The Limitations of Hierarchical Organization

Philosophy of Science 79 (1):120-140 (2012)
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Abstract
The concept of hierarchical organization is commonplace in science. Subatomic particles compose atoms, which compose molecules; cells compose tissues, which compose organs, which compose organisms; etc. Hierarchical organization is particularly prominent in ecology, a field of research explicitly arranged around levels of ecological organization. The concept of levels of organization is also central to a variety of debates in philosophy of science. Yet many difficulties plague the concept of discrete hierarchical levels. In this paper, we show how these difficulties undermine various implications ascribed to hierarchical organization, and we suggest the concept of scale as a promising alternative to levels. Investigating causal processes at different scales offers a way to retain a notion of quasi-levels that avoids the difficulties inherent in the classic concept of hierarchical levels of organization. Throughout, our focus is on ecology, but the results generalize to other invocations of hierarchy in science and philosophy of science.
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Archival date: 2015-11-21
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