How we switch between models of reality
In previous essays, we have talked about intellectual objects and models (Re-Assembling Reality #26a, #26b, #26, #27, #27a, #27b, #27d, #27e, #27f). We have shown that even when a model works, it does not tell us anything about the ultimate ontological nature of the thing being modelled — or even if the thing being modelled exists at all (#26a, #26b). It is therefore not necessary to be ontologically realist about our models. We have shown how different intellectual objects are used to construct models of physical phenomena, life, the mind, society, and metahuman persons. In each of these cases, we have seen how different models give us different insights into the thing being modelled. Many models are contradictory, incommensurable, or ostensibly mutually exclusive: to choose one model over another means gaining the insights of that model but ignoring the insights of all the other models which could potentially be used. This situation arises throughout the sciences and religions: incompatible models are widespread not only between “science” and “religion”, but between different scientific disciplines, and between different religions; and even within the same discipline or sub-discipline, and within the same religion or sub-sect of a religion. The overall picture, then, is one of an infinitely fragmented landscape of knowledge.
A common response to this condition is a naïve form of relativism: if there are so many models and all of them have their strengths and limitations, this means that all of them are equal, and it is impossible to commit to a single model. But not only is this position intellectually lazy — there are reasons to choose one model over another — it is intellectually self-deluding: any action is a commitment to a model (see Essay #29). Any path of learning or process of research requires, consciously or not, commitment to a specific model. The same holds for any course of action in life. This would seem to be especially the case when dealing with contradictions between our most basic models of reality — what we call “cosmologies”.
It’s not simply that, in the world, different people subscribe to different cosmologies — for example, culture X are animists (who consider the world to be made of conscious entities), culture Y are vitalists (who consider the world to be made of configurations of a flowing vital force), and culture Z are materialists (who consider everything in the world to be made of matter whose changes are fully determined by laws that apply anywhere and everywhere). In fact, there are good chances that the a single group of people, or a single person, simultaneously follows different, logically incompatible cosmologies in their lives.
A cosmology, in our definition, is a model of what the basic elements of reality are and how they are connected with each other.  Cosmology can be understood at two levels. One is in an abstract conceptual sense, referring to how the basic components of reality and their relationships are conceptualized and categorized and made into intellectual objects as models of reality. But cosmology also exists in a pragmatic sense, meaning the implicit categories that govern peoples’ actions in their relationships with other humans and with non-human beings and entities. This refers to the real, lived relationships within which people are embedded, and within which they perceive and act in the world.
Conceptual and pragmatic cosmologies are in a dialectical relationship with each other. For example, in Chinese medicine, certain forms of training, practices, and dispositions of the body may lead the practitioner to experience the world in a certain way, which are conducive to being described and conceptualized with Chinese cosmological models . These models have, in turn, historically shaped the development of these traditions of training the dispositions of the body. The training may generate a type of experience that can be described with the concept of Qi, which makes sense within the Chinese cosmological model of reality; this cosmology thus helps to understand the experience. Conversely, the cosmology guides the development of forms of training to enhance the experience of Qi.
Thus, there is a reciprocal relationship of mutual influence and production between conceptual and pragmatic cosmologies, even if that relationship is not an organic and fully integrated one: it’s possible to be engaging in a pragmatic cosmology without knowing about an associated conceptual cosmology, and it’s possible to discourse on a conceptual cosmology without engaging it in a pragmatic way. For example, to practice Taijiquan is to transform one’s body into an expression and experience of Chinese vitalist cosmology. However, it is not necessary to have any intellectual knowledge of this cosmology to do so. Conversely, Daoist cosmology is rooted in a specific experience of the body. Many people have intellectual knowledge of Daoist philosophy, without having ever practiced or experienced it in an embodied manner.
Biomedicine and TCM
Let’s consider what happens when people simultaneously use Western biomedicine and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). Biomedicine and TCM are two systems of knowledge that have completely different ontological assumptions — different understandings of what the body is made of, of the relationships between components of the body, and of the relationships between the body and external forces and substances. In terms of the concepts of life discussed in Essay #24, biomedicine is based on bios while TCM is based on qi. These are radically different and incompatible cosmologies. But people regularly make use of both biomedical and TCM treatments. This is very common in the Chinese world, and increasingly common elsewhere, including in the West. And, in China, there are formally accredited universities, research institutes, laboratories and hospitals devoted to both medical systems, not to mention countless unlicensed folk practitioners of various types of traditional medicine and healing.
How should we deal with the incompatibility between the two?
One solution to this condition is exclusivism: following the principle of non-contradiction, it is argued that if one theory or model is right, then all the others are necessarily wrong. Thus, to be consistent, I must commit to a single theory, and exclude all others. The theory I commit to is the true one, and all others are false.
Within the academic world, exclusivism is a common solution: TCM does not rest on the physicalist cosmology that is common to most sciences, therefore it is false. To the extent that anything in TCM works, it is due to peoples’ false consciousness: the placebo effect, or the power of their belief. Only biomedicine is true. Since TCM is false, it is not worth committing any resources to researching it; if anything, resources should be committed to eliminating peoples’ belief in it.
This is the caricatural approach of the conflict thesis in the science and religion discourse: if a scientific model of the world is true, then all religious ones are false, and I should commit to the scientific worldview. Conversely, if a religious model of the world is true, then all scientific ones are false, and I must commit to the religious one. The same logic can apply between religions: if the Christian model of reality is true, the Buddhist one — and all other religious models — are false, and vice versa; and one must make an exclusive commitment to only one of them.
Logically, the same applies between different branches of science. Geneticists, economists and anthropologists have incompatible models of human nature and behaviour. If we follow the above argument about non-contradiction, only one of them can be true, and the others must necessarily be wrong. Thus, within the human sciences, one must commit to only one discipline. And while we may politely tolerate the existence of the other disciplines, the fact is that they are false. The same applies within a single discipline: in physics, for example, if you subscribe to the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, you cannot accept a many-worlds interpretation.
But sooner or later, exclusivism always hits a wall: no single model can account for everything. While the model I have committed to accounts for some things, other models, which may be incompatible with the one I have chosen, account for other things better than mine.
There are several ways of dealing with this problem.
Within an exclusivist framework, the only acceptable solution is one in which one theory accounts for everything, while other theories are proven to be false. One way of doing this is to move to ever higher levels of generalization and vagueness, such that a single concept can explain anything. For example, “God did it”, or “atomic interactions caused it”, or “it’s sorcery”. If we assume that God is all-powerful, or that everything is made of atoms, or that many people are sorcerers without knowing it, then such statements can be true even if we don’t know how God acted or how the atoms or the sorcerers operated in a particular instance. Faith in the all-encompassing concept is sufficient.
A second solution is theoretical expansionism: the theory must be continually refined and improved, such that it can explain ever more phenomena. The more domains the theory can account for, the more powerful it becomes and the more likely it is to beat the competing theories. This approach isn’t satisfied with vague generalities, but accepts the challenge of testing a theory against very specific, different conditions and phenomena. But taking this approach implies admitting the current limitations of the theory, and faith that, in the future, the theory will be able to account for everything. This requires a major, long-term commitment of time, effort and resources — a significant leap of faith (see Essay #31).
Some universities and research institutions take the option of theoretical expansionism of biomedicine with respect to TCM: they consider that there are aspects of TCM that work, but that TCM theory is false. Therefore, what needs to be done is to explain TCM phenomena with biomedical theories — for example, by researching the active chemical agents of the herbal medicines used in TCM. In this approach, ultimately, once all of the health benefits of TCM are fully understood with the models of biomedicine, the TCM theoretical models, based on traditional Chinese cosmology, will become useless other than as quaint philosophies and idioms.
But a lot of work, involving a major investment in resources, is required for such a biomedical “take-over” of TCM. Such a prospect is still far in the future. In the meantime, universities and departments of Chinese medicine in the Chinese world operate separately from departments of Western medicine, and, to varying degrees, still operate on the basis of TCM cosmologies based on Qi.
A third solution is synthesis. Here, we admit to the limitations of our theory and the merits of other theories. But we don’t like the fact that there are so many different and incompatible theories. What needs to be done, then, is to create a single theory that harmonizes or incorporates all the others. We need to compare the theories, find the underlying premises that they all have in common, adjust each and every theory so that the elements that make them incompatible are removed, and develop an overarching framework that allows the different theories to be connected with each other while taking advantage of their respective strengths. To the extent that the synthesis is successful, the resulting theory will be able to generate more explanations, predictions or actions, covering more than other, more limited or exclusive models.
Like the theoretical expansionism approach, this requires an enormous commitment of time and effort, and faith that a coherent and workable synthesis can be developed in the long term. In the meantime, we might simply be satisfied with the faith that all theories can potentially be synthesized at some point in the future, even if we lack the time, energy, and insight to work it out now. This is the operating assumption of the scientific community in general: we assume that there is one reality, governed by one set of laws. Ultimately, this means that there is one theory to account for everything — but we have not yet built it. The fact that there are so many incompatible theories between disciplines and even within a single discipline, and that most of these incompatible theories all have recognized benefits, is something that we accept as a temporary condition.
Instead of a perfect synthesis, we are therefore content to live, as a temporary stop-gap, with a patchwork. We switch from one theory to another as the need dictates, and sometimes try to weave tenuous connections between theories. But we tend to assume that all the theories in the patchwork, while they may be incompatible in the details, all share some deep basic ontological assumptions about reality.
For example, some form of materialism or physicalism is a basic assumption shared by most mainstream theories in all natural and social scientific disciplines, allowing for a patchwork of loosely connected theories. Similarly, in the epistemic communities of “alternative spiritualities,” we find an incredibly diverse patchwork of ideas and techniques coming from traditions ranging from Peruvian shamanism to Japanese Zen meditation. Although, taken in isolation, these different traditions have highly specific cosmologies, in the epistemic communities of alternative spiritualities, people make connections between them on the basis that they all share common basic assumptions about the “spiritual” nature of reality, even if this “spiritual” dimension is modelled in very different ways.
In the case of TCM and biomedicine, some researchers have tried to take the approach of synthesis, trying to find a way to combine the two in a coherent fashion. So far, most of these attempts have been idiosyncratic. Overall, there has been no widely accepted theoretical synthesis of TCM and biomedicine. A full synthesis of the two seems as far off as the option of theoretical expansion by biomedicine.
In practice, though, most people don’t have time to wait for scholars and intellectuals to resolve the inconsistencies between the theories. In the Chinese world, it is common for people to use both biomedicine and TCM — just as it is increasingly common in the West for people to use both biomedicine and various types of “alternative medicine”.
It’s quite common in pharmacies in China to find biomedical and Chinese medicines at opposite counters in the same shop. On one side, you find the drawers of Chinese herbs, bark, dried insects, and so on that constitute the Chinese materia medica. As soon as you take that kind of medicine, you become part of a whole medical system that has been producing and processing these materials for thousands of years based on a body of knowledge built up by an epistemic community that determines the selection of these materials, the combination of these materials, drawing on certain ontological assumptions and classifications about the basic composition of reality, the world, and the body. By buying them, cooking them, and ingesting them in a certain way, you bring your body into this cosmology.
If you see a doctor and buy a certain type of medicine, then you become part of that medical system — you contribute to the reproduction of the system. Your body becomes part of the system, part of the chain of relationships that connects your body and your self to the substances you will be consuming, to the doctor, to the medical and training institutions, to the manufacture and processing of the medicines, etc. By going to a pharmacy and collecting a prescription for penicillin, for example, you become part of a specific medical system that is based on a certain cosmology, and which is generating all kinds of knowledge, practices, technologies, and so on.
So if you go one day to the drugstore and buy penicillin on one side of the shop, and also get a TCM prescription and buy other substances on the other side of the shop, and you take both the penicillin and boil the herbs three days a week, you are engaged in we call a poly-cosmological process. When people do that, they engage their bodies with different and incompatible cosmologies. The same person can go to a clinic of biomedicine and pragmatically engage with his body in a relationship with the doctor, with the medical instruments, with fluids and substances, and with the biomedical epistemic community, and thus align themselves with the biomedical cosmology in both pragmatic and conceptual senses. And then the next day or a week later, go to the Chinese doctor, or be practicing taijiquan or qigong, and enter and engage with a completely different cosmology, becoming part of a different system.
Note that the person who is consuming or practicing both types of medicine may be completely ignorant of the theories of either or both medical systems. “Belief” need not come into the picture at all. The engagement with cosmologies is pragmatic. But this does not make it insignificant: the process leads to very real transformations of the body, and to the growth of very real and powerful epistemic communities, revenue streams, institutions, industries, regulatory processes, and training systems devoted to both biomedicine and TCM.
It is thus quite possible to either simultaneously or consecutively live in radically incompatible cosmologies, and it’s not a practical problem. This is not a synthesis. It’s not syncretism or hybridity. TCM and biomedicine have their own logic, their own coherence, and their own history. They do not merge with each other, while people happily go from one counter to the other at the pharmacy.
To frame this in terms of the example used in Essay #26b, one can think of Elon Musk, and then think about blue lines. And we know that the two are broadly incompatible, but we don’t need to reconcile them. We don’t need to argue over which is true, or find how to translate between them. We just hop back and forth between the two, using which ever one seems helpful at the time.
The Union of the Three Teachings
It might not be surprising to see poly-cosmology in action at the level of healing. After all, if people are sick, they want to get better, and as long as there is hope of some remedy working, why should one be loyal to a single cosmology? But let’s see how this also happens in the case of traditions that are often categorized as religions.
It is well known that, in China, there has been a tradition of mixing Confucianism, Buddhism and Daoism. The “Union of the Three Teachings” (sanjiao heyi) has been a widespread notion for many centuries in China. It was promoted by the imperial state, which saw the need to establish harmony between the religions in the interest of social stability, and also in order for the Emperor to transcend them all as the Son of Heaven.
However, although the Union of the Three Teachings has been advocated by various religious groups and movements, and by the imperial Chinese state itself, the three never merged together. Daoist priests, Buddhist monks, and Confucian literati had and continue to have distinct professional roles and social status, each forming distinct epistemic communities. Each of them has maintained a strong identity. Each has its own intellectual traditions, its own history, its own ritual practices, its own clerical or priestly class, and its own ontological models. Their three ontological models are not fully compatible with each other.
Daoism is profoundly vitalist and focused on the pursuit of vitality, to such a degree that the ultimate goal of Daoism is often described as the pursuit of immortality — not a purely spiritual immortality in which the soul continues to live after the death of the body, but an embodied immortality in which the body is refined and sublimated into a living divine being. The body is absolutely central to Daoist cosmology. In orthodox Buddhism, on the other hand, birth itself is the product of desire emanating from illusion: one should not pursue life but transcend life and death by abandoning desire; and neither the body nor vitality have any positive ontological reality or intrinsic value. Meanwhile, the relationships between humans, following proper hierarchies and appropriate emotions, are at the core of the Confucian cosmology. This is arguably irrelevant or of secondary importance in both Daoist and especially Buddhist ontologies. One could make the case that, strictly speaking, Confucian, Daoist and Buddhist cosmologies are utterly incompatible with each other. And these cosmological distinctions will arise when representatives of these traditions debate with each other.
But, looking at how each of the Three Teachings is taught and practiced in the Chinese world, those cosmological differences are now far from obvious. Over the centuries, the clerics of each have read and learned from each other, and incorporated ideas and practices from each other. Each of them has practiced theoretical expansionism, incorporating what it sees as the best of the other two within its own overarching model. Thus, we will find elements of Buddhism and Daoism in Confucianism; elements of Confucianism and Daoism in Buddhism; and elements of Buddhism and Confucianism in Daoism. But they retained their distinctive Confucian, Buddhist, and Daoist identities . In the Confucian tradition, the Buddhist and Daoist elements are always encompassed and subordinated to the Confucian frame — and likewise for the respective subordinations in the other two traditions.
There have also been many attempts at synthesis, in which the incorporation of the other traditions leads to a profound transformation of the original cosmology — but still, the new synthesis often becomes a new branch or school of one of the three traditions. For example, Neo-Confucianism developed a new cosmology drawing on Buddhism and Daoism; Chan Buddhism did the same drawing on Daoism; and Lingbao Daoism did so drawing on Buddhism. And there have been many versions of a complete synthesis, with the formation of new religious movements promoting the complete Unity of the Three Teachings (or even of the Five Teachings, including Christianity and Islam too).
Ultimately, in orthodox Chinese religion, the Three Teachings have always retained their distinctive institutions, doctrines, and clerics. In traditional China, the specialists of each of the Three Teachings provided ritual, religious, and spiritual services for the people. Most people were not affiliated with any of the three Teachings, and, depending on their need, might have called on a Daoist, or a Confucian, or a Buddhist . There was a functional differentiation between the tasks that could be performed by the specialists of each of the Three Teachings. Buddhist cosmology has the most to say about what happens to people after they die, so in the Chinese context the Buddhists became the specialists of death, the main providers of funeral services in many regions. Daoist cosmology, on the other hand, focuses more on life and on vital forces; Daoist priests became the specialists of the body, both at the individual level, through health, longevity, and medical practices, and at the collective level, as the priests of rituals for communal flourishing and prosperity. Meanwhile, the Confucian tradition focused on education and governance. Specialists in Confucian knowledge trained to be teachers, administrators, magistrates, and judges. The emperor Xiaozong (r. 1163~89) famously said, “Use Buddhism to rule the mind, Taoism to rule the body, and Confucianism to rule the world” .
Poly-cosmology between academic disciplines and theories
Poly-cosmology points to the stable and enduring models of reality that underlie conceptualization and pragmatic engagement within different systems of thought and practice that exist simultaneously in peoples’ lives. It draws our attention to the modalities by which incompatible cosmologies are conjoined while retaining their boundaries and distinctive logics. It invites us to map out the structures and dynamics that govern the interaction between cosmologies in specific contexts and situations — not so much at the level of abstract philosophical discourses, but at the level of social pragmatics.
The Chinese poly-cosmological cases discussed in this essay suggest that different cosmologies lead to different points of emphasis in our relationship with the world, producing different epistemic communities and systems of knowledge with different strengths and specializations: for example, in China, the body-focused cosmology of Daoism generates systems of knowledge and practice with relative specialization in health, healing, and medicine; the disembodied cosmology of Buddhism generates systems of knowledge and practice focusing on the mind and on death; and the socially-centered cosmology of Confucianism generates systems of knowledge and practice focusing on social relations and governance.
These Chinese examples, while they may sound exotic to readers from elsewhere, are not so different from the norm in modern secular Academia. Different disciplines, and even sub-disciplines, operate within often radically incommensurable or incompatible cosmologies: quantum physics, Newtonian physics, economics, anthropology, cognitive neuroscience, and theology, for example, are all recognized as legitimate fields of academic knowledge, and inter-disciplinary research or collaboration between them would be encouraged in most universities. Such collaborations can take place on a pragmatic level, even though no attempt to reconcile their cosmological models has ever been accepted by the mainstream in any of these disciplines. What this suggests is that no cosmology is fully all-encompassing. It is true that many theoretical systems and intellectual objects aspire to totality. They strive for comprehensiveness, which, for those who pursue it, is a good thing inasmuch as it leads to the pursuit of ever more complete and coherently interconnected branches of knowledge. But the realization of this aspiration is always somewhere in the distant future, perhaps eternally so.
On the other hand, coherently interconnected branches of knowledge for their own sake is not necessarily a good thing. A map which tells you everything — the topography, the demographics, the magnetic fields strength, the cultural history — is utterly unwieldy. Sometimes connecting different data sets is really useful: a map which showed the location of public taps, the layout of the town sewers, and the houses in which there had been reported cases of cholera in the previous month changed the world. Part of the skill of engaging with the world is knowing which information is helpful to connect, and which information can be beneficially ignored.
Beyond the academic and religious worlds, the modern West as a whole is deeply poly-cosmological. One of the core Western values is freedom, which is based on the idea that human beings are rational subjects endowed with free will. But, at the same time, it is widely believed that all human decisions are the result of chemicals in the brain. These two beliefs are based on incompatible cosmologies: the former is derived from Greek and Christian notions of the soul as a distinct ontological entity, while the latter is based on a materialist cosmology that has no place for a “soul”. The democratic political institutions and rule of law that are so central to the identity of Western civilization can’t be imagined without the belief in a person’s capacity for free choice and moral responsibility, while scientific models of human behaviour tend to eliminate free will by reducing human choices to the effects of chemical, genetic, psychological, sociological, or cultural factors.
One solution to this contradiction is exclusivism: either there is no such thing as free will, or all reductionist scientific models need to be rejected because they fail to account for free will. Another solution is theoretical expansionism: through more robust models, what appears to be free will can actually be explained away within a reductionist theoretical framework. Yet another solution is synthesis: by developing more complex, multi-layered or emergentist models we can account for the appearance of free will in some realms and its absence in others.
All of these positions are widespread in popular philosophical debates on the issue. There is no consensus, but life goes on. Western political and educational institutions continue to be based upon a cosmology of free souls, while the ideologies developed and promoted within these political and educational institutions are often based on an opposite cosmology. The same people happily, and usually unconsciously, switch between these cosmologies without asking themselves any questions.
Another common poly-cosmological condition in modern society is the necessity for religious people to switch, in different contexts of life, between a religious cosmology and a secular one that leaves no place for spiritual realities. Peter Berger — a sociologist and theologian — described the co-habitation of the secular and the religious within the same mind by saying, “It is not a matter of either/or, but rather of both/and.” 
In a poly-cosmological situation, it is also possible to juggle between realist and anti-realist approaches to cosmologies. For example, a Christian physicist might believe that God is involved with the interactions of atoms. This physicist takes an epistemically realist position about God and His action in the physical world — her beliefs about God correspond to some aspect of the way the world really is (see Essay #17b). But the same physicist may have no problems in using a materialist model of atoms in the lab. Moreover, she may also see no contradiction in doing so, because she is anti-realist about those models — they are useful for getting a handle on events, but they require no commitment to believe that they are really describing the universe at a noumenological level (See Essay #26b).
Poly-cosmology and the free-will loophole in science
Scientists don’t just switch between poly-cosmological models inside the lab compared to outside. Nor do they switch between models only because it makes things easier to consider one thing one way, and another thing another. Rather, on some occasions they engage in poly-cosmological thought because that is the only way to meaningfully do science.
Let us assume that the world follows rules, and that it is the task of a scientists is to find those rules. We find them out by looking at the world. After many measurements we might conclude, “the acceleration is always proportional to the force applied,” but what we mean is, “the acceleration was proportional to the force applied every time we measured it.” How do we make the leap from “when we measured it” to “always”? How do we know that the universe doesn’t behave differently at some moments than at others? And how do we know that the measurements we make (which are an infinitesimally tiny simple of all the measurements that could be made) are representative of the general case?
In order to answer this question, imagine you had a friend who claimed to have a special coin that always came up heads. They flip it and show you that, sure enough, it came up heads. Then they flip it again. “Nope. You don’t need to see that one,” they say. They flip it again. “We’ll just keep going, shall we?” they insist, and quickly flip it again before you can look. Another flip and finally they show you: “See? Heads!”
Would you believe the coin always came up heads? Of course not! You might not insist on seeing every flip. But you would insist that you, not your friend, got to choose which flips you look at. Your choice of when to look has to be free.
Returning to the situation of physics, the same problem — and the same solution — holds true. We believe that our measurements are representative of what the universe is doing because we believe that we are free to choose when to make our measurements.
This solution requires us to be poly-cosmological. We assume that the universe runs on rules. And we can meaningfully find these rules by assuming that we are free agents, not bound by rules.
We hit the same problem (and the same poly-cosmological solution) with evolution and the reliability of our minds. As we discussed in Essay #23d, naturalistic theories of evolution give us no reason to trust our brains, and yet it is our brains that tell us that evolution is true. So we have no reason to believe that naturalistic evolution is true.
Embracing the theory of evolution implicitly rests on two contradictory cosmologies:
(1) We believe that there is such thing as the truth, and we trust that the human mind is capable of knowing the truth. This is a cosmology that posits a soul-like entity that is capable of knowing the truth of the universe.
(2) We believe that part of the truth of the universe is that evolution has selected human minds only for their adaptive capacities — their capacity to enhance the individual organism’s probability of reproducing its genes — rather than their capacity to know the truth. This is a cosmology that posits self-replicating entities, rather than truth-seeking ones.
Any claim that evolutionary theory is true rests on (1), otherwise the theory should be taken merely as a device to enhance its authors’ evolutionary success.
How do we live with this? We are poly-cosmological. We believe in free will or truth at the start of the sentence, and we don’t believe in free will or truth by the end of the sentence. And the contradiction doesn’t bother us.
Committing to one cosmology in poly-cosmological situations
In poly-cosmological situations, people switch between cosmologies depending on the situation they are in. But this does not necessarily mean that their level of commitment to the different cosmologies is the same. You might be committed to a single religious or ideological cosmology, even as you cannot avoid being simultaneously engaged in other cosmologies, some of which may be contradictory to, or incommensurable with, the cosmology of your primary affiliation. Living within a poly-cosmological world does not negate the possibility of committing to and upholding a primary or even exclusive religious or ideological identity. But it is highly unlikely that — in an ever-globalizing world — all other cosmologies can be eliminated from one’s life. Cosmological pluralism exists within the lives and bodies of committed members of a single religion or ideology, even when that religion or ideology makes exclusive claims to truth or affiliation.
It is possible, for example, for a person to devote their life to serving a monotheistic God within a community affirming the absolute truth of His revelation, while pragmatically working with theoretical models in a specific field that are based on cosmologies in which there is no reference to God or other metaperson. This is what any religious person working with any scientific theory is doing.
The Chinese cases also show that it’s common for people who are committed to a cosmology that includes one set of metapersons and entities, to work within other cosmologies that involve different sets of metapersons and entities. Buddhas, Bodhisatvas, arhats and the nine types of hungry ghosts of the six domains of desire have no place within the Confucian cosmology, but the filial son of a Confucian gentleman would be sure to invite Buddhist monks to engage with those Buddhist metapersons at his father’s funeral.
Most people are happy to live within these poly-cosmological situations, usually without even realizing it. But those who are conscious of the tensions between the cosmologies may set their minds at work trying to work out the relations between them. When they are committed to one of them, they may try to prioritize it over the others, devote more time and energy to it, or work to expand its space and influence. They may draw boundaries between the domains within which each cosmology applies, seek correlations or create a synthesis between them all, and/or (re)interpret them such that they are made to be compatible with, or encompassed within, the primary cosmological model. They might even write a book on science and religion!
Poly-cosmology points to the imbrication, within a single individual or group, of multiple, always incomplete and often contradictory systems of knowledge and practice, that are always in perpetual evolution, that learn from and influence each other, absorb from each other, and yet maintain their own trajectories and paths.
 Depending on your disciplinary background, you may consider that our definition of “cosmology” actually corresponds to the definition of “ontology”. Here, we use the terms “cosmology” and “ontology” in a very specific way that differs from typical usage. Dictionary definitions usually state that the former is the branch of philosophy that deals with what the universe is made of, and the latter deals with what existence is made of. Given that one of the definitions of the “universe” is “everything that exists”, it is difficult to distinguish the two without engaging in hair-splitting. Academic philosophers do not use the terms interchangeably, but the distinction is meaningless outside of Western philosophy. Another, more restrictive definition of cosmology refers to the branch of physics dealing with the origin and structure of the physical universe, which presupposes an ontological distinction between the physical and the non-physical. But cosmology also refers to how the origin and structure of the “cosmos” is understood in different philosophies and religions, many of which do not presuppose such an ontological distinction — leading the term “cosmology” to significantly overlap or blend with “ontology.” Ultimately, both terms refer to the basic entities that make up the world, and their relationships with each other.
Here, we consider that there is one critical difference between the terms “cosmology” and “ontology”. In our definition, ontology refers to how the world is — the basic entities that constitute reality, while cosmology refers to our models of what the world is made of, and our explanations for why it is such. In other words, cosmology includes a model of ontology and a theory to explain it. Ontology refers to reality as it is prior to or independent of human categorizations, while cosmology refers to human descriptions and explanations of that reality.
 Farquhar, Judith, 1994. Knowing Practice: The Clinical Encounter of Chinese Medicine. Boulder, Colo., Westview Press; Shigehisa Kuriyama, 1999. The Expressiveness of the Body and the Divergence of Greek and Chinese Medicine. New York: Zone Books.
 Empirical equivalence in physics hits a different problem, as discussed in Essay #13. Different models of quantum mechanics can be formally shown to make identical predictions regarding what will be observed in every possible situation. So I can model my system as creating particle-antiparticle pairs, or I can model my system as exciting a particle to leave a hole in a Dirac sea. If the first model can account for an observation, then so can the second. And if the first model cannot account for an observation, then neither can the second.
 For example, see a case presented by Sean Hsiang-lin Lei about how Dr Chuang Shu Chih, a prolific author of health-related books in Taiwan, develops the notion of Qi in TCM and transforms it into a concept close to “intestinal gas” that can be comprehended by Western medicine. See Lei, “Housewives as Kitchen Pharmacies,” 172.
 Brook, Timothy. 1993. “Rethinking Syncretism: The Unity of the Three Teachings and their Joint Worship in Late-Imperial China.” Journal of Chinese Religions 21(1): 13–44.
 Chau, Adam Yuet. 2012. “Efficacy, not Confessionality: On Ritual Polytropy in China.” In Glen Bowman ed., Sharing the Sacra: The Politics and Pragmatics of Intercommunal Religions Around Holy Places. New York: Berghahn Books, pp. 79–96.; Goossaert, Vincent. 2017. “Diversity and Elite Religiosity in Modern China: A Model.” Approaching Religion 7(1) 10–20.
 Brook, 1993, p. 17.
 Berger, Peter. 2014. The Many Altars of Modernity: Toward a Paradigm for Religion in a Pluralist Age. Boston: De Gruyter, p. 53.
 This would never occur to most people and, if it did, they would not care. (Do you really believe that the entire universe runs a big conspiracy to do something weird when you are not looking? How paranoid are you?) Still, within science, within physics, within quantum mechanics, there is a very niche group of people who do care, not lease because most interpretations of quantum mechanics hinge on the assumption that the entire universe runs a big conspiracy to do something weird when you are not looking. John Bell called attention to the problem in “Free Variables and Local Causality” (first published in 1977, reprinted in Speakable and Unspeakable in Quantum Mechanics, 2004). Closing the “free-will loophole” in so-called “Bell tests” (names after John Bell) requires the experimenter to observe a sufficient proportion of the events in question that their conclusions would still stand, even if the universe is doing the equivalent of hiding the coin when it comes up tails. Closing this loophole is exceptionally difficult, and by far the vast vast majority of scientists simply assume (implicitly, even if they do not realise it) that they have free will.
This essay and the Re-Assembling Reality Medium series are brought to you by the University of Hong Kong’s Common Core Curriculum Course CCHU9061 Science and Religion: Questioning Truth, Knowledge and Life, with the support of the Faith and Science Collaborative Research Forum and the Asian Religious Connections research cluster of the Hong Kong Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences.