Ontology, Epistemology, Teleology:
Cosmological Quests Seeking
New Dynamic Equipoise

Copyright © Barnabas D. Johnson


The Ecology of Mind is the most general manifestation of cultural coevolution “informing” the Conversation of Democracy. Securing, maintaining, and enhancing its health is of supreme importance as our world metamorphoses — as it “shrinks” in relation to its quantum-leap discontinuity of potential … whether for good or ill. 

The Ecology of Mind must be an ecology of wisdom-cultivating, feedback-harvesting interdependencies — both horizontal, linking all present individuals and institutions, and vertical, linking the present to a legacy of past truths, choices, actions, consequences, and lessons learned — which, if persuasive, will (we hope) induce humanity to generate improved wisdoms in aid of shaping a better global future. See Note on Feedback.

In essence, the Ecology of Mind is “distributed intelligence” (sometimes called “the wisdom of crowds”) that — if it is be healthy — must be governed, indeed largely “self-governed”: cybernetic, immersed within an Ecology of Values that is “distributively designed” — though previous trial-and-error accretions of know-how — to avoid, where possible, the pitfalls of intellectual sloth, hive mentality, ideological tyranny, and mob rule. The Ecology of Mind, to borrow ancient and still-illuminative terms (concepts composing the very “grammar of thought” undergirding the Idea of Progress), must be governed — according to ancient Greek precepts — by Nomos grounded in Logos and hence deeply embedded in Mythos (including that of Mythos which led humanity to transcend it for Logos and Nomos. See Mythos, Logos, Nomos.

Perhaps “law grounded in facts” gives the general drift of what “Nomos grounded in Logos” means, yet “law” and “facts” are not self-defining; specifically, as all lawyers should know, “legally relevant facts” are creatures of evolving law, but the larger constellation of “evolving facts” — including the fruits of science writ large — feeds back, over time, to shape any “law” worthy of that name.

In short: The Ecology of Mind and Ecology of Values “exist” in large measure to define the Logos and the Nomos, including their proper relationship to each other and our proper relationship to them and, hence, to one another … over time … past, present, future.


The Ecology of Mind originated with the observations and speculations of ancient Greek philosophers before the word “philosophy” had been coined. And it converted Mythos into Logos before those terms could be distinguished … and before Nomos — their child — had sent forth its earliest tendrils in search of rational law to sustain equal justice, isonomia.

We call those earliest philosophers of ancient Greece the Cosmologists. Their founder, Thales (c. 624-547 BCE), is generally credited with having initiated systematic observation and (in its earliest sense) scientific explanation, although it is probable that Thales’ astronomy and mathematics had Egyptian origins.

It is less important — indeed, it is impossible — to know what Thales thought or taught (only scraps of his writings have survived), than it is to know that those who came after him attributed to Thales a “way of thinking” that was grounded in empiricism, systematic observations … and was, therefore, regarded as “revolutionary” (in its modern sense; “revolutionary” initially referred to going back to a former Golden Age; see discussion in Post Soviet Law Reform and Legal-Education Reform, especially text associated with footnotes 25 to 33).

Thus, our record of the Ecology of Mind commences with Thales, his students, and their students. Note that Aristotle, our main source regarding this pre-Socratic Greek philosophy, generally “reviews the literature” starting with Thales … and then tracing (in effect) an evolution of previous ideas before offering his own. See Note on Philosophical Origins. Nothing that “has” a history can be understood except in light of history.

Seeing through the apparent flux and diversity of Nature, Thales perceived the “cosmos” (or “universe”) as One — a changeless Substance from which all change emanates. Not only was this Unity far from self-evident, it contrasted sharply with the then-ruling paradigm, what we now call the Mythos, which taught that diverse gods, fates, and forces competed serendipitously, meting rewards and punishments without justice or rationality. See Note on Thales

Thales started the process of replacing the Mythos with the Logos. This was an essential first step towards creation of the Mythos-Logos-Nomos tri-unity, the First Trinity. In essence, Thales posited the Logos as a rational, coherent, observable answer to the ontological question, What is? His successors, as we shall see, found themselves increasingly focused on the epistemological question, How do we know what is? Their answer — reasoned discourse, dialogue, dialectics — led not only to numerous Cosmological Principles (an absurdity) but also, necessarily, to a fundamental corrective to the ontological-epistemological dichotomy. This corrective, in effect, added a third leg to an unstable two-legged chair. In simplest terms, the Cosmologists set the stage for dethroning the Mythos-Logos duality and enthroning the Mythos-Logos-Nomos trinity. Arguably, that enterprise is still underway. Seeking the Cosmological One became untenable unless the definition of that “One” could be transformed.


Seen retrospectively, those earliest systematic thinkers converted the Mythos of competing gods into the Logos of coherent “Ontological Truth” … which, however, could only be (remain?) “coherent” if it first bifurcated — ontology (What is?) necessarily calling forth epistemology (How do we know what is?) — and then, over time, based on feedback and self-correction, trifurcated.

This seemingly-necessary split of the One into the Two that called forth the Three is arguably the most fascinating and enduring feature of the Ecology of Mind, then as now. Understanding why requires various perspectives and focal lengths.


Thales’ Cosmological Quest was based on facts not faith, observations not received dogma. Accordingly, it embodied the “virus” of feedback-dependent, self-corrective, cybernetic processes that must either destroy of transform it. As we shall see, In effect, that Cosmological Quest became eclipsed by pre-sophist dialectic which itself  — the “teleological breakthrough” that averted the ontological/epistemological double-bind and resulting philosophical breakdown — being cybernetic,  and hence self-transformative, transcended the Cosmological Quest by transforming the Mythos-Logos dyad into the Mythos-Logos-Nomos triad. Asking “What is?” and “How do we know what is?” led to craziness; asking “So what? — the teleological question — restored sanity. Ever since,   which , in due course, called forth their teleology (So what?) and thereby seeded the ground for Nomos, the parent of isonomia — equal justice — and hence the grandparent of demokratia.

The first and purest instance of the Ecology of Mind, we shall see, involved the trifurcation of Logos into ontology, epistemology, and teleology. That “one-become-three” was the root component — the relic DNA — of the First Trinity of Global Intelligence: Mythos, Logos, and Nomos.


At the dawning of systematic thought in the West, starting with Thales (c. 624-547 BC), the Mythos — contained in songs and stories, but not yet written — begat the Logos. This word had several meanings: writing, truth, the ultimate rules governing physics and metaphysics. 

In simplest terms, Thales sought the “Changeless One” from which all change emanates. He found it, or invented it, by (a) proclaiming the “idea” of it, (b) asserting that it “is” — it is “real” — a knowable, perceptible, physical substance, and (c) identifying it, and arguing why nothing other than it could be the Ontological Principle.

Thales said that this changeless source of all change was water. Our world floated on it; we floated in it; without it, we could not be. However, his answer to that Cosmological Quest is far less significant than his initiation of the Quest itself. We long ago realized that water — precious as it is — cannot be the Changeless Cause of Change; but Thales’ intuition that there is an irreducible Cosmological One has remained a powerful intuition, a foundational axiom. 

In effect, Thales converted a diffuse logos (what would later be called the Mythos, meaning that which preceded the Logos) into the start of something new: a Systematic Logos, the foundation of empirical science most broadly conceived. Its focus was, What is?

That is the Ontological Question.

It assumes that Existence is more fundamental than Consciousness. On that basis, it proceeds to inquire, How do we know what is?

That is the Epistemological Question.

But ontology and epistemology, alone, are like a two-legged chair; they are ontologically unstable and epistemologically unsound, leading to solipsism, a crazy-mirror hall of self-referential paradoxes. As Thales’ successors would discover during the centuries ending with Aristotle, who is our main source of insight into the Cosmologists (as Thales’ successors came to be known), ontology and epistemology have to be balanced by the question, So what?

The greatest question: What shall I do in the morning? How can I convert my ontology and epistemology into wise choice, intelligent action?

That is the Teleological Question.


The Ecology of Mind, being composed of ontological, epistemological, and teleological elements, necessarily generated an Ecology of Values. And the highest of these values must be the “fact” or “discovery” that we must distinguish and balance among “abiding values” of various kinds, even where all are ontologically sound and epistemologically well-grounded. None can be “absolute” because all must co-exist and indeed co-evolve with other abiding values. For example, “freedom of belief” cannot be plucked from the ethers as something which “exists” unrelated to historical, societal, political, and constitutional contexts. Freedom of “parental beliefs” must be balanced and, as necessary, checked by the no-less-fundamental right of children to grow up in ways that allow them to challenge those parental beliefs, to move “beyond” their parental cocoon, and even to reject their parents’ most treasured beliefs. Yet does this freedom of the successor generation include the freedom to deny their own children a similar right to “depart”? Does the future viability of the Ecology of Mind necessitate an Ecology of Values whose highest value is that which keeps the idea of evolving “mind-stuff” and “heart-stuff” alive?

I think the answer has to be, Yes.

The highest value has to be that which keeps the Conversation of Democracy hale, healthy, whole, holy. For lack of a better word, I prefer the term coined contemporaneously with that ancient : Principled adjudication among contrasting values, balancing freedom and order, rights and responsibilities, aimed at keeping the channels of discovery open yet “controlled” in ways that do not foreclose what ontology, epistemology, and teleology can yet bring forth.


(under construction)



Note on “Law”: The ultimate question is whether we are or ought to be bound by conscience to obey something called “law” or whether we may, perhaps must, disobey. “[I]f the term ‘law’ is to carry the moral implication that there is a duty to obey, then the requisite binding quality must go in before the name ‘law’ goes on,” according to Professor Randy E. Barnett, Restoring the Lost Constitution: The Presumption of Liberty (2004), at p. 12.


We “play God” even by choosing not to choose, and choosing not to “play God” is no longer a viable option.  s of modern “objectivism” that posits a Reality converted anecdotal perceptions of many things into a systematic conception of that One which those many compose, or are composed of. The Logos, both percept and concept, was immanent in all yet transcended each particular, including every combination or permutation of all particulars. It was a self-evident axiom, a “something” we know by our senses neither less nor more than by our reasoning. Thales said that this changeless source of all change was water. Our world floated on it; we floated in it; without it, we could not be.


In many ways the world of the Mythos, of numerous immortal and changeless gods governing human affairs, “called forth” a search for that changeless One from which all fundamental truths, values, and rules were thought to emanate. Interestingly, this occurred at about the same time that a single God was exalted by the Children of Abraham.  More interestingly, Thales’ student Anaximander disagreed with his teacher, who thought this “changeless principle” was water, and asserted it must be apeiron, beyond naming — not too different from the “name” Yahweh, or Jehova, which means nameless.

Most interestingly, however, Anaximander’s students, and their students’ students, diverged ever further in their “dialectical” disagreements as to the identity of that One, thereby generating various Ones, but they ended up accepting that “the way of discovery” must be something all could agree on: Dialectics, systematized conversations, methodical observations carefully recorded — epistemology, the rudiments of logic and science.

The bifurcation of the Logos into ontology, asking “what is?”, and epistemology, asking “how do we know what is?”, was as stable as any two-legged chair until the quest for the One became “trifurcated” with the great preoccupation of the ancient Sophists: “So what? How do we convert knowledge and wisdom into choice and action? How shall we live our lives with excellence? How shall we construct a just society?

This third “leg” was called teleology, and these three in turn “fed back” and changed Logos by converting the Mythos-Logos dyad into a triad: Mythos, Logos, and Nomos.


Mythos, Logos, and Nomos composed the first great Trinity of Western civilization, but its begetting required Logos to first generate the “minor” trinity of ontology, epistemology, and teleology, and then for ontology and teleology to “feed back” and powerfully enrich epistemology — logic and science — converting part of epistemology into a meta-science, cybernetics, the art of converting wisdom into choice, choice into action, and action into subsequent evaluation and resulting refinements of future choices and actions … especially those choices and actions which Socrates, according to Plato, associated with the art of governance.

That government governs best by governing least by institutionalizing competent self-governance — cybernetic cultivation and harvesting — at all levels.



Ancient “cybernetic thinking” was crucial to defining and then refining Nomos. Note that the ancient Greek verb “kuberne” is embedded in both “cybernetics” and “governance”, and their association originated with Socrates’ analogy to the art of the kubernetes, the helmsman, the pilot, who must integrate knowledge of the changeless (“stars”) with the naturally changing (“winds and waves”) in order to choose whether and how to act with reference to that which is humanly changeable — to alter the angle of the rudder, the trim of the sail. Altering either must feed back into choices affecting the other. This involves a complex kind of thinking, the rudiments of cybernetic thinking; this kind of thinking has itself evolved, of course — coevolved with all other elements of civilization — but understanding the origin of the “idea of governance” as here summarized is essential to understanding modern constitutional theory, and hence to engaging effectively in law reform and legal-education reform in this region.

Cybernetic thinking is “proper to” participatory systems in which what we know and do changes the systems we are embedded in, changes our relationships to them, and changes our concept of “understanding” to require an ecology of reasoning-rich activity, a participatory endeavor spanning time, often spanning generations, centuries, millennia.

Thus, when we talk about the Rule of Law based on the Rule of Reason, we are talking about a special kind of reasoning — feedback cultivating and feedback harvesting, seeking not only the True but also the Good … and then doing something about it, and monitoring the consequences, and refining, revising, improving. We live and learn, as individuals and societies; we plan our further living and learning accordingly; and we see in a good constitutional democracy a fit “learning organism” that enables us to do all this better, securing liberty with justice, wisdom with will.

Law is “science” only in the astonishing sense that we humans are engaged in a long-term “controlled experiment” testing whether the evolution of intelligence — and of the capacity to choose based on knowledge, including self-knowledge — is evolutionarily viable. Such intelligence is powerful indeed, allowing us to eradicate all forms of intelligent life on this planet, but also, perhaps, all forms of human mayhem. Perhaps these things should go without saying. Then again, many requisites of “sustainable development” can benefit from explicit identification.

2. Isonomia, parent of demokratia and of modern constitutional democracy

The earliest systematic expositor of Nomos was the pre-Socratic law-giver Solon, whose “first law” was isonomia: general law governing future conduct and binding all citizens equally.[19] The most precious possession of an Athenian citizen was his[20] possession of Athenian citizenship, guaranteeing him equality of liberty with all others — and therefore imposing equality in the restrictions upon liberty.

Isonomia was the parent of demokratia, for if we are equal under the law we should be equal in the making of law, equal in our political and civil rights. This “seed idea” in the Ecology of Mind regarding the fundamentals of constitutional democracy has coevolved with other seed ideas, including the fundamental premises of ontology: that there must be a hierarchy of sources for any “law” worthy of Nomos, and that even if the highest values of “liberty secured by justice” are not literally changeless (although some might be) none should be changed without compelling reasons. To the extent that law must limit fundamental liberties, it must seek the “least restrictive” means, bounded by “higher law” constraints such as are found in competent constitutions. According to this hierarchy of sources, constitutional law is superior to legislation and legislation is superior to administrative rules and procedures.[21] But all these are “below” the highest values of law, including that often-unarticulated major premise of Nomos.

What is it? First, it must lie deep within individual consciousness, and deep within the mindscape of a law-based state. It consists of this “individualized” conviction: That to be “fully human” I must be “reasonably free” — bounded by the Rule of Law based on the Rule of Reason. Put differently: To be the best “me” I can be, I must submit to limits on my freedom that allow others to be their own best “me” — and this submission composes reciprocal rights and responsibilities.

Humans differ from animals in our capacity to stand in each other’s shoes, to see how the world looks from others’ perspectives, and to recognize the inestimable value for each of us — and for civilization generally — arising from that “ordered liberty” which allows each of us, applying our own unique knowledge and capacities, to follow our bliss and … tinker in our garage to produce that next-generation work of genius, thereby enriching future generations.

This “institutionalized reciprocity” of liberty under Nomos, isonomia, calls to mind Lincoln’s famous observation that, as he would not be a slave, so he could not be a master of slaves. Most people treasure their liberty for what it allows them to do; it takes deeper insight to treasure “liberty as such” for what it allows others to do … things we cannot ourselves do, symphonies we cannot ourselves compose, wisdoms we cannot ourselves bring to adequate articulation, systems of governance that Solon could not possibly have imagined … but which perhaps we can, and perhaps must.


Note on Feedback:  In general, wherever in these Jurlandia writings I refer to “feedback” I include what I call “feed-forward” — in essence, “feedback” based on speculations (presumably responsible and well-grounded) regarding the future, including various alternative futures that might transpire based on past, current, and future choices. This theme is developed in The Cybernetics of Society.

The essence of teleology is that it is based not only on knowledge of the past and present, but also on “knowledge of the future” based on … whatever we find persuasive. Obviously, what ought to be “persuasive” is a key problem of futuristics. Mere extrapolation from the past cannot suffice. Neither can Ouija inquiries. These essays seek to illuminate the proper approach to “future making” in which, as a starting point, we accept that those who misinterpret the past are likely to doom the future, or at least endanger its healthy unfolding. If the bull attacks every time we venture onto a particular footpath, then we “know” (in terms of probability, not certainty) that taking another route is worth consideration.

Cybernetics is by order and dimension teleological, goal-sensitive. Like Janus, cybernetics and its parent, teleology, face forward and backward, simultaneously. How the “brain” of our Janus-like civilization “thinks” and “plans” should, on principle, change through recursive self-reflection and self-governance. Indeed, arguably the “self” comes into being due to its imbeddedness in choices and actions in the past and the future. See First Trinity. (Go back)

Note on Idea of Progress: A superb work on this subject is Robert A. Nisbet’s book, The Idea of Progress, which is available here. Arguably, the Idea of Progress became a “fixture” of Western thought following the eleventh-century synthesis of Greek philosophy and Roman law (see here, especially text associated with footnotes 25 to 32); but, like most things philosophical, it had earlier origins, most notably Greek and Roman. Consider the following passage from Nisbet’s subsection entitled “Roman Philosophers on Progress”:

Perhaps the greatest description (in the sense of a systematic and developed awareness) of human progress to be found in all of ancient thought is the Roman Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things written in the first century B.C. It is an Epicurean account of complete sciences — astronomy, physics, chemistry, anthropology, psychology. In very modern fashion, Lucretius explains the beginnings of the world through atoms in the void forming clusters which then become tangible matter, and the eventual development of the world with all that grows and lives on it. Book V of this general evolutionary treatise is concerned solely with mankind’s social and cultural progress. It commences with primitive man living naked and shelterless, dependent upon his cunning and ability to join forces with other men in order to find safety from larger and more predatory beasts, in constant fear of the elements. To assuage this fear mankind generally formed religions for mental protection, and step by step (pedetemtim progredientes) advanced to huts, then to houses and ships, diverse languages, the arts and sciences, medicine, navigation, improvements in technology, making for an ever richer existence. And, Lucretius is careful to tell us, despite the grandeur of all that man has achieved on earth through his own efforts, the human race is still in its infancy, and even greater wonders may be expected. (Go back)

Note on Philosophical Origins:  Aristotle’s writings, especially his Metaphysics, provide the best summary of ancient Greek philosophy, and also set a powerful pedagogical example by summarizing an “ecology of ideas” (Thales said x, to which his student Anaximander replied y, regarding which Anaximenes responded z, etc.) before weighing in with his own observations, commentaries, and conclusions.

Although, looking back across two and a half millennia, we must disagree with many details in Aristotle’s work — and perhaps many fundamentals, too, although that remains debatable — his approach is astonishingly “modern”; as with Shakespeare’s writings, Aristotle’s seem “composed of familiar quotations”; his first lines from Metaphysics thunder a manifesto that, despite everything we now know, can hardly be improved upon:

“All men by nature desire to know. An indication of this is the delight we take in our senses; for even apart from their usefulness they are loved for themselves; and above all others the sense of sight. For not only with a view to action, but even when we are not going to do anything, we prefer seeing (one might say) to everything else. The reason is that this, most of all the senses, makes us know and brings to light many differences between things.”

Regarding Thales’ original quest for the “Fundamental Principle” (the ontological foundations) of existence, Aristotle wrote:

“Thales, the founder of this type of philosophy, says the principle is water (for which reason he declared that the earth rests on water), getting the notion perhaps from seeing that the nutriment of all things is moist, and that heat itself is generated from the moist and kept alive by it (and that from which they come to be is a principle of all things). He got his notion from this fact, and from the fact that the seeds of all things have a moist nature, and that water is the origin of the nature of moist things.” (Book 1, Part 3, Para. 3.)

See Aristotle’s Metaphysics. (Go back)

Note on Thales: The fact is, we really do not know what Thales believed. Aristotle, our main source, is confusing. He famously attributes to Thales the view that “all things are full of gods” (De Anima 411 a7-8), Richard McKeon, The Basic Works of Aristotle, p. 553 (New York: Random House, 1941). Yet the main thrust of Aristotle’s position on Thales is that he was the founder of “modern inquiry” based on systematic, empirical observation. The following quotes from the final paragraphs of the entry on Thales in The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Thales is the first person about whom we know to propose explanations of natural phenomena which were materialistic rather than mythological or theological. His theories were new, bold, exciting, comprehensible, and possible of explanation. He did not speak in riddles as did Heraclitus, and had no need to invent an undefined non-substance, as Anaximander did. Because he gave no role to mythical beings, Thales’s theories could be refuted. Arguments could be put forward in attempts to discredit them. Thales’s hypotheses were rational and scientific. Aristotle acknowledged Thales as the first philosopher, and criticized his hypotheses in a scientific manner.

The most outstanding aspects of Thales’s heritage are: The search for knowledge for its own sake; the development of the scientific method; the adoption of practical methods and their development into general principles; his curiosity and conjectural approach to the questions of natural phenomena. In the sixth century BCE Thales asked the question, ‘What is the basic material of the cosmos?’ The answer is yet to be discovered.

I must add that I do not entirely agree. Specifically, while Thales started a process that would eventually culminate in “development of the scientific method” of inquiry and explanation, ascribing to Thales “development of the scientific method” overstates matters. That development is properly attributed to Francis Bacon, who lived 2000 years after Thales. What is important here, however, is that although we know almost nothing about Thales, including even whether he wrote anything at all, it does appear that he started something which was entirely new and of towering significance: systematic observation and explanation, converting percepts into concepts, shepherding the visible and measurable towards “fact based” understanding rather than “faith based” or “authority based” understanding. (Go back)

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