‘Ontic Structural Realism’ and consciousness

I shared my last post, dealing with metaphysics and consciousness, on reddit and was kindly informed that the heart of what I was proposing is an existing theory in philosophy of science and metaphysics, known as “Structural Realism”, and in particular Ontic Structural Realism (as opposed to merely Epistemic Structural Realism, which limits itself to saying that all we can know about things is the relations between them, rather than that it is solely the relations that actually exist at all). Here’s the article on it from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, for those who are interested (it’s really interesting stuff). It even strongly relies on the idea of group theory in mathematics, which I mentioned in my post and played a key part in my own thinking.

It’s a relief to see that much of my idea has already been conceived of by better educated people. It reassures me that I haven’t gone completely off the rails! Plus it provides a better foundation for me to work off of. The difficulty with self taught philosophy is that it’s often difficult to know if you are either reinventing the wheel or making an obvious error in your reasoning, or if you really have had an interesting and original thought.

Still, there seem to be a number of important differences, so that my theory remains distinct in a couple ways I find interesting. Firstly, it seems no one else has yet linked OSR with any attempt to explain or understand consciousness. It seems structural realism (in both epistemic and ontic forms) so far has been primarily concerned with philosophy of science, and especially with making sense of modern physics and the question of scientific realism in general (i.e. should we trust the scientific picture of reality, given that it’s had to be radically revised so many times previously?). Meanwhile I arrived at the idea mainly through considering consciousness, philosophy of mind, and especially “qualia“, and only considered it in relation to philosophy of science as an after thought (I may need to elaborate on how I arrived at the idea in this way in another post).

Amateur philosophy

I’m going to keep exploring this idea and sharing my thoughts, since it seems I may have still contributed something new to the discussion. Even if I haven’t, I think it’s still worthwhile because I believe in the value of amateur philosophy. I think philosophy is best approached as a dialogue, and it’s important for it to be open to all. We can’t tell where a new insight might come from, and the best way to test and refine ideas is through dialogue. The less informed can offer fresh perspectives, and give those better informed the chance to improve their understanding by teaching and being forced to explain their ideas in more fundamental terms. Even bad ideas and misunderstandings give the opportunity to make things more clear and approach the question from another direction.

I don’t think it’s possible to study philosophy passively. You have to listen carefully, and then respond and join the conversation. You cannot truly learn anything until you engage with it. And philosophy is an art you learn by doing.



  1. I’m a structural realist myself, although I vacillate between the ontic and epistemic versions. The only reason I don’t rule out ESR is because we can’t know that intrinsic properties aren’t there. Lately though, I’ve been wondering if that statement really does any work. Because if those intrinsic properties exist, they effectively don’t for us, since any difference they might make would effectively turn them into extrinsic properties.

    Based on your previous post, another outlook you might want to take a look at is functionalism. (There are SEP, IEP, and Wikipedia articles on it.) Your view of consciousness being in the structure and relations (if I understood it correctly) resonates with functionalism, which holds that what makes a mental state is what it does, its causal role, that is, its structure and relations.

    Anyway, excellent questions and analysis!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s pretty much my thinking too. There doesn’t seem to be any real meaning to the idea of intrinsic properties. I think some (including Bertrand Russell, if I understand him correctly) suggested that qualia are the intrinsic properties, but I think there are serious issues if qualia has no effects, since then it would become completely divorced from the actual workings of the mind.

      Thanks, I’ll read up on functionalism! I was aware of it from reading a beginners guide on philosophy of mind, but I think it’s quite different from my thinking (although it aligns in large part). My idea is about consciousness being the being (or perhaps it’s better to say the essences) of relations within the brain, whereas (as I understand it) functionalism sees consciousness as the brain’s relations with the world (and perhaps itself) rather than looking at the relations of parts of the brain. Off the top of my head, I’d suggest that my thinking is more directed to the phenomenal experience of consciousness, and the functionalist view is more directed to consciousness as self awareness etc, and the two ideas probably fit together very nicely. Definitely an avenue I’ll look into.

      Thanks for your kind words! It means a lot because I have a lot of respect for your blog (although I’m afraid it’s sometimes over my head a bit).

      Liked by 1 person

      1. OK, my memory of functionalism was off and my above characterisation was not accurate, and it’s a great deal closer to my ideas and with a great deal of overlap

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Thanks. I try to keep my stuff aimed at the layperson (which honestly is what I am myself), but with some topics it can be tough while keeping the post reasonably short. Questions always welcome. (Sometimes I learn from figuring out the answer.)

        I’ve been burned myself a few times by the short descriptions in introductory books (both scientific and philosophical). There’s something to be said for getting a description of a view from one of its proponents. (Not that it isn’t good to hear from its skeptics as well.)


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