THE ONTOLOGY OF COMPLEX SYSTEMS:
Levels of Organization, Perspectives, and Causal Thickets*
(Canadian Journal of Philosophy, supp. vol #20, 1994, ed. Mohan Matthen and Robert Ware, University of Calgary Press, 207-274).
by William C. Wimsatt
Department of Philosophy
University of Chicago
January 4, 1994
[REVISED MINIMALLY FOR THE COLLECTION]
Willard van Orman Quine once said that he had a preference for a desert ontology. This was in an earlier day when concerns with logical structure and ontological simplicity reigned supreme. Ontological genocide was practiced upon whole classes of upper-level or "derivative" entities in the name of elegance, and we were secure in the belief that one strayed irremediably into the realm of conceptual confusion and possible error the further one got from ontic fundamentalism. In those days, one paid more attention to generic worries about possible errors (motivated by our common training in philosophical scepticism) than to actual errors derived from distancing oneself too far from the nitty-gritty details of actual theory, actual inferences from actual data, the actual conditions under which we posited and detected entities, calibrated and "burned in" instruments, identified and rejected artifacts, debugged programs and procedures, explained the mechanisms behind regularities, judged correlations to be spurious, and in general, the real complexities and richness of actual scientific practice. The belief that logic and philosophy were prior to any possible science has had a number of distorting effects on philosophy of science. One of these was that for ontology, we seemed never to be able to reject the null hypothesis: "Don't multiply entities beyond necessity."
But Ockham's razor (or was it Ockham's eraser?) has a curiously ambiguous form--an escape clause which can turn it into a safety razor: How do we determine what is necessary? With the right standards, one could remain an Ockhamite while recognizing a world which has the rich multi-layered and interdependent ontology of the tropical rain forest--that is, our world. It is tempting to believe that recognizing such a world view requires adopting lax or sloppy standards--for it has a lot more in it than Ockhamites traditionally would countenance. Quite to the contrary, I think that the standards for this transformation are not lax, but only different. Indeed, the standards which I urge are closer to our experience and arguably more fundamental than those used during the hegemony of foundationalist methods and values.
In the first section, I will discuss this criterion for what is real--what I call robustness--a criterion which applies most simply and directly, though not exclusively, to objects. In subsequent sections, I will use robustness and other information about our world to delineate the major structural features--primarily levels, but with some comments on what I call 'perspectives' and 'causal thickets'--which dominate our world, our theories, and the language we use to talk about both. These are higher-level ontological features, Organizational Baupläne, related to the things that people usually talk about under the topic of ontology (things like objects, properties, events, capacities, and propensities) as paragraphs are to words and phonemes or morphemes. But they are there nonetheless--it is only our concern with the little things, motivated by foundationalist or reductionist concerns-which has deflected our attention from them. This ontology--of levels, perspectives, and causal thickets--is no less required for a full accounting of the phenomena of the physical sciences than it is for biology and the social sciences, but its obdurate necessity has seemed more obvious in these latter cases. This may now be changing. The increased interest in fractal phenomena and chaotic and, more generally, non-linear dynamics emerging from the socalled "exact sciences" has brought many noisy residua of...
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