Pragmatic Ontological Pluralism (POP)

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Defining Pragmatic Ontological Pluralism

Ontological Pluralism is the metaphysical doctrine that there are several "ways of being" as described here: Ontological Pluralism. Another way of saying this is to say there are various different fundamental types of thing.

Consider the following things:

an atom, a cloud, a chair, a magnetic field, a pain, a radio wave, a sunset, a lightning bolt, an electron, a volume of (physical)space, a mathematical space, a party, a system, a mathematical set, a philosophical category, the property of redness, the property of reflectance or reflectivity, the property of permittivity, a wave packet, the property of tensile strength, a fictional character, a misunderstanding, a 'system', a concept or idea, an event, a musical chord, an organic compound, a change in pitch of a moving sound source, the change in 'colour' of a moving light source, a strategy, a crime, a period of time, a mathematical sphere, a process, a complex of microprocessor circuits, a decision, a robot, a statistic, an imagined picture, a public inquiry, a university, a thought, a quantum of energy, a consciousness, a behaviour, a leaf pattern, the pattern of leaves on a tree, a social force, a change in society, an emergent property, a circle, the property of circularity, the electric charge of a fundamental particle, the parity of a fundamental particle, the CPT Theorem, a integer number, an irrational number, a knot, an industry, a probability, a computer game avatar, a computer game gun, an computer game action, an increase in entropy, a 'need', a website, a social network community, a hole, a spacetime wormhole, a semiconductor hole, a risk, a network, a complex number, an emergent behaviour, a rainbow, a switch, a complex mathematical "object", a mathematical group, a planet, a symbol, the aurora borealis, a volume of water, an 'ideal' dodecahedron, a spherical liquid drop, a memory, a theory of physics, a mathematical equation, a quark, a feeling of anxiety, a market, a mathematical point, a spacetime point, a gluon, an electronic memory store, a Higgs boson, a psychosis, a Turing machine, a definition, an average, a delusion, an X-ray, a N-Ray, a quantity of Phlogisten, a Buckyball molecule, a meaning, a sheet of Unobtainium, a hologram, a moral principle, a growth spurt, Jean Luc Picard, a bit or byte of information, a signal, a proposition or assertion, a coincidence, the Linnean classication system, a social class, Hamlet (the character or the play), a socio-economic class, a potential, the Inspector character in "An Inspector Calls", the apparent suicide of the young woman in "An Inspector Calls", the "social forces" described in "An Inspector Calls", a law of logic, a law of physics, a criminal law, a word, a symbolic model, a syntax, a family court, a judge, a philosophical idea, a cause, the philosophical idea of "Intentionality", ...

The Ontic Questions

Then ask of the thing: What is it? What is it made of? What does it interact with? What is it like - and how? And what is it not like? What's my concept of the thing? How accurate is my concept?; what does 'accurate' mean anyway? How do I know? What explanations does the thing figure in? Do I understand the thing? Does the thing 'really exist'? What does it mean 'to be' anyway? What is my theory of 'existence'?

Then ask yourself: "How many fundamentally different categories of thing do I need to explain literally every thing?" [You don't have to actually explain everything - that would be quite a challenge! - you merely have to have a stab at how many different fundamental types of thing you would need - to feature in all the various explanations of different things.]

This is the heart of Ontology - and Ontology is the heart of Metaphysics. The aim of Metaphysics, and the precise formulation of its definition, is still debated but perhaps the clearest exposition is that of van Inwagen and Zimmerman (Metaphysics - The Big Questions):

   "... to make assertions that strictly and literally describe reality and which can, with sufficient effort, be understood by anyone whose intellect is equal to the task."

According to Lowe, metaphysics is concerned with "... the fundamental structure of reality as a whole."

In my view, both van Inwagen & Zimmerman and Lowe, and philosophers generally, underestimate the task and aim of metaphysics. It is not simply to describe reality but to understand it and explain it; and in this sense metaphysics is scientific philosophy and should be seen as based in the sciences and acting as an adjunct unifying discipline - assisting in the task of the construction of a truly comprehensive scientific world-view. This concept of Metaphysics however involves jettisoning most, if not all, the philosophical baggage produced before the 20th Century and some radical changes in the practice of metaphysics.

An ontological pluralist arrives at the conclusion that there is such a diversity of fundamentally different things in the universe that you need three or more categories of thing. To the ontological pluralist it seems absurd to deny the 'real existence' (whatever that might mean) of most, if not quite all, the things listed above (and many more) - and just as absurd to suggest that a mathematical set is fundamentally the same sort of thing as an atom, or the experience of redness is fundamentally the same sort of thing as a magnetic field or that a pain is the same sort of thing as a chair.

However, ontological pluralism is not popular among philosophers past or present - and many, if not most, of them prefer (on no good grounds whatsoever - see the Jason Turner aticle) a simpler (or more simplistic) ontology or "ontological stance" - that of a monism (the assertion that there is a single type of thing) or a dualism (that there are only two types of thing). The most popular monism (at present) is Physicalism - the doctrine that everything ultimately reduces to (is composed of) physical things; and the most popular dualism is Cartesian Dualism - the doctrine that there are two fundamental types of thing: physical stuff and mental stuff. To the ontological pluralist these stances, for all the writing attempting to justify them, are absurd - but then philosophers are not afraid of being absurd and often fail to find the flaws in the arguments that lead them to absurd conclusions (even as a community or social institution).

However, the essence and raison d'etre for Ontology as a distinct subject and branch of philosophy is that things are not as they appear to be - a principle some philosophers seem to forget - and therefore some critical thought is required to 'get past' mere appearance and overly hasty conceptualisations and metaphorically see things as they really are. [And if you think about what that last sentence really means (sic) you will come to a deeper understanding of Ontology and hopefully come towards a pragmatic ontological pluralist position.]

Putnam's Pragmatic Pluralism

Hilary Putnam is a prominent modern philosopher who was associated with a Physicalist-Functionalist position in Metaphysics. In his later thinking, however, he became dissatisfied and frustrated with the traditional divisions and debates in metaphysics including the Physicalism -vs- Dualism (in its various forms) debate and the Realism -vs- Anti-Realism (Nominalism) debate. He therefore sought a "third-way" that sought to avoid the polarizations and philosophical pitfalls of the past. With a nod to the Pramatist tradition in philosophy, this "third-way" came to be called Pragmatic Pluralism.

Pragmatic Pluralism starts with the observation that for any given segment of reality there are multiple (possible) descriptions of it - depending on what ontological concepts (what things are there) and principles (for example, how you regard 'composition' - and therefore composite objects or things) are applied. This plays out in defining "horizontal pluralism" - which is two different descriptions at the same conceptual level - and "vertical pluralism" - which is different descriptions at different conceptual levels. An example of "horizontal pluralism" might be looking at a signal in time-space or in frequency-space terms, or maybe looking at a physics situation in wave or particle terms. [Or maybe even looking at a physical stuation using either the Schroding Picture or the Path-Integral Formulation.] The paradigm example of vertical pluralism is the consideration of a micro-physical description (in terms of the fundamental particles (or waves!) involved) versus a macro-level description - in terms of human-scale "objects".

Objective / Subjective Dualism

Some of the 'things' listed above we know exist and have existed for some time completely independently of any human consciousness. Our best theories of the universe imply that the Earth and many things in / on it have survived the coming and going of many consciousnesses over very many years. (People and other animals do not generally live for more than 100 years - and there is little reason to think there is any other animal or non-animal consciousness anywhere in the vicinity of the Earth). This simple observation is the common-sense foundation-stone for Realism - the doctrine that things exist independently of what humans think - and rejection of Idealism - the (unintelligible and highly implausible) doctrine that things are somehow constructed from human (or non-human) perceptions and thoughts.

Unless I am to take Solipsism (the insane doctrine that I am the only consciousness in the Universe) seriously - which I do not - it immediately follows, given the empirical evidence of my own eyes and ears, that there are many consciousnesses around and many things that are completely independent of them. It is not too far of a logical stretch to assume that some things are equally accessible to some consciousnesses - ie that they can have perceptions and form concepts of the 'publicly accessible' things. Hence there is multiple conscious access to a common, independent reality - and it follows that there is a "state of affairs" in this reality and matters of fact - contingent, empirical fact - about it. Given the empirical evidence it is not too much of a logical stretch to assert that this reality has "structure" - systematic compositional and nomological relations between parts. It follows from this that there is, in principle, a description and explanation of this reality therefore that is accessible to any and all consciousnesses of sufficient discrimination, observation and reasoning power. This is what we call "objectivity" - that there is a description of consciousness-independent objects (or other aspects) of a 'real world' that is itself independent of any particular consciousness. The key to objectivity is, of course, to set aside personal (1st-personal) perceptions and conceptions and try to explain them in terms of an arbitrary supposed consciousness - the legendary "observer" of Einstein and others.

Not all the things listed above are 'independent' of the observer. Some of those things exist only in relation to and in the context of the observer's consciousness: paradigmatically, pains, experiences of properties and events, perceptions, thoughts, decisions etc. This 'mode of existence' is clearly different from the physical - and what has been called traditionally the "mental". Because they exist only in relation to or in the context of a consciousness - they are integrated into the observer's "stream of consciousness" - they are definitively "subjective". Since there is no known mechanism for direct inter-consciousness communication - it all has to go through the physical realm - they are also definitely "private" and "1st-person".

It may be that an ontologically reductive explanation of mental entities, events and processes is in-principle possible and will be produced at some point in the future - but no-one has done so yet. Such a reduction would explain the things we today regard as "mental" in physical terms and "mental" would then become just a "level of description" in a fundamentally physicalist ontology. But it is also possible that the mental is an altogether emergent phenomenon that cannot be reduced to the behaviours of physical component parts - and in practical terms that is where we are today. Unless you are of a mystical turn of mind, the empirical evidence would appear to indicate that consciousnesses (and therefore the mental) are an emergent phenomenon that occur in the vicinity of brains (human and other animals).

From an ontological pluralist perspective therefore there is a substantive distinction between the objective physical things in the universe and the subjective mental things (that only exist in consciousnesses) - and therefore (at least) two different "modes of existence".

Systems Thinking And Objective / Subjective Dualism

Naturalistic Platonic Realism

Consider the assertion "two plus two equals four" - where all the terms have their usual, normal, everyday meanings. The concepts of 'two' and 'four' are not difficult; my dog and horse can certainly count to two, and probably to four - they have an intuitive grasp of the concepts without ever having studied arithmetic or thought deeply about the concept of 'number'. Humans and other anthropoids probably have richer, more detailed and formal concepts of two and four - and also of arithmetic generally including 'plus' and 'equals'. Is it conceivable that any intelligence at least as penetrating as my dog's, living in the world we live in, would not generate a concept of 'two'? How likely is it that a society of intelligences that broadly equivalent to terrestrial anthropoids would not produce, as a society or community, the concepts of numbers (integers - positive and negative?) and arithmetic?

Now ask yourself: if the concepts produced are common across a range of disconnected (in space or time) societies or communities, is there something implicit in the logic of numbers and arithmetic that means that any collection of sufficient intelligences would, given enough time (and perhaps some form of enduring memory - e.g. writing), arrive at those very same concepts?

Intersubjectivity and Social Realism

Pragmatic Ontological Pluralism

Pragmatic Ontological Pluralism and Ontic Structural Realism

Pragmatic Ontological Pluralism and Critical Realism


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