, Volume 176, Issue 3, pp 379–397 | Cite as

Hierarchies and levels of reality

  • Alexander Rueger
  • Patrick McGivernEmail author


We examine some assumptions about the nature of ‘levels of reality’ in the light of examples drawn from physics. Three central assumptions of the standard view of such levels (for instance, Oppenheim and Putnam 1958) are (i) that levels are populated by entities of varying complexity, (ii) that there is a unique hierarchy of levels, ranging from the very small to the very large, and (iii) that the inhabitants of adjacent levels are related by the parthood relation. Using examples from physics, we argue that it is more natural to view the inhabitants of levels as the behaviors of entities, rather than entities themselves. This suggests an account of reduction between levels, according to which one behavior reduces to another if the two are related by an appropriate limit relation. By considering cases where such inter-level reduction fails, we show that the hierarchy of behaviors differs in several respects from the standard hierarchy of entities. In particular, while on the standard view, lower-level entities are ‘micro’ parts of higher-level entities, on our view, a system’s macro-level behavior can be seen as a (‘non-spatial’) part of its micro-level behavior. We argue that this second hierarchy is not really in conflict with the standard view and that it better suits examples of explanation in science.


Levels Reduction Physicalism Part–whole relations 


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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyUniversity of AlbertaEdmontonCanada
  2. 2.Department of PhilosophyUniversity of WollongongWollongongAustralia

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