The Idea
A recurring theme I find immensely hopeful, pervasive, and necessary for all of life, is the existence of many ways to arrive at the same place. This usage of ‘place’ can be literal, as in a point on a map, but my focus is more abstract: concerning the arrival to the same conclusion, achievement, solution, result, prediction, or accomplishment by way of different ideas, thoughts, concepts, positions, aspects, purviews, ideologies, beliefs, information, knowledge, wisdom—whatever you want to call the stuff of thinking—the items of epistemology. Here, I call these items ‘concepts,’ and I do so because I believe that to be the name that carries with it the most approximate associations to what the brain is harboring. I do not claim that it is only an epistemic dimension that delivers us to where we want to be, but rather that intentional action demands some epistemic prerequisite. In other words: acting with mastery and responsibility demands some conceptual machinery. Many Paths Epistemology is thus chiefly concerned with how this machinery calibrates, coordinates, orients, and affords us our agency: to surmount problems in a general sense—from the scientific to the everyday. Many Paths Epistemology imagines that our values, normativities, goals, and desires give us destinations that are more or less accessible relative to the concepts available, which in turn provide the inferences, predictions, narratives, explanations, metaphors, understandings, and subjectivities that deliver us. Many Paths Epistemology entangles thought with action and explains how description (the way we come to conceptualize something) is in service of our goals in the sense of providing options to be assessed. Different concepts thus carry with them different paths relative to problems between us and where we want to be.

This is not very controversial. The proverb “there is more than one way to skin a cat” captures the spirit of MPE. Sophisticated examples also exist, including: “there are many paths to enlightenment,” or “there are 84,000 doors to enlightenment” in the Mahayana Buddhist tradition. If meditating, this could mean that a range of focal points exist to pivot your practice upon—making the world, and its abundance, anchors for mindfulness (from breath to repetition in all of its instantiations, contemplative practice is rich in options). It seems nature, too, has exploited the logic at the heart of MPE. Consider the biologist who tells us of ‘redundancy’—when the same function is present in two or more mechanisms such that if one mechanism fails then another can pick up the slack (increasing fitness, making the organism more robust). When it comes to politics and psychology, practitioners of both must make choices (choose paths) which amount to different possible interventions into the same problem(s). The paths here can be dire, and monstrous, or immensely beneficial, and successful. There of course exist shades between.  

I claim here, then, that there is a symmetry between the operations of our world and the stuff of our thought, from contemplative practice, to biological mechanisms, and beyond. Thought has its own ‘many paths’ quality to it.  One familiar characterization is that we can reach any given number in an infinite amount of ways: 2 plus 5 will give us 7, as does 14 minus 7, and 63 divided by 9, etc. As a philosophy of science, ‘many paths’ is the grounds upon which we determine climate change, as we believe in it not due to a single study, but rather an assortment of independent studies converging (climate change is adduced from oceanography, geology, meteorology, ecology, forestry, agriculture, and others). The physicist Niels Bohr suggested a stricter version of the idea with his “complementarity principle,” stating that it is only through multiple incommensurate measures that we are able to describe quantum phenomena in something like complete terms. For education, it means the contextual can be transformed into the universal, as individualized lesson plans can bridge a particular student and a generalized fact.

Many Paths Epistemology makes an appeal to the compositionality of thought. It claims that hidden within the space of possible conceptual arrangement there exists answers and solutions, that often are so inaccessible, that the ills of modern life seem insurmountable—when the reality of the situation is that we are conceptually constrained. Consider this example:

Jaakko Hintikka’s What If…? Toward Excellence in Reasoning, pg. 320

The philosophical side of MPE reasons: The young Gauss did not only possess the right conceptual equipment to afford an understanding of arithmetic, such that the problem was made easier, but he also had the ability to use it. We should create new theories, novelties, along with a language, and self-reflective thought, such that we may understand, and express these processes in greater detail.

The scientific side of MPE reasons: if Gauss possessed this concept, then it would have been detectable. If detectable, it would have been measurable in terms of how successful it was relative to the problem, and relative to the other concepts the children were using. Success, in this case, is a matter of how fast Gauss was able to compute the correct answer. Success in other cases may be radically different.  

The questions asked are: Can we naturalize this? Can we ground this process in some observable, predictable, and ontologically satisfying mechanism(s)? Can we model different concepts, and what they afford in different contexts, such that we can choose paths with greater confidence and ability? Can there be a science of concepts?

The mathematical example may seem trivial, but consider this reasoning as applied to more consequential concepts such as “illegal alien” or “immigrant,” “woman,” “man,” “terrorist,” “homosexual,” “sapience,” “depression,” “supply/demand,” “entropy,” “time,” “good and evil,” “race,” “class,” “constitution,” “enemy combatant,” “ecology,” “climate,” and “propaganda,” the list goes on. It seems that each concept would be an “ordering of the facts” (presumably an ordering of bullshit too) with a corresponding utility relative to some problem(s). Perhaps the concept “illegal alien” affords inferences and associations that, well, alienate. This may serve you well if you are a racist, but would not work very well if you desire empathy being shown to foreign people. The way you come to know someone, or something, as such-and-such, ultimately has huge ramifications for how you, and the world generally, unfold. MPE wishes to model this, and eventually engineer better concepts with better affordances.

Conceptual Engineering What then is a concept? And how should we engineer it? Both questions demand far too much unpacking for this introduction. I will touch on it briefly in the following sections, but let me direct you to my thesis which deals with this in depth: Complexity Science Strategies for Conceptual Engineering.

MPE is an inflated view. It subscribes to various abundances. There is the abundance of problems, and an abundance of concepts, which compose into an abundance of arrangements, all offering an abundance of potential actions to be taken in regard to the abundance of problems. The tools of system science, complexity science, and control theory are thus brought to the challenge MPE faces in navigating these abundances. Once our concepts are understood mechanistically, then the application of complex system science to our inner-world’s complexity makes it clear as to why abundance is necessary and how it is exploitable. My first attempt at such an integration can be found here: Complexity Science Strategies for Conceptual Engineering.

Historical Paths to MPE
For those coming to MPE from various places, here is a road map of how to arrive at some of MPE’s main axioms/presuppositions/ideas.

From Ancient Greek Philosophy: The sea-change Socrates created by looking inward as opposed to the pre-Socratic metaphysics is held as virtue here. When we peer into ourselves we see concepts, and to model them scientifically relative to the problems they confront is to map out the possible replies that can be made by an individual engaged in the Socratic Method (Elenchus). Concepts are taken to be the preconditions of reply. As Socrates understood: by questioning we may update ourselves; MPE deepens this by claiming that by questioning we may update our concepts, which in turn updates our replies on the journey to truth. MPE sees Socrates as history’s conceptual engineer par-excellence.

From Eastern Philosophy: As briefly mentioned, ‘many paths’ comes from the Buddhist proverb “there are many paths to enlightenment.” There are overlaps here between the Buddhist conception of the world as imbued with Dharma (everything can be an Ajahn), and MPE’s insistence on discoverable opportunities. In both cases there exists useful abundance. While MPE is chiefly concerned with epistemological utility and the scientific modeling thereof, it also holds that it applies to self-mastery beyond (but including) impersonal scientific topics, such as those eastern philosophy have always been after. If concepts generally determine intentional agency, then MPE must deal with the various instantiations of this across life. Future posts will consider this.

From Enlightenment Philosophy: A cognitivist reading of Kant’s necessary preconditions of experience is not very far from MPE. MPE shares the insistence on experience pivoting upon a background machinery, but MPE asks: what are those preconditions of agency? Agency is primary. For MPE this machinery is in flux, they aren’t fixed as the twelve categories were for Kant. The insistence on a dynamical inner-world may situate MPE closer to Hegel, but an important divergence exists here, too, in that MPE believes we should not rely on the indifference of history/cultural development to arrange the background machinery. Dialectics are too slow, indifferent, non-exhaustive of system dynamics, and should be controlled.

From Nietzsche: A quote,

Philosophers had from the first (1) a wonderful capacity for the contradictio in adjecto; (2) they have trusted in concepts as completely as they have mistrusted the sense: they have not stopped to consider that concepts and words are our inheritance from ages in which thinking was very modest and unclear. What draws on philosophers last of all: they must no longer accept concepts as a gift, nor merely purify and polish them, but first make and create them, present them and make them convincing. Hitherto one has generally trusted one’s concepts as if they were a wonderful dowry from some sort of wonderland: but they are, after all, the inheritance from our most remote, most foolish as well as most intelligent ancestors. This piety toward what we find in us is perhaps part of the moral element in knowledge. What is needed above all is an absolute skepticism toward all inherited concepts. (The Will to Power, 409)

From Continental Philosophy: Gillies Deleuze and Felix Guattari, in their work: What is philosophy? Lay out a meta-philosophy that presents the philosopher as a concept creator.

From Analytic Philosophy: Wittgenstein’s later work on gestalts can be explained by way of the orientational role MPE attributes to concepts: to know the duckrabbit as a duck demands the concept “duck”; to know the duckrabbit as a rabbit demands the concept “rabbit.” One can imagine two nations of people possessing only one of each concept, and as such their investigations into the duckrabbit would be wildly incommensurate. This story generalizes to everything else. Wilfrid Sellars’s division between the scientific image and the manifest image can find testing in MPE in order to determine if various folk concepts have any scientific import, and vice versa.

From Philosophy of Science: Much of this is continuous with ‘the theory-ladenness of observation’ in the philosophy of science (Popper, Hanson, Kuhn, Feyerabend), where it is said that observation is partially determined by theories. This is due to ‘theory,’ like ‘concept,’ being orientational (preceding, and guiding, observation). We can replace ‘theory’ with ‘concept’ and capture much of this story. Paradigm change is also made possible here, as scientific revolution can be said to be a product of a change of orientational mechanism (concepts). I suspect a ‘concept-ladenness of observation’ and a ‘concept-ladenness of agency’ to both be fruitful pursuits.

From Post-Continental Philosophy: MPE considers itself to be a Prometheanism, as it wishes to provide humanity some control over an abysmal inner-world. MPE aims to bring the scientific navigation of the compositionality of thought in conflict with an outside (capitalism, climate change) that is popularly presented as encroaching, dominating, usurping, and completely insurmountable. MPE thus rises to the challenge of various fashionable doomsayer accelerationisms. MPE understands itself as continuous with left accelerationism, and wishes that a re-emergence of these themes would arise again in theoretical space. For more on these themes, See: Ritual Philosophy: Hintikka’s Holmes and Land’s Lovecraft.

From Conceptual Engineering: Conceptual Engineering is immensely important to MPE in ways I will develop on this blog. While I take influence from conceptual engineers such as Alexis Burgess, David Plunkett, Herman Cappelen, Kevin Scharp, and other participants in this emerging tradition: I find that explorations into the literal engineering of concepts are unfortunately absent. This is probably due to the difficulty that exists in trying to determine what concepts are. To apply the methods of engineering, there must first be generalizable mechanisms. Thus, MPE attempts to build a workable understanding of concepts as mechanistic, decomposable, and hierarchical systems, such that engineering can be conducted in the most literal sense. For more, See my essay: Complexity Science Strategies for Conceptual Engineering.

From Cognitive Science: History has used the concept of ‘concept’ loosely as a way to prop up sometimes wildly different systems of thought. As such, someone with an interest in the history of ‘concepts’ can often feel overwhelmed, confused as to what a concept is exactly, and the function it provides. As Gregory Murphy (a leading psychologist working on concepts) claims, “In short, concepts are a mess.” Some thinkers have gone so far as to suggest the elimination of ‘concepts’ all together (Edouard Machery). More recently, convergence, synthesis, and success have emerged such that concepts are beginning to be understood, and even empirically verified. For theoretical constructions, See: Lawrence Barsalou, Chris Eliasmith, and Paul Thagard. For scientific modeling, See: Robert Mason and Marcel Just. MPE uses these scientific constructions as part of its ontology, claiming that concepts are distributed neural-circuits featuring symbolic and sub-symbolic processing (across modal and amodal brain regions) that labor in tandem given some target category (object in the world, problem). The next step would be to present these distributed neural-circuits as complex systems.

From System/Complexity Science: There has been immense success with these methods, and this is due in part to their generality. So long as we can conceive of parts, their relations, and the systems they orchestrate into, we may apply various informative techniques, such as robustness analysis, along with various ways to intervene such as control theory/cybernetics. A challenge for MPE is trying to determine the right ontology to frame our inner-worlds as complex systems. Once such a theory of mechanism is provided, we can see the utility in abundance, along with the application of system science methods to construct a proper conceptual engineering project. For more, See my essay: Complexity Science Strategies for Conceptual Engineering.

From Jaakko Hintikka, Dynamical Epistemic Logic: Hintikka’s re-framing of the Socratic Elenchus into his own interrogative method is a source MPE draws from. Hintikka provides the methods within which conversation may be formally modeled. This is logic with a pulse. We should consider our deductions, and inferences, as if they move not only from information to other information, but also from concept to concept, and from one set of possible actions to another. Each movement in logical space is thus simultaneously a movement in conceptual space and agential space. Figuring out the coordinates and the interfacing between these three spaces is an immensely important project. This amounts to an entanglement between formal languages, cognitive science, and agency. Hintikka’s system can aid us in modeling these relations. It can be said that MPE then provides a grounding for interrogative approaches, such as dynamic epistemic logic, in cognitive science.

From Pittsburgh Pragmatism: MPE finds itself (currently) allied with representationalist views of philosophy of mind. I understand that this demands a confrontation with Pittsburgh pragmatism (e.g. Sellars, Rorty, Brandom, etc.), and I intend on such a thing in a future post. My thoughts on the topic still need time, but I believe there will be some surprising commensurability.

Main Points:

  • Concepts are real things with dynamic effects on one another.
  • Concepts are held as preconditions for responsible agency. They are orientational mechanisms. In other words: our concepts precede intentional agency, they afford (and, to a degree, determine) what it is we can do with intention and mastery.
  • Different concepts have different utilities relative to different problems and other concepts. This is measurable.
  • System/complexity science is a toolbox of methods to explore dynamical effects concepts have on one another in relation to problems. We are understanding our world as inflated, multivariate, hierarchical, complex, complicated, interwoven, and networked. MPE is the expansion of this into epistemology. MPE claims that our inner-worlds resemble outside worlds—that concepts take advantage of many of the same functions our outside world does—thus we can study them by way of methods such as robustness analysis (and others). This amounts to a pairing of cognitive science and system science, where the former provides the commitments and the latter their relations.
  • Language is that which engineers concepts, which are distributed neural circuits, with precision. In control terms: language is the controller and concepts are the systems of distributed neural circuits.
  • Our goals demand conceptual affordances to be met. MPE wishes to model concepts, and the agency they grant relative to problems, in order to build various options to be judged by our values and norms. We then precede with responsibility.
  • The history of thought is littered with examples that touch on these themes, and will be explored in greater detail. MPE is the intersection, adduced from a number of traditions.
  • This is a philosophy that is as relevant to the everyday as it is to the abstract.
  • If reason is instrumental, then let’s measure it against challenges.

Suggested Readings:
I have read a majority of these, not all, but I suspect even those are related.

Cognitive Science:

Complexity Science:

What is a Complex System?

Diversity and Complexity

Re-engineering Philosophy for Limited Beings

Principles of System Science

Network Representation and Complex Systems

Discovering Complexity

Architecture of Complexity


This blog is largely informal, although some formal essays will appear on occasion. I welcome any, and all, conversation, criticism, recommendations, and suggestions. Given the interdisciplinary nature of Many Paths Epistemology, I am open to collaboration, and can be reached at: MPE is by no means complete; understand that this is a project in development. MPE owes itself to many historical actors, and as such also welcomes anyone to build upon it, mutating it into other forms beneficial to all. Thank you for reading.

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