Brush clearing ontological classifications


The very idea of “ontological” classification is suspect. What is the being of a thing by reference to the thing alone? By definition it is the only one to experience it. A hook for knowledge: being results from a constitution. But if we think we know the constitution per se —the being of the constitution— it places us as the creator of the thing. Deification of the one who knows, whose knowledge would be ultimate. More weighted the mind looks at the thing, adds a representation to it. It integrates this image into its identity universe, a virtuality that mirrors reality.

The construction of this universe is not random. It is done well in reference to reality. But must satisfy the coherence of the mental universe before that of reality. The coherence of reality is held by imperturbable laws; that of the mental universe is fragile. Its identity takes many years to establish, sometimes never found, can fade in the moment by encountering an incompatible event. Our ontological statements are thus statements of mental coherence before being those of reality. So much the better if they coincide.


Going down into the constitution of things shows that their diversity is decreasing. All ontologies narrow down to fundamental elements. Air fire water earth for the classics, quantons for the moderns. Ontological classifications therefore attempt to restrict their categories to the bare minimum. They are a de-diversification of things. The ideal is to arrive at a mono-categorical ontology, where a universal principle, an equation of Everything, would nestle.

But the task is not easy. It is necessary to find the existing diversity of reality from a single category. Bring all things into this narrow corset. Can the colourful crowd of our particular minds be satisfied with this? We seem to be running straight to failure. But a nice consolation would be that reality per se is satisfied with it.

The mono-categorical ontology of L.A. Paul

I will present and comment on some attempts. A recent one is the one-category ontology of L.A. Paul. It sees in the world only one type of thing: qualities/properties. For Paul the qualities are universals, the only true elements of reality. The world is made up of mereological fusions of different qualities. As a being, the world itself is the exhaustive fusion of all qualitative entities. The qualities are repeated in the world; but it is not the multiple realizability principle, which sees different elements display the same property. Here it is quality that founds the world. It is not supported by something.

If you have grasped the principle of the double look, you may have already guessed that Paul’s ontology is that of the exclusive downward look. Things are only seen by their fused appearance. If everything is a two-sided coin, the underside being its micromechanisms and the top its properties, Paul looks at the coin exclusively from above. The opposite direction of reductionism, which is the exclusive upward look —everything comes from micromechanisms.

Success story…

Paul’s downward look of course meets with immediate success with strong emergences, such as quantum entanglement. The properties being causal, they impose themselves on the particles. The whole formed by entangled particles imposes its characteristics on its elements.

An accomplished philosopher, you have also recognized Spinoza’s monism in this ontology. God is the great merged Whole and its parts are individualized by negation. The things of the world are restrictions, limitations of the one positivism that is the divine. These entities, including us humans, are not really independent at all but of the consequences of their limitations. The resulting effects are illusions in Spinozism. It is an eliminativism in reverse of that of materialism. In Spinoza micromechanisms are illusions and only really exists the whole with which they are associated.

Classification of views

Paul brings Spinozism up to date by taking advantage of the irreducible emergence that appeared with quantum mechanics. A stronger point of support than Spinoza’s theism. Paul also avoids the eliminative side and does not dispute the reality of the parts of the world, which makes him a ‘flexible holistic’. We can indeed classify the thinkers, according to their vision of the world, as follows:

1) Exclusive downward look:
a) Radical holist: there is no other reality than the Whole (Spinoza)
b) Flexible Holist: the Whole is the origin but its parts exist.
2) Exclusive upward look:
a) Radical materialist: there is no other reality than elementary micromechanisms, the rest is illusion.
b) Flexible materialist: micromechanisms are the origin but emerging phenomena exist.

Each of the two looks, freed from the contingencies of the other, allows all possibilities. Thus the upward look allows, from quantum probabilities, an infinity of universes (Everett’s theory of multiple universes). In the same way, Paul’s downward look allows, with the one-category ontology, all qualitative fusions and therefore all possible universes. Ours is just one of those possibilities.

… but it’s just a story

The absence of contingency poses the same crucial problem to both looks: What is the basis for the chain of physical states/qualitative impressions that produces our unique universe experience, which has never been contradicted by reliable observations? Theories of multiple worlds offer no explanation. They are slashed ugly by Occam’s razor, to the point that what is left is… an infinitely small plot.

But this is not the main criticism Paul has to face. Some point out that its one-category ontology, such as Spinozism, does not bring any effective progress to knowledge, unlike the rigor of structuralism based on upward micromechanisms. The only apparent interest of this monism is to propose an interpretation of quantum phenomena, an interpretation of which physics dispenses very well. That is to say, this interpretation is of particular interest to Paul’s proprietary look and hardly changes the way the world works. Let’s admit that of the two categories of illusions, consciousness and micromechanisms, it is the first that has the least observable effects. And when it has, it’s by playing on the second.

The need for cooperation

But I will qualify this harsh materialistic observation. The bottom-up view is not exclusive in fundamental research. Physics is not just an accumulation of data. It necessarily goes through theoretical constructions, which are activations of the downward look. The cooperation of both looks is indispensable. This is the position defended in Surimposium: both directions create reality in equally concrete ways. A monism based on exclusive leadership is doomed to failure.

This must lead to rejection of the Spinozian variety of monism taken up by Paul, which is pseudo-ontological. It is in truth a radical teleology, an avatar of the deification of the human mind, which by appreciating the qualities would be the creator of things. The human experience is magnified and becomes the ultimate source of reality.

Imagine without bias

Perhaps this is not just an idea but a necessity. It seems to come from a cognitive bias: our mind invents an explanation for everything, even for what is not accessible to it. The chain of whys cannot appear or end in nothingness. It then forces to apply for a departure, an origin. For the upward look it is the ultimate physical foundation of reality (superstrings or loops?). For the downward look it is God or another version of the merged Whole. Our mind can hardly hold reality suspended in the unknown, without an origin where to anchor it. Instead of implanting its postulates in what it can observe, it projects them into the unknown. But thus abandons them to its pure imagination, instead of making them the property of its relationship with the world.

Understand: it is perfectly possible and reasonable to explore the unknown from the postulates implanted in what is accessible to us. Imagination is a strength. Its fault is solipsism, that is to say to think that the reality it invents is the only valid one. The solipsist can fabricate strictly personal postulates that shape her vision of the world without the world ever coming to confirm it by itself. Multiple universes are seductive for this form of mind because all solipsisms can be housed there. They meet with great favor with the contemporary rise of individualism. But, let us say it again, this trust is based on a cognitive bias, a manifest difficulty of the mind to extract itself from its own process, and conceals the prohibitive flaws of solipsism.

The ontology to four categories of E. J. Lowe

This ontological classification has been the subject of excellent reviews by Jan Westerhoff, Ryan Wasserman and Ingvar Johansson. Four categories arise from the division between particular and universal on the one hand, and between substantial and non-substantial on the other. Despite Lowe’s hard work, in the wake of David Armstrong, the classification did not receive an enthusiastic reception in the face of mono-categorical ontologies. The advantages pointed out by Lowe do not withstand the difficulties introduced by the chosen dualisms. How is the relationship between particular and universal properties established? Between substance and non-substance? Lowe facilitates the task of classification but complicates the task of explanation. Again it is a pseudo-ontology, in reality teleological in essence; it does not seek to emancipate itself from the ways of knowing of the human mind but to adapt to it.

Only pseudo-ontologies

Aren’t all ontologies, even scientific reductionism, pseudo-ontologies? Indeed, no one has set foot on a supposed foundation of reality and has tested themselves as that ultimate origin. Physicists project theories into the abyss of micromechanisms, nets seeking to capture fundamental things. If the conceptual mesh is thin enough, they see them appear and organize before their eyes. But this look is theirs and not that of things. It is the look of representation, descending into the complex dimension. It is not the bottom-up look of things that are experienced as substantial individuations, that enter into relationship with others in a context that they are also the only ones to experience. Mathematical theory is, by default, a language applied to the inaccessible sensitivity of these things.

Knowledge is exercised on a monistic structure of reality, but there is a dualism in the direction it uses, due to the complex dimension intrinsic to this structure. Knowledge exerts a back and forth between the top-down direction, which installs the representations at the base of complexity, and the bottom-up direction, which unwinds the mechanisms and confirms the veracity of the representations. Knowledge thus constructs a twin mental image of the structure of the world. It is a photograph, a flattened image, revealed in the conscious workspace, without complex depth in itself. The complex depth is that of the mind, of the camera, and not of its output printed in consciousness. If the image has not grasped the complexity in its field, consciousness has no knowledge of it.

Alternating current

The back and forth is that between the teleological directions (a mental configuration claims to be representative of micromechanisms) and pseudo-ontological directions (micromechanisms are compliant or not to this representation). Alternation that deflates the pretensions of eliminatory materialism and holism. Matter and mind are inseparable, both in physical relationships and theoretical constructions. The alternation between the looks is a driving force. The mind is a machine for weaving the representation of reality, towards both ends of its complex dimension: micromechanisms and society of our assembled minds. The first ranks woven were those of the human ecosystem. Extension to lower mechanisms and upper controls, foundations and superstructures, idealized versions of our tools and observations, atoms and deities. It is from the center of the unknown that the mind began to weave. Whether it is the base or the top, the only limits it can put to the knowledge are its own.

The downward look sees a multitude of categories; that is how it represents. The upward look sees none; interactions are granted autonomy and take place, indifferent to their transformations. Their properties appear only in the downward look. There is thus no competition between single and multi-categorical ontologies. They complement each other. But their real names are ‘single pseudo-ontology’ and ‘multi-categorical epistemology’ or taxonomy.

An a priori ontology?

Lowe thinks there are a priori ontological categories:

The categorical structure is an a priori question. On the other hand, taxonomic relationships between natural species fall a posteriori under natural law. [… A categorical regime, being a priori, should not be evolutionary or provisional. [Lowe 2001: 185]

Again this is a pseudo-ontological look. The elements are not aware of the category in which their relationships bring them. It is the observer who possesses it, by the theory she lends to the elements for their future. The observer takes photographs of reality at different levels of its complexity and arranges to connect them. But let’s not forget that it is from the photograph of the result that she imagines that of the start. Would it predict with certainty the result from the only starting image? Not. We still have the recent proof, with the discovery of quantum entanglement, subsequent to that of quantons. Quantum mechanics has been theorized mathematically without being able to predict that paired quantons would create an indissoluble emergence imposing itself on its elements. The category ‘entanglement’ was undetectable in the quantons as a property, before it was observed. It is indeed a teleological category, a posteriori, and not an a priori ontology.

No system can categorize its future

A natural species cannot categorize its fate. When we think we do, consciously, we are actually building a new layer of information/interactive reality, which analyzes/synthesizes our past actions and tries to predict their evolution. It is not these existing actions that categorize their future, but a new observer appearing in the complex staging of our mind. “New species” more evolved of our mind, one could say. Species a posteriori and not a priori.

Construction of Jan Westerfhoff’s ontological categories

Jan Westerhoff looks for ontological categories by going up the tree structure they produce. It thus narrows these categories to those that can no longer be related to others. It does not specify what they can be, merely saying that they must be distinct and form a hierarchy. However, he concludes with important things: 1) These categories depend on the chosen conceptual scheme. 2) The nature of the thing that makes it belong to a category is no more essential than the nature of the things that make it non-belonging. Categorization is holistic. Hence Westerhoff’s final sentence:

We can now conclude that for a viable understanding of ontological categories that does justice to their central properties, these categories turn out to be much more epistemological than ontologists would like to think. [Westerhoff]

We agree. Westerhoff could be sharper. His investigation is essentially based on semantics and the way we structure concepts. But the meaning of words is the most epistemological starting point. It is very personal to every mind. Semantics is a horizontal mental universe. A person spontaneously uses words without awareness of their hierarchical interweaving. To become aware is to represent the structure of one’s own language. It is an epistemological approach.

An effort of the personal and not of the real

There are a multitude of possible approaches. Each mind starts from a different complex summit. Each also lays its own theoretical foundations at the root of the world. So much so that ontology, which should be unique and property of reality, is in fact personal, filled with false representations and myths about origin. Ontological categorization, by multiplying, aims above all to bring all these representations into its field, without saying if they have anything to do with it. This categorization takes us away from the imperturbable monistic ontology of reality. If it responds to a single principle, it is unlikely to appear under the collection of photographs that we take of its multiple appearances, when the effort to group them into categories is a personal effort and not that of reality.

Why classifications are actually teleological

The first ontological classifications were constructed without reference to the functioning of the mind, unknown at the time. It is impossible for classical thinkers to extract themselves from their minds as a process included in reality. It is still difficult today. Thus the classifications were teleological/intentional rather than epistemic/analytical. Now neuroscience makes it possible to clarify these terms. By teleology, I mean “our theoretical representations that seek themselves in reality”, and when they do not found themselves they self-organize in such a way as to form a more complex one that corresponds. There are thus two mechanisms that underpin our relationship with the world, each at the end of the complex dimension: the micromechanisms of reality and the self-organization of the mind.

In this relationship the only thing we fully own is the mental experience. The mechanisms are interdependent. That of the real founds that of the mind, and that of the mind represents that of the real to influence it. The so-called ontological classifications clearly belong to the second direction and not the first.

Let’s plant our tree!

Once this observation is assimilated, we can classify at leisure. One, two, four, a thousand categories? All of them are useful for creating the tree structure, knowing that this structure always starts from the mind and not from the real. A true ontological classification should start from a transcendental principle, but we do not know it, and we are handicapped by language, rather than helped by it, to find it. To achieve this, one would have to get rid of all representation, simply experience the principle of complexity as it edifies reality.

We can assume that human consciousness is such an experience, local, positioned at the place of the complex dimension where each of our minds has arrived. So it’s not a universal experience as holists imagine it.


One Category Ontology, L.Has. Paul, 2017
The Four-Category Ontology A Metaphysical Foundation for Natural Science, E. J. Lowe, 2006
The construction of ontological categories, Jan Westerhoff, 2004

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