Addendum to ‘Philosophical Thinking’ Article

This addendum briefly explores some interesting points of discussion that arise from the ‘epistemological web’ idea, espoused in this article.

Existence = Truth

 It is interesting to note that with this idea of an epistemological web in mind, asking whether or not X exists, is akin to testing a bunch of true/false questions.

So if, for example, we want to assess whether or not ‘paper’ exists, what we’re really doing is evaluating whether the relationships that define its place within the epistemological web are true.

To demonstrate this, we can convert part of the visual representation of paper’s place in the epistemological web to a series of statements that define the relationships it has to other concepts:

  • A substance called cellulose can be processed from trees, and refined into pulp
  • Pulp can be pressed and dried to create thin ‘sheets of paper’
  • Sheets of paper make perfect mediums to write on
  • Humans make and use paper for writing (and other things)
  • Writing is the act of jotting ideas onto paper

You get the idea..

In practice of course, we don’t do this, and if we did (with any great rigor), we would need to refine our definitions to an ultrafine granularity. Luckily we can get away with simply referring to a concept by name, and trusting that it maps nicely onto our interlocutor’s web. It is only when there is some kind of philosophical disagreement that it becomes necessary to dig into the details of a particular concept.

But it is nonetheless interesting to notice how the question of whether something exists can be translated into true/false questions.

To me, this signifies a step in the direction of reconciling the mathematical reality that seems to underlie our universe, with the features of our epistemological landscape.

If we were to continually refine our epistemological webs, zooming in on all the details that define relationships between concepts, would we eventually flesh it out into something like the pure mathematics of something like string theory, or (insert-your-‘mathematical theory of the universe’-here)?

In other words, might we not eventually attain a one-to-one mapping of our own collective epistemology, with the underlying ‘ontological reality’?

Brief Notes On Ontology

 Ontology is supposed to encompass the realm of things that really exist out there in the universe, independent of how we humans understand them.

But in order to speak about reality, we must do so from our own little epistemological windows – using words like ‘atom’ and ‘planet’ and ‘ship’ – which represent concepts lying within our epistemological web.

I don’t wish to explore this distinction in any great depth here, because there’s just so much to say, but I’ll leave the following claims here undefended:

Ontology can be thought of in much the same way as epistemology – as a kind of self-supporting, recursive structure, where the base ‘units’ are: not atoms or quarks or strings, but something completely mathematical in nature.

Higher-order patterns arise, or emerge, from these underlying mathematical relationships – and these patterns are what we call ‘atoms’ and ‘space’ and ‘brains’ and ‘people’.

Our epistemological knowledge is basically a crude mapping of the higher-order patterns that exist ‘ontologically’. The more we refine our epistemological web, the more accurately it reflects the underlying reality.

More on this in future.


  1. Your thesis dates back to Buddha’s denial of “substance” in his famous (or infamous) doctrine of anatta (or anatman), and is (probably) best explicated in Nagarjuna’s Madhyamaka (“Middle Way”) Buddhism (around the mid-second century CE), famous (or infamous) for its Mahayana Buddhist doctrine of “emptiness” (shunyata), which states that all things are thing-events, “empty” (devoid) of intrinsic, essential, substance-like, Unchanging identity, because all so-called “things” are co-dependent processes (called “dependent origination” — pratikya-samutpadha), hence the closest approximation to ontological accuracy is something like a doctrine of interbeing (which can be taken as a name for “emptiness”, or, more precisely, what “emptiness” implies). Also, in distinguishing between “relative truth” and “ultimate truth” — applicable to the difference between “relative reality” and “ultimate reality” — Nagarjuna’s Middle Way Buddhism is as epistemological as it is ontological, largely anticipating what today we call Pragmatism (since all statements about “ultimate truth” or “ultimate reality” are in themselves relative). A short Mahayana text — “The Heart Sutra” — famously declares: “Form is empty; emptiness is form.” In short: all is process, and all is co-dependently interconnected. Buddhist literature on these issues is vast and complex, inaugurating a debate which has gone on for centuries and still continues. Qualified Western parallels to Buddha’s “process philosophy” date back to Heraclitus and Pythagoras, and extend through Hume (and Hegel?) to — perhaps most potently and profoundly — Whitehead’s “process metaphysics,” as well as to Einstein’s search for a “unified field theory,” modern quantum physics, and contemporary Transpersonal Psychology. Perhaps you already know all or most of this, but, for the sake of clarity and brevity, kept your essay (and its addendum) tightly focused, which I can well appreciate. For quick access to the Buddhist parallel to your thesis (and some of its implications), see the relevant chapters in the anthology A COMPANION TO BUDDHIST PHILOSOPHY, edited by Steven Emanuel. And thanks for a timely and stimulating essay.


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