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Does Reality Have Different Levels?

Posted in Levels of Reality, and Technical Philosophy

Idea: It does. In so many ways.

Last time, I pointed out that people disagree about which level of reality is most real. But to even have that debate, you have to believe reality has different levels. Take Soverign, from the Mass Effect video game trilogy, whose voice is the first you hear on this rather-intense Carcer City track.

So, does the world really have different “levels of existence,” “levels of being,” or “levels of reality”?

Plato’s Answer

A reflection of a tree in water isn’t a real tree. Neither is a shadow of a dog on a wall a real dog. So, physical trees and flesh-and-blood dogs are more real than reflection trees and shadow dogs. Similarly, the form that all trees share — and the structure that all dogs have — is more real than physical trees and dogs. Physical things are like images of “ideas.” And those ideas are more real than physical things (just as physical things are more real than reflections and shadows).

Aristotle’s Answer

An acorn isn’t an actual oak tree, yet. It has the potential to be an oak tree, but has a lot of growing to do first. So, the more “mere potential” an acorn has, the less “fully actual” it is. Similarly, a painting you’ve just started has the potential to be a masterpiece, but it isn’t actually one yet. A completed masterpiece is more really, more actually a masterpiece than a merely potential painting.

The Medieval Answer

Philosophers following Plato and Aristotle developed and combined their ideas. And what they ended up with was a theory we call “the hierarchy of being” (or “great chain of being“). Things with more reality are “higher” — like the stars and God. Things with less reality are “lower,” like the earth and humans. Some things are even an absence or lack of reality — like evil and sin.

The Modern Answer

We moderns also use a distinction between fact and fiction, IRL and online, the real world and virtual reality, actual and pretend. Following Plato, we see the first member of each of those pairs as more real, more actual, more substantial, more genuine, more natural, etc.

But we also follow Aristotle, who invented the study of parts and wholes. In fact, we tend to reserve the terms “higher” and “lower” for discussions of parts and wholes. Sociology studies humans at a “higher” level than psychology, since societies are systems composed of individual humans. Pediatrics operates at a “higher” level than genetics, because babies contain DNA. Chemistry operates at a “higher” level than particle physics, because chemicals are ultimately composed of subatomic particles.

How is this connected to levels of reality? Well, we tend to flip the ancient connotations of “higher” and “lower.” Lower things are (often) more basic, more fundamental, more real in modernist theories. Higher things are (often) more derivative,  more secondary, more abstract. If you focus on wholes rather than parts, you haven’t really “gotten to the bottom of things.” Then again, if you focus on parts rather than wholes, you “miss the forest for the trees,” you might not be “woke.”



  1. Ken O'Shaughnessy
    Ken O'Shaughnessy

    Rich Mullins: “I did not make it, no, it is making me. It is the very truth of God and not the invention of any man.”

    September 23, 2016
    • That is a fantastic quotation from a fantastic song from a fantastic album.

      September 26, 2016

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