Ontological Pluralism: the doctrine that there are different fundamental ways of being.

To put it more specifically to illustrate the point (although this not statement that ontological pluralists are necessarily committed to): the world is made up in such a way that our best metaphysical language will include multiple quantifiers.

Common candidates for ontological pluralist views are objects which are categorically distinct from one another; actual/possible, substance/accident, mental/non-mental, etc.

So, on this view, if we commit ourselves to the existence of actual and possible objects, the distinction between these two kinds of objects is fundamentally a distinction in their modes of existence, NOT their natures or properties. So, on this view, our ideal metaphysical language will include two fundamental quantifiers: actual-exists, possible-exists, which can be written as ∃a and ∃p, respectively (and the same can be done with the universal quantifier).

These quantifiers carve reality at its joints. As such, they are more fundamental than the general quantifiers of standard first order logic (∃ and ∀). I'm not sure if all ontological pluralists are necessarily committed to this view, but for my purposes here it won't really matter. I'm concerned with the metaphysical reality of modes of being. Problems with what language is best used to describe reality can be put to the side. Hopefully, what I've said so far illuminates the view.

The radical distinction between an actual and merely possible coin is grounded in their distinct modes of being (a-existence to the actual coin, p-existence to the possible coin), NOT their natures or their properties.

Okay, time for the argument. Consider the distinction between substance and accidents.

D1. S is a (primary) substance (def =) S is metaphysically capable of independent existence.

D2. A is an accident (def =) A is not metaphysically capable of independent existence but exists, if it exists, in a substance as its modification.

'Metaphysical' = 'broadly logical'

According to D2., an accident cannot exist apart from the very substance of which it is an accident. Therefore, there is a necessary connection between a particular substance S and its particular accident A. The necessary connection cannot be grounded in the nature of A, since natures are multiply realizable - natures must be stated in general terms. It cannot be part of the nature of A that it exists as an accident for this particular substance. Therefore, nothing in the nature of A can specify it to a single substance S. Therefore, the fact that A cannot exist outside of S is grounded in their modes of being (substance-existence, accident-existence, for example), not their natures.

Here's another argument.

Phenomenal states such as pain and pleasure have (as Searle puts it) a "first-person ontology". The existence of pain is identically its being perceived. But the existence of a brain is not identically its being perceived. Pain exists in a first-person way, brains in a third-person way. What accounts for this distinction in a particular case of a pain P existing in a brain x? It can't be the nature of P - since natures are multiple realizable. It cannot be that P by its very nature exists in x. Therefore, the ontological dependence of a particular pain P on a particular physical state x is grounded in its mode of being (phenomenal-existence, for example).

What are some ways one might respond to this line of reasoning? Here is one way:

I'm not sure exactly how the introduction of modes of being is supposed to ground the connection between, say, a particular substance S and an accident A. I'm not sure how the introduction of the mode of being 'accident-existence', and claiming that A has this mode of being, is supposed to explain A's necessary dependence on S. How does A's mode of being tie it down to this particular substance, any better than its nature does? The same can be said about the pain-brain case. How does a particular pain P's mode of existence (call it phenomenal-existence) explain its necessary tie to a brain state x, any better than its nature does?

I'm also wondering if there are other accounts of the substance/accident relationship than the one given above (an account that does not necessarily tie a particular accident to a particular substance). Also, if there are any other accounts of the relationship between the physical brain and phenomenal states (an account that does not necessarily tie a particular phenomenal state to a particular brain state)?

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    I've upvoted your question because you show that you've been thinking well about the topic, and doing real research about it (the invocation of Searle is a very good moment), but I also would like to mention that the SE parameters encourage framing questions more precisely than, "What do you think of my argument?" But so I think if you remove the last two clauses under the line-break at the end, and dovetail your multiple arguments, you can condense the post as (roughly) one specific question. Jul 17 at 19:29
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    Got it. How should I frame the post then? Should I mentioned I'm looking for critiques/reviews or is that just assumed already?
    – possiblew1
    Jul 17 at 19:34
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    Also, I've just added my own critique/review. Was wondering if it's okay now, or if I should still remove the two clauses?
    – possiblew1
    Jul 17 at 19:45
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    Hmm, what about, "What is the most efficient way to combine the two arguments provided?" That's a question that can be approached from a strongly technical angle. Then your last paragraph can be taken for issues you've been having with trying for such a combination. Jul 17 at 19:54
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    I've made a few edits at the end, hopefully that works better
    – possiblew1
    Jul 17 at 20:16

3 Answers 3


Yoir coin example elides the abstract idea of a coin, with a specific coin that might have hidden unique properties like a year it was stamped or a radiological datw, an unusual pattern of interest to numismatists, it might reveal an unknown likeness of a forgotten ruler, or it's location reveal a previously unknown trade route, or suggest panicked fleeing of a group that expected to return but didn't by being in a stash or hoard. Some further discussion of these issues here: Why do certain ways of categorizing make sense more than others? Is this the intuition behind natural kinds? and here: Why is a measured true value “TRUE”?

Where is the possible coin? It seems you jump to assume a kind of Platonic realm, that includes possible coins. It's very normal, maybe even the majority view in philosophy, to believe in mathematical-Platonism. But it involves a lot of baggage that isn't neccessary: The Unreasonable Ineffectiveness of Mathematics in most sciences Possible coins, die rolls, are about abstraction, conceptual schema, and language, not, the world. However, the literal indistinguishability of bosons, has real physical consequences.

It's interesting to note that physics is property dualist, with energy and information. It was assumed that entropy was a derived and emergent property of real physical lumps of stuff. But increasingly it's considered the sets of information constraints localised to a persistent pattern, might be more fundamental than mass-energy which is just one subset of these. Scientists assume an implicit substance monism, related to the Big Bang, but I argue this is better thought of as a shared interface or language rather substance, here: Is the idea that "Everything is energy" even coherent?

I wonder what you think of David Deutsch's idea that we need currently at least 4 modes of understanding to make sense of the cosmos we see, put forward in The Fabric of Reality.

I like the idea of ontological pluralism. I see it as being more upsetting to our intuitions and assumptions than you do, though. I look to Hofstadter's Coherentist picture of tangled-hierarchies, and strange-loops as developing supervenient explanatory overlays that group phenomena together in ways that make predictions tractable, as a basis for thinking about how subjectivity might have a fundamental quality, as well as say Deutsch's set of strands. That is, a stubborn irreducibility in terms of what can be calculated and known within the real physical constraints of our universe - which all of modern physics has shown is not simply a happenstance, but of real physical consequence.

The existence of pain is identically its being perceived.

Not for Wittgenstein, who would call private pain a 'beetle in a box'. Pain is a category, like 'coin'. The private experience, is one unique coin, with no bridge to transmit to other minds about it, just it's own 'suchness' compounded of endless unknowable hidden properties that make it unique. That don't have consequences except they can be communucated, which is exactly in so far as they are not unique! The Private Language Argument.

The whole distinction between accidental properties and essences, is I would submit, anaethema to ontological pluralism. Because stating 'essence' is the statement that there exists transcendental categories, beyond specific ways of knowing or being.

"Mankind has no essential nature." -Sartre

I've always liked this statement, because I see it as an independent arrival at the Buddhist idea of Sunyata, emptiness of inherent qualities. All accident, no essence. This is because we are strange-loops, who can use feedbacks about what outcomes we want to decide who to be, how to be - as Sartre put it, we are condemned to being free, even if by living in bad-faith we often choose to ignore it.

The existence of the category 'coin' is a historical accident of humans. The existence of the category 'pain' is a biological accident of humans. Intersubjectivity is a much better account of these, than a realm of essences waiting for us, that would have to include all the posdible future accidental possibilities.

See specific discussion of intersubjectivity and it's basis for meaning, here: According to the major theories of concepts, where do meanings come from?


There are two primary sub-disciplines within metaphysics, epistemology and ontology, and it is very useful to have a good grasp of the first before trying to tackle the second.

One of the key insights within the last several years within epistemology, is that our universe is contingent. We cannot specify it thru "reason" but instead by empiricism. This was the point of Kant's "Critique of Pure Reason. And post-Kant, the relative importance of empiricism vs rationality in epistemology, has grown.

However, the dominant school of philosophy in the US is "analytic" philosophy, with is mostly "rational" rather than empirical. Analytics also rely a lot upon philosophic intuitions, and modal reasoning.

Whether modes actually correspond to reality -- ontology -- is a different question.

One of the problems with inferring ontology out of modal characterization, is that there are so many diverse ways to DO modal characterization! Self/other. food/threat/other Individuals/wholes. Past/present/future. Reduction/holism/emergence. Abstract/explicit. Theoretical/actual. Time plus space properties/time properties only/neither time nor space properties. certain/uncertain. Etc and etc. THAT we can usefully break the world up into modal categories, does not mean those modal categories are FUNDAMENTAL -- there are just too many useful highly divergent ways to do modal splits.

Ontological pluralism HAS become popular among philosophers of science, but it is not due to your modal argument based on accidents vs. substances. It is instead based on the need for:

a) materialism, the most popular monist ontology, has basically been refuted by modern physics. Matter is not fundamental.

b) Physics, the most basic of the sciences, has been appealed to as a backstop monism. However, it cannot serve as a fundamental ontology for several reasons:

  • philosophy, explicitly an epistemological case for empiricism, is a precondition for science, and science cannot justify itself. Physics as a fundamental ontology is therefore incoherent
  • the reduction of the other sciences to physics, has failed, for basically everything except for half of chemistry, and a portion of molecular biology. Science has had to adopt pluralism, with the mechanism TBD (emergence is generally assumed, but the theory behind emergence is -- not currently mature).
  • the reduction of other knowledge fields to science (history, math, engineering, the arts, etc.) is even more problematic than the reduction of the other science to physics. Scientism has been abandoned by all but a few dogmatists.

(See SEP's Scientific Reductionism, section 5, for more on these points.)

c) with materialist and physicalist monisms not viable, pluralism has become the dominant view of our universe within philosophy of science.

Note this is an empirical/test-case rationale for pluralism, not a rationalist argument. I consider your modal reasoning to be rationalist, not empirical, and therefore out of step with the epistemology of modern thinking.

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    Scientism has been abandoned by all but a few... Heh really?!?! You're an incorrigible optimist 😉
    – Rushi
    Aug 20 at 5:51
  • @Rushi -- the Wikipedia article en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scientism only mentions two defenses of scientism -- Bunge's quote engages in personal smears of the critics of scientism which are clearly non-scientific, and limits his defense to "new young sciences" which is hardly a globalist extension of science. Edis is only cited defending a continuity of science with philosophy and humanities as sources of knowledge -- which is far from the REJECTION of philosophy and humanities which characterizes true scientism. And Rational Wiki's article admits to an almost purely negative usage today.
    – Dcleve
    Aug 20 at 17:27
  • Rational wiki link: rationalwiki.org/wiki/Scientism
    – Dcleve
    Aug 20 at 17:27
  • I was only joking! More seriously I tend to upvote ur answers mostly, but this one ahem... Too long to say now but briefly Pluralism:empiricism. Dualism:Rationalism. Choose! And there's an even bigger problem but as I said running just now.
    – Rushi
    Aug 21 at 4:55
  • @Rushi Hmm. Well, I pick the first 3. I am in good company with Popper. ;-)
    – Dcleve
    Aug 21 at 6:46

Thanks for a question that goes a bit beyond average. I am a pluralist as well, seeing no particular reason to assume just one kind of "stuff". But I don't understand your take. Maybe you want to offer a few definitions for the concepts of "accident" and "nature", and why you need those concepts (what "work" do they do for you?). It seems to me that you mean "change" and "essence", respectively.

Likewise, the concept of "mode of being" requires clarification. What is a mode of being, and what is not one?

In terms of similar approaches, or rival hypotheses, let me offer Aristotle's duality of form and matter. The two are interdependent: no matter can exist without taking a form, and no form can exist without matter to instantiate it. But one form can exist in multiple material objects. Eg objects that are mass produced identically all have the same form; all atoms of Carbon-12 have the same form, etc. So if you know one atom of carbon, you know them all...

Form is what the mind deals with, what the mind tries to capture and domesticate.

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