June 21, 2017

Three Responses to Incorrect Folk Ontologies

Views and opinions expressed are those of the author only.

A comment on my first post, “Ferocious Truth,” raised an interesting topic. The commenter, Simon, described two ways of handling what might be termed a folk ontology when it doesn’t properly correspond to reality. I’ve coined the term folk ontology to refer to concepts and categories held by ordinary people with regard to an idea, particularly in reference to when they have not reflected on the nature of the idea. The issue of folk ontologies that don’t correspond to reality often comes up with ideas philosophy deals with such as free will, personal identity, and morality. However, it also arises with prescientific concepts about things as diverse as warmth, magic, astrology, and the sun rising in the east. Many folk ontologies seem to have their roots in evolved human biases and perceptions. How else can we explain beliefs about magic and personal identity that are widely shared across cultures and even amongst isolated tribes?

The first response Simon described is to rescue the concept by remapping it onto something that does exist. For example, a prescientific conception of warmth might view it as a magical intrinsic property of some objects that can be temporarily transferred to others. Thus fire and living humans are intrinsically warm, whereas a hot cast-iron skillet has had warmth transferred to it from the fire it was set on. Science has revealed this idea to be incorrect. It also offers us an explanation of what we perceive as warmth that we can map our concept of warmth to. Namely, the transference of energy between two bodies due to their temperature difference by means such as conduction, convection, or radiation. This example is developed at some length in the article “Rescuing the utility function” on arbital.com.1 In this case, the mapping is so precise that we hardly notice the shift. In other cases, the mapping does not apply as well, and we find ourselves stumbling over the difference between our expectations and reality.

The second response is to reject the concept altogether. To rule it out of bounds and taboo its use. Here, it is recognized that the idea does not correspond to anything in reality and there is nothing in reality even close to it. Many people and cultures have believed in magic and astrology, but science has revealed that they don’t exist. There is nothing remotely like magic in the world. Rather everything people have taken as magic is fraud, altered states of consciousness, magical thinking, confirmation bias, wishful thinking, or other tricks of the mind. To try to map magic onto some existing reality would invite people to continue to hold on to false beliefs rather than acknowledging their falsehood. In philosophy, rejection of an idea is often labeled as nihilism with regard to that idea.

In addition to the first two responses elucidated by Simon, there is a third available response to incorrect folk ontologies. This is to restrict the use of the idea to the circumstances or ways in which it can be reasonably applied while recognizing that it is fundamentally unreal. A prescientific view might hold that the sun is a giant disk of white-hot fire that rises above the flat earth in the east and sets in the west. Science tells us that the sun is the closest star to the earth about which we orbit. The apparent rising of the sun in the east is instead the rotation of the earth bringing the sun into view. Yet, the idea is not remapped to something else. Nor is it rejected in favor of speaking only of the earth rotating the sun into view. Instead, the sun is frequently described as rising in the east in the limited contexts for which this is well defined. However, as soon as the discussion moves outside those contexts, as when discussing celestial mechanics, the error of describing the sun as rising in the east is acknowledged and substituted with descriptions of the earth’s rotation and orbit around the sun.

These three responses to incorrect folk ontologies seem to cover the range of reasonable responses. From the examples I’ve given so far, it can be seen that none of the responses is the correct response for all folk ontologies. For some ideas, more than one response can seem to have merit. It is not always clear which response is best. Indeed, some of the fundamental debates in philosophy and between people are really debates over which of these responses is proper. Simon’s example of personal identity provides a good illustration of this. Other concepts from philosophy shed light on the detailed workings of each response.

It is commonly held that each individual has a self. That they were the same person in the past as they are now and will be the same person in the future. This simple view is problematic. What if one were to awaken tomorrow with partial or complete amnesia? Would they then be the same person? What of people in comas? Indeed, am I even the same person moment to moment as my mind changes and adapts, and the atoms in my body are replaced with ones from food and air? Thought experiments even more radically call into question the idea of personal identity. Imagine making an atomically precise copy of someone, is the copy the same person? Or, consider someone stepping into a Star Trek style teleporter and being beamed to a distant place, is the teleported person the same person? Both of these involve instances where there is a radical discontinuity of identity and yet the physical reality, the atomic structure, is identical. This indicates that the folk concept of identity somehow includes a magical property that isn’t captured by the state of the material world. Given that the folk ontology of personal identity is flawed and does not correspond to reality, how should we respond?


There have been many attempts to rescue the concept of personal identity. Some people try to map personal identity to physical continuity. So that as long as there is continuity of the physical body, the person is considered to be the same. This runs afoul of difficulties in determining the continued identity of physical objects as illustrated by the Ship of Theseus problem. It also seems to fail in scenarios such as mind uploading where the person might feel that there was continuity of themselves despite the lack of bodily continuity. More fundamentally, a solid understanding of quantum mechanics rules out the idea that identity could somehow be contained in the particular atoms that make up a body or indeed that the idea of the continuity of the atoms in a body from moment to moment is even coherent.2

Alternatively, people have attempted to reduce the idea of personal identity to some form of psychological continuity. This may take the form of focusing on things such as memories or personality. However, this reduction is also very problematic. Imagine that someone will have all their memories erased and then be tortured. Under the memory model of identity, they should not object to this any more than they object to the torture of a stranger. Yet most people’s intuition is that the future person being tortured will, in some sense, be them and so they will object more strongly. An explanation of identity that focuses on personality would have to admit that a significant change in personality could change someone’s identity. Such changes in personality can be caused by starting or stopping a medication, experiencing a brain injury or having a brain tumor removed. Yet, most people would not think someone’s identity had fundamentally changed in these situations.

Both of these attempts to rescue personal identity are ultimately unsatisfying. Still, some philosophers argue for each of these views. Perhaps instead of attempting to rescue personal identity, it should be rejected. While rescuing may not be the correct approach for personal identity, it may be the correct approach for other ideas. One idea that can be rescued to a reasonable degree is free will.

Free will is often defined in folk ontologies to be the ability to make choices that are not determined by past events but are instead fully willed by the individual. This view persists today in some forms of libertarian free will. However, the scientific evidence indicates that humans are fully deterministic systems. Even theories that admit the possibility of quantum randomness influencing decision-making don’t seem to be compatible with this view of free will. In this case, one’s choices aren’t freely made, they are determined randomly by a process outside one’s control. Accepting that determinism is incompatible with free will leads one to the reject it. The philosophical position that rejects free will as non-existent is called hard determinism. However, I believe a better response is to remap the idea of free will. Redefine free will as the ability to make choices that are independent of outside influence even if they may be fully determined by an individual’s past experiences and present state of mind. This is a compatibilist view of free will. This view enables us to continue to use the concept of free will in situations where it seems appropriate. We can still convey useful information by describing some actions as freely willed and others at not. While at the same time not being misled into positing some non-physical source of free will or believing that people’s actions aren’t fully the result of the complete set of circumstances that brought them to the point of decision.


Instead of attempting to rescue personal identity, one can reject it. In this view, the self is an illusion arising as an evolutionary artifact. No personal identity is destroyed at death. People should discard the idea and language of personal identity and the self. This view has the virtue of being consistent and also corresponding to reality. However, it is ultimately very unsatisfying as people experience daily the identification with their past and future selves. Our values and preferences are bound up in the idea of personal identity. Why should I even plan for tomorrow if I don’t believe I will be there to receive the benefits?

In my opinion, an idea that can be fruitfully rejected is that of objective morality. The human intuition is that morality is a fact of reality. However, it can be seen that events and actions don’t carry around magical tags labeling them as right or wrong. It is only our minds that label actions as such. Morality does not exist in the territory only in each individual’s map of the territory. This leads some people to try to rescue morality, leading to various forms of moral relativism. However, a more productive response is to reject morality and hold a moral nihilist view. This view sees morality as a mixture of erroneous statements about the world and statements about the speaker’s values and feelings. Many moral nihilists will adopt the third response of restricting and recognizing by accepting moral language and recognizing that it doesn’t properly refer to anything. However, to me a complete rejection of all moral language and ideas is a better response. Morality is wired into the human brain in such a way that even committed moral nihilists can find themselves falling into thinking in moral categories. By completely rejecting all moral language and ideas one can better avoid the pitfall of moral thinking.

Restricting & Recognizing

Having considered rescuing and rejecting personal identity and found both lacking, I prefer to restrict its use and recognize its limitations. Identity is a useful concept we hold and apply in our everyday lives. It can’t be reduced to a simple formulation; rather it is inherently complex. The sum of many factors. Still, most people agree what identity refers to in the common cases. It is nebulous but patterned, meaning that it can’t be entirely pinned down, but is still a distinct, definite concept. However, we must restrict its use to the mundane situations of life that our brains evolved. Outside of those situations, it leads us astray because it doesn’t correspond to the territory. When considering thought experiments like teleporters, automatically precise clones, or mind uploading, we must recognize that our concept of identity should be discarded and is not helpful to thinking about the problem anymore.

Though I take the stance that we should reject the use of moral language, restricting and recognizing is probably a more common approach amongst moral nihilists. Last year, I found myself recognizing the limitations of moral language when a friend challenged me to answer the torture vs. dust specks dilemma. This asks: would you prefer that one person be horribly tortured for fifty years without hope or rest, or that inconceivably large number of people get dust specks in their eyes? Here “get dust specks in their eyes” is functioning as the least bad thing that could happen to a person. Most people will accept the question and then begin to try to compare the moral weight of the torture versus so many people having this very tiny bad thing happen to them. Which they prefer often hinges on questions of how to aggregate the harm caused by the dust specks and whether there is some threshold below which harm should not be considered. Instead, I recognized this as a situation where we had moved past the proper applicability of moral language. Instead, I fell back to the reality which is that we each have certain moral intuitions or preferences which we develop based on evolved moral reasoning and cultural ideas. These do not feel like preferences because our brains present them differently and they can be in conflict which what we think of as our preferences. However, they function as a set of preferences coming from a separate module in our brain. Those preferences are complex and irrational. Given this, it isn’t appropriate to try to reason through the torture vs. dust speck dilemma. Instead, I answered that I would prefer dust specks because when I imagined the two outcomes, that is what my moral intuitions said were better. Hence, that is the outcome I would feel better about after the fact. Morality is not objective; there is no right answer. All I can try to do is minimize my own negative feelings caused by my moral intuitions. My friend called me a “dirty dust specker”, but had to acknowledge the soundness of my reasoning.

Choosing a Response

How is one to choose the correct response? Different folk ontologies call for a different response. None of the three responses is always applicable. I’ve given examples where I think each response is best. Rescuing is only viable when there is a sufficiently similar entity in the territory to map the concept too. This is why magic can’t be rescued. Without that, rescuing can lead to confusion. Words exist not just as categories for one’s own thinking, but for communication. All parties to a conversation must be on board with how a folk ontology has been rescued. When this is not the case, confusion, misunderstandings, and even deception can occur. Rescuing a concept can also leave a void of terminology to refer to the original folk ontology, making discussion of it difficult. This means that the correct response may be context dependent. A rescued idea may need to be tabooed when speaking with people who don’t share the same view or when discussing the folk ontology itself. Rejecting is a far less fraught response. The primary downside is increased difficulty in communication caused by a loss of terminology to describe a phenomenon that people have previously found useful. When rejection is a good response, this drawback is more than offset by the clarity of thought brought about by avoiding the erroneous concept. To me, morality is a good example of this. Avoiding describing things as right or wrong can be cumbersome. However, it brings a great deal of clarity as it forces one to focus on optimizing goals. This highlights the differing goals people have and prevents moral intuitions from clouding judgment. Restricting and recognizing requires a nuanced understanding of when a concept is applicable and practice noticing when it is not. It can also lead others to assume the folk ontology is believed.

Even with the above trade-offs in mind, it can be difficult to select the best response. Indeed, the response may be context dependent. Varying based on who one is interacting with and what is being discussed. Furthermore, these three responses aren’t fully distinct. There is a spectrum between them. Feel free to craft a response that is an amalgam of these as appropriate. For example, it might make sense to apply a particular response to one aspect of a folk ontology and a different response to another aspect.

all the stories are shattered.
the meaning they ensconced is poured out,
    a drink offering on the altar of truth,
    a propitiation for ignorance.
how shall we who have no hands build new vessels?
vessels to carry us across the sea.
rather, we shall drown.
gasping for life, we swallow lies.
how shall we live unless we become fishes?

J. Thomas Moros
Published: June 21, 2017
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