My Ontology – Part 1: Foundations

John Stuart Mill

The tendency has always been strong to believe that whatever received a name must be an entity or thing, having an independent existence of its own; and if no real entity answering to the name could be found, men did not for that reason suppose that none existed, but imagined that it was something peculiarly abstruse and mysterious, too high to be an object of sense. The meaning of all general, and especially of all abstract terms, became in this way enveloped in a mystical haze.

John Stuart Mill in Analysis of the Phenomena of the Human Mind

Not too many years ago I probably would have placed ontological discourse under the category of “pointless and senseless blather”. I say this not to denigrate the subject matter but rather to expose the naivety with which I constructed my worldview. That said, the John Stuart Mill quote does well to capture my current sentiment. Though I still find myself bewildered by certain ontological perspectives, I cannot escape the ramifications therein and so I am obliged to make an effort to address the topic.

I think it’s worth repeating the disclaimers that I offered when I presented my epistemology:

Disclaimer #1: I have no formal philosophical training, so forgive me if I abuse the terminology and/or overlook well established points and counter-points. My goal is not to educate others on philosophy, but to work through and explain the current state of my own view of ontology. This is armchair philosophy.

Disclaimer #2: I am trying to avoid using complicated and confusing language, but that is not always easy in these types of discussions. I apologize in advance if I have failed in that endeavor. I’m almost certain that I will.

First things first

I’m not sure that I could have given you the definition of ontology if you had asked me three years ago. I am now all too aware that ontology is the branch of philosophy which deals with the nature of existence. My journey over these last couple years has introduced me to the world of the existential, a land which was utterly foreign to me before I began to question my foundational assumptions. So, when I set forth my epistemic framework some time ago (see Part 1 and Part 2) I never considered the possibility that I was doing things out of order. According to some there is a very simple explanation for why our ontology (theory of existence) must precede our epistemology (theory of knowledge). They would suggest that we must assert that something does or does not exist before we can say that we know anything about it. On the surface this seems like a fair proposition, but then I am compelled to ask how it is that we can say whether something exists, or the form of its existence, without considering how it is that we even know about that something? As far as I am concerned the entanglement between ontology and epistemology is too deep to warrant any claims that one is prior to the other. I am tempted to leave it at that but it seems appropriate to examine this further with an example.

Frequent exposure to philosophical discussion over the last few years has bred familiarity with certain ‘pet’ scenarios and examples. When it comes to ontology, it seems that tables and chairs have been favorites for centuries. I shall continue the tradition to investigate the relation between the epistemology and ontology of tables. This starts with a brief thought experiment.

Suppose a child grows up in a house where the only tables in the house are square, four-legged tables which are set up on their side. A wire is run between the legs and used to hang clothes for drying. Suppose this child is never exposed to any other use of tables. Upon discovering the neighbors sitting and eating at a four-legged table, she may or may not recognize that it is a table but, if she does, she will suppose that it is being used in a strange way. Alternatively, upon seeing a neighbor sitting at a circular pedestal table the same child will almost certainly fail to recognize the object as a table at all because (a) it doesn’t look like the tables she knows, and (b) it has no obvious utility for running wires to dry clothes even if it were set on its side.

At this point you may be wondering if I have drifted off into a confusion between semantics and ontology but I hope to link this all together, so bear with me. The point of the ridiculous thought experiment above is to see that words, like ‘table’, are a type of expression of our experience, or what philosophers refer to as ‘qualia’. To say that something exhibits the property of ‘tableness’ is to say that it is a fair approximation of past experiences with other objects that have been labeled as tables. Words give us a way to relate those experiences between each other and this is most evident where one person’s association of a word to an experience is very different from another person’s association, even if they talking about the same physical object. Our qualia of tables includes both sensory perception of the table itself (color, texture, shape, etc…) but also relational observations (how tables are used, where they tend to reside, etc…). As the number of experiences with tables grows, so does our understanding of ‘tableness’.

While we are reliant on experience to develop a concept of ‘tableness’ we also generally expect that tables exist in the world regardless of whether we ever experience them. But I contend that this expectation only exists because we have already experienced tables, or similar objects, as independent and persistent entities; our experiences enable us to comprehend what it means for tables to exist. If we ignore this, that is, if we suppose that existence can be comprehended without any relation to experience then it would seem that existence itself becomes an incoherent concept. I cannot escape the conclusion that our comprehension of the existence of tables (ontology) cannot in any coherent way be separated from the knowledge of tables (epistemology), yet our knowledge of tables (epistemology) is apparently dependent on their existence (ontology). You cannot claim one without the other. Our ontology is necessarily informed by our epistemology. Attempts to deduce ontology independent of epistemology are actually relying on epistemology while at the same time claiming to ignore it.

Disclaimer #3: Lest it should appear that I am addressing a particular work, please note I wrote and titled this section before encountering James W. Sire’s book “Naming the Elephant: Worldview as a Concept”, which contains a chapter entitled “First Things First” that is an evangelical argument for ontology prior to epistemology (and which can be read on Google books). He considers views where ontology comes first and where epistemology comes first, but never one in which they cannot be prioritized relative to each other. I guess we disagree.

Defining existence

Plato's cave

In the previous section I did not discount the possibility that ‘tables’ exist as something separate from any particular instance of a table. That is, to say that we have experienced ‘tableness’ may allow that we experienced something distinct and possibly independent from the tables themselves. I have just waded into some deep and murky waters and sanity requires that we review some definitions.

We can broadly split all ontological positions into two groups:

  • Realism: The position that something exists.
  • Anti-Realism: The position that something does not exist.

Simple enough. We typically apply ‘realism \ realist’ and ‘anti-realism \ anti-realist’ as qualifiers for a category of things (e.g., moral realist, mathematical anti-realism, etc…). For the most part this distinction isn’t very interesting until we start talking about abstract objects and universals. It is here where we open the proverbial can of worms, so I need to proceed by first defining the main categories of “things”. As it is with all philosophical language, there is widespread disagreement about definitions; and fringe cases abound. Regardless, this is what I understand to be the majority perspective:

  • Concrete Object: Something which can be located in space and time.
  • Abstract Object: An idea, non-physical representation or categorization.
  • Individual (or Particular): A singular instance of an object. (Wikipedia says that ‘particular’ is the adjective and ‘individual’ is the noun, but I find that they are actually used interchangeably in practice).
  • Universal: A quality or property which is common between individual objects.

I find it especially true in philosophy that examples are invaluable for clarifying definitions. The following table tries to offer some examples that show the relationship between the categories given above.

Concrete Objects Abstract Objects
  • The pixels in the shape of a 7 on your screen
  • My dining table
  • An electromagnetic wave with a 520nm wavelength
  • Tonight’s sunset as viewed from your house.
  • The number 7
  • The table described in a fictional story
  • The green I see in my front yard
  • The beauty of tonight’s sunset
Universals Empty?
  • Numbers
  • Tables \ Tableness
  • Green \ Greenness
  • Beauty

There are several points of contention here. The most obvious is whether anything should be categorized as a concrete universal. Somebody might also argue that “the green I see in my front yard” is just a synonym of “an electromagnetic wave with a 520nm wavelength” – but philosophers will often suggest that the qualia of ‘green’ is something different; we’ll touch on this more later. Regardless, now that we have a set of words to describe the possible constituents of reality, let’s look at the ontological positions that have historically been held:

  • Realism \ Platonism: The position that abstract objects and universals exist on their own in addition to concrete particulars.
  • Conceptualism: The position that abstract objects and universals exist only as a concept while concrete particulars exist in and of themselves.
  • Nominalism: The position that abstract objects and universals don’t exist whereas concrete particulars do.
  • Idealism: The position that everything exists only as a mental concept. In a sense, there is no “physical” world.
  • Nihilism: The position that nothing exists. No need to discuss this further then, eh?

Having laid all of these definitions out it immediately becomes apparent that there’s a huge problem: every definition relies on an agreement as to what it means for something to exist. At first blush, existence appears to be defined by the set of things which we say exists, but that type of definition will just make us dizzy (if you weren’t already). So, to start, I want to narrow down the concept of existence a bit. At the risk of confusing things further, I want to bring two more categories into play: mind-dependent things and mind-independent things. Mind-dependent things are those which are only identifiable as conceptions of the mind. Fictional characters like Paul Bunyan and Captain Kirk are clear examples. Depending on your ontological position, certain abstract objects may or may not also be examples. Mind-independent things are those which can be said to exist even if there is no mind, like Ayers Rock, the keyboard I’m typing on or the screen you are reading this on. They are “out there” and can be discovered or accessed by minds. We generally agree that all concrete particulars are mind-independent things. A moral realist would also say that morality is mind-independent and an idealist might say that nothing is mind-independent (except perhaps God).

Paul BunyanNow, to define existence, I want to examine how it is that we use the word in our everyday practice. In my experience we will generally agree that things which are mind-independent can be said to exist. The remaining question, then, is whether that completes the set of things which exist or whether there are cases in which mind-dependent things can also be said to exist (setting aside the question of which things are mind-independent). Probing this further, it is also my experience that we will generally agree that certain mind-dependent things do not exist. We will generally agree that Paul Bunyan the person does not exist, but what about Paul Bunyan the story? My intuition tells me that I should say that Paul Bunyan the story exists but that Paul Bunyan the person does not. What is the distinction? Time for another thought experiment.

Consider a scenario where the story of Paul Bunyan exists only in the oral tradition of an isolated tribe. The story is never reproduced except through verbal communication between the tribe’s members. Imagining myself as a member of this tribe, I find it very easy to say that the story of Paul Bunyan exists. Now suppose that a nasty virus sweeps through and kills every member of the tribe (and that ‘mind’ does not survive the body). Would I still say that the Paul Bunyan story exists? I am inclined to answer yes, but only because I know that it was at one time part of a mind. If you instead asked me whether the Luap Naynub story exists and could tell me absolutely nothing about it and could not even explain why you asked that question in the first place then I am inclined to say that it does not exist. The difference is that in the first case the knowledge of the story’s existence survives in my mind (even if I don’t know any details of the story – which almost certainly means its existence in my mind is vastly different than its existence in the context of the tribe) and in the second case there is no identifiable mind, past or present, in which the knowledge of the story exists. I can see no difference between mind-dependent things which do not exist and mind-dependent things which are universally unknown. I then find myself with a few options. Either mind-dependent things:

  1. Never exist (and my intuitions about the existence of the story of Paul Bunyan were incorrect), or
  2. Come into and out of existence (under an A-Theory of Time), or
  3. Exist if they ever have been, are, or will be synthesized in a mind (under a B-Theory of Time), or
  4. Always exist for all possibilities (and are “out there” waiting to be discovered).

I propose that the 2nd option is the best fit for our everyday understanding of existence, with the 3rd option as the equivalent formulation under a B-Theory of time. It appears that this definition applies equally well to mind-independent things.

OK, so what about Paul Bunyan the person? Why don’t we say that he exists? Let’s look at this through the lens of concrete versus abstract objects. The story of Paul Bunyan is a particular of the universal type “story”, and particulars of type “story” are also abstract. We are content to say that abstract objects exist as mind-dependent things, so it makes sense to say that the story of Paul Bunyan exists. However, the person of Paul Bunyan is a particular of universal type “people”, and particulars of “people” are concrete. If we say that a concrete object exists, we expect it to be mind-independent, and we have no reason to believe that Paul Bunyan the person is mind-independent (and good reasons to doubt it). This means that there is a problem if we say that Paul Bunyan the person (a concrete object) exists. The solution, then, is to say that he does not exist. Conversely, we can accept the proposal that the idea of Paul Bunyan the person does in fact exist, because now the particular is the idea (an abstract object), not the person (a concrete object).

So this is where I will settle. I will use “exist” to indicate that something is a constituent of reality even in the absence of mind (i.e., it is mind-independent) or that it is identifiable as a concept within a mind. This approach unfortunately requires that we qualify whether we are speaking of concrete existence or conceptual existence, but that is simply an artifact of language. Finally, note that the actual substance (if there is any) of abstract objects is tangent to this and can be safely ignored for the purposes of defining existence this way. If I then had to classify myself according to the ontological positions given above, I suppose this means that I am a conceptualist.

In Part 2 I take a closer look at mind-dependent things and how I think that a naturalist can plausibly account for their existence. It may be fair to say that this post (Part 1) is just a primer for the discussion there.


11 thoughts on “My Ontology – Part 1: Foundations

  1. So, it seems to me you are using philosophy to attempt to ultimately reach a conclusion on the existence of God / Jesus / Holy Spirit. Is God mind-independent…

    Can we find verifiable written history, non-Biblical friendly and/or hostile Jewish and Roman historians from the time of Christ and the first Christians? Does the recorded historical fate of those who are said to be the first Apostles of Christ mean anything. Is it logical that every man would rather be killed than to affirm Christ Saviour is a lie? Should we doubt the historical record about their fate? Does the recorded history we have from the time of Christ deem the Bible is a 100% made up story from the first word to the last? If there is no doubt to the truthfulness of any one thing written in the Bible then how can any philosophical reasoning prove the whole is a lie? Did Christ baptize people in the name of the Father and perform many miracles in front of many hundreds of people or not? Did the “Christians” go to their deaths for a lie?

    It ALL comes down to “Does God choose me or do I choose God”?

    1) If God chooses me then why do I need to do anything because won’t his will be done anyway?
    2) If I think I have chosen God but God hasn’t chosen me then I surely I can‘t change God’s will?

    Does God choose me or do I choose God? The short answer is: yes, both!

    The same questions restated could read:

    1) Is God in control of everything and sovereign?
    2) Are we humans responsible for our actions – in particular, for the way we respond to God and our brothers and sisters?

    At first glance, it looks as though these two questions don’t go together. But the Bible repeatedly holds them side-by-side without implying that affirming one means denying the other.

    It’s helpful to realize that while God’s revelation of his character (good, perfect, loving, merciful, just, etc.) is reasonably easy to understand, his ‘being’ is far more difficult to comprehend. Knowing God is one thing but completely understanding him is far more impossible.

    Those on the outside balk and grumble that God should do this and that. They ask why did he do this, why didn’t he do that, why does he let this happen, why doesn’t he give me a sign, why, why, why. Those on the inside accept the mystery and know we need to learn to be humble and acknowledge that God is greater than we like to imagine and there will be things about God that we don’t understand but this doesn’t mean we are asked to give up all capacity for reason.

    I look forward to Part II.


    • Hi Roy,
      Thank you for reading and sharing your thoughts. This post was primarily an exercise in laying the groundwork for further ontological discussion. The questions and comments you raise are largely tangential to the topic so I will reserve commenting on those. I think that the question of how we incorporate mystery, paradox and the like into our view of reality is a legitimate question worth exploring. Thank you for the contribution.

  2. Travis, this is an excellent primer on ontology – I actually was able to follow along and feel like I’ve learned some philosophical words which have always thrown me off. Thanks for that.

    Couple of short points/questions here:

    • When you mentioned James Sire it jogged my memory. I had to look it up to make sure but hist book “Why Should Anyone Believe Anything At All” was the first book I read and discussed with my pastor after I had told him I could no longer call myself a Christian. I agreed with a lot of the first part of the book but then diverged after that.
    • You mention the word “immaterial” on your part 2 post. Is this just a synonym for “abstract object”, or is there some distinction there along with perhaps some overlap (I’m picturing a possible venn diagram)?
    • Would “the position that abstract objects and universals are mind-independent in addition to concrete particulars” be another way of defining realism? I’m just wondering if “mind-independent ” is a synonym for “exists on it’s own”.

    I have some more interesting input I’ll add to your part 2 post, but wanted to make sure I’ve got these basics down first.

    • Howie,
      Thanks for the kind words. Though I haven’t read it, I’m impressed that your pastor recommended starting with Sire’s book. It seems that most people are recommended to go straight to the evidence (e.g., Evidence That Demands a Verdict, Case for Christ, etc…) but I think it makes a whole lot of sense to first turn a critical eye on our methodology. Hence my posts on epistemology and ontology. I certainly learned a lot myself while writing this and it’s worth noting that I am anything but an authority on these things, so take my thoughts with a grain of salt. That said:

      • I’ll answer your second question first because it plays into the answer to the first question. Yes, I take “mind-independent” to be synonymous with “exists on its own”.
      • I see the distinction between immaterial and abstract as a matter of mind-dependence. I picture something like a spectrum, with immaterial mind-independent on one side and abstract mind-dependent on the other side. Spirits and ghosts would be far on the immaterial mind-independent side while beauty would be far on the abstract mind-dependent side. Numbers would be somewhere in the middle. Does that make sense?
      • Travis – yeah, after I had a long talk with my pastor I think he realized I was way beyond trusting anyone like Josh McDowell, and Case for Christ hadn’t even come out yet back then. My pastor was pretty cool – we spent almost 3 years meeting once a week to go through a bunch of (maybe 10) books spanning many different viewpoints. We would always spend a week reading a chapter and then discuss it over lunch. We even read The Jesus Legend by George Wells. We still meet up about once a year or so, but no more books – after 3 years we finally ended up frustrating each other and called it quits on the books.

        I’m sorry, I think I’m even more confused about how you are using the word immaterial now. It does mean non-material, or non-physical, correct? And I would imagine that you would consider an abstract object as non-physical too. So that’s why I’m a bit confused about putting immaterial and abstract at different ends of a spectrum. I hope I’m not being too pedantic.

    • OK, sorry. Maybe the spectrum wasn’t the best illustration. You are correct that I’m using immaterial = non-material. So abstract objects are a subset of the immaterial. Everything that is abstract is immaterial but not everything immaterial is abstract. A soul or spirit, if assumed to be real, is immaterial but not abstract. Numbers are both immaterial and abstract. My intent behind the spectrum was to highlight how the two words might be used to distinguish between clearly mind-dependent things and clearly mind-independent things. Even though abstract objects are immaterial, we might be more inclined to call them abstract instead of immaterial to de-emphasize their mind-independence and emphasize their mind-dependence. The converse is also true, but there’s also a big gray area in the middle. Did I improve the situation or did I just make things worse?

      • Ok, yeah that makes more sense now. And I suppose if someone was a realist then they wouldn’t really make that distinction because then they would consider abstract objects as mind-independent. But given your ontology of conceptualism I think that distinction makes sense.

        For the record, I’m really not sure what my own ontology is. I guess I’m not quite sure what criteria I would end up using to choose. Anything I would say would really just be based more on intuition than anything else and I’m not so good at trusting just my intuitions.

        And that actually brings me to my last question for this post – any good books, or web links you recommend for other good intros to ontology for the layperson?

    • It might be fair to suggest that a realist is less inclined to make any distinction between immaterial and abstract but I’m not really sure. My experience has been that ontologies are compartmentalized and realists are often only realists about certain things. It seems fairly common for there to be realists about universals, ethics and math, but I get the impression that realists about fictional objects are rare.

      Intuition definitely plays a role in examining our ontology but I also found that the prospect of just ignoring the question made me uneasy; like I was being intellectually lazy. I don’t mean to suggest that you or anyone else is being intellectually lazy. I think we have to reach of point of realizing how foundational it is to our entire worldview before it seems significant. I spent most of my life brushing it aside as the musings of the eccentric. Then again, maybe I was right all along and now I’m just one of the eccentric ones.

      I’m feeling pretty content with the conceptualism that I landed on. Realism adds a mysterious realm of things that we don’t quite know how to access, while nominalism doesn’t seem to ever reach a foundation. Even if I have a self-referential foundation, at least there’s something there.

      As for references, I relied pretty heavily on multiple articles in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. The articles are all written by professional philosophers but I find that they are generally accessible. Some key articles are below. I referred to the first two quite a bit:

      • Travis – Actually there is no doubt that I am intellectually lazy! 😉 Seriously, because truth is I totally agree with you that ontology and epistemology are essential for anyone claiming to either want to know truth or claiming to know truth (although I’m fine with people who take on the epistemic and ontological assumptions of their society and express conclusions from that, but I do think it is important for them to at least recognize that they are actually doing that – I think the vast majority of people are taking those assumptions without realizing it.) Fact is though that I’ve tried reading books on epistemology (which also touch a little on ontology) and it is some very tough reading. A lot of times I find I’m not entirely clear what is even being expressed after reading several times, usually because of terminology. I’ve read several portions of Carrier’s “Sense and Goodness Without God” which goes deep into the issues and even tries to write for the layperson, but not only did it get very boring, but was also quite confusing in several spots. The other troubling thing, which was what I was trying to express before, was that I felt like in the end I had to make some underlying assumptions which had no real justification (what I like to call axioms, or foundational beliefs) except for that they just seemed intuitively like brute facts. I talk about these briefly here. The whole ideas of infinite regress and justified false beliefs are very bothersome to me. At some point I just go with what works best in life, realizing that there could be many spots where I am wrong. Anyways, I’m rambling.

        Back to ontology – I see what you mean. Yes, I’d be very surprised if I met a realist that believed absolutely every idea thought of by minds actually existed. I never really thought of what many of us call fiction as being called “abstract objects”, but I remember now that those are listed in your post in that category (and I suppose have to be unless another separate category is created), so I agree that the distinction would still be made by realists. Ok, while there may still be a little bit of fuzziness in my mind about all these terms, I think I’ve got it enough to comment on your next post.

    • Howie, I know exactly what you’re saying. It seems sometimes that we can go so deep down the rabbit hole that we lose sight of the real world. I think that’s why I’m drawn to the pragmatic philosophy of Quine, James and the like. They seemed to be able to explore these things without going off the deep end.

      • Yeah, I’m familiar with James and I like his stuff. You’ve added another philosopher to my reading list – Quine.

What do you think?

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