Ontology, Complexity, and Compositionality

Forthcoming: Essays on Metaphysics and the Philosophy of Science, edited by Matthew Slater and Zanja Yudell, Oxford University Press

Abstract: Sciences of complex systems thrive on compositional theories – toolkits that allow the construction of models of a wide range of systems, each consisting of various parts put together in different ways. To be tractable, a compositional theory must make shrewd choices about the parts and properties that constitute its basic ontology. One such choice is to decompose a system into spatiotemporally discrete parts. Compositional theories in the high-level sciences follow this rule of thumb to a certain extent, but they also make essential use of what I call distributed ontologies: divisions of the system into entities or states of affairs each depending on sets of fundamental-level facts that to a large extent overlap. The point is developed using the example of statistical theories in which the probabilities are ontologically distributed.

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