Explanatory Pluralism

Theories are intended to explain some specific aspect of reality; when we observe the stuff before our eyes, we at some moment in time decide that an explanation is needed for us to understand whatever said stuff is. When we watched birds fly, we eventually decided an explanation was needed; when we watched humans become ill, we eventually decided an explanation was needed. When we want to understand the stuff before our eyes, we develop a theory to do precisely that: explain reality. 

But when we create theories, much like predator and prey, they tend to not get along. Some theories seek to invalidate other theories, and some theories are always on the defense from skeptics and rival theories. So not all theories seek to share their mental space. Assuredly, amongst theories, there is a fight for space in human memory and attention.

That fight, however, seems fruitless to someone who adopts a monolithic view of thought. To understand why, let us make a distinction; only because we are not speaking about theories, in general.

We can distinguish between the meaning of a theory – it’s semantic properties – and the supposed thing which is being explained by the theory – it’s ontology. Put otherwise, the words of a theory have a specific meaning we can understand, and those meanings are then related to something which exists.

Of course, some theories might never be related to something which exists, such as a theory of the lochness monster, but I have no intention of discussing those sorts of theories. All we are to focus on is theories which explain something with ontology; something that clearly exists before us. Hence, why I said we are not speaking of theories in general; we are primarily focused on specific occurrences that involve theories.

Let us get on topic now. 

When we have two theories at hand, we can analyze their meanings and what they refer to. For example, consider the theories of solipsism and realism. 

Solipsism can be understood to mean everything which exists does so within the realm of consciousness; which means, when we relate solipsism to what we see, we understand solipsism to be about the contents of consciousness and perception. 

Realism can be understood to mean, at the very least, for everything that exists, some things exist independently of the mind; which means, when we relate realism to what we see, we understand realism to be about the contents of consciousness and perception as well.

For a solipsist, a brain exists inside the mind, inside their own conscious awareness; for a realist, the brain exists in a mind-independent world, outside of their own consciousness. That is how these theories see, for instance, one ordinary object in our daily lives. 

So, we have two theories which relate to the same existence, the same ontology; and we have two theories with entirely different meanings. Both theories lay claim to our everyday experiences, but their conclusions and explanations are utterly distinct. What are we to make of this?

Well, for someone who takes a monolithic view of thought, we presume the explanatory pluralism is inconsequential. The differences in explanations does not matter because the explanations rely on the same cognitive abilities. Which means how we understand the structure of the theory is the same in both cases.

To elaborate, when a realist explains reality, they rely on some sort of schema – a general cognitive ability – to construct and make sense of their theories. And that schema gives them the scope of their theory and how the theory maps to perception. Likewise, when a solipsist explains reality, given that solipsism and realism are about the same aspects of reality, they rely on the same sort of schemas to construct and make sense of their theories. 

So, even though realism and solipsism are semantically different, they are similar insofar as both rely on the same schema. Much how a realist and solipsist both depend on the same visual cognition to see reality, both rely on the same schema to contemplate the same aspect of reality. 

Certainly, when I look at a pen, and you look at a ball, we might rely on different cognitive abilities; however, when we both look at a pen, or we both look at a ball, our reliance on the same cognitive abilities is more likely to be the case, for someone who adopts a generalist view about cognition. 

That is precisely what I am suggesting is the case for the differences between a realist and a solipsist in regards to perception. Both are applying theories to the same aspects of perception, but the only difference is the semantic components to their theories. Which means, the theories are utilizing the same mental abilities and so behave similarly, despite differences in labels.

A good example, outside of solipsism and realism, is the debate between cognitivists and behaviourists. A cognitivists will take a set of behaviours and explain them through cognitive processes and various decision-making models. In comparison, a behaviourist will explain the same set of behaviours via stimulus-response paradigms. In either case, the behaviour being explained relies on the same mental abilities, and so there is no cognitive difference between the two theories; only semantic differences. 

For example, both the cognitivists and behaviourists treat the organism or agent as a bounded region in space, which means both rely on a container schema. Likewise, both rely on path-goal schemas, where both project onto the behaviour of the agent or organism a sense of goal-directedness which must be achieved through identifying the correct paths to the goal. So, both rely on general cognitive abilities, despite differences in labels. 

We can as a result adopt a more pragmatic stance toward theories, especially for those above mentioned cases, by ignoring semantic differences. When someone adopts one label rather than another, instead of debating the labels, we can just focus on underlining cognitions involved with the theory.

If the cognitions are the same, then the mechanics of the theory should be identical. For instance, whether we explain a human drinking coffee by behaviourism or cognitivism should not matter because the human will drink the coffee either way. The mechanics do not change with the difference in semantics.

Comments on Ontological Differences

We should now add a clarifying note. We have only been speaking of theories which share the same ontology but differ in semantics. We ought now address theories which are semantically different and have a difference in ontology. For instance, the theory of intended meaning in comparison to the theory of efficient markets have little to no overlap in their ontologies. One refers to financial markets and the behaviour of financial institutions and investors, efficient markets, while the other refers to text on paper or spoken words, intended meaning.

With theories that have such a difference, we could see how there is no incompatibility, given they are in different domains; they do not compete, directly, with one another. But that does not necessarily mean there are no commonalities shared between them; commonalities which might lead to disagreement. 

To elaborate, when we identify the use of a container schema in a theory, that is, that something is a bounded region in space, we can have disagreements. Perhaps we are someone who abides by a purely subject metaphysics; that we reject the subject-object distinction and adopt the view that everything is subject. If we had such a view, then when we see someone use container schemas, we are effectively seeing someone assert the existence of objects. And in such a case, the ontology will not matter. 

How then are we to deal with an issue of that sort? How can adopting a generalist view of thought resolve such theoretical tensions?

Well, because someone has taken a disagreement with a first principle issue, namely, whether objects exist or not, we can only resolve the tension by either demonstrating inconsistencies in their use of axioms, or by insisting their distinction already presupposes things like container schemas. We can take as foundational to human reason the ability to demarcate A from B, where A is one bounded region in space and B is another bounded region in space. And for abstract demarcations, such as distinguishing between the subject and object concepts, we can rely on an embodied cognition view of reason. 

An embodied cognition view of reason would hold that abstract thoughts rely on the same neural circuitry as ordinary bodily actions; for example, when we see a chair, we understand the chair to be a distinct object from the desk, and we do so through a given set of neural circuitry. It is precisely that same set of neural circuitry that we then rely upon to generate abstract thoughts, according to embodied cognition. So, we can see, then, how demarcation between two perceptual objects, A and B, results in the ability to demarcate abstractions as well. 

The above view, essentially, responds to disagreements of first principles by trying to demonstrate the necessity of a certain worldview; much to the exclusion or negation of another worldview. For first principle issues, when relying upon a monolithic view of thought, we can only provide the above view as a response.


So, having a generalist view about the nature of thought can help us resolve theoretical disagreements that hinge upon semantics rather than the ontology; so long as each theory focuses on the same aspect of reality, the labels adopted will matter less, if at all, because the same cognitive abilities will be used; and so how the theory actually works shall be the same. That gives us a pragmatic solution to theoretical disagreement.

However, when the disagreement comes from issues of first principles, we are only left with the option to demonstrate the necessity of our worldview. We are unable to prove someone’s axioms to be false by simply declaring them to be wrong, or by reworking their worldview to fit into our own. Which means, a monolithic view of reason, much like any view of reason, struggles to resolve theoretical tensions in some areas.

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Ideasinhat is a business development analyst and longtime reader of academic literature. He writes books and essays on science and philosophy, and posts them to this website. The essays, as with the books, cover topics from psychology, philosophy, and cognitive science to economics, politics, and law.

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