Levels Yet Again

I’ve done more radio spots on Levels of Organization than any other one thing, because I think it’s the most important and most neglected law of nature that we know about. The concept has two halves. The first half is that there are levels of reality that are made from combining simpler levels. A simple example would be a pie that is made of whatever pies are made of. The second half of the concept is that different levels have different characteristics and also different needs. A pie is definitely different from salt, even though salt is one of the ingredients.

The requirements for welfare are also different, one level from the other, in the levels of things that are alive, so that sometimes it is not possible to have all the requirements that are needed at all the levels. We can’t have everything we want. This gives rise to moral dilemmas of the tragic kind. They are tragic in the “Greek Tragedy” sense, because we can’t avoid them. We must either decide to honor the one level — and that has tragic consequences — or the other level and that also has tragic consequences, or choose to not decide, which also has its tragic results. But aside from the Greek tragedies, it’s really hard to find understandable examples of this law of nature.

Then — as I was driving home yesterday, I heard Diane Rehm interview Eric Felten about his new book “Loyalty: The Vexing Virtue,” that seems to be mostly about this kind of thing.
WAMU_135809106.mp3

The Diane Rehm interview was excellent. Nobody used the term levels, but actually the whole thing was about that subject, and Diane Rehm is obviously familiar with the idea. She kept highlighting it. She and Eric Felton used different levels in their discussion than I have in my simplified system.

Mine are:
Individual, population, corposystem, ecosystem

The levels they used on this show:
Individual, friendship, marriage, family, employer, community, country

Some of the examples they used — you can be loyal to your friendship or to your friend or to yourself, but not always to all three. If you are Bernie Maddoff’s son, you cannot remain loyal to yourself and to your community and to your father’s behavior all at the same time. David Kuzinski’s brother had to choose between turning in his brother or allow him to continue damaging the community welfare. The “first responders,” such as firemen, whose obligation is to serve the community, all run off to help their own families (when the tornado hits).

And the one I never forget, though I don’t even know if it is true – the jewish mother hiding from Hitlers’ death squad who smothered her squawling child to save the community she was hiding with.

Eric Felton believes this natural law, the levels of organization around which the universe is organized is a “tragic flaw” of reality. I think, on the contrary, that all natural laws are perfect just the way they are – because, of course, there would be no universe without the natural laws that make the universe function the way it does function. I think these relationships are organized the way they are so that the levels of reality can stay balanced among themselves. If you are a religious person, you must believe that God made these laws for a reason, if we do or we do not know the reason.

If we want to live in this world, we can not insist that the universal laws, or God, should step aside so that we can re-organize it more like what we think it should be. That is not one of the available choices. And to pretend that any human or group of humans completely understands either the science or the will of God is an outrageously egotistical, powermonger stance. We don’t even know what all the levels are.

Any power that we have for the good of ourselves and our communities, now and for the future, must come from understanding more and more exactly how the universe — and especially the ecosystem that gives us life – how it really DOES function and fulfilling our obligations to that reality.

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