Towards A New Metaphysics of Natural Complexes


Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy

Charlotte, NC

 March 11-13, 2010


Paper Submission

 Lawrence Cahoone




I sketch a pluralistic form of naturalism which nevertheless aims to be coherent with natural science. Adopting but altering Buchler’s metaphysics of natural complexes as a background conception, it rejects the attempt globally to characterize the Whole or the Underlying. Given the non-dependence of local on global orders, we can say naturalism is at least locally true; the complexes we know most robustly function in the orders of nature. Then, given William Wimsatt’s revision of reduction and emergence as complimentary forms of explanation, nature can be conceived as a family of orders of natural complexes, including the physical, material, biological, mental and cultural. Nature is not exhausted by the physical, nor by the physical and the mental. It is plural.


This paper is a sketch of a longer argument for a systematic or general metaphysics, in particular, a type of naturalism. There are two kinds of reasons many find such a project unfortunate. Traditional objections to naturalism claim it is inadequate to account for mind, ethics, culture, or the divine (the last incapacity being for some a vice and for others a virtue). The validity of these objections hangs on questions of reduction and emergence, and whether one’s account of nature can accept non-physical properties and entities. More recent objections claim that the whole genre of systematic metaphysics, naturalist or not, is illegitimate. I believe both sets of objections can be surmounted. In this task Justus Buchler’s metaphysics of natural complexes provides indispensable help. But the project requires also a recognition of what Buchler does not provide. The result will be a contribution to an older, but I claim, not anachronistic genre of post-Darwinian naturalistic speculation, of which Peirce, Dewey, and Mead were prime examples, along with Bergson, Whitehead, and the British Emergentists.

What shall this general metaphysics try to do? I will begin by stating, but not justifying, a set of methodological convictions. First, combining Peirce and John Herman Randall, a general metaphysics can be a fallibilist, a posteriori inquiry which makes guesses about whatever inquiry investigates, hence about the status and relations among the objects of all other forms of inquiry. Second, Peirce claimed that philosophy ought more to trust a plurality of compatible arguments from different sets of premises, like a “cable,” than a single deductive “chain” of arguments each dependent for its reliability on the preceding argument. Inspired by Peirce, William Wimsatt has recently developed the criterion of robustness.(Wimsatt 2007, pp.42-74) Those phenomena are robust to which we have multiple independent means of access, whether via multiple observers, multiple sensory modalities, multiple ways of measuring, or multiple theoretical inferences. Last, I reject what I call “metaphysical holism,” the belief that the validity of any description of a being hangs on its location in the most inclusive order in which it functions, that most inclusive order being alternately conceived as the most comprehensive (the Whole), the most invariant (the Highest), the most elementary (Simples), or the most fundamental (the Underlying). Alternately, a “local” metaphysics does not hold its description of robust orders hostage to a description of the most inclusive orders, since our knowledge of the latter must be in principle less reliable. It is the local descriptions against which any broader and more inclusive scheme must be tested. Local metaphysics concerns itself with descriptions of beings that remain relatively invariant with respect to differences of global ontology. Physical reductionism, which claims all existents are nothing but collections of or interactions among the simplest beings, Hegelian or Platonic idealism, which claim all is a manifestation of Spirit or of eternal Forms, and Whitehead’s construction of reality from actual occasions, are equally violations of localism.

Why use Buchler? To my knowledge, Buchler’s is the most pluralistic general metaphysics extant. It is neutral with respect to most canonical and contemporary metaphysical problems: not utterly neutral, which is impossible, but relatively neutral with respect to debates between major schools. We must compare alternate metaphysical models in a language that does not prejudge the outcome of the discussion; for this Buchler provides the best available meta-language. This does not mean our conclusions will be Buchlerian.

This is one of the few venues in which Buchler’s metaphysics need not be fully explained. But a few summary points must be made. Buchler’s metaphysics is a product of the school of Columbia Naturalism. Randall’s Aristotelian model of metaphysics is distinguished from other inquiries by its subject-matter, not a special method. Existence being always plural and at least partly determinate, metaphysics investigates “the general characters and the ultimate distinctions illustrated and exhibited in each specific and determinate kind of existence and existential subject-matter,” not the Whole, nor the Real or Invariant behind changing particulars.(Randall 1958, p.144)

 According to Buchler’s principle of ontological parity, nothing we can discriminate can be more or less real or genuine than anything else. This required Buchler to endorse ordinalism, transforming the question “What is real?” into, in Randall’s words, “How is something real?”(Randall 1958, p.131) The fictive truck and the one bearing down on me are equally “real,” but one functions in the order of fiction and the other in the order of material fact that includes my body. Actuality and possibility are likewise equally real, and nothing we can discriminate lacks either. Buchler’s is thus a distributive, rather than a collective, metaphysics; it does not try to characterize everything collectively but rather anything in its functional locale. Paraphrasing Thomas Nagel, instead of a view from nowhere, or everywhere, it is a view from anywhere. Like Peirce, Buchler denies that anything is either utterly determinate or absolutely indeterminate, or that the traits of anything can be exhausted. Anything discriminable is a natural complex, and functions in multiple orders, in each of which it has an identity or integrity.  Talk of the Whole or all of Being is strongly constrained, because such would presumably have no discriminable traits or relationship to anything outside itself. Buchler denies that there is an “order of all orders.”(Buchler 1990a).

As a result Buchler’s is the closest thing we have to a metaphysics of any possible world. His scheme is determined by only four parameters: pluralism, the claim that there are multiple beings open to endless analysis; ordinality, each integrity of a complex obtaining in a context of relationships; continuity, meaning no orders are utterly discontinuous with each other; and parity, there being no degrees of reality. As long as a possible world does not violate these parameters, the metaphysics of natural complexes accepts it. A quark plasma, or a world of disembodied spirits, or one in which humans are immortal, could equally can be described by his language.

But if Buchler’s metaphysics fits many possible worlds, it is equally true to say that it does not pick out this world. His scheme underdetermines our reality. For Buchler’s metaphysics is not naturalistic in any strong sense. (His theory of human judgment is another matter.) Buchler admits that the qualifier “natural” in the term “natural complex” serves only to foreswear discontinuous regions of being. In contrast, I suggest that any naturalism worthy of the name must accept that the conclusions of the natural sciences are decisively informative about the metaphysics of nature; they rule some complexes out of nature. Phlogiston, the fixity of species, and the orbit of the Sun around the Earth may be complexes, but they are not “natural complexes.” Buchler’s metaphysics is not a theory of natural complexes; it is a theory of complexes. It is pluralist, not naturalist.

Nothing, however, prevents us from distinguishing within Buchler’s pluralistic metaphysics, something we shall call “nature.” I am suggesting that out of all complexes that obtain, the totality of which, with Buchler, we do not presume to characterize other than distributively, the most robustly known are denizens of nature. I cannot present here a justification of the desirability of naturalism, but given my rejection of metaphysical holism, all I need say is that naturalism is at least locally true. We have robust knowledge of nature and our inhabitance of it, regardless of what might want to add to this status or how differently one might want to characterize the Whole. For we are not trying to characterize the Whole: nature is now being conceived as an order, or better, a small family of inter-related orders within the language of the metaphysics of complexes. The complexes located in any natural order are natural complexes now in a strong sense of the qualifier. Thus I am not asserting what Buchler called an “unrestricted” view of nature as “innumerable orders” or “provision of complexes.”(Buchler 1990b)

This provides advantages for naturalism. Given our rejection of metaphysical holism, and our attempt at an a posteriori and robust account of nature, our naturalism need not claim that everything is natural or part of nature. All it need do is develop the orders of nature, and to see how many of the complexes and orders we know can be included in nature. Whether some complexes may well function in non-natural orders can be left provisionally open. To say otherwise would be to claim a priori knowledge of everything. I suggest it is quite enough to hope to know something about many things. Following Buchler, natural complexes have both actual and possible traits, each equally real, in whatever order they function in. Lastly, ordinal pluralism can inform our investigation of nature or the natural orders. For if, on other grounds, we reject a reductionist account of nature – as we will below – then, our account of nature requires an entity and property pluralism, or as Wimsatt says, a “tropical rainforest ontology” rather than Quine’s stated ontological preference for “desert landscapes.”(Wimsatt 2007, p.213) Buchler’s language is tailor-made for the rainforest.

In this view, everything discriminated in any sense is a complex in an order. We are interested in those orders which are natural, and the complexes functioning in them. Now, the natural sciences have a term which applies to a broad class of natural complexes: systems. Like “complex,” “system” can be recursively applied to parts and wholes: a system is constituted in some sense by its component systems and by its relations to more encompassing systems of which it is a part. Descriptively, without prejudging further analyses, we can say the focal objects of natural science are systems. This does not mean that all natural complexes are systems. Properties and performances of systems, like temperature and velocity, or rotation and melting, are not. Natural kinds like hydrogen are not: a hydrogen atom is a system, but not hydrogen per se. Last, structures and processes such as a crystal lattice and the double-helix, or oxidation and eutrophication, are natural complexes but not systems. All these can however be conceived, respectively, as either traits of systems or kinds of systems. So we are tentatively orienting our consideration of any and all natural complexes in a neo-Aristotelian way, dividing natural complexes into particular systems, second-order classifications of systems (kinds), and the traits of systems (“trait” including anything predicable of systems except kinds, hence all properties and performances, anything the system is, has, or does, in present, past, or future). If there were more time, I would distinguish kinds of systems, including individuals – like atoms, organisms, and planets – ensembles – like volumes of gas or liquid, ecosystems, and galaxies – and fields.

It may seem that in beginning with systems we have adopted an entitative or “thing” ontology. We can avoid that result if, following ontological parity, we conceive many systems of nature (not all) as simultaneously and co-primordially a set of lower-scale entities or components, a structure of relations among components, and a process of events that constitutes and maintains the structure. (States are snapshots of processes, or rather, system processes as Δt approaches zero.) Using Buchler’s notion, we may say that components (themselves systems), structure, and process exhibit ontological parity. A system equally is its parts, is a structure, and is a process (if it has all three, which not all systems do). For to consider a system a “process” or a “structure,” rather than its components, can also be reductionist, at least in spirit. In reaction against the historical supremacy of entitative metaphysics and componential reductionism, some have attempted to conceive structure or process as the ultimate natural reality, replacing entities. From the perspective of ontological parity this is itself reductive in a broad sense. If there is no a priori reason to privilege entities there is also no a priori reason to privilege either processes and events or structures and relations. Absent a longer discussion, we may at least note that among orders of existence known most robustly, just as we find no entities that are not structured and undergoing some kind of process, we find no structures without something structured, and no processes without something undergoing the process.

Componential reduction explains a system’s properties or performances through the properties or performances of its parts governed by their interaction rules. Emergence is simply a name for the fact that some properties and performances of systems are not reductively explainable, but are instead explained either phenomenologically (not in the Husserlian sense) by interactions among comparable entities at the same scale – thus we explain the dent in the fender by the impact of the other car – or functionally as selected by some encompassing system – thus we explain the genotypic constitution of an organism by the adaptive fit of its ancestors’ phenotype.

Reductive explanations, while crucial, are normally incomplete and dependent on perspectival decompositions, models, and approximations. Systems are usually not their components and their interaction rules alone; the system typically has as well a structure and undergoes a process. The reductionist may say the structure and process are themselves properties of the parts. But if those “relational properties” of the parts are themselves determined and explained by the location of a part in the whole system, then we are now explaining the parts by the whole, which is fine, but it is no longer a reductive explanation. The rare complete or “nothing but” reductions work only where complex interactions of components are absent and system properties are, Wimsatt argues, mere aggregations of part properties. Aggregativity tracks the conservation laws of physics; a system’s energy, mass, charge, momentum, and spin are indeed nothing but an aggregation of the same property of its parts (not true, for example, of volume, which changes in many chemical reactions). The band of aggregative properties is crucial, but narrow. Reduction to physical components explains something about almost any natural system, but it explains everything about or all properties of, almost nothing.

In scientific practice, reductive, phenomenological, and functional explanations are typically interwoven. Consequently reduction and emergence are matters of degree: the more complete the reduction, the less significant the emergence; the more complete the emergence, the less significant the reduction. And note that ontological reductionism is no better than explanatory or theoretical reductionism; after all, the justification for positing an ontology is presumably its explanatory necessity. The rise of philosophy of biology and the scientific study of complexity in the last thirty years have strengthened this case against physicalist reductionism.

These facts enable a description of nature as divided into levels, which was the view of the British Emergentists, but also Mead, and later hierarchical systems theorists, like Herbert Simon and Stanley Salthe. (Salthe, by the way, is the only natural scientist I know who has made extensive use of Buchler.) Wimsatt has done much to make the notion of level more tractable. Levels are “local maxima of regularity and predictability in the phase space of different modes or organization of matter.”(Wimsatt 2007, p.249) Size is a common, although not infallible, indicator of level. Levels are “constituted by families of entities usually of comparable size and dynamic properties, which characteristically interact primarily with one another, and which, taken together, give an apparent rough closure over a range of phenomena and regularities.” Levels are those ranges of scale where one finds the greatest density of types of entities; there are phenomena between levels, but levels naturally act as “attractors” for them. Levels are thus real entities in the world. Wimsatt concludes, “levels of organization are a deep, non-arbitrary, and extremely important feature of the ontological architecture of our natural world, and almost certainly of any world that could produce, and be inhabited or understood by, intelligent beings.”(Wimsatt 2007, pp.203-4)

What then are the levels or strata of nature? The listing is variable because criteria that legitimately distinguish levels are complex, but fortunately several cluster together. By marking objects of different major sciences as particularly robust points of emergence, we obtain a minimal listing of wide strata or, using Buchler’s term, orders of nature, recognizing there is emergence within orders as well. We can distinguish the physical, material, biological, mental, and cultural orders of nature.

It is rarely noticed, even by physicalists, that the definition of the physical and its relation to the material is unclear. Spatial extension, for example, is inadequate to define the physical if Quantum Gravity, which makes spacetime emergent at the Planck scale, is right. I will define as the physical order the objects of high-energy physics, that is, the relatively simplest components and widest environment of spacetime-occupying, energy-possessing systems. By “simplest” I mean sub-atomic, by “widest” I mean spacetime and the gravitational fields that determine it. The physical is fundamental in nature only in two relative senses, as the order on which all other natural orders are either directly or indirectly dependent, and as the order most pervasive or extensive in scope, for there are more physical systems than material, biological, mental or cultural systems.

Dependent on the physical is the material order, fermionic matter in the form of atoms and the entities made from them, from molecules to stars, studied by condensed matter physics, astronomy, the Earth sciences and above all chemistry. Far more complex is the biological or living organisms, and with them come societies and ecosystems. The mental can be understood as the intentional activities of neurologically complex animals. Last is the cultural, or the joint manipulation of meanings by sign-using animals capable of treating their selves, and parts of their selves, as objects, namely human beings. Not being wedded to a physicalist ontology, we can avail ourselves of a non-physical account of intentional acts and objects, and of meanings as complexes of possibilities. The naturalistic treatment of the cultural does not invalidate non-naturalistic methods; I only claim that whatever else culture is, it is created by the naturally selected capacities of one species. As to how this theory can include an account of value, or speculations about a Ground of Nature, I cannot address those issues in this brief paper.

Each order exhibits distinctive properties and entities that cannot be solely reductively explained through less complex orders. Nature is not the physical; it is plural, which includes the physical. As the simplest order, the physical is neither comprehensive nor explanatory for all natural systems. This conception of nature rejects the still troubling, central bipolar disorder of modern philosophy: the notion that reality is exhausted by the physical or the mental or the combination of the two. The physical and mental are two of a larger set of orders. In all orders there is the possibility of telic causation, where complexes at one level must be explained by the action of an encompassing system that selects a lower entropy state of those complexes, what Ernst Mayr called teleomaticity in the physical and material orders, teleonomy in the biological order, and teleology in the mental and cultural orders.(Mayr 1974) Of course all these claims can only be justified by arguments in the relevant current sciences and philosophies thereof.

The division of nature into a complexity hierarchy of orders is itself a robust hypothesis, for it is attested by three different and powerful facts. First, the physical, the material, biological, mental, and cultural do exhibit an ascending order of complexity. Second, rational inquiry has found it necessary to develop a series of disciplines, with special methods and concepts, that largely correspond to this series of orders. It is not for no reason that we have more than one science. Third and most important, contemporary science has strong evidence that the hierarchy of complexity just described matches the temporal evolution of nature. The Big Bang yielded energy and the simplest, gaseous elements, which only after billions of years formed stars, which then generated all the heavier elements, hence eventually solar systems with terrestrial planets and, at least in one case, a terrestrial environment in which life arose, itself evolving from bacteria to encephalized animals and later human beings. That this development has been stochastic and fitful, and not necessitarian, makes it more, not less remarkable. Leaving aside the particulars of the relevant views, British Emergentism followed later by hierarchy theory rightly perceived that stratified dependence and emergence is a central feature of nature.

Why adopt a view such as that outlined here? It proposes a set of ideas in terms of which an indefinitely wide range of complexes can be coherently judged, interrelating a series of natural scientific, social scientific, and humanitistic inquiries, while avoiding either a collectivist metaphysics, a foundation, a “view from nowhere,” or claims of certainty or completeness. It does not pre-empt, but provides a local framework for further inquiry. One obvious question is, are there complexes and orders that cannot adequately be included in nature understood in this way?  That can only be answered by testing, empirically and conceptually, the given account against an indefinitely long series of controversial cases. We shall see.





Buchler, Justus. 1990. Metaphysics of Natural Complexes. Edited by Kathleen Wallace and Armen Marsoobian, with Robert S. Corrington. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.


------------------- 1990a. “On the Concept of ‘the World’.” Appendix III to 1990.


------------------- 1990b. “Probing the Idea of Nature.” Appendix IV to 1990.


Mayr, Ernst. 1974. “Teleological and Teleonomic: A New Analysis.” Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science. Vol.14.


Randall, John Herman. 1958. Nature and Historical Experience. New York: Columbia University Press.


Wimsatt, William C. 2007. Re-Engineering Philosophy for Limited Beings: Piecewise Approximations to Reality. Cambridge: Harvard University.