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Level Confusion

Level confusion is confused thinking that arises from examining a system at different Levels without realizing that you are doing so or what the implications might be. Here are some common areas of level confusion:

  • Mind vs. Body and reality: the X proved real fallacy. “I can imagine whatever I want, so my thoughts aren't real, but brain scanners can tell what I'm thinking by real changes in my brain. It's all so confusing…”
  • Determinism vs. Free Will and moral responsibility. It is an intuitively appealing argument that if mind arises from a deterministic physical process, then there is no free will, and no moral responsibility. “If my behavior is determined, then I should stop worrying about making decisions because I don't have any choice, and I can do whatever I want without taking any responsibility, but then I must have been destined to believe in determinism, and if I were destined to believe in free will, would my responsibility be different? It's all so confusing…”
  • Subjective perception vs. the physical world and Naive Realism. “I just crashed into a car that wasn't there when I looked before, but it must have been there because I crashed into it. It's all so confusing…”

Sources of Level Confusion

Clearly this thinking is confused, and something must be wrong here. Confusion can result from the failure to understand that:

The map is not the territory!
(Reality vs. Representation and hardware vs. signal) The brain is real and we can make factual statements about its functioning, but this tells us nothing about whether thoughts are true or real, or whether there is free will. Yet we must use abstraction (maps and categories) because the world has such a wealth of irrelevant particular details, most of which require considerable patience and sophisticated measurement merely to observe them.
More is different!
Because of Emergence simple thought experiments with commonsense interpretations can lead us far astray. Reality and the brain are not simple. Any system that consists of a huge number of complexly interacting parts can behave in unpredictable novel ways.
You don't know what you think!
The nature of Consciousness depends on both Representation and Emergence, but the design of our minds is evolutionary, proceeding by incremental modifications from an existing plan, and optimized to generate Adaptive Behavior. For The Cultural Animal it became necessary to understand ourselves to some degree, but it wasn't necessary (or even desirable) for our self-understanding to be entirely accurate, so it isn't. See Intentional and Representational opacity and The User Interface Analogy.


Catataxis is a name for level confusion coined by John Brodie Donald (see Catataxis.) He offers these observations about emergent levels and their associated analytic levels:

  1. Virtue reverses at a catataxic boundary: Another way of saying this is that what is good for the individual may be bad for the collective (and vice versa). [See Evolutionary Ethics]
  2. Conflict below creates stability above: The more disagreement there is on one level, the more likely there is to be calm and stability on the level above. This is best summed up in the saying “still waters run deep“. A calm surface often masks a roiling torrent underneath. A stock market is a good example of this.
  3. In the end, quantitative change becomes qualitative change: This is a more sophisticated way of saying more of the same is different. [See Emergence]
  4. Today's groups are tomorrow's individuals: over time, things tend to get bigger and clump together. The river of history is a grouping vector. [See Meta-Evolution]
  5. Categorization destroys information: Once the scale increases, the only way a human brain can function is by categorizing things. [See Levels, Modularity]

What to Do?

While confusion can easily result from crossing levels without noticing it, we don't say that it is always a mistake crossing levels. What takes place at those boundaries is often quite interesting, both practically and theoretically:

  • Interactions between individuals and social groups (emergent levels) are particularly important to humans. Mismatched interests create individual/group conflict, and our moral sense has evolved as a response to this conflict.
  • The relationship between the physical world, our perceptions, and our conscious thoughts has fascinated humans ever since we were conscious. (see Mind/Body Dualism, Level Map).
  • The brute physical world is often very predictable: what goes up must come down, and so on. In contrast, living things, and especially people, are quite unpredictable. This is a big reason why Mind/Body Dualism is so intuitively appealing, and why determinism seems inconsistent with free will.
  • Crossing the analytic levels between sciences is often highly productive, and is the entire foundation of this Wiki.


Peyton Lane, 2015/10/16 15:23

I think there's some confusion on the “still waters run deep” metaphor. The deeper you go in a relatively deep body of water (for example, an ocean or deep lake), the calmer it gets. Consider what was reported by divers during the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. “An American woman who was scuba diving with her husband in Thailand as one of Sunday's tsunamis roared overhead said she was oblivious to the disaster until after they surfaced, her mother told CNN.” Remember that a tsunami's true devastation begins when it approaches and encroaches a shoreline.

Yes, it's true that “a stock market is a good example of” the statement “a calm surface often masks a roiling torrent underneath.” And, if a body of water is shallow, e.g. a brook, the relatively deeper section of the shallow body of water will roil. However, ff the body of water is deep (e.g. lake, ocean, etc.), then the deeper section will move very little, but certainly not a “roiling torrent.”

Robert MacLachlan, 2015/10/21 09:49

Yes, it does seem that Brodie's description isn't very accurate for a lake, though it might be for a stream. This is in a way another example of how observing things from one side of a boundary can be deceptive. The rules are different on the other side, and the boundary has a behavior of its own. Aliens living in ice-covered seas might have no cause to develop a theory of waves.

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analysis/philosophy/level_confusion.txt · Last modified: 2015/10/21 09:31 by ram