 2008), proposed different points of view on the problem of an antireductionist theory of reality.
Basarab Nicolescu (CIRET) spoke about The Idea of Levels of Reality and its Relevance for Non-Reduction and Personhood. In his lecture, Nicolescu clarified some terminological aspects of the question: he explains that the word “reductionism” is often used in two different ways by philosophers and scientists; while philosophers intend reductionism as a theoretical form of understanding, in effect, the complexity understood in a simple way, scientists especially proceed by reducing the spiritual to the material. Secondly, terminology needs clarification about three kinds of reductionism: methodological (reduction of different procedures to only one methodology), theoretical (reduction of different theories in a single one), ontological (reducing the discontinuities present in being through a unified theory of the world). A non-reductionist perspective must be instead based on two necessary scientific attitudes: holism and emergentism. In this way, Nicolescu can define the reality as «that which resists to our experiences, representations, descriptions, images, mathematical formulations», but reality is for him also accessible to our knowledge, with accessibility through its “transsubjectivity”. His modern references for a theory of levels of reality are Nicolai Hartmann and Heisenberg, with the latter being likely the greater influence. Following Heisenberg, he proposed a first distinction on three levels: 1) fields which embody objectivity in an independent way from the knowledge process (studied by physics and Einstein’s theory of relativity); 2) fields inseparable from the knowledge process (studies by quantum mechanicism, biology, science of consciousness); 3) fields created in connection with the knowledge process (philosophy, art, politics, metaphors of God, religious experience and artistic creative experiences). On this basis Nicolescu wants to edify a new transdisciplinary approach that takes into consideration ontological, logical and epistemological axioms. On the ontological side of his developments on transdisciplinarity, he asserted the importance of the notions of discontinuity as an aside, and, in a way less explicitly, in his view the levels could became infinite. There is also another group of theses that appear sometimes obscure; for example the idea for which every level is incomplete, but also the assertion of the ossimoric nature of “subject-objectivity” as the basis of transdiscplinarity. In fact, Nicolescu even thinks that we can conciliate reductionism and non-reductionism, through trans-reductionism.
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Along with Nicolescu, other speakers also spoke, generally at a very broad level of debate. Roy Clouser (College of New Jersey), who focused his attention on the problem of A Blueprint for a Non-Reductionist Theory of Reality, critically analyzed the nature of religious belief, individuating the situation of a “divine” reductionism: the idea of a crucial reconduction to the creator of all the reality levels. William Mathews (Milltown Institute of Theology and Philosophy, Dublin), in his lecture on Understanding Levels: Redefining Science in an Emergentist World View underscored the importance of some classical concepts of a non-reductionist approach, first of all the notion of “emergence”, which reveals itself as inescapable for a transdisciplinary approach to personhood, but also forces us to develop a theory of levels.
Carlo Scognamiglio (PhD Student, University of Rome “La Sapienza”), discussing Human Being and Non-Reductionist Conception of Determination, started from a distinction: if in the most famous debates on reductionism the centre of the question is the possibility of reducing the essence of a whole to its parts, and in this sense the attention of scientists and scholars is often concentred on the discussion about a static object, a concrete epistemological praxis is constituted by the reduction of every kind of process, and in particular Scognamiglio referred to causal or determination processes. There are indeed two possible ways to edify a reductionist solution in determination processes: mechanicism and finalism. In both cases, we are faced with a reduction operation, because the multiplicity and the variety of the real processes are simplified in a single model. In agreement with Nicolai Hartmann, Scognamiglio defended a stratified conception of the real world, where the subject, in his behaviour, is a bundle of processes.
An opposite perspective was formulated by Riccardo Manzotti (IULM, Milan). He proposed, speaking about The Relational Nature of the Physical World as a Foundation for the Conscious Mind, a psychological theory that reduces the difference between subject and object in the process of representation, evoking some example from Gestalt theories of perception. He sustained that the idea of autonomy of the object inhibits any developed explanation of our experience (and he referred probably to only sense experience). However, in his solipsistic and maybe Protagorean approach, he did not consider the problem of knowledge phenomenon, which needs to exist (and to offer itself) in autonomy from the object.
The instances of a multistratified conception of reality and of a change of paradigms was analyzed – through the contribution of systemics, by an Italian research-group (Tommaso Bolognesi, Fabio Caporali, Lodovico Galleni, Silvana Procacci, Aurelio Rizzacasa), working on the question: Is There a Hierarchical Consciousness? Individual, Social and Cosmic Consciousness.
On the other hand Cecilia Dockerdoff (Fundaciόn SOLES) spoke about The Long Way from Non-Reductionism to Transdisciplinarity: Critical Questions about Levels of Reality and the Constitution of Human Beings. She considered reductionism not only as a scientific or philosophical problem, but in its cultural role in the relationship between human and nature in everyday life. However, as consequence of her analysis in sociology and communication she observed that transdisciplinarity needs a scientific and philosophical legitimization, first of all, because this is crucial for an educational and common-sense acquisition. Remaining in the horizon of the “social studies”, James Skillen expressed his perspective on The Necessity of a Non-Reductionist Science of Politics, and Adolfo García de la Sienra (Veracruzana University), in his lecture, depth the problems of The Economic Sphere. In his view, a non-reductionist theory on economic “level” admits other spheres of human life and not only the economic, even though they have an economic side. This approach has as a consequence that also other aspects of consumers’ motivation influence the constitution of the value, and it is not enough to explain with a theory on division of labour. In the part of his lecture on “the modal laws of economics”, García began an analysis of the economic domain, where the peculiar and meta-historical categories appear to be first efficiency, but also the distribution of goods and the division of labour. In particular about the latter, García founded a confirmation of his theory in the works of the most radical critic of the labour’s division, Karl Marx, who wrote that also in a social system of production, it would be impossible to eliminate that kind of “distribution”, which can only change its form. Marx named that “category” of distribution as “natural”, but in this discussion we can consider that as “ontological”. A bridge between social sciences and ethics was then thrown from Egbert Schumann, who spoke about The Ethics of Responsibility as a Comprehensive Approach: An Application to the Ethics of Technology.
On the horizon of other scientific perspectives, we must consider the contributions of Daniel F. M. Strauss on The Significance of a Non-Reductionist Ontology for the Disciplines of Mathematics and Physics–an Historical and Systematic Analysis, of Ingolf Schmid-Tannwald on Fertilisation: The Unification of the Immaterial Interpersonal (Social) Reality and the Biological Reality Constituting Personhood in Human Beings, of Liliana Albertazzi on Why Perception is Not Reducible to Physics? and, in an epistemological formulation, of Steven Horst: Beyond Reduction: Philosophy of Mind and Post-Reductionist Philosophy of Science.
A word of clarification was given in the conclusive lecture of Roberto Poli (University of Trento and Mitteleuropafoundation), who, illustrated his well known theory on “levels of reality” (intended as the general framework able to provide the categorical tools with which to distinguish and coordinate the various disciplinary and technological outcomes), expressed a provocative but interesting assertion: reductionism in science can be accepted because it can give results, but the problem is that sometimes the reductionist methods do not work. For this - but also for a philosophical reason - we need also, and maybe first of all, a non-reductionist theory of reality, based on an ontological, and not epistemological, approach. For him all the sciences have a basic ontological orientation, but ontology must be intended as an autonomous discipline, which analyzes the links among results of the various sciences. But in this moment we have not an adequate ontological framework, maybe because the pictures yielded by the different sciences are categorically different, and no conceptual framework able to synthesize them properly is available. The future of this research needs to develop in the same time particular sciences and an ontological conception of the world.
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*report published on Semiotix 13 (http://www.semioticon.com/)
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