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.
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.
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|
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).
Now, 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:
- Never exist (and my intuitions about the existence of the story of Paul Bunyan were incorrect), or
- Come into and out of existence (under an A-Theory of Time), or
- Exist if they ever have been, are, or will be synthesized in a mind (under a B-Theory of Time), or
- 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.