Posted by: dacalu | 24 July 2011


Most of the time, no matter what you’re thinking of, there is a word for it. Someone, somewhere has conceived and maybe even exhaustively explored the topic. Most of the time, I try to resurrect old words for old concepts. Some of the time, however, something new is called for. Either it’s a new idea, or it needs to be expressed in a new way that doesn’t have all sorts of baggage attached. I am now going to attempt a new thing: Cosmonomy.

To start with, I want to recall a distinction I made a while ago between cosmos – the (ordered) set of all things that exist – and universe – the complete physical universe. Materialists generally argue that universe = cosmos; full stop. The cosmos necessarily contains the universe, but different people, with different worldviews add additional things. They might be gods or angels, ideas or ideals, souls, emotions, or even some concept of multiverse. In any case, the cosmos includes all things that be. If we were to make it plural, I suppose we would say cosmoi, but we can’t. Cosmos includes everything, so there’s exactly one.

Now, each of us possesses a model cosmos in our heads. Like a map or an orrery (tiny mechanical solar system), we have schematics that allow us to understand how all the pieces fit together. The model is not the thing itself, but only an imperfect image of the thing. Nonetheless, we need something to give us an idea of how we interact with our environment. The model allows us to make calculations. It will take 14 hours to drive to San Francisco (see, it’s exactly 7 inches on the map). The day is half over (see, the hands have gone around the clock once). Similarly we use ideas like science, religion, and philosophy to interact with the world around us.
[NB: Extreme post-modernists and anti-realists may argue that there is no real cosmos outside our construction of it, but they too will accept that we make a model – even if the model corresponds to nothing external.]

The model has gone by a number of names historically, most recently “worldview.” I’m not entirely comfortable with the associations there, so I want to coin a new word: cosm. Each person has a cosm, a mental sketch of the cosmos by which they operate. Cosms can be systematic or ad hoc – some of us try to construct one giant theory of everything, while others are content to have a set of simple rules for getting through the day. Cosms can be conscious or unconscious. In truth, I don’t think we can ever be fully conscious of our cosm. Living involves so many complex calculations on a second to second basis that much of our planning happens below the conscious level. We might be unaware of our expectations (e.g., the future will be roughly like the past, I will be alive at this time tomorrow) and biases (e.g., other people think roughly the same way I do), but we have them nonetheless. Philosophers try to ferret them out and make them more visible, but it can be an endless task. When Socrates says, “the unexamined life is not worth living,” I think he was referring to the intentional exposition of our cosms.

“Cosmology,” the study of the cosmos, was already take, so I have chosen “cosmonomy” to capture the study of cosms. It may even be a better word, because I think of it far more in terms of art and engineering than pure science. Cosmonomy covers the construction, naming, and variety of cosms that people hold as well as the uncovering, deconstruction, and reassembly of the same. Cosmonomy rests on three central insights:

1) Everyone has a cosm.

2) Cosms are not the cosmos, but correspond to it in useful ways. They vary in accuracy and functionality. They cannot be perfectly accurate due to observation bias, limited memory, and limited processing power. They must serve some purpose, because we use them to plan our actions. Someone with a completely non-functional cosm would be unable to achieve any goal. We give people the benefit of the doubt that they intend at least some tiny fraction of the ends they achieve.

3) Cosms can be changed. This does not follow necessarily from the concept, but the whole endeavor seems pretty pointless to me otherwise.

Cosmonomy, then, deals with those questions of reality and our relation to it. It need not – in any way – be abstract. Quite to the contrary, cosmonomy addresses how we believe we can achieve our ends and what we do as a result. Value formation – how we come to have the ends we do – represents a related but separate field. [If you are a moral realist – believing that objective standards of behavior exist apart from humans thinking about them – then the existence of those standards would be a cosmonomical question, but the choice to obey those standards remains another matter.]

Why do I care? Always an important question. I could make the old philosphical argument that it’s just good to know. I think it is. Nonetheless, many people find that totally unconvincing. I have a far more practical argument. People become agitated, often hostile when their cosms are threatened. Theists defending the existence of God, atheists arguing against miracles, liberals advocating progress, and conservatives holding fast to the truth. All of them feel a need to uphold their cosms; if they don’t their mechanism for achieving their ends may be in danger. It’s a real problem, and not one to be ignored.

We live in a contentious age largely because of the wide variety of cosms and the ease of contacting people with radically different models of the world. This is not a bad thing, but it makes us vulnerable to miscommunication. We can receive and inflict far more damage to functional cosms than we intend.

On the one hand, many argue that this problem would go away if only we once again all had the same cosm. I’m not sure we ever did, but we certainly had more local agreement 50 years ago in the US. Wouldn’t people be a whole lot more comfortable and productive if we all agreed? at least on the basics? No, I don’t think they would be. Once you start thinking for yourself, by yourself, it’s really hard to stop.

On the other hand, people argue that it’s not such a big deal. We should just calm down and recognize how differently different people see the world. Can’t we all just get along? Alas, it’s not so simple when your cosm depends on other people reacting predictably. Indeed, all of us make predictions about how other people will act. We need to know if we want to make good choices. Cosms are important.

Many years ago, I thought everyone should have the same cosm, the correct cosm that most accurately represented the cosmos. Then I realized that, while that may be true, the only cosmos we have access to is the one interpreted by our cosm. Unless some mediator in the sky stepped in to set us straight, we’d need to deal with multiple imperfect models. (And yes, I think God could act as such a mediator, but my experience has been that he doesn’t.)

Next, I thought it was simply a matter of getting people to talk to each other. Surely they would see that the underlying reality corresponded to both their models. If only they would appreciate the overlap, they could identify the differences and argue them out. Sadly that didn’t work either. Increasingly, I have come to the conclusion that people equate their cosm with the cosmos; any other cosm, therefore, must be less accurate than theirs.

So, I’ve moved on to trying to get people to think about how their own cosms have been constructed – consciously and unconsciously, communally and individually, pragmatically and imperfectly – so that they can enter discussions on equal footing with everyone else.

Yes it’s a matter of truth, but it’s a truth which we all see imperfectly. Making progress will take careful interrogation of how exactly we come to model truth and honesty about whether or not we live up to our own standards for seeing it. It means recognizing that other ways of seeing truth can be functional – not all of them, by any means, but many. People don’t believe things just because. They believe them for a reason. In the case of cosms, people believe things because it aids them in getting from I want to I will.

I hope at least once this week you’ll stop yourself in the middle of a conflict and think “why is this important to me?” “What function does this belief serve?” and “What does the alternative do for my opponent?” These are not, these must not be abstract questions about ultimate reality. They are very concrete questions about how we live our lives.



  1. If it is ok with you, and maybe if it is not, I am going to borrow from this post for a fantasy work I’m writing.

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