Human Being and Non-Reductionist Conceptions of Determination

1. Reductionism, antireductionism and human sciences.

The notion of reductionism that in this contribution I will try to discuss does not match to that usually assumed by the natural sciences. I refer instead to a tendency to the simplification of the horizon of being, or of a region of it, through a unifying point of view. This tendency derives from the recognition of a few principles (or “key-elements”), and the consequent “reduction” of all phenomena, also the most complex, to them. When, for example, this epistemic attitude occurs in the organisms’ analysis and their relationships with inorganic sphere, we meet a series of difficulties thinking of and explaining the emergence of life. In a similar way, if by the human sciences the spheres of psychology and of spiritual life disclose new categorial horizons, we often experience several forms of reduction, when human sciences are illustrated by categories of the natural sciences, or through an internal confusion in the human ambit. There a further one, and maybe more complex discontinuity, really rises, determined by emergence of conscience and deliberation. It is not by accident that, the most recent discussions between reductionists and anti-reductionists have been extended from the original biologic territory to the psycho-social.

The relevance of the discontinuity between the natural sphere and the human one has often strengthened two mistakes: firstly, a part of the scientific community presumes that reductionism is an epistemological problem only referred to natural sciences, especially in the explanation of the emergence of life (in this perspective the human sciences remain outside the debate, because they reveal a weak form of scientific value, compared to natural sciences); secondly, some scholars tend to denyreductionism projects in order to preserve the emergence of human sphere, as different from the natural world (in this perspective the worry is about the risk of reducing humanity to a natural mechanism). In both cases we can note a deficit in ontological definition of the sphere of analysis. The first situation, in fact, disregards the categorial variety and importance of the human sphere, while the second one does not see how also in humanistic disciplines lives a form of reductionism.

Since my purpose consists in a brief analysis of these themes in their consequences on the study of human being, I will start from the idea of the legitimateness of discrimination between human sciences and natural sciences, but not in the sense of an epistemological antireductionism, but in the light of an ontological difference. In fact, my thesis is exactly the opposite of Hilary Putnam’s perspective1, which instead accepts one single model (materialism) as an ontology, but refuses it as epistemological criterion. As I will try to explain, if the reduction ad unum of the categorical multiplicity of the levels of reality results phenomenologically and ontologically inadequate, on the other hand we do not have automatically to infer that the procedures and the methodologies of study of that multiplicity must be many. Any plausible logical deduction which obtains the epistemological variety from the levels of reality does not exist. The multiplicity of models, procedures, of the evaluation systems and in wide sense of the scientific approaches, does not necessarily rise from the ontological object consistency, but regards the practical, technical or managerial dimension of knowledge.

I do not intend, with my words, to support the reduction of all other approaches to a single method (for example the physical one), and I do not wish any type of unitary model. However, we can not establish a direct correlation between the multiplicity of the strata of being and the multiplication of the disciplines. If we consider, for example, the case of the systemics, not as an ontological perspective, but simply as an epistemological approach, it reveals – with the notion of “isomorphism” – how we can design, under the idea of an interdisciplinarity, a holistic and unitary horizon of sciences. The same is for a theory of the levels of reality, which results synoptic but also respectful of differences. In my purpose, in short, we can associate a reasonable epistemological openness to an ontological stratification. I know that this is not a reassuring starting point, but in my opinion philosophy can not simplify the problems in order to “reassure”: this appears to me rather a religious vocation, while philosophy must at least put on the table all the difficulties and discontinuities that real and ideal being show to us.

For this reason, I accept the traditional notion of “human sciences” only to circumscribe an ontological region of being. In this way, I will try to present the elements of community and difference between the general level of “nature”, studied by natural sciences, and the other of “human being”, object of human sciences.

On the other hand, I want to underscore also the ontological dangers that we meet in the notion of “human sciences”, especially if we resort to the plural. Usually in this notion we accept disciplines that study objects that are categorially heterogeneous, as psychology and sociology. However we need to admit, taking into account the difference between the single branches of human sciences, that it is no correct to explain the processes of one of them through the analytical results of another approach. For example, pretending to explain historical processes through the psychological theories of behaviour, on the basis of the idea of the centrality of human behaviour and personality in historical processes, is a sort of reductionism. In my researches on Holocaust and Nazism, I always met books and essays in which the tendency to reduce the complexity of historical phenomena to Hitler’s psychosis constituted a strong temptation. For this reason, although we remain in a humanistic horizon, we must always be wary to remove the risk of reductionism, which is a forced and unnatural homologation of beings.

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. But in this sense the attention of scientists and scholars is often concentred on the discussion about a static object. In my opinion, a concrete epistemological praxis is constituted by the reduction of every kind of process, and in particular I refer to causal or determination processes, to a single model of explanation. This operation, which can appear a simply economic attitude, betrays the phenomenological differences of the “givennes” of the processes, and so the categorial articulation of reality.

Obviously to speak about “human being”, implies also to maintain the attention on natural determinations. Indeed, the human being – that surely presents specific and new categories – is nothing without its physical and biological basis, but it is at the same time more and more than its natural constitution.

2. Nicolai Hartmann thinker of complexity

The thinker that in Twentieth century criticizes every kind of pretension of reductionism, maybe with substantial backing of others, is Nicolai Hartmann. The object of his opposition is every form of theoretical unification of multiplicity under a unique interpretative key. He defends a stratified conception of the real world, in a way that anticipates some guesses of systems theory. Nicolai Hartmann does not propose a naïf realism, but his conclusion derives from a difficult comparison with foundational issues. It is only after an analysis of neokantian, idealistic and phenomenological solutions that Hartmann elaborates, in a way that should be interesting to explain, a strong assertion of necessity of a new ontology.

To illustrate in a few steps the complex building of his perspective, it will be useful to establish some general characters of our horizon. The object can be in different modes, and these modes of being constitute the ontology’s frame. The first distinction regards temporality. In other terms, we must previously distinguish, in the sphere of being two modes of “givenness”: real being and ideal being. The main difference is categorial, and depends on temporality. If the former is the world that is in time and has a time, the latter gives itself to us as atemporal being, that always remains identical with itself. According to Hartmann, real being includes the lifeworld, not only in the spacetime dimension, but also in the realm of time only (emotional and cognitive events have a time, but don’t occupy any space). On the other hand, mathematical, logical and axiological structures2 are ideal objects.

The real world appears dominated by a group of general categories, which are common to every sort of object in reality. Those are firstly the modal categories (possibility, necessity and reality), and secondly we have the temporal categories (existing, process and time) and a large group of elementary polarities (form-matter, element-system, and so on). Over this series of common categories, Hartmann begins his construction of special stratification categories. He conceives a succession of four strata that are connected thanks to a complex system of categorial laws. The lowest and strongest, basic for the higher (that do not deny but imply the first) is the inorganic stratum. After this, ascending, we find organic, psychic and spiritual strata. The organic stratum keeps the same categories as the inorganic, but adds its own properties. This kind of relation is named “over-forming”. The psychic stratum, on the other hand, even if it needs a physical and biological individual to exist, as such does not store the categories of its antecedents. This kind of relation is called “building-above”. Also spiritual being, in the end, does not retain the lower categories, but presents a new set of properties.

There is a special legality that dominates all the strata:

  • the first principle is the “law of strength”: the upper category assumes the lower, but the contrary is not valid;
  • the second is the “law of indifference”: the lower category is indifferent to its being the basis of the upper one;
  • the third is the “law of matter”: in over-forming relation the lower category is matter in respect to the upper;
  • the fourth is the “law of freedom”: every new category presents a kind of freedom and independence.

In this theory, we can find maybe for the first time the notion of “emergence”, which Hartmann gives with the term “categorial novum”.

Through Roberto Poli’s revision of this theory, in his “levels” approach3, he unifies the first two basilar strata, however I prefer to maintain a strong distinction between living and non-living objects or systems, because the emergence of the category of life appears to me still inescapable. The defence of this difference, especially in a non-reduction approach, becomes very important. I think that it is not possible to explain the emergence of life through inorganic categories. We can be sure that a biological being occupies a portion of space and a time’s fragment, and for this reason he needs and respects physical laws, first of all mechanical causality. However, with life emerges a series of biological categories, as reproduction, depth, phylogenies, ontogenesis, homeostasis, and so on. All these new categories do not appear deductible from an antecedent sphere of being.

The idea of a stratification of the real world is not only a speculation of an isolate thinker of last century, but we can find it legitimated and reintroduced by the father of General System Theory4, Ludwig von Bertalanffy. However, I think that the simpler and more rigorous stratification of Nicolai Hartmann can constitute a new starting point for a non-reductionist conception of processes.

3. Modes of determination and human being.

In Hartmann’s table of categories we can observe how every stratum presents a mode of determination, and the upper has a kind of determination that respects the lower, but presents also a novum, that makes it freer but at the same time weaker compared to its base. However, the most part of philosophers and scientists does not consider this multiplicity of determination’s modes. And in this specific situation a reduction tendency can emerge. There are indeed two possible ways to edify a reductionist solution in determination processes: mechanicism and finalism. Through the experience of ourselves, as bodies and minds, we are inducted to the phenomenological observation of two generic modes of determination. On the material side of our experience, we see firstly and prevalently the natural-causal determination. However, our “spiritual” essence shows the finalistic and free model as indispensable. For this reason our looking at the world tilts towards either mechanicism or 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. If since the modern age we are inured to materialistic reduction (but we can find it also in presocratic thinkers, which could be considered also “eliminativists”, because, as Aristotle observed, they eliminated the nature of animals in order to assign ontological consistence only to natural elements), in some thinkers of the past we can observe the opposite tendency. For example, Avicenna subsumes under the notion of causa finalis every kind of determination: in his view, when there is an end, it is the cause of all causes. On the contrary, Wilhelm Ockham, which I consider more compatible with the approach that I’m now proposing, circumscribes the resort to causa finalis only to the actions of intentional agents and assigns the model of causa efficiens to natural processes.

Another error is to consider the dimension of determination merely in causality and teleology. According to Hartmann, we must distinguish the specific forms of determination in the four strata of real being. If the “process” constitutes a common category, we know that every level of reality presents a proper type of direction and strength in determination. And maybe, if we try to articulate better the Hartmann’s hierarchy, we can find other under-strata and in this way other modes of determination.

In modern age the causal model, in its mechanical version, was the prevalent. This was because the lower and stronger level of reality is that portion of being that we phenomenologically know and scientifically explain always through the causal trains. Organic causation reveals instead a difference constitution, that always implies the concept of development. It’s very difficult to define this kind of process, because we always find it confused with a sort of teleological tendency. Ludwig von Bertalanffy, arguing the importance of this point, underscores the difference between mechanical determination of causal trains, and the sphere of life, where he views a form of teleology. But Bertalanffy includes in this notion, properties such as those of equifinality and homeostatic retroaction, and he admits that in these cases we have not to think to finality as the contrary of causality, but only as a different expression of the same process: a sort of circular causality. What Bertalanffy, in agreement with Hartmann, believes to be a “true finality”5 requires foresight of the aim.

The most difficult level of analysis appears to me the psychological one. If we try to list some phenomena that we include in this stratum, as perception, memory, unconscious behaviour, primitive emotions (the complex emotions need an evaluative act, and so I prefer to include them in an upper level), and so on, we can easily observe a difference comparing with inorganic and biological levels. In the psychological sphere, we do not meet the category of spatiality, but only of temporality. Hartmann asks also for this stratum a specific kind of causality, but he does not deepen this side of real being, and maybe it remains today yet obscure. If we analyse some models of explanation of memory in cognitive sciences, we recognize a tendency to evoke a physical causal model of explanation. The algorithms often represent nothing that causal trains. In Gestalt perception theories, some kinds of holism put into question the simple cause-effect explanation, and also the insight ‘s theory appears an explanation that can not configure a clear sequence. Some elements of systemics are present in Rogers’ and similar theories of human relationships, while in Skinner’s box, with the introduction of the “goal”, we are really over the physical stratum, but not sufficiently over the biological. However, behaviouristic theories can help us to distinguish in life sphere between non-sensitive to reinforcement organisms and an upper level of sensitive. The psychoanalytic approach, on the other side, describes the internal life of unconscious, preconscious and conscious through a singular model of temporality, where distant-in-time causes can determine effects lately, after sleeping and staying hidden for a long time. This multiplicity of determination models shows in my opinion two aspects of the question:

  1. Psychological stratum has a kind of determination independent from the inorganic and biological but also from spiritual level, to which it can not be reduced.
  2. Psychological determination is now not yet defined and needs several widening.

So far, we spoke about a non-conscious subject, because the emergence of consciousness determines a level-step. Indeed, consciousness implies an individual behaviour that sees some aims to pursue and some forms of anticipation. The way in which we can begin to establish an ontological foundation of the possibility of a foresight of the aim is through the idea of spiritual being that Hartmann offers to us. There we can find the emergence of the higher type of determination: freedom (teleological determination). Every human action oriented to a purpose needs necessarily a conscious act in which an end is “intentioned” (through a future anticipation); after this we have another conscious act, projected backwards, which serves to evaluate the resources necessary to the performance, and ending in a “realization” process.

The real complexity of final determination consists in the ideal movement in temporality that it requires. Every human action implies three movements:

  1. Anticipation (from present to future): to put aims through a time jump.
  2. Regressive determination (from future to present): to select the resources.
  3. Realization (from present to future): a real process outside consciousness

Movements 1 and 2 are “mental”, while the third is “material”.

It is very interesting to note that this final determination has a causal foundation. Indeed, if the real world is not determined by mechanical consequentiality, every realization would be impossible because of the total openness of possibilities. Instead, men can produce because they can program a way to manipulate causal trains. They also undertake a control function, because other unforeseen causes could intervene and prevent realization. If an act of “looking ahead” can view the ends and predict processes, the ways in which the resources realize the aims have to be conceived only through causality. The final process requires the causal one.

However, the spiritual being is not totally explained through free determination. If personal being and production processes appear understandable under this category, it is not the same for social processes. Will and intentionality are indeed special processes of a personal being, but not of a social structure. In the social phenomena, as in history, in tradition’s transmission, in communication, we always meet determination processes, which are not the result of a free act.

As in the psychological case, the social and historical determination appears very obscure. Sociologists and historians do not reveal sufficient interest in this problem, and they always recur to models of determination of the other strata. Probably a group, a Nation or a population, can not boast a free determination, because we know only the individual consciousness where we can put the aim’s representation. However, tradition and social influences must have a role in individual deliberative choices, as in form of ideas, sensibility, habits, languages and so on. Then, in a dialectic system, we can assert that in the human sphere the determination processes depend by individual acts, but at the same time these acts are influenced, through a modification of the evaluative capacity that they contribute to constitute, to determine the choice processes.

Indeed, analyzing the individual behaviour, choices and actions in general, we observe that these elements do not depend only on personal dynamics of deliberation, but they are influenced by social and historical factors, as well as by other inescapable environmental processes. The subject, in his behaviour is a bundle of processes. We must always consider the double function of physical and biological processes in the body of the subject, but also in the antecedents of his behaviour. Moreover, before the emergence of freedom, we must note all psychological dynamics, from instincts to emotions and cognitive processes. The same is true for social and historical transformations. In the end I need to precise that a theory of the levels of reality, which appears now indispensable to analyse the real world in a non-reductionist perspective, must include also a theory of values, because every anticipative act, emotional or productive, is also an evaluative act.

Also in the social sphere, as in psychological one, I think, the horizon of research is still open, but I retain useful also the dismissal of every explanation model, which would reduce social and historical determination to physic, biological or psychological (also in the form of personal tendencies) factors.



1 Cfr. H. Putnam, Reductionism and the Nature of Psychology, «Cognition», 1973, 2, pp. 131-146.

2 Cfr. N. Hartmann, Zur Grundlegund der Ontologie, Walter de Gruyter, Berlin 1935; Id., Der Aufbau der realen Welt, Walter de Gruyter, Berlin 1940.

3 R. Poli, Levels, «Axiomathes», 9, 1998, pp. 197-211. Id., The Basic Problem of the Theory of Levels of Reality, «Axiomathes», 12, 2001, pp. 261-283.

4 Cfr. L. von Bertalanffy, General System Theory. Foundations, Development, Applications, George Braziller Inc., 1967. This author appreciated the Boulding’s hierarchy , which included: static structures, mechanical non-retroactive systems, mechanical retroactive systems, open systems, lower organisms, animals, human being, socio-cultural systems, and symbolic systems (this hierarchy appears to me weaker respect to Hartmann’s, while it is difficult to explain, for example, the categorical novum between static structures and mechanical non-retroactive systems, and so on ascending the hierarchy).

5 L. v. Bertalanffy, General System Theory. Foundations, Development, Applications, cit., chapter .3.

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