Ontological Pluralism

This was a great discussion, and I’m going to try and recall how the conversation went based on notes I have. Each point below reflects something that someone in the group said or proposed, roughly, but of course I won’t include names. So the points likely jump about a bit from one position to another- reflecting people’s differing opinions in the group (and not necessarily my own)! Some points are just books/authors that people suggested reading/looking up and may not be relevant to the previous point. In bold are the points I personally feel were a leap forward/eureka moment!

  • Classic cartesian dualism reflects the distinction between “mind” and “body” or the “physical” and the “spiritual” etc. However there are a whole string of other dualisms, not just Cartesian. 
  • (See Antonio Demasio- feeling, biology of emotion.)
  • There are lots of other things aside from “matter”, so I argue for pluralism rather than dualism. The current norm in science/physics is that everything can be explained in terms of physical matter, physical laws of the universe – but this is just one “side” of cartesian dualism that has been “kept” whilst the other rejected.
  • Test cases for pluralism: there are things that exist but cannot be explained in terms of physical matter. e.g. mathematics, logic, promises. You cannot reduce any of these three things to atoms. They exist, but not in terms of physical matter.
  • (see Speech Acts by John Austen. e.g. when we say “i do”)
  • We’re talking about concepts that many people can mutually hold, they all tie to language, and cultural institutions and constructs.
  • Did we “invent” or “discover” logic? Does it truly exist in the universe? Isn’t it the tool we use to describe the patterns we see in the universe (just like maths). The patterns in the universe truly exist, so what is mysterious about logic? What is there to explain?
  • In what way do promises “exist”?
  • Other examples include money, political systems… these things exist but not in terms of matter.
  • Can you think of an example that hasn’t come about in the last 5,000 years of human evolution (e.g. a product of human cultural evolution)?
  • We are conflating explanation and ontology. Similar to the maths/minds/brains/physics/maths Escher triangle. E.g. you can’t explain maths without minds, you can’t explain minds without brains, you can’t explain brains without physics, you can’t explain physics without maths! Ooops!
  • The main issue is that dualism/ontological splitting is a massive metaphysical problem if it exists. Do we need another research programme?
  • I want a seamless thing where everything meshes and connects….
  • …but that is the opposite of ontological pluralism! The problem is everything IS causally connected- so it is a monism!
  • The parable of the man looking for a ring outside his house, he lost it inside the house but is looking outside as that’s where the light is shining- that’s where he CAN look.
  • Talking about an unactualised possible- read “Quine: from a logical point of view”
  • The number of stars that exist are innumerable to us humans. We can’t put a number on it. The stars exist, and the amount of starts exists, but that number isn’t conceivable to humans, the “number of stars” in human terms, don’t exist. Just like logic. It doesn’t “exist” it’s a concept and tool that humans use.
  • Was bitcoin fixed at the beginning of the universe?
  • Yes and No. The Universe is a 4D singularity at the beginning and possibly at the end. Bitcoin is a point somewhere on the trajectory, it’s not the case that it existed at the beginning of the universe, but it is part of the fabric, there is no causal breach.
  • This is not a useful way of explaining how bitcoin came to be.
  • Of course! It is as useful as a map the same size as what it’s trying to map.
  • It’s the wrong level of explanation. There are different subjects, different levels of explanation, but no contradiction. So not plural realms of ontology but different layers of explanation (that connect).
  • So you wouldn’t explain the Bayeux tapestry in terms of thread…
  • …no, the most meaningful explanation is history, sociology…but if you’re a seamstress- yes!
  • Different layers of explanation are each legitimate in their own right, we don’t regard physics as superior, but it ultimately explains physical reality.
  • Maybe I am thinking of the quote “there is only one science, physics, the rest is stamp collecting (or social work),” by Ernest Rutherford.
  • Don’t think scientists think like that anymore.
  • Science communication problem. Often “evolutionary psychology” get’s big headlines, and then people think scientists see human behaviour as best explained by “survival of the fittest” and that then gets conflated with, “fittest is best” etc but this is not really how most serious scientists view human behaviour or explain human behaviour. It’s a flaw of science communication and media portrayal. There is lots of good work going on trying to mesh social psychology and sociology with evolutionary theory, behavioural biology, etc to get a full picture of human behaviour. Of course explanations have to be meaningful to us today and include relevant, current, cultural explanations, not just “what we did on the savannah.”
  • (See Surfaces & Essences- Hofstadter.)
  • (See Churchlands Neurophilosophy)
  • You always look for boss explanations that boil down to physics, means we always look for reductionism. This is either trivial or dangerous, it becomes an article of faith. If something contradicts my understanding of physics I won’t believe it.
  • You can have ontological monism with a pluralism of explanations.
  • This is why some people go to religion, some people need full explanations. I don’t, I know that somewhere down there something is going on to explain what I’m experiencing at this level, but I don’t need to know about it.
  • We would just always trust (or prioritise) the physical explanation, e.g. if other explanations directly contradicted the huge body of physical evidence, there would have to be huge amounts of evidence from another level that contradicted it, that predicted all the other observations better than the physical explanations.

What will A.I. and automation mean for society and the economy?

Another fantastic chat was had for this topic. Some of the issues we covered:

Universal income, can AI be paired with universal income so more people are more free to be creative and explore their own talents/ideas without worrying about sustaining themselves via a paid job?

Get rid of the stigma of poverty, recognise that, economically, we need a certain proportion of the population to be consumers, and we should value those. Thus those who are “on benefits” should instead be viewed/labelled as “paid consumers”?

How serious could A.I. warfare and bitcoin mining become?

Do we have to impose human morals for self-driving cars to be successful, or do neural networks take car of that for us?

How do neural networks function, is this analogous to how children learn grammar?

Neural networks are now better at recognising birds than humans, can they be better at driving too? Unsupervised machine learning.

If a neural network makes the best possible decision based on all of the available data, but still kills a person, is this psychologically easier to accept than if a person had killed another person?

People get distracted by their shopping, emotional worries, stress from work, not having enough sleep, being hungry, and any of these minor effects can kill people, but self-driving cars are focussing entirely on making the optimal decision at every possible moment.

Is our creation of A.I. analogous to artificial selection of dogs/cats etc? What about their free will & morality? If we strip our brains back to their bare components, is ‘morality’ there? What about cognitive dissonance? Does A.I. get cognitive dissonance? Do cats and dogs?

Who should have ‘human rights’?

The Equality and Human Rights Commission states that “Human rights are the basic rights and freedoms that belong to every person in the world, from birth until death.”
But historian and author Yuval Noah Harari reminds us that rights are not an intrinsic property of human beings: “Human rights are a fictional story just like God and heaven. Biologically speaking, humans don’t have rights.”

We see them as fundamental to a fair society, but are they? We decide who should have rights, but how? Should non-human animals have rights? Why, why not, or which ones?

Bacteria are masters of Tai Chi

Really fun session! Beginning with the article in Nautilus:

We then went on to discuss: “movement theory” and the Physical Theatre group “DV8”

Embodied cognition, see the logic that takes us from “mental states” to the purely physical:


Lesson: If Clark Kent is superman, but Lois Lane doesn’t know this, and she runs over Clark Kent, she also runs over Superman.

But if Lois Lane loves Superman, she doesn’t also love Clark Kent.

We discussed how the Greeks didn’t necessarily have a concept of “consciousness” and the influence of Descartes, the definition of “good” and how we can predict what the tables will do next….

Modelling biodiversity loss in a Global state

We had a great discussion led by John, who had some ideas for modelling a global state in populations’ fertility varied, as did their resource use/sustainability.

We discussed how fertility is defined in different fields, the importance and value of modelling in science, “the repugnant conclusion”, is it possible to maintain a stable population, will “mutations” which increase reproduction/resource use invade and take-over?

A nice relevant chapter here:

Climate Change

Another great discussion this week: we discussed some of the issues brought up in the article (the appearance of hypoxic ‘dead zones’ in the oceans, melting permafrost, climate refugees…) and why there doesn’t seem to be the same sense of urgency around climate change as there are around more human-scale issues. We also discussed a thought experiment proposed by John about how a fertile sub-population would spread in an otherwise steady state world under a global state versus nation state conditions, which led into a discussion about population size and back into climate change, optimising land use for ecological diversity, and perpetual growth versus circular and steady state economies. 

Can we create a global state?

Another great discussion, covering everything from “us versus them,” global citizenship, wealth inequality, global freedom of movement, wealth redistribution, philosophy of self, freedom of choice, universal basic income, marxism, climate change, evolution of cooperation and much more! Some links of interest below:

“I have no enemies” – Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo:

Film: “Divergent”:

Black Mirror season 3 episode 1:

Essay on diminishing returns and wealth inequality:

Book by Rodrik:

Evolution of Trust cartoon:






Knowledge Inequality

Another great session discussing information overload, whether the internet needs a filter, how to combat conspiracy theorists, is science the best way to know truth, should university lectures be openly available to all members of the public?

Some weird and wonderful recommendations that came up:

The Dispossessed by Ursula le Guin

The left hand of darkness by Ursula le Guin

The Buddha in the Robot by Masahiro Mori

The Red Virgin and the Vision of Utopia by Bryan Talbot and Mary M. Talbot