Levels of Reality / Levels of Abstraction

A Unified Integral Framework

Since the beginning of time inspired human beings have speculated on the nature of the universe, creating ambitious models of reality in an attempt to accurately conceptualize their vision. Many of these ideas have influenced the development of world religions and spirituality. The ancient concept logos is the root of many terms in western science.

Today, in the context of growing global scholarship and the ubiquitous power of the internet, we can gather up many of these visualizations, ranging from the scientific to the mystical. Based on what we see as their commonalities, we can offer a systematic interpretation that understands them all in an integrated way, as profound and insightful attempts to model or describe a single reality, seen at different levels of analysis.

Pre-mathematical intuition of the whole

The ORIGIN project is inspired by such visions and influenced by many sources arising throughout human history, brought together here in a single contemporary hypothesis. We are suggesting that these deeply intuitive ideas emerging throughout history represent profound efforts to conceptualize something universal, yet "seen through a glass darkly". We understand these ideas as "pre-mathematical" because they seem to be attempts to conceptualize the world in formal analytic terms -- often similar to mathematics -- but are not entirely clear or precise and are often influenced by mythology, metaphor and anthropomorphism.

Visionaries throughout history have offered hierarchical models of reality based on tree-structures or concentric circles or nested levels, such as the Great Chain of Being. Sometimes these models are entirely metaphorical, showing actual living trees. Other times, the same form is visualized in strictly mathematical terms, as is the case in modern computer science or in a spreadsheet program like Excel.

Ideas like this concept of "Nous" (left) are graphic models of the universe, or of cosmology, or the spectrum of human knowledge. As history has progressed, human understanding has matured, science has extended its methods across the full range of human thought, and our ideas have become more accurate. This project is about building connections across this range of thinking, such that our deepest intuition of the whole, traditionally framed in metaphor, can today be described in mathematics and science.


Today, humanity is passing through a profound transition, which many people see as a global-scale transformation of civilization. World culture is shifting from a loose federation of competing semi-insular and "myopic" regional or national cultures that don't understand each other very well, into a universal "one world" context. In this emerging tightly-connected new context, freedom and human differences must be defended, but human unity must be realized and maintained.

We need universal vision, grounded in every tradition and in every method for establishing truth. Humanity in a shrinking world cannot afford destructive confusion, misunderstanding and gridlock. We need to establish the common ground of deepest intuition while at the same time validating our shared understanding and global ethics, through the highest levels of scientific expertise and secular wisdom as well as through the intuition of good people anywhere and the guidance of the greatest philosophers and spiritual leaders throughout history.

Conjunction, confluence, convergence, cocreation

Today, in a cocreative conjunction of science, psychology and mysticism, we are able to gather these things together, and propose a single integrating idea. We combine elements that extend through the entire history of western philosophy, and include ideas that have arisen in cultures anywhere. The primary concept is that of a single integrating "spectrum of levels" -- like a color spectrum -- that represents a continuous range of variation that we believe we can see as expressions of a single concept. That single integrating concept, connecting all forms of concepts, including the empirical and concrete and the holistic and abstract, as defined in the precise language of algebraic concept theory, is level of abstraction.

Any form of hierarchical representation can be defined as multi-level, in these terms. Computer science, corporate organization charts, biological taxonomy and almost any system of nested categories can be described in levels of abstraction.

Level of abstraction


The world of ideas, concepts and logic is defined across levels of abstraction. From concrete and "actual" objects, human beings create abstract and symbolic categories, as seen in biological taxonomy, shown in this example of "mammals". The same idea is the basis of the parlor game "Twenty Questions", where everything in existence is categorized in general terms as either "plant, animal, or mineral", and the game drills down to specific actual things ("instances").

Once we understand the hierarchical nature of categories, we can offer a single explanation of a wide range of related and overlapping theory and speculation, all understood as slightly differing ways to talk about the same thing. The essential principle behind abstraction is that objects are categorized by commonalities, in a cascade that extends from the specifics and details and instances to the broadest of all categories at the top level. From many differing instances, a generalized abstract category such as "tree" is formed, based on similarities. Discernible details and measurements not true of all instances are ignored.

Mandala and sunburst

The evolution of holistic thinking -- from anthropomorphic visualization to exact conceptual analysis. The bridge from religion to science.

In these images, "level of abstraction" is defined as the radius -- the line from the absolute center (the absolute infinite, the "one") to the perifery (the infinitesimal, the "many"). All human concepts and categories are distributed across descending levels of abstraction within this framework.

Universal Anthropomorphic Simple Sunburst Three-level Sunburst Multi-level Sunburst Infinite-level Sunburst

Link to many sunburst chart graphics

Transcendent unity of religions

With this preface, we can begin to note detailed similarities among widely shared ideas, including this "Esoteric/Exoteric" diagram taken from Huston Smith's introduction to the book The Transcendent Unity of Religions by Fritjhof Schuon.

Smith's diagram shows six major religious traditions converging towards a common point, with a grey dividing line distinguishing "exoteric" and "esoteric" levels. According to traditional perennialism, world religions are "unified" (similar/identical/one) in the esoteric range at the top point of convergence, and "diversified" (different) in the exoteric range at the bottom.

Doctrinal specifics embody the differences in the exoteric range, and tend to drop out entirely in the higher esoteric range, which becomes extremely simple but highly purified and disciplined.

The "wheel of the law" -- the Ashoka Chakra, found on the national flag of India (right) -- shows this same form.

And the "unity in diversity", shown in this famous "Islamic mandala" of the "99 names of God" (below), takes a form absolutely identical to the sunburst chart, with the highest light of The One at the center, and all differentiations proceeding from that center.


We can interpret the concept Logos as a generic name for the full breadth of concepts and conceptual form, arising as distinctions within the original and primordial framework of the undifferentiated One.

The Wikipedia article on Logos links in many directions relative to this broad thesis, and here we are suggesting that the general form of Logos can be understood as spanning the levels of abstraction from the microscopic to the macroscopic -- from the concrete and empirical to the conceptual and abstract.

Is it historically accurate to say that the polar opposites of this fundamental spectrum within the potentials of the whole are properly characterized by the relationship between Aristotle and Plato, shown in this famous painting "The School of Athens" by Rafael? Is it accurate to suggest that this spectrum does indeed characterize this polarization of mind as "left brain / right brain"?

We offer the argument that the entire history of the world is characterized by this fundamental division within these innate boundaries of thought -- and that it can probably also be said that indeed every point of division within the possibilities of the human mind can be accurately and usefully characterized along this spectrum.

The Whole -- or the Christ, or the One, or the Absolute -- is the universal reconciling container for these divisions and opposites -- whether understood through religion, or spirituality or holism or science.

"Plotinus taught that there is a supreme, totally transcendent 'One', containing no division, multiplicity or distinction and beyond all categories of being and non-being. His One 'cannot be any existing thing', nor is it merely the sum of all things but 'is prior to all existents'. Plotinus identified his One with the concept of Good and the principle of Beauty."

Spectrum within the One

Aristotle Plato

Duality -- unbroken oneness -- differentiated in innumerable ways depending on local/immediate motivation

General model and universal form -- metaphorical and mathematical: holon -- the part that is also a whole

many one

  1. AXIAL
    • Great chain of being
    • Axis mundi
    • World tree
    • Absolute center -- across levels (what are those levels)
    • Relative / absolute
    • Local / global
    • Parts / wholes
    • Empirical / abstract
    • Particular / general
    • Specific / universal
    • Diversity / unity
    • Differences / similarities
    • Concrete / abstract
    • Empiricism / holism
    • Concrete / transcendental
    • Bottom-up / top-down
    • Local / global
    • Eye of flesh, eye of mind, eye of contemplation
    • Matter / spirit (energy)
    • Left brain / right brain
    • Caduceus / chakras
    • Analysis / synthesis
    • Induction / deduction
    • Lower / upper semantic ontology
    • Exoteric / esoteric
    • Many / one
    • Individual / collective
    • Part / whole
    • Tree chart
    • Jacob's ladder
    • Seven levels of heaven
    • Coordinate system
    • Starburst chart
    • Organization of logic -- synthetic/analytic (synthetic: put things togetgher -- analytic: take things apart)

links and footnotes http://www.kheper.net/topics/Wilber/Great_Nest_of_Being.html