Exploring Non-Reductionism and Levels of Reality: On the Importance of the Non-Separability of Discontinuity and Continuity of the Different Levels of Reality

Exploring Non-Reductionism and Levels of Reality: On the Importance of the Non-Separability of Discontinuity and Continuity of the Different Levels of Reality

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goya Witches' FlightWe are now, admittedly, the masters of the Earth and the world, but our very mastery seems to escape our mastery. We have all things in hand, but we do not control our actions. Everything happens as though our powers escape our powers. Our consequences outstrip our deliberate intentions. So, it no longer depends on us that everything depends on us. We have resolved the Cartesian question: ‘How can we dominate the world?’ We will now have to resolve the next one: ‘How can we dominate our domination; or how can we master our own mastery?’” – Michel Serres (1995: 171—172)


Through our domination of the world we have irrevocably changed the world. We no longer face the Cartesian question of whether it is possible to master the world. That we have certainly achieved. By separating the subject from the object, the world of ideas and the mind from the material world of things and objects, res cogitans from res extensa, we have transformed the world into a radically different ontological reality. What was once regarded as ‘natural’ boundaries, upon which our existence was dependent, is no longer the case. Through our mastery of the world a fusion of the ‘social’ into the ‘natural’ and, vice versa, the ‘natural’ into the ‘social’ has been effected. Therefore, it is no longer possible and desirable to imagine ourselves as being fundamentally separate / distinct from the world. Not only have we crossed what was once considered to be ‘natural’ boundaries, but we have, as it were, invaded the space on the other side of these boundaries. And, this has happened to such an extent that our being-in-the-world has taken on the dimensions, rhythms and conditions of nature itself. It is, therefore, rather difficult to find the right metaphors or analogies to capture this new reality. What language do we use to depict the planetary scale at which the consequences of our physical and spatial presence in the world have manifested itself over the last few decades? Attempts to do so have ranged from referring to this new epoch as the Anthropocene era1, the equivalent of a human tectonic plate2 or a planetary polycrisis3. Whatever descriptive language we choose to use they are all an endeavour to denote the anthropogenic nature of the planetary scale of the crises facing the whole of humanity today.

Our being-in-the-world is no longer an existential question only. Through our domination it has assumed geophysical proportions. Change in the Earth’s climate is no longer a purely ‘natural’ phenomenon. Through our daily pumping of excessive amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere, the human contribution to climate change has reached a scale similar to that of the Earth itself. Peak oil, the point at which global oil production reaches its maximum, serves as another example of the magnitude and implications of our interventions into planetary processes which took over 4 billion years to evolve. Depending on one’s viewpoint, peak oil has either already been reached4 or will be reached in the next couple of years5. Many more examples can be added to this list to illustrate that the old boundaries between the ‘natural’ and ‘social’ have been become so porous that it no longer makes sense to separate them. Therefore, it no longer depends on us that everything depends on us, and the intriguing question arising from this insight is whether we can master our own mastery.

This shift in reality in which the ‘social’ and ‘natural’ have increasingly become inseparable and merged has immediate moral consequences. Ontological and moral considerations and questions have also become fused. This is so because we are no longer dealing with the actual domination of the world, but rather with the irreversible consequences of our domination. Being confronted by the latter, the schism between practical and moral reasoning becomes superficial. The repeated insistence on separating between what we are capable of doing and what we must do becomes untenable when we grasp the implications of the new reality we are facing. What we can do and must do can and should no longer be seen as two distinguishable, separate questions. Failing to see this, failing to understand that we must find ways of mastering our own mastery implies a repetition of our domination of the world, thereby deepening the already existing planetary crises threatening our continued stay on Earth.

Our domination of the world and, in particular, the geophysical magnitude of the consequences of this domination means that we can no longer look to our future on the planet with absolute certainty and predictability. We can no longer merely assume a safe and secure continued stay on Earth. The future has indeed become uncertain. However, this uncertainty does not imply inertia or an impossibility to act. Our call for action stems from an understanding that the consequences of our mastery of the world implies that what we can do and must do have become two sides of the same stick which cannot be separated6. In the words of Serres:

Being masters imposes crushing responsibilities, suddenly driving us far from the independence we so recently believed would henceforth be the bed of roses of our new powers. In dominating the planet, we become accountable for it. In manipulating life, death, reproduction, the normal and the pathological we become responsible for them. We are going to have to decide about every thing, and even about Everything—about the physical and thermodynamic future, about Darwinian evolution, about life, about the Earth and about time—a process Leibniz described as characterising the work of God the creator, in the secret of his infinite understanding.7

It is then in this context of a fused social-natural8 reality and the challenge to master our own mastery of the world that we should see and understand our investigation into the irreducibility of reality. As a starting point, what this impossibility of separating the social-natural reality into two distinct domains means, is that we can no longer approach reality within the disciplinary divide between and amongst the natural and social sciences. In other words, the complexity of the world we are facing today resists all our reductionist and fragmentary ideas, notions and representations of reality. We are compelled to think beyond, across, and between the disciplinary boundaries9. In fact, reverting back to the reductionist and fragmentary thinking offered by mono-disciplinarity implies a dangerous repetition10 of the very same assumptions, concepts, and logic of the reductionist paradigm that produced both our domination and knowledge of nature and society—that which we are forced to overcome. Trying to imagine how to master our mastery with the very same concepts, logic and language that informed our domination of the world poses both a logical and moral conundrum at the same time. Repeating the Cartesian belief in attaining absolute certainty through the method of separation runs the risk of imposing the same worldview, instrumental reasoning and techno-scientific ‘solutions’ that produced the current polycrisis in the first place.

Therefore, if we are to find ways and means of mastering our own mastery it means that we can no longer—and should no longer—hope to discover how to do this in terms of the ‘divide-and-rule’ thinking and doing that gave us control over the world. Put differently: how do we learn what it means to dominate our own domination outside of the prevailing reductionist / fragmentary paradigm? Is it indeed possible to not only think about the complex world in relational terms, but also to start acting, doing and reconstructing the world relationally? If we accept the thesis of a non-separable social-natural reality how do we approach this complex reality in non-reductionist terms? How are we to understand the relationality of this complex, radically new ontological reality? For example, if we accept that the current growing levels of poverty11 is a consequence of our domination of the world, then it implies that such poverty is not only ‘caused’ by our neoliberal political-economic policies and practices, but equally by our changing and exacerbating the biophysical living conditions of the Earth. In other words, if poverty is both a ‘social’ and ‘natural’ problem, at the same time, how do we understand the negative and positive feedback loops oscillating between these two inseparable sides of the problem? From the perspective of having to dominate our domination, solving the problem of poverty is, therefore, not something we can avoid, pretending that it is an ‘external’ problem happening only in some ‘far away’ places on the planet. In dominating the planet, we have been permanently driven away from what we thought would be our secure position of ‘detachment’ and ‘independence’ from the Earth. Poverty, a living example of the ‘crushing responsibilities’ imposed upon us by our own mastery, links us back not only to our fellow human beings, but, simultaneously, linking us back to the Earth.

The Conceptual Challege

To be sure, the challenge before us is to understand the consequences of the complex social-natural reality we are facing today. In order to avoid both reductionism as well as simplistic notions of the ‘social’ and ‘natural’ having become ‘one-and-the-same-reality,’ we should not confuse ourselves with the imagery of ‘fusion’ or ‘merging’. This can quite easily evoke images and concepts such as ‘inter-dependence’ which implies a two-way form of dependence, namely that we are dependent on the Earth and that the Earth is dependent on us. The latter is clearly not the case. Even if we accept that we are no longer dealing with our actual domination of the world, but with the consequences hereof, it does not mean that the Earth is dependent on us. This anthropocentric illusion of Modernity that everything depended on us is a belief that can no longer be upheld. This myth could only be sustained whilst caught up in the frenzy of a mindset busy conquering the world. However, learning that we are not necessarily in control of the consequences of our conquering the world, we are, paradoxically, re-discovering our dependence on the Earth. But, of course, the truth is that we have never not been dependent on the Earth. Ideas and perceptions of ‘independence’ are merely the product of Modernity with its audacious promises of absolute certainty and control. Needless to say, these false ideas have been resisted and rudely exposed by the sheer magnitude and scale of the polycrisis facing us today.

The conceptual challenge before us is therefore a formidable one. We have to employ thinking and concepts that will capture the relationality of the ‘social’ and the ‘natural’ in a way that not only steers clear from reductionism (the hallmark of Modernity), but that also avoids over-simplistic notions of immediacy or identity between the subject and object (the hallmark of Romanticism and Identitätsphilosophie). Both these philosophical positions make the fatal error of mistaking our ideas with reality itself. It leaves no room for difference, for resistance and for re-construction. If we fail to see any difference between our ideas and reality, we cannot allow for the former to be resisted by the latter and, consequently, for our ideas to be re-constructed. This means, fundamentally, failing to see the dialogic construction of our own ideas, which, in turn, holds some serious implications for how we view our relationship to the world. If our ideas somehow directly represent reality itself and, therefore, cannot be resisted and re-constructed, it means that we have laid the foundation for dominating the world. Conversely, the extent to which we allow for difference and resistance between our ideas and reality makes it possible to recognise the dialogic construction and re-construction of our ideas. For as long as we mistake our ideas as direct replicas of reality itself we have created a barrier / chasm between ourselves and the world. Our ideas come to stand between ourselves and world and make us to believe in our ‘separation’ and ‘independence’ of the world. Our impotence to see the social-dialogic character of our being-in-the-world leads to putting ourselves at the centre of things, erroneously believing that the world depends on us. It is, therefore, possible to see a link between being able to recognise the social-dialogic character of our ideas and being able to understand our relationship to the world. In order to ‘see’ that our dependence on the earth is the result or consequence of our domination, we need to be able to grasp our own social construction of the world and for this to happen, as mentioned, it is critically important not to equate our ideas with reality itself, but to allow for difference and resistance between our ideas and reality.

With this bigger picture of the relationality of the social-natural world and the re-affirmation of our fundamental dependence on the earth in mind, we can now proceed to explore other important aspects of the concepts, ideas, notions and models we use to represent our relationship to the world. In this regard, the notion of different and irreducible ‘levels of reality’ plays a crucial role in presenting to us an image of the multi-dimensional and irreducible structure of reality. This image of a complex structure of reality, of fundamentally different and irreducible levels of reality co-existing, is particularly important as we have to think through the consequences of the simultaneity of these different levels. Whilst we think and work at the macro-physical level where the atomic structure of matter appears to be thing-like, where wave and particle are separate entities, where the linearity and the irreversibility of the arrow of time is present, we cannot reduce all of reality to these concepts only. Becoming aware of the fundamentally different micro-physical level of reality where matter itself loses its thing-like structure and behaviour, where the photon resolves the wave vs. particle conundrum, where the reversibility comes into play, means that our ideas, concepts and notions formed to represent the macro-physical level of reality can longer be regarded as the only ‘true’ representations of reality. In other words, the totally new worldview and completely different concepts at work at the micro-physical level means that, howev r ‘true’ and accurate they may seem to appear, our macro-physical ideas and concepts can never be taken as direct representations of reality. In view of the notion of the multi-dimensional structure of reality there can never be ‘one’ reality which can be completely captured by our concepts.

However, having posited the fundamental differences in the multi-levelled structure of reality, we need to immediately commence with investigating the other side of coin, as it were. It is submitted that, in order to better understand the complexity of the social-natural world, we cannot and should not associate our notions of the irreducibility of reality with the fundamental differences between the different levels of reality only. This may indeed (re)introduce another form of reductionism. This can happen if we assign a certain ontological status to the discontinuities / dissimilarities between the different levels of reality without a concomitant conceptualisation of their continuities / similarities. The difficulty we face here is how we conceptualise the continuities between the different levels the moment we have defined the irreducibility of reality in terms of the fundamental differences between the different levels. To be sure, the differences are indeed radical: “By ‘level of Reality’, we intend to designate an ensemble of systems that are invariant under certain laws: for example, quantum entities are subordinate to quantum laws, which depart radically from the laws of the physical world. That is to say that two levels of Reality are different if, while passing from one to the other, there is a break in the laws and a break in fundamental concepts (such as, for example, causality).”12

However, although the fundamental discontinuity between the different levels of reality is what guarantees the non-collapsibility of the complex structure of reality, ‘discontinuity’ is not the final word that can or should be said about this complex structure. If there was only discontinuity between the different levels there would be no coherence, only chaos. This, notwithstanding the above mentioned invariance and radical departure in the laws of the physical world, is explicitly acknowledged in the following words: “Quantum physics and quantum cosmologies show us that the complexity of the universe is not the complexity of a garbage can, without any order. A stunning coherence exists in the relationship between the infinitely small and the infinitely large.”13 As well as in the following words: “There is certainly coherence among different levels of Reality, at least in the natural world. In fact, an immense self-consistency—a cosmic bootstrap—seems to govern the evolution of the universe, from the infinitely small to the infinitely large, from the infinitely brief to the infinitely long.”14

In other words, grappling with the complexity of the natural world once again points to the impossibility of associating our ideas and notions of the radical differences in the structure with reality as being a direct representation of this structure. As mentioned, the moment we posit their discontinuity we have to, at the same time, point to their continuity so as not overlook the ultimate coherence in the natural world.  In so doing, we once again confirm that the heart of reductionism is situated in the attitude of wanting to associate our ideas with reality itself—of having absolutely and finally captured reality. However, Reality is always more complex than our ideas and will always resist such attempts to reduce it to this or that notion despite how fundamentally important it may seem. Therefore, in order to overcome any reductionist inclinations it becomes imperative to conceptualise the opposite of the differences or discontinuities between the levels, namely to imagine their continuities and similarities. Without the latter the coherence remains unaccounted for and we are left with having conceptualised just one side of the non-separable stick.

In order to proceed with this undertaking, it becomes imperative from the onset not to think of discontinuity and continuity as binary oppositions to each other. To demonstrate our ability to think the complex of the multi-dimensional structure of reality, it becomes critical to conceive of the continuity (A) and discontinuity (non-A) between the different levels of reality at the same time. In other words, it is important that we conceptualise the simultaneity or non-separability of discontinuity and continuity between the levels. Failure to see both at the same time can only result in the repetition of a reductionist position either for or against discontinuity or continuity which, in the end, may result in repetition of our ideas of ‘independence’ and ‘detachment’ from the world. To avoid such temptations, we need to accept the challenge of thinking the complex, of thinking through the simultaneity of the ruptures and continuities between the different levels—rather than to wanting to assume and defend either side of a possible dialectic of mutually exclusive or binary opposites here. Avoiding such reductionist pitfalls enables us to approach the difficult question of how to conceive of the coherent universe if there are only radical raptures or discontinuities between the levels of reality with the right attitude. To be sure, trying to drive the Cartesian wedge between the discontinuity and continuity of the levels of reality does not get rid of the complexity of reality, but rather confirms it. It is rather like, to use metaphorical language and images, trying to separate two ends of a stick15. Attempts to do this normally end up in a situation of having two different sticks, each with its own two ends. In other words, the complexity of the stick with two ends does not disappear.

However, looking beyond metaphorical language we can immediately see at least three challenges awaiting us. In the first place, in order to develop this notion of the simultaneity / non-separability of the continuity and discontinuity between the different levels of reality, it is important that it is done in a way that it does not lead to a contradiction of the irreducibility of reality. Put differently, the notion of non-separability needs to affirm, rather than negate, the irreducibility of the complex structure of reality. Consequently, for this to be achieved it becomes essential that our conceptions of the continuity between the different levels of reality does not allow for any possibility of their reducibility. Therefore, if our conceptions of the continuity between the different levels were to imply the collapsibility of one level into another level, in the sense that the collapsed level becomes subordinate in its ontological and explanatory status to the level ‘into’ which it has been collapsed, then it would mean that the irreducibility of the fundamentally different levels would be sacrificed. Going this route would set up discontinuity (A) and continuity (non-A) as binary opposites and, in so doing, rendering impossible any attempt to imagine their non-separability. Therefore, positing the non-separability between the different levels of reality implies the ability to think the complex on both the ontological and epistemological levels of inquiry—i.e. employing ideas, concepts, images and representations that will allow us to imagine the complex unity between the different levels of reality of the object and corresponding levels of perception of the subject.

Flowing from this first challenge, namely to conceive of the relationality / interconnectedness between the different levels in a non-reductionist way, we meet our second challenge—namely having to undertake this task without having access to mathematical concepts and language to describe the passage from one level to another level. “No one has succeeded in finding a mathematical formalism that permits the difficult passage from one world to another. Semantic glosses, tautological definitions, or approximations are unable to replace a difficult mathematical formalism. There are even strong mathematical indications that the passage from the quantum world to the macro-physical world would never be possible”16. However, this should not deter us from imagining how the different levels may be interconnected in a non-reductionist and coherent way. This is indeed the challenge before us as we seek to replace reductionism with complex thinking. Theorising, imagining, and even speculating on how the different levels of reality can be both discontinuous and continuous at the same time—i.e. both fundamentally different and yet interconnected—is what is required of us. Not having access to mathematical formulations which can describe the way for us should not become a deterrent. We do, however, have access to, an alternative non-reductionist or non-binary logic. This is the logic of the included middle, a formal logic which enables us to understand how something can be itself (A) and non-self (non-A) at the same time if conceived of at a level different of reality to the one where this apparent contradiction has been observed in the first place.

Thirdly, by focussing exclusively on the discontinuities between the different levels, we create more problems than what we can solve. For example, once we have assigned ontological status to the fundamental differences17 between the different levels, to the extent that one level cannot be understood in terms of the laws and concepts of another level, then it becomes a real question as to how we are to imagine the emergence and conceptualisation of another, third level. The relationship between the macro-physical and micro-physical levels is a case in point here. In terms of the already established principle, namely that each level must be approached, interpreted, and explained in terms of its own concepts and logic, the question arises how the emergence and identification of another fundamentally different level can be imagined. For example, if cyber-space-time is presented as another level of reality, radically different to the micro– and macro-physical levels, how do we conceptualise of this level if we cannot conceive of it in terms of the concepts and laws already applicable to the micro– and macro-physical levels? In other words, if cyber-space-time is to remain a fundamentally different level, it means that it cannot be understood either in terms of linearity, nor non-linearity, local causality or global causality, reversibility or non-reversibility etc. Should we use any of these concepts and laws we will contradict the earlier definition of ‘level of reality’ and, in the process, commit the fatal error of confusing explanans with explanandum.

Therefore, it would appear that our attempt to understand the complex structure of reality may be subverted by focusing on the fundamental differences between the different levels only, and stresses the need to expand our notion of a multi-dimensional structure of reality (ontology) with concepts and ideas (epistemology) that can facilitate our understanding of how the different levels are connected, not just separated, in a non-reductionist way. To meet this challenge of conceptualising the simultaneity between discontinuities / ruptures and continuities / connections in nature is indeed an ambitious undertaking which certainly goes beyond the confines of this paper. In this regard, suffice to say that the ideas developed by people like David Bohm and Lisa Randall18 are considered to be of great importance and should form part of future transdisciplinary research project(s) to explore matters further.

Poverty—A Complex Social-Natural Problem

In the remainder of the paper I wish to return to the notion of the planetary crises facing us as the consequence of our domination of the world. In this regard, I will focus on the already mentioned problem of poverty as global social-natural phenomenon, and how this problem may be approached from a non-reductionist, relational approach as we become aware that the only way to approach our uncertain future is to abandon distinguishing between practical and moral reasoning, between what we are capable of doing and what we must do. As already mentioned, poverty can no longer be seen as a socio-economic issue only. Through our domination of the world we have and are changing the biophysical conditions necessary for human existence on the earth. Such domination of the world and using of the earth’s natural resources at a rate faster than what can be ‘naturally’ replenished happens in the rich North and affects those poor people in the South already caught up in endemic poverty circumstances and cycles. However, since poverty can no longer be reduced to a ‘purely’ socio-economic level, we can no longer detach ourselves from this problem, pretending that it is restricted to certain remote areas in the world only. The entanglement of the ‘social’ and the ‘natural’ in the problem of poverty means that being compelled to act has to happen at both the social and natural levels simultaneously. Thinking that we can only act on the preservation of nature alone (the logic of conservationism) without attending to the problems of the poor—whose already fragile lives have been given a further lethal blow through the systematic destruction of the earth’s biophysical life conditions—is the equivalent of treating the symptoms of a cancerous growth in the human body. Conversely, focusing exclusively on the socio-economic conditions of the poor (the logic of welfarism) is to commit the same error of treating the symptoms of a terminal disease. The social-natural character of the problem of poverty is too complex to approach the latter with old reductionist ideas and strategies.

Our call for a non-reductionist approach to poverty has been confirmed by research the world over, namely that reductionist approaches not only fail to eradicate poverty, but can actually result in the creation of other social and environmental problems. The complexity of poverty resides in the fact that it has become inextricably intertwined with other planetary crises such as energy, food security, water, waste, biodiversity loss, violence and conflict, etc., affecting each and every individual irrespective of place, status, origin, race, gender, position, or location in the world today. The quantitative growth and development ideas and strategies spawned by neo-liberalism (reducing the satisfaction of human needs to the materialistic level of consumerism only) is a typical case in point of a reductionist approach that has failed to address the complexity of the poverty problem. By arguing that poverty will be overcome by letting the poor become or behave like the rich is not only fallacious, but will almost certainly lead to the generation of new social and environmental problems, or possibly deepening some of the already existing problems. It has therefore become critically important to replace reductionist thinking with complex thinking when approaching a complex problem such as pove ty, and it therefore