Archive for the ‘ontology’ Category

Relations All the Way Down

February 1, 2014

There is nothing to be known about anything except an initially large, and forever expandable, web of relations to other things. Everything that can serve as a term of relation can be dissolved into another set of relations, and so on for ever. There are, so to speak, relations all the way down, all the way up, and all the way out in every direction: you never reach something which is not just one more nexus of relations.

— Richard Rorty from Philosophy and Social Hope


The ancient Greek philosopher Empedocles somehow reasoned that the world was made entirely from four basic elements: fire, earth, water, and air. Science as we know it has disproved this from being the case, but this idea still has a rich symbolic meaning even today that informs our popular culture.

A recent philosophical stance called “ontic structural realism” argues that science suggests that only relations between things are of lasting importance, that is the structural relationships within and between things, not the things themselves that bracket the relations. What we call a quark for instance is just the relations it has with other quarks and the other entities that have relationships with quarks. Perhaps then the world consists of “relations all the way down”, instead of stopping at some point on the lowest level with the things that constitute the world.

If this is so, what if the world was made completely from four basic relations, instead of four basic things? sq_structure_functionCould they be something like the four binary operators of linear logic? I have likened these four basic operators of Linear Logic to my fourfold Structure-Function, where in addition to Structures, we also have Functions, Actions, and Parts. But these three other relations are also structural, in that only the relation something has to another something makes it structural, functional, actional, or a part of a something.

Book Description for Every Thing Must Go:

Every Thing Must Go argues that the only kind of metaphysics that can contribute to objective knowledge is one based specifically on contemporary science as it really is, and not on philosophers’ a priori intuitions, common sense, or simplifications of science. In addition to showing how recent metaphysics has drifted away from connection with all other serious scholarly inquiry as a result of not heeding this restriction, they demonstrate how to build a metaphysics compatible with current fundamental physics (“ontic structural realism”), which, when combined with their metaphysics of the special sciences (“rainforest realism”), can be used to unify physics with the other sciences without reducing these sciences to physics itself. Taking science metaphysically seriously, Ladyman and Ross argue, means that metaphysicians must abandon the picture of the world as composed of self-subsistent individual objects, and the paradigm of causation as the collision of such objects. Every Thing Must Go also assesses the role of information theory and complex systems theory in attempts to explain the relationship between the special sciences and physics, treading a middle road between the grand synthesis of thermodynamics and information, and eliminativism about information. The consequences of the author’s metaphysical theory for central issues in the philosophy of science are explored, including the implications for the realism vs. empiricism debate, the role of causation in scientific explanations, the nature of causation and laws, the status of abstract and virtual objects, and the objective reality of natural kinds.

Stuff I need to read:

James Ladyman, Don Ross / Every Thing Must Go: Metaphysics Naturalized

Jason D. Taylor / Relations all the way down? Exploring the relata of Ontic Structural Realism


Bending the Elements

July 20, 2012

You and your forefathers have devastated the balance of this world. And now, you shall pay the ultimate price!

— From Avatar: the Last Airbender

I recently finished watching the animated series “Avatar: the Last Airbender”. I know I’m a bit late with my praise, but I thought this was an excellent series. It had fascinating world-building, well thought-out plotting, and believable characterization. It had humor, drama, fantasy, even teen romance. Something for all ages!

It could be because I’ve been thinking alot about the Four Elements and how I view them as analogies for the four relations I’ve been discussing for some time on this blog. In Avatar, they are literally the four elements of the world: fire, earth, water, and air. But in addition, these elements correspond to the four peoples of this world. The people of the Fire Nation are willful, the people of the Earth Kingdom are resolute, the people of the Water Tribe are empathic, and the people of the Air Nomads are reflective. Some individuals are able to “bend” the element that is associated with the people they are born into, so that for example a member of the Fire Nation might be able to produce and control fire with thought and gesture. Not everyone has this ability, however.

The Avatar is a continuously reincarnated individual that embodies the spirit of the world. He or she is born into each of the four peoples in a repeating cycle, but the Avatar is also the only individual that can learn to bend all four elements, and even all at the same time. Because of his or her unique powers, the Avatar is known to be able to bring and restore balance to the world, and to tie the real world to another, spiritual world. Avatar: the Last Airbender is the story of Aang, a descendent of the Air Nomads, but the last of his people due to genocide. He has been in a state of suspended animation for the last 100 years and awakes to a troubled world of war and turmoil. Can Aang save his world?

Hopefully I’m not spoiling anything in saying that he does. Indeed a sequel is currently being produced called “The Legend of Korra” that is planned to run 52 episodes. This sequel takes place a number of years after the end of Avatar, and the next Avatar after Aang is Korra from the Southern Water Tribe. The world is now somewhat more advanced technologically than it was during Aang’s time, and although not at war because it is still enjoying the peace that Aang initiated, there is still some strife and unrest for Korra to eventually bring the Avatar’s balance to. I am enjoying it also!


It is interesting to note that fire is the only element that can be generated by the will ex nihilo. With enough skill, water can be extracted from living matter and the air. Of course, air is ever present and earth is seldom far away.



July 3, 2012

Aristotle’s Four Causes is an important fourfold that seems to be the basis for many of the fourfolds, both original and not, presented in this blog. Two of the causes, efficient and material, are acceptable to modern scientific inquiry because they can be thought of as motion and matter, respectively, but the other two causes, formal and final, are not. Why is that?

The formal cause is problematic because the formal is usually considered to be an abstract concept, a construction of universals that may only exist in the human mind. The final cause is also problematic because it is associated with the concept of telos or purpose. There, too, only human or cognitive agents are allowed to have goals or ends. So for two causes, efficient and material, all things may participate in them, but for the two remaining, formal and final, only agents with minds may.

These problems may be due to the pervasive influence of what the recent philosophical movement of Object Oriented Philosophy calls correlationism: ontology or the existence of things is limited to human knowledge of them, or epistemology. The Four Causes as usually described becomes restricted to the human creation and purpose of things. Heidegger’s Tool Analysis or Fourfold, which also appears to have been derived from the Four Causes, is usually explained in terms of the human use of human made things: bridges, hammers, pitchers. Even scientific knowledge is claimed to be just human knowledge, because only humans participate in the making of this knowledge as well as its usage.

Graham Harman, one of the founders of Speculative Realism of which his Object Oriented Ontology is a result, has transformed Heidegger’s Fourfold so that it operates for all things, and so the correlationism that restricts ontology to human knowledge becomes a relationism that informs the ontology for all things. Instead of this limiting our knowledge even more, it is surprising what can be said about the relations between all things when every thing’s access is as limited as human access. However, this transformation is into the realm of the phenomenological, which is not easily accessible to rational inquiry.

I wish to update the Four Causes, and claim that they can be recast into a completely naturalistic fourfold operating for all things. This new version was inspired by the Four Operators of Linear Logic. Structure and function are commonplace terms in scientific discourse, and I wish to replace formal and final causes with them. It may be argued that what is obtained can no longer be properly called the Four Causes, and that may indeed be correct.

First, let us rename the efficient cause to be action, but not simply a motion that something can perform. I’m not concerned at the moment with whether the action is intentional or random, but it must not be wholly deterministic. Thus there are at least two alternatives to an action. I’m also not determining whether one alternative is better than the other, so there is no normative judgement. An action is such that something could have done something differently in the same situation. This is usually called external choice in Linear Logic (although it makes more sense to me to call it internal choice: please see silly link below).

Second, let us call the material cause part, but not simply a piece of something. Instead of the material or substance that something is composed of, let us first consider the parts that constitute it. However, a part is not merely a piece that can be removed. A part is such that something different could be substituted for it in the same structure, but not by one’s choice. Like an action, I am not concerned whether one of the alternatives is better than the other, but only that the thing is still the thing regardless of the alternative. This is usually called internal choice.

Next, we will relabel the formal cause to be structure, but not simply the structure of the thing under consideration. Ordinarily structure is not a mere list of parts, or a set of parts, or even a sum or integral of parts, but an ordered assembly of parts that shapes a form. Ideally structure is an arrangement of parts in space. However, in this conceptualization, structure will be only an unordered list of parts with duplications allowed.

Last, instead of final cause we will say function, but not simply the function of the thing as determined by humans. Ordinarily function is not a mere list of actions, or a set of actions, or a sum or integral of actions, but an ordered aggregate of actions that enables a functionality. Ideally function is an arrangement of actions in time. However, like structure, function will be only an unordered list of actions with duplications allowed.

As we transform the Four Causes from made things to all things, both natural and human-made, we will later examine how that changes them.


[*6.144, *7.32, *7.97]


Philippe Descola’s Four Ontologies

January 26, 2012


Philippe Descola / Par-delà nature et culture

[*7.42, *7.43, *7.44]


Walter Watson and David Dilworth’s Archic Matrix

December 2, 2011

Throughout the history of philosophy, there have been many conflicting stances both towards claiming what exists (ontology), and how we can know our claims are valid (epistemology). There are the oppositions between idealism and realism, between rationalism and empiricism, between thinking all is change and all is changeless, between all is many and all is one, and so on. One approach to overcome these oppositions is to combine them to form their Hegelian synthesis. Another is to deconstruct them à la Derrida. Another pluralistic approach is to consider that there is a germ of truth on each side of the conflicting stance, an aspect of reality for which that stance is valid. Some might think that pluralism is the same as relativism, but it is not. Relativism and pluralism form yet another philosophical opposition like others mentioned above.

Regardless of the validity of pluralism, it can be very useful to analyze what philosophical stances are possible and how they relate to one another. The philosopher Richard McKeon created a rich schema for philosophical semantics that deserves greater recognition. This schema was both simplified and elaborated on by Walter Watson and David Dilworth in their books about the Archic Matrix. There are four main aspects, all exemplified by ancient philosophers: the Sophists, Democritus, Plato, and Aristotle. Everything else is a combination of these original aspects, or essentially a rehashing of them. The main aspects are perspective from the Sophists, reality from Democritus, method from Plato, and principle from Aristotle. These partition “what is”, however it is conceived, into four aspects, each of which can be interpreted in four different ways.

Considering Whitehead’s Criteria, note that perspective has consistency, method has coherency, reality has applicability, and principle has adequacy.

Walter Watson / The Architectonics of Meaning: foundations of the new pluralism

David A. Dilworth / Philosophy in World Perspective: a comparative hermeneutic of the major theories



E. J. Lowe’s Four Category Ontology

June 27, 2011


E. J. Lowe / The Four-Category Ontology: a metaphysical foundation for natural science

[*4.94, *6.98]


John R. Searle’s Epistemological and Ontological Senses of Objective and Subjective

June 13, 2011


John R. Searle / The Construction of Social Reality



The Four Elements of Empedocles

July 21, 2010

Into this wilde Abyss,
The Womb of nature and perhaps her Grave,
Of neither Sea, nor Shore, nor Air, nor Fire,
But all these in their pregnant causes mixt
Confus’dly, and which thus must ever fight,
Unless th’ Almighty Maker them ordain
His dark materials to create more Worlds,
Into this wilde Abyss the warie fiend
Stood on the brink of Hell and look’d a while,
Pondering his Voyage; for no narrow frith
He had to cross.

— From Paradise Lost by John Milton

The Four Elements of Empedocles is one of the earliest ontologies. While not of special interest in itself (except of course to alchemy), other double duals are comparable to it, such as the The Here and the Now and Heidegger’s Fourfold. Additionally, it is interesting to remember that it was thought that the four elements were the primitives of which everything is composed; for example bone was fire, air, water, and earth blended in a certain proportion. I am unsure of the origin of the choice of the elements: why these four and not others?

Also, note that with respect to light transmission, the four elements can be arranged in the sequence of bright, light, dim, and dark. This is not to say that fire is “good” and earth “bad”, or that fire and earth are the most different from each other. Perhaps this distinction will have some meaning later.

[*5.188, *6.32, *6.56, *7.194]


Heidegger’s Fourfold (das Geviert)

May 4, 2010

We are too late for the gods and too early for Being. Being’s poem, just begun, is man.

— From Thinker as Poet by Martin Heidegger

“Every man makes a god of his own desire.”


Note that Heidegger’s Fourfold is a perfect schema for the Tower of Babel: while mortals strive to join the earth and sky, the gods undo their efforts by turning their unity into multiplicity.


Graham Harman / Tool-Being: Heidegger and the Metaphysics of Objects

[*6.2, *6.3, *6.56, *6.62]