The Implications of Ontological Plurality

The Implications of Ontological Plurality

My last column argued that most major environmental issues of the day, such as biodiversity, are characterized by their reference to underlying systems that are so complex that they cannot be captured or defined by any particular discourse or worldview (complex adaptive systems, or CASs). It is thus inherent in the structure of the systems themselves that that any particular worldview is partial, and only by considering many, perhaps even mutually exclusive, worldviews can we begin to understand such systems. Hence, "ontological plurality."

But the implications of ontological plurality, not just the term, are pretty ugly. We can begin by rejecting "the postmodernist fallacy." Oversimplifying, postmodernists argue that no discourse is privileged or has a unique and dominant claim to “truth.” Thus, they are all of equal value. The ontological analogy would be to claim not just that multiple, mutually exclusive, ontologies are necessary to understand CASs, but, going beyond that, that no ontology is superior to any other, so that ontological plurality necessarily implies ontological relativism. This oversimplistic perspective fails. If one is doing a scientific study of a particular ecosystem, for example, there are ways to do it so that the results will be understood as valid, and ways to do it that will invalidate it (making up data, for example). The scientific process, underpinned by a particular ontology which accepts the world as real and understandable by rational inquiry, is indeed appropriate to such a study. Similarly, a cultural anthropologist studying another culture would be well-advised to adopt a posture of cultural relativism, to avoid having the study be biased by the researcher's own preferences. Because the query that a researcher poses defines a relevant ontology, the ontology is indeed relative -- but to the query, rather than to other ontologies generally. Ontological pluralism is not naïve relativism.

But the critical corollary is that every result is valid only within the boundaries of the system and ontological framework defined by the query. Thus, for example, when a climate scientist makes a statement based on observed data -- say, glaciers are retreating in the Alps -- it is solidly within both the system and the ontology appropriate to that statement. But to claim that it is therefore necessary to approve the Kyoto Treaty is to jump categories, for the system defined by the Kyoto Treaty, and the ontological basis for the political science and philosophy behind such things as treaties, are far different than those defined by a scientific study. The scientist is of course free to make such statements, and to engage in public debate -- but when they do so, they must be aware that the power of the scientific ontology with which they are cloaked in their role as scientist is invalid when they pronounce beyond the boundaries of that ontology.

Another important corollary is that every study of a CAS (say life at the scale of biodiversity) is necessarily both normative and objective. Normative, because the choice of system to be analyzed, and of the ontology relevant to the study, arises from the query the scientist chooses to pose; objective because the scientific process requires as part of its internal structure that the research and treatment of data avoid scientific fraud. This is not a flaw in either science or our understanding of science; it arises from the very nature of complex adaptive systems.

Moreover, this foundational integration of normative and objective in all studies of CASs points out an important limit to disciplinary-based research. Each discipline embodies only one implicit ontology; indeed, this ontological unity is a strong source of the sense of community and unity that characterize disciplines. But it must then also follow that any particular discipline can only give a partial and limited view of a CAS. Put another way, any comprehensive understanding of a CAS must necessarily involve multiple disciplines. Those who wish to increase their understanding of CASs must therefore learn to rise above both the discipline they were originally trained in, and the ontological unity it embodies -- not to mention the particular ontology and zeitgeist that is defining to them as individuals.

It is not generally recognized that being able to maintain one's particular self and ontology, while at the same time accepting others as both valid, and informative regarding the true state of the system at issue, is a necessary skill for truly multidisciplinary work. Yet it is critical to the ability to live in, and manage, an anthropogenic planet.

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Brad Allenby is professor of civil and environmental engineering at Arizona State University, a fellow at the University of Virginia's Darden Graduate School of Business, and previously was AT&T's vice president of environment, health, and safety.