Monday, July 27, 2009

Is the World Hierarchical?

I was chatting with a friend the other day about how we decide what things are and how we parse the world. I made the statement that the world is hierarchically-arranged, and my friend said that the world might not really be that way, but that I could be imposing that type of organization on it. It's certainly a strong possibility that my biases determine how I organize how I think about the world around me.

But I'll be damned if I can step outside of my frame of reference and conceive of another hypothetical way of looking at the world. We normally form concepts of things that exhibit spatial and temporal continuity. We treat a dog as a unified thing because there's stuff that makes up the dog that is close to itself in space and moves together across time. Same for chairs and glasses and pumpkins and even more abstract things. But it also seems obvious that however you slice and dice the world, whatever you call "things" are always going to be composed of constituent things. And those things are likewise composed of constituent things. A car is made of things like mufflers and wheels and axles, and those are made of smaller parts, and those are eventually made of atoms, and those are made of subatomic particles, and those are maybe made out of even smaller things.

I suppose you could have some sort of Buddhist view where there are no parts or subparts...that everything is just one big unified, interconnected thing. But I don't think you'll get very far in understanding how the world works if you don't partition it in some way and try to figure out how the parts work together to produce the phenomenon you want to understand. Hence the usefulness of reductionism.

And my guess is that if there is intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, to make headway in understanding how the world works, they view it hierarchically, try to determine the best way to segment it into parts, and try to figure out how those parts work together. Maybe I'm just myopic, but I can't even conceive of another way in which they might go about understanding the world.

So I don't think I'm imposing some kind of structure on the world. I think the world really does have the structure and that our brains have evolved to learn to exploit that inherent structure in order to survive better.


Jim said...


Consider that your rational mind is primarily single threaded and requires context because of the very few things it can grasp simultaneously. The emergent effect of these to essential aspects of rationality favor a hierarchical "rooted" frame, i.e. some basis of absolute.

Then consider what it might be like if there was some way to operate more than one thread of conscious rationality at a time in the same brain. And then consider that the number of things that could be held were a significantly higher number. The emergent mechanism might be able to handle a larger set of "patterns" than just those with scoped hierarchical context. Take away the requirement it be rooted, and then you have an entirely different way to model and frame sensory input and conceptual structuring.

For example, a hierarchy is just a special case of a directed graph. There are other ways to model stimuli (filtered reflections of "reality"). For example, if you drop below rationality (and assume it's just an acquired skill on a more basic subsystem), there is just association (one way and bi-directional), emotional intensity (or weight of connectivity) and percepts (which have been to some degree filtered and modified prior to arising in the conscious mind as a concept) which is fancy name for “experience”. Once here, one can model quite a bit more than once can strictly in the rational/hierarchical frame. In fact, I would strongly suggest this is just what the hyper-creative type does. And I can attest to this personally. 

Anyway, thank you for expressing your thoughts. I had not articulated this particular view in some time (about 3 years ago). It’s fun to examine the underlying functions of both consciousness and it’s specialized “degree of” skill, rationality.


Anonymous said...

Hierarchical is usually also taken as connoting value. So those things that make up smaller divisions of an order are considered to be less than somehow than those that make up the composite.

In scientific taxonomies, this is not necessarily the case. These levels of ordination are descriptive rather than prescriptive.

However, when mapped onto cultural formations or projected onto natural ones, we often do see this in play, historically if not also in some cases presently.

So is the universe organized hierarchically? I think it can be understood as implicitly ordered by sets of systemic interrelation. That may be found and not merely projected.

How these different systemic levels are understood to have purpose or value is likely to be a projection.

So, in short, neither you nor your friend are quite right or quite wrong. It is not an either / or question.

Kenny Wyland said...

My brain is still spinning and processing this a bit... I'm inclined to think that they universe CAN be ordered hierarchically if we are allowed to structure the hierarchy however we would like, but I'm not convinced that the universe IS inherently hierarchical. I am very comfortable with viewing the universe as a directed graph, but not a strict hierarchy.

Yes, we CAN order it hierarchically... a muffler could exist in the tree underneath the "Mechnical" node or it could be under the "Parts of Loud Things that We Don't Want to Be So Loud", etc. So, given flexibility to create the hierarchy, sure, I'm sure we could put everything into one... but it wouldn't necessarily be helpful or useful.