What’s to Gain by Letting Go of Levels

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Levels-eliminativists, including this symposium’s participants, have raised a variety of criticisms about specific conceptions of levels as well as the broad use of levels as a metaphor or heuristic in science. The general question inspired by such criticisms and explored in this symposium is: then what? Craver (2014) has suggested it’s impractical to legislate metaphor use in science, including invocations of levels. And, in their talks, Craver and Havstad each outline visions for what should be preserved of levels concepts. In this talk, I explore the idea that scientists and philosophers should simply jettison appeals to levels in all but the most specific, narrow uses when appropriate, such as levels of buildings. An interesting fact about our world is that opportunities for such a use of the levels concept are strikingly infrequent. I begin by outlining some of the roles the levels concept plays in scientific discourse, focusing especially on biology. I then briefly survey criticisms of levels and outline how these criticisms are relevant to these uses of levels. This discussion is in part informed by Ylikoski’s preceding talk. I then motivate alternative concepts in place of levels in each of the uses I’d surveyed. The approach I take in this talk is to use the criticisms raised of levels to help inspire better replacements. ‘Levels’ is used variously to describe the world and to describe our investigations and representations of the world; any replacement must apply to phenomena or to scientific methods (not both). ‘Levels’ assumes regularity and well-orderedness of our world; any replacement should take seriously interconnection and variability. One primary conclusion of my talk is that no single concept is apt for all the distinct roles ‘levels’ plays; this is one source of the difficulties plaguing the concept. Thus, I cannot hope to motivate a unitary replacement concept in this talk. Instead, I conclude by surveying some alternative ways to structure biology textbooks—instead of the now-ubiquitous framing of levels of organization—to illustrate the opportunities for theoretical improvements created by letting go of levels. Surely the levels concept will always be an option for various theoretical uses in science and philosophy. My point here is that turning to levels eclipse other possibilities, some of which may well lead to theoretical or methodological improvements.
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University of Cincinnati

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