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TL;DR version: My ontology includes philosophical atoms and that's it; the various relationships that philosophical atoms may have to each other (including the various combinations thereof) I label "emergent properties," and I think that these alone are sufficient to describe all of existence (at least as we have experienced it so far). Conventionally speaking, it's useful to talk about all sorts of things (like tables & chairs) even though they don't "really" exist - we just need to keep in mind that we're playing a language game, and take care to play it as well as we can. Also, I think that dualism is a less parsimonious and less plausible explanation for life and consciousness than the bottom-up causality of complex phenomena emerging from the interactions of philosophical atoms. The End.

I probably ought to say up front that I'm not claiming originality on any of this stuff, as there's nothing new under the sun, and most of this is cobbled together from conversations & readings I've done. But I'm not sure how it ought to be attributed, so I'm just going to forego attribution and plainly state that I'm not sure exactly where a lot of this comes from, but it's what I think now and I'm writing it on the fly, so there. Anything I do look up will be attributed by hyperlink. As an example of this, "Metaphysics is hard to pin down, so rather than cover all the different branches of metaphysics or try to find some principled way of deciding what to include and what not to include, I'm just going to pick ontology and stick with it because it's pretty fuckin' fundamental." So here's my ontology.

I think that, metaphysically speaking, only one type of thing exists: the philosophical atom. These are not atoms in the chemical sense, like an atom of helium or xenon or whatever; I don't think that those exist metaphysically, either. The word "atom" comes from the Greek ἄτομος (átomos), meaning "indivisible," and the term "philosophical atom" (here abbreviated as "atomp") serves as a placeholder for whatever it is that happens to be the fundamental constituent of reality. Conventionally speaking, all kinds of things exist, from atoms to photons to tables & chairs - but this conventional existence, while useful in a variety of day-to-day applications, doesn't really hold up under scrutiny (as is the case with all conventional truths).

Everything that exists conventionally is composed of atomsp. There may be one kind of them, or more than one kind, but they are the ittiest-bittiest building blocks of the Universe. Anything more complicated than these atomsp (meaning "anything comprised of more than one of them") only exists conventionally and owes that to the emergent properties proceeding from the relationships between those atomsp. Emergent properties, by my understanding, can get pretty sticky and have taken a lot of shit for this, but I think they're useful to talk about if you do it right (hint: I plan on doing it right). As an example of the "good" kind of emergent property, a sponge (or "atoms arranged sponge-wise," if you prefer) can hold water, but no single one of the atoms is able to do so on its own. To cleanly avoid compositional fallacies1, it's convenient to say that while no single atom is capable of holding water, the property of water-retention emerges from a sufficient amount of atoms arranged sponge-wise. Emergence goes wrong (in my opinion) when we get to strong emergence. While it may be a bit naive to think so, I really do think that from atomsp alone we could construct any phenomenon we like; it's simply calculational impasse and a lack of precision that hold us back (these are serious obstacles, mind you, but they are not in principle insurmountable). The alternative - that these higher-order phenomena proceed from something other than strict bottom-up causality - seems unacceptably like magic to me.

I'm not a property dualist2, so I don't think that these emergent properties "really" (read: metaphysically) exist, either; they're simply convenient to talk about as if they did, so they exist conventionally. Really, they're simply relationships between atomsp, but they get really fuckin' complex on the level at which we deal with them. At the risk of crossing over into philosophy of language a bit early, I'll say that the term "emergent properties" is simply a label we slap onto the set of phenomena which proceed from some things without proceeding from the individual pieces that make up those things. As long as we're playing our language games well, there's nothing wrong with this, we just have to make sure that we don't overstep our bounds. And, of course, we'll occasionally have to step back from our comfy conventional truths when they fail us; we just have to be on the lookout for things like that, ill-equipped as we are to deal with the Universe at its most fundamental levels.

Additionally, I strongly disbelieve in anything like a necessarily existent being; I find the idea to be borderline incoherent, in fact. While it may be the case that atomsp have to exist in all possible worlds, I don't see why they couldn't be different atomsp in those different possible worlds, or even just different sets of atomsp (World 1 contains the A, B, & C kinds; World 2 contains the D, E, & F kinds; World 3 contains the A, D, & G kinds; etc.). In other words, while something has to exist in all these possible worlds (otherwise you don't have a possible world, you have a lack of one - or, put simply, "nothing"), it doesn't have to be the same something, or even the same kind of something. If it in fact turns out that there is only one (or a few) kinds of atomp, and it/they would be present in all possible worlds that qualify as a Universe at all, then I would grant that atomsp are necessarily existent. Only then, and only atomsp, as anything comprised of them (read: anything in reality at all) could in principle be disassembled and therefore doesn't have to exist.

And of course, out of deference to fallibilism, I must concede that it may be possible for some form of dualism to be the case. I don't know enough to rule it out entirely, though it seems like magic and I'm not aware of any evidence for it. Oh, I'm aware of plenty of evidence that illustrates the current edges of human knowledge, but positing magic as an explanation (no matter how consistent and coherent it might be) does not solve the problem, it simply moves the explanatory process one unwarranted step further with no clear direction to go from there. Now, if we do get evidence for it and can use/investigate this magic, then we'll talk 'til we're blue in the face. Until then, no dice. Not from me, anyhow.

Life and consciousness are of course more complex than things like the water retention of a sponge or the metabolic pathways of sodium chloride, so I think I should spend a bit of time explaining those. To avoid some considerable tedium, this will be a gross oversimplification, but rest assured that I can elaborate on command - and what's more, I will with even the slightest provocation! (You've been warned.)

I think life can be sufficiently described as a homeostatic cluster of such things as growth/development, self-maintenance, resource consumption, and reproduction (which includes the whole spectrum from the simple self-replication of proteins to the sexual reproduction of modern animals). These can exist in various combinations in different things which may all be termed "alive" - the first self-replicating proteins (which I term "alive" without reservation) merely consumed resources and reproduced, while modern individuals which have the misfortune of being born sterile (or being, say, worker bees) do not reproduce but do grow, self-maintain, and consume resources. Though resource consumption is common between them, nothing else in the cluster is, but things which are not alive and do consume resources (such as cars) can still be excluded from our set for principled reasons (i.e., resource consumption is a necessary condition but not sufficient, while reproduction and growth are each sufficient but not necessary). This, I think, does a fairly neat job of including plants, animals, bacteria, and even the first self-replicating proteins in the category of "living things," while excluding things which are demonstrably not alive. Of course, we would be forced to include any self-replicating, self-maintaining, resource-consuming robots in this category as well, but I personally find this unproblematic. Computer viruses are a problem case; while I think they can be more usefully conceived of as patterns of data which a computer, in reading them, replicates for itself (thus making them not self-replicating), they do consume resources (the energy necessary to run those cycles on a computer) - but I am only mildly resistant to terming them "alive" if that's the only pitfall of my little system here.

Consciousness is a bit more complex, so I'll save the bulk of it for philosophy of mind, but in brief: "awareness" emerges from the world models generated by nervous systems, and "consciousness" (having first-person experiences) emerges from world models which have gotten sufficiently complex to model the nervous system itself (giving the organism an "I"). People who don't buy consciousness "merely" emerging from sufficiently complex nervous systems make me think of table salt saying, "Well, sure, I know that I'm made of sodium and chlorine, but I don't see how you get from what that's like to what I'm like."

OK, enough, The End!

Next week: Ethics!

Notes:

1. Fallacies of composition hinge upon a failure to distinguish between what a set of things may do as a whole and what the elements of that set do individually. The fallacy of composition can be encountered in either of two forms: the "whole-to-parts" fallacy, or the "parts-to-whole" fallacy. As an example of the former:
1. American Indians are disappearing.
2.That man is an American Indian.
C.Therefore, that man is disappearing.
This chain of reasoning appears sound (the premises are true and the conclusion seems to follow by way of a simple syllogism), but the conclusion is not true. This is because the sense of "disappearing" used in the first premise is different from that used in the conclusion: the former refers to a demographic disappearance, wherein a set of individuals with certain characteristics ceases to be represented in a population; the latter refers to the conventional sense in which any individual object may disappear, by evaporation or illusion or whatever. In this way, the example may be seen as a special case of equivocation. As an example of the parts-to-whole fallacy:
1. Chlorine is poisonous.
2. Table salt (NaCl) contains chlorine.
C. Therefore, table salt is poisonous.
Once again, the true premises seem to form a valid syllogism leading to a false conclusion, but elemental chlorine behaves differently than sodium chloride, so the conclusion does not actually follow. Pointing out how the different properties emerge (demographic disappearance emerges from population dynamics in the first example, toxicity emerges from the way elemental chlorine is metabolized in the second example) can help to clear up where exactly the mistake in reasoning has been made, and prevent the fallacious arguments from even sounding convincing in the first place.

2. Property dualism is the position that, while there is only physical substance, there are both physical and mental properties. I really don't know a whole lot more about it beyond that, so for more detail, please select difficulty: Easy Mode | Hard Mode

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