Brian M's Activity
Brian M added a article in PhilosophyA Taxonomy of Fundamental Ontologies, Part 3By Brian Morton (2009)
3.1 Fundamental Historicism
Another position one could take is that being in its most fundamental nature is different in different periods of history. Perhaps being looks very type-like in the early moments of being, but once substances evolve substances dominate the rest of the history of being. Rather than thinking of any period as being a hybrid in which types and substances are equi-fundamental, we might think that types are more fundamental than objects in one epoch, but that objects are more fundamental than types in another epoch.
This is one plausible way of trying to interpret medieval Chinese Neo-Confucianists, but I'm not convinced it's the right one. Contemporary pictures of the Big Bang, in which the first second of the universe is divided into epochs could be another good example of this kind of approach. For example, during the Grand Unification Epoch (say from around 10E-43 to 10E-35 seconds into history) it would make little sense to think of the world in terms of particles, and not much in terms of fields (there are still only 2 fields!) even if these are apt metaphors for later on, but gauge groups are already apt. But by the Quark epoch (say 10E-12 to 10E-6) the four fundamental fields have all become distinguishable (although the temperature is still too high for stable hadrons), thus field ontologies are apt, but thing ontologies are still probably not very appropriate (certainly hadrons are vastly more thing-like than quarks). But by the 2nd second, even thing-ontologies begin to become apt ways to describe reality.
Still physicists don't seem to usually talk or think this way. Their goal is to examine "laws" of physics, thus those features which are invariant from epoch to epoch, so they don't like to think that being itself might alter fundamentally from age to age. That would bring into question a lot of the uniformitarian assumptions they need to make their observations in this age salient for making retrodictions about past ages. So you could interpret stories about the moments just after the Big Bang, as examples of historicism at the level of fundamental ontology, but it is not at all clear that that is the best way to understand why physicists are telling these stories.
Another example of fundamental historicism might be the thought of Hegel. Again he's hard to interpret, and smart people fight about exactly what he is trying to say. But one way to read him is as a consummate historicist, for whom the philosophical categories, even knowledge, logic, and right, are evolving through time, so that what ought to count as knowledge varies from world historical age to world historical age (and in somewhat parallel from stage to stage in the evolution of the phenomenology of spirit). This appears to be true for Hegel, even of being at its most fundamental.
Hegel believes in a single existing ultimate Being, the Absolute, which can make him look like a Monist. But for Hegel the Absolute is in actuality only in the future, world history is the process of the Absolute attaining full concrete actuality. Hegel is a monist-ontologist, but only about the future. Prior to the absolute embodiment of the Absolute, Hegel might appear to be a more traditional substance-ontologist, but this is misleading. "The living Substance is being which is in truth Subject, or, what is the same, is in truth actual only in so far as it is the movement of positing itself . . . it is the process of its own becoming (Phenomenology of Spirit, p. 10)." So is he a process-ontologist? His notion of "principle" makes him look like a type-ontologist. He elsewhere makes it look like the process of phenomenology or of world history are the coming-to-be of knowledge or consciousness of the Absolute, rather than the coming-to-be actual of the Absolute itself. So perhaps, being is fundamentally a Monist-ontology all along, but consciousness of being is a process of coming-to-be conscious of being, which progresses in stages.
In the end, I'm not sure that Hegel is really a fundamental Historicist, any more than the physicists, or Neo-Confucians are. But if not this is a logical space in fundamental ontology that someone could move into if no one else already has.
Like Heidegger's 1926 aborted attempt at fundamental ontology, three other important 20th century approaches were pioneered in the 1920s: early Wittgenstein's 1921 fact-ontology, A.N. Whitehead's 1927 process-ontology, and Bohr and Heisenberg's Copenhagen ontology of 1927.
For the Wittgenstein of the Tractatus, objects are real only as they actually exist and that is as components of states of affairs. The world at its most basic level is a collection of facts or states of affairs.
"2.011 It is essential to things that they be possible constituents of states of affairs."
If substances are basically noun-like beings, then states of affairs and facts are sentence-like beings.
"2.06 The existence and non-existence of states of affairs is reality (we also call the existence of a state of affairs a positive fact, and their non-existence a negative fact.)"
States of affairs, or facts, can also be called situations or even pictures. Indeed, for Wittgenstein, a grammatical statement is a kind of picture of a state of affairs. A sentence or state of affairs can be broken down into smaller components, names, predicates, functions, objects, positions, etc. But these smaller components only have meaning, sense, reality, or even possibility in the context of the sentences or states of affairs of which they are components (3.3).
Anything smaller than a state of affairs is only real in a fact-ontology in the context of a state of affairs. Properties, for example, are perfectly sensical forms of being, but they are dependent in their being on states of affairs:
"2.0231 The substance of the world can only determine a form, and not any material properties. For it is only by means of propositions that material properties are represented - only by the configuration of objects that they are produced."
What makes a rose red are the configurations of objects which the rose figures in, or indeed could possibly figure in. Fact-ontologies also explain the phenomenon that motivated type-ontologies, that the concept of circle or mammal can be predicated of other things, or have other things predicated of it. All humans are mammals, and all mammals are animals, both make sense, but "mammals" is not a subsisting thing playing both roles; it is a commonality of our language being used in both pictures or statements asserting possible states of affairs do in fact obtain. Nor is a fact-ontology Monist. It makes sense to talk about the one-great-fact, "all that is the case," but Wittgenstein is confident that "1.2 The world divides into facts." There are other facts besides the one great all-encompassing fact.
What the later Wittgenstein thinks is a source of controversy, but it sure looks to me like he partially backs away from a fact-ontology. What is supposed to be special about facts or states of affairs is that they are the locus of meaningfulness for names, and of sensicalness. But later Wittgenstein seems to worry that even a proposition is not enough context for sense and meaningfulness; you need a language-game and indeed, a language-game needs to be embedded in a way of life.
Wittgenstein takes the attitude that thus we should live our ways of life, and try not to get too hung up on the anomalies created by the ways we talk about our ways of life. One could instead have argued that since facts and properties and types and functions and names and such are all non-fundamental aspects of being, derivative on ways of life, it is the ways of life which are the fundamental level of being. But I don't think he draws that conclusion, and I've never seen anyone assert a lifestyle-ontology (although come to think of it, Heidegger was drifting that way before he gave up).
Another problem with fact-ontologies is how little they have to say about time and temporality. Wittgenstein is mostly interested in formal logic, where time does not really matter because, as he argues the process is always identical to the result.
Fact-ontologies did not die with Wittgenstein though, later ontologists like Menzies 1989, Mellor 1995, etc. are all pretty close to the fact-ontologist picture. For Wittgenstein a fact is not a true proposition, but the aspect of the world that makes a true proposition true. Since the word gets used both ways in English, fact-ontologists usually need to make a terminological distinction to disambiguate. Mellor calls a true proposition a fact, and what makes it true a "facta." Menzies calls these abstract situations and real situations.
It is traditional to attribute the beginning of process-ontology to Heraclitus. He does say "all things are in process ...", but he also says, "all things are One ..." and "everything taken together is whole but also not whole ..." and "to God all things are beautiful, good and just ..." and several other sayings about all things. On the question of Heraclitus' ontology I always recommend Richard Geldard's nuanced Remembering Heraclitus. Like Aristotle, Heraclitus is too nuanced to pigeon-hole comfortably.
The ancient Chinese are far more plausible early process-ontologists, but they have little influence on the West in this regard until recently. Likewise, Leibniz is making some real stabs away from the substance and type-ontologies he is familiar with, but doesn't really wind up with process as his key notion. Henri Bergson, early Whitehead, and even Pierce and James have some foreshadowing of process-ontologies, but their formulae are often quite clunky. Bergson argues for duration as a form of qualitiative multiplicity. Early Whitehead, coming from a math background argues for a field-ontology in which objects are actually fields with both spatial and temporal extensions. I'm not going to pretend to understand Pierce's obsessively triadic story here. James, too, is clearly rebelling against substance-ontology in many places, but he doesn't really have anything coherent to replace it with.
You can find other precursors. The Stoics insist that all existents were either actors or acted upon, but then asserted that all and only physical things fit this criterion, and fell back to substance-ontology. The Chinese reflection is sometimes interpreted as putting processes of change at the center of reality rather than categories of static being like nouns or adjectives. I've already mentioned the Yin-Yang school, the 5 elemental processes, and the Yi Jing. The text called Hung Fan ("Great Norm") does have some of this and it is expanded by Zou Yan. But, by the time the Yi Jing is interpreted by the Neo-Confucians, we have two distinct but inter-related layers of reality "the tao of every class of things" and "the tao of the transformation of all things." Change is one of the central metaphysical concerns for the Chinese thinkers, but so is type, its hard to say if we have quite a process-ontology even here, although maybe we do. At least by Whitehead's 1929 masterpiece Process and Reality, there can be no doubt that we have a distinctive process-ontology approach. Later folk like Hartshorne, Weiss, Samuel Alexander and C. L. Morgan and A. P. Ushenko are cited by Nicholas Rescher as process philosophers in his Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on "Process Philosophy" as well.
The idea is that, rather than temporally enduring substances being the fundamental (along with ways for substances to be), the fundamental beings are processes and ways for processes to change. Change and temporality are constituent factors in some way of being, along with their neighbors, alternation, striving, novelty-emergence, and contingency. Field-Being thinker Lik Kuen Tong puts it well, "The world is not an assemblage of independent, substantial entities; nor is it reducible to a determinate totality of atomic facts. It is rather a Great Flow or Great Ocean of Becoming ..." or elsewhere "Field-Being philosophy is based on the fundamental intuition that Reality is Activity, not Entitivity."
For Process-ontologies being is verb-like, it happens rather than is. Other ontological categories, like objects, properties, fields, functions, types, facts, etc., can all exist, but need to be re-worked as ways for processes to change. So, for example, my coffee cup on process-ontology is a stable pattern in the changes of the processes making it up. It is a collection of atoms moving, but moving in ways that constitute its temperature, crystalline structure, motion relative to my desk, etc. These atoms are themselves relatively stable patterns in the changing of the processes that make them up, the orbit of the electrons, the motion of the protons and neutrons, etc. Until we get down to a level of description where the patterns aren't even regular enough to make object-like metaphors tempting. Likewise, even on large scales, we can be tempted to object-talk when processes are behaving nice and predictably, but the more novelty emerges, the more tempting it is to revert to the process talk that is fundamental. Living animals, and trains of thought, are especially process-like because they are unpredictable, or we might say creative or surprising. Properties will then be relatively stable patterns in the behavior of the more object-like processes. My Coke can is red, and by "red" a process-ontologist means, "looks red to me" that is tends to make me alter my thought-processes in ways I have come to habitually label as red. But properties, too, depend on stability of the behavior of processes. If the processes start behaving especially novelly, I have to create new conceptual categories for properties. Suppose that, much to my surprise, my Coke can starts exhibiting the following behavior, it seems red to my right eye, but seems green to my left eye, so that my brain starts flummoxing around with how to interpret the visual signals in terms of my categories. In this case, process-ontology says I need to revise my system of approximation of processes into property-like stable patterns, because the patterns aren't quite as stable as I had previously thought.
Process-ontology is motivated partly by 20th century grappling with the weirdness of sub-atomic "particle" behavior (which isn't very particle-like at all), but it's got lots of other motivations too. It's a way to try to take evolution seriously and build evolution into the overall picture of being. After all, natural kinds like species or genuses seemed like great exemplars of changeless ultimate being to advocates of Plato's theory of the forms, but the understanding that they change too, is part of what undercuts type-ontology in modern days. It's been tempting to theologians trying to reconcile God as being, with evolution and human freedom. It gives free-will a metaphysical basis that is hard to match in more deterministic ontologies.
In 1953 Donald Williams coined the term "trope" as a metaphysical category. Tropes have been described as "abstract particulars" (by Stout in 1923!) and "concrete universals." To use Michael Moore's example (Causal Relata, 2004), consider the claim "This dog is white." On a thing-ontology we are going to have two entities participating in the truth making of this claim, a particular, concrete thing, "this dog" and an abstract universal property "being white." A tropist asserts that there is another entity here, which is part of the truth-making of the claim, the particular whiteness of this particular dog. It is abstract in a sense (it is the whiteness of the dog, not the whole of the dog) and particular in a sense (it is the whiteness of THIS dog). It is concrete (not just any whiteness but a concrete whiteness) but still universal (it is inherently related to all other whiteness despite its concreteness). A weak tropist might think that the object, trope, and property are all truth-makers of the claim, basically just adding tropes into the traditional object/property ontology. But an "ardent tropist" thinks that tropes are the fundamental layer of being, and that objects and properties are derivative upon them. Objects become, on this account, collections of tropes, the dog is the sum of that dog's particular features. Properties become patterns of resemblances between tropes, whiteness is an abstraction of the similarities between all the different particular white tropes. Ardent tropists include D. Williams, K. Campbell (1990) and D. Ehrling (1997). Tropes are nice for trying to make sense of causality. As Campbell puts it "when you drop it, it is the weight of this particular brick, not bricks or weights in general, which break the bone in your particular left big toe." On the other hand, trope-ontologies have some trouble differentiating themselves from fact-ontologies. How is the particular whiteness of this particular dog, metaphysically or ontologically distinct from the fact that this particular dog is white?
3.5 Coping-with-Quantum Ontologies
The last great family of ontologies were also born in the 1920s the many attempts to cope with the weirdness of quantum mechanics results in formal ways. Heisenberg and Bohr, collaborating together in Copenhagen around 1927, became convinced that in order to make sense of quantum mechanics it was necessary to re-envision the fundamentals of ontology away from a pure object/predicate picture. Recent polls show that the Copenhagen interpretation is still the most popular interpretation among quantum mechanicists, but that it does have real competition.
The main idea of the Copenhagen interpretation is that there is a "wave-function" of relative probabilities of any given physical system being in various alternate states of being. The wave function is a way of mathematically modeling several distinct ontological notions together, that of a system, a set of possible states of being for the system, and relative probabilities of being in those states of being. It assumes that descriptions of nature ought to be probabilistic all the way down, all the way to the most fundamental descriptions possible. However, the Copenhagen interpretation also assumes the fundamental reality of "wave-function collapse." It assumes that measuring devices are classical, and that they have and impose classical object/property metaphysics. When I measure the position of an electron in the system, its position goes from being a wave-function of various possible locations at various probability-levels, to being a specific definite location, at probability 1, although at the same times its wave-function for vector of motion becomes immeasurable. So, in the Copenhagen interpretation, being normally resides in an undifferentiated, highly probabilistic state, lacking in objects or properties, but when it is measured it becomes object-like and takes on traditional properties. In this picture properties are momentary results of measurement activities, and the normal state of things is to have a range of property-probabilities instead. It is unclear exactly to what extent the Copenhagen interpretation was intended to be an ontological position, rather than say an epistemological one (although it was intended to be fundamental). Bohr, for example, claimed "It is wrong to think that the task of physics is to find out how nature is. Physics concerns what we can say about nature." But he also said, "Nothing exists until it is measured." Likewise, Bohr and Heisenberg were not completely on the same page, and there are real disputes in how to interpret Bohr. Just how much of a Positivist was he? Just how far down the subjectivist road was he willing to go with Heisenberg? Jan Faye's Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Bohr argues for a roughly Kantian interpretation of Bohr's thought. Indeed, Bohr seems to change his position over time, early on he speaks of Heisenberg's "uncertainty relation" as if the probabilities waves represented epistemic limitations, but later (after the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen objections are raised) he speaks of the "indeterminacy relation" as if the problem is ontological rather than just epistemic.
So regardless of what exactly Bohr or Heisenberg thought, there are a variety of ontological positions in the rough vicinity of their thought which have all become populated since their time, by people trying to cope with the results of quantum mechanical experiments. You could treat the wave functions as genuine descriptions of the being of nature (rather than just our knowledge of nature), or be agnostic on this point. You could treat the collapse of the wave-functions as a genuine ontological change in the structure of being, or merely as an alteration in our knowledge of being. You could even interpret wave-function collapse as being caused by the presence of a conscious observer, often called the "consciousness causes collapse" interpretation.
There have been many attempts to square the results of quantum physics with more traditional ontologies. If we give up the notion that the wave-functions are complete descriptions of the system, there might be a hidden variable which determines which of the outcomes occurs (including the Bohm-deBroglie version), and we can re-admit determinism into the picture, and rest with a traditional substance-ontology. Indeed, the null interpretation, and pure instrumentalist interpretation can probably be thought of as leaving all the ontological possibilities open, including traditional substance-ontology. If we take the ensemble or statistical interpretation, the probability claims of the wave-function only hold for large groups of systems, not for each case; we can give a Frequentist reading of the probability claims and again we can have a traditional substance-ontology. Other pictures leave us in mildly non-traditional substance-ontologies. The Many Worlds and Many Minds interpretations of quantum mechanics, suspect that all the outcomes of the probability wave-functions occur, but that they do so in separate worlds or mental spaces. This obligates us to an awful lot of worlds (or mental locations), more than in many substance-ontologies, but it allows the ontological make-up of each world to be normal old objects and properties.
But there are, so far, at least five other interpretations of the quantum mechanical results which leave us in fundamental ontological positions other than substance-ontology or Copenhagen ontology: consistent histories, Quantum Logic, Cramer's transactional interpretation, Van Fraassen's modal interpretation, and Rovelli's relational quantum mechanics. The Consistent histories interpretation advocated by Hartle and Gell-Mann in the late 20th century, and is often thought to clarify the Copenhagen interpretation, without being distinct from it. Here systems have multiple possible past-states (histories), but not all possible histories are consistent (i.e., obey the laws of classical probability). Quantum mechanics then becomes a set of constraints on the possible consistent histories of a system. In this picture, the issue is not so much that measuring causes a change in the system, as that measuring changes which of the possible histories are consistent with our information. Consistent histories allows objects to exist and to have properties in the present, and in each specific pasts, but which past is "the" past of an object becomes underdetermined, which is a fairly major departure from substance-ontology. Whether it is distinct from Copenhagen ontology or not is a trickier question.
Quantum logic approaches were pioneered by Von Neumann and Birkhoff in 1936. In many ways it looks to me like a different formal approach to roughly the same picture as the consistent histories picture. We extend the Hamiltonian definition of an observable (a property) in light of the gauge group results since Hamilton's time and get a densely-defined self-adjoint operator A, on the Hilbert space of the quantum state (what is often called a spectral measure, the equivalent of an eigenvector for an arbitrarily large square matrix). Measurement yields a real number in a range. So imagine we ask for the velocity of a particle, we get a real number answer. So far, we have basically properties and states, with a slightly different underlying algebraic basis. But if we set up an array of propositions asking yes-no questions about the quantum state, and then look for the orthocomplement we get a weird result. For what solutions of q are (p or q) =1 and (p and q) =0? For a classical proposition system, only the set-complement of p, not p, fits these requirements. In a sense, claims have a unique negation. But for a lattice of projections in Van Neumann's definition of "property" there are an infinity of distinct solutions, "negations" of p. We have an infinity of distinct ways to deny a proposition. Or, to put the point in consistent history terms, we have an infinity of distinct ways for possible histories of the system to be inconsistent. It is as if we have a property p, but there are many logically distinct ways to fail to consistently have property p. Properties, in this picture, are not primary features of substances, but instead are features of worlds or histories or states, and this turns out to make a subtle weirdness in their logical and ontological structure.
Cramer's Transactional interpretation of 1986 is a refinement of the Feynman, Wheeler 1945 position, and involves causality breaking down so that there are waves of information going forward in time and backward in time. In effect, before an event is about to occur (say a photon being detected by a detector) the photon makes an "offer," information going forward in time, and the detector makes a "confirmation" information going back in time, and the standing wave created by these two is the event. Objects and properties work fairly normally, but the holding of a property by an object, (the collapse of the wave-function) is temporally non-local and occurs along the whole "transaction" the temporal range over which the offer and confirmation waves are interacting.
In Van Fraassen's "modal" interpretation from the early 70s is also quite distinct. Here the idea is to divide the notion of "state" into two distinct types, the "value state" and the "dynamic state." The value state determines the properties of the system, but it does not determine the possible future value states. The dynamic state determines which future value states are possible (and how likely they are) but does not determine the properties of the system if measured. The dynamic state wave-function never collapses, the value state wave-function never projects. The being of states is simply decoupled from the possibilities of becoming of the states. But when others turned to fitting this philosophical picture into the details of the current physics notation, they often strayed a bit. Kochen, for example, tried to tie his 1985 modal interpretation to the failure of the polar decomposition theorem, but winds up giving up on all intrinsic properties (value or dynamic), analyzing all properties in terms of relations (and thus pre-saging our next picture).
In Rovelli's 1994 relational quantum mechanics the key idea is to do away with properties entirely and make due with relations instead, and let them be governed by Wheeler's quantum information theory. As Rovelli puts it "Quantum mechanics is a theory about the physical description of physical systems relative to other systems, and this is a complete description of the world." Indeed, even the notion of "state" gets cashed out in purely relational terms. Unless I am mistaken, Rovelli is arguing for what I call a lattice-ontology, and claiming that this move allows us to side-step the apparent problems with quantum mechanics.
How to adjust our ontologies to cope with quantum mechanics is definitely still an on-going project. There are open research questions in many of these pictures, both on the algebraic and experimental fronts.
Events are things that happen. They are the ontologically equivalents of substantivized verbs, that is verbal forms that have been turned into nouns. A wedding is a great example, both ontologically and linguistically. The activity of "wedding" has been transformed into a noun "a wedding." As such events are not quite on a par with objects, properties, types, facts, or processes. A thing like a stone or a chair exists, it might exist over a duration of time, but it doesn't "happen" whereas a wedding or a battle "happens" rather than existing over a stretch of time. If you say, no actually the rock is really undergoing changes, chemical reactions, erosion and so on, over the time period, then you are in effect arguing for a process or event account of the rock, rather than a substance-ontology of it. Objects can move, events can't. Objects resist co-location in space (you can't have two different objects in the same spatial location), but events tolerate it (on most accounts). Likewise events don't seem to behave quite like facts. Caesar's death in 44BC in Rome was an event with temporal and spatial boundaries (perhaps fuzzy ones). But the fact that Caesar died in Rome in 44BC, is as true and existent today as it was then, it's atemporal in a funny sense. Its also vastly less determinate (its far more abstract) than the actual event of which it is a picture. Indeed, especially after Wittgenstein, it is very natural to think of facts as linguistic pictures of events. Nonetheless it has been very tempting for Analytic philosophers to give accounts of events or of facts which amount to assimilating or all but assimilating the two. In a sense, one of the big problems with Wittgenstein's fact, state of affairs, and situation talk, is its insensitivity to issues of temporality. So events become ways to try to compromise between quite atemporal fact-ontologies and even more temporal process-ontologies.
There is lots of dispute on how to differentiate events, and these can lead to radically different pictures of events. Michael Moore likes to divide accounts events into 5 rough sub-varieties (Causal Relata 2004): extremely course grained (D. Williams 1953, Quine 1985), course grained (Anscombe 1963, Davidson 1980), Moderately fine grained (J. Thomson 1977, Thalberg 1977), fine grained (Goldman 1970, Kim 1973) and extremely fine grained-grained (Dretske 1977). For Kim for example, an event is just the exemplifying of a property by an object over a duration of time. Thus there are for Kim exactly as many distinct events in particular region of space/time as there are properties exemplified. For this picture, the object/property distinction will be central to ontology so we'll have more or less a thing-ontology, and events will be just a special class of things, the exemplifications of properties. Indeed, if you ask Kim how is an event: i.e., the exemplification of property P by object O, at time T and location L, ontologically or metaphysically distinct from the fact that "object O exemplified property P, at time T and location L" he has no answer. The two are identical. Events map one to one to facts, in metaphysically indiscernible ways for Kim. On the other end of the spectrum, Quine individuates events purely by their spatio-temporal boundaries. So the earth's spinning during duration D, is exactly the same event as the earth's cooling during duration D. For Quine too an event is basically just a kind of object, a region of space/time, and it has properties like any other object. If you think events can re-occur (say for example the sun rising every morning), then it looks like events are just a kind of property of some sort, perhaps a property of moments and intervals of time (Montague, 1969) or of cross-world classes of individuals (Lewis, 1986). An ardent tropist can even reduce events to tropes without requiring re-occurrence of events, perhaps the sun rising this morning is a simply a trope of the sun.
In short, most 20th century Western pictures are going to want to have some role for events, but they often disagree wildly on what, and it is very easy to reduce events to other kinds of entities. I'm not aware of anyone trying to make events fundamental to ontology, but I can't think of any reason to rule it out. T. Parsons' brief 1991 "Tropes and Supervenience" briefly sketches a way to build tropes out of events and states, but doesn't get as far as claiming that events are fundamental.
I hope you have enjoyed my brief survey of professional philosophical reflection on fundamental ontology. It is easy for Westerners to get trapped into some variation on a very old very standard fundamental ontology involving objects, properties and predicates, that probably goes back at least to the pre-historic proto-Indo-Europeans. Indeed, a traditional short taxonomy of fundamental ontologies simply distinguishes substance-ontology from all other pictures. I think there is a lot of robust variety in the other pictures, both those actually advanced by folks over the centuries, and those which are logically possible but where it is unclear if they have actually been advanced. And there are a lot of motivations for questioning or opposing the substance ontology: from theology, to multi-culturalism, to quantum physics, and beyond.
- 0 replies
- 2,110 views
Brian M added a article in PhilosophyA Taxonomy of Fundamental Ontologies, Part 2By Brian Morton (2009)
Probably the most familiar ontology in my typology, and the most natural to English speakers, is a substance-ontology. The idea is that being has a basic structural dichotomy, noun-like substances, and predicates - things said of substances. My coffee cup is a substance, and it has properties like being mostly empty of coffee, or being black and silver; locations - on my desk, in Indiana; states - not in motion relative to my desk, legally owned by me; relations - smaller than a breadbox, larger than a coffee bean, and so on. On this picture the world is basically divided into a variety of things, and ways for things to be. Aristotle, one of the great examples of a substance-ontologist, says it well:
"Thus everything except primary substances is either predicated of primary substances, or is present in them, and if these last did not exist, it would be impossible for anything else to exist." (Categories 2b: 4-5, McKeon's translation)
Substance-ontologies are divided into several kinds, thing-ontologies, stuff-ontologies, bundle-ontologies, lattice-ontologies, and maybe some others.
In a thing-ontology, the world is primarily made up of things and ways for things to be. That is - substances are like count nouns: chairs, humans, coins, lizards, trees, and so on. Things carry individuation criteria with them in their own being. One lizard and another lizard are two separate things, and things are importantly countable, and individuatable.
In a stuff-ontology, substance works more like mass-nouns: water, bronze, money, justice, thought, etc. Water is not countable or individuatable, it's just too liquid to be discrete. We can say "three cups of water" but "three waters" sounds like a grammar error. Its not that stuff can't be individuated or counted, its just that it doesn't come that way already, you need a measure or an individuation criteria to do it, because that isn't inherent to its own nature.
A thing-ontologist might be very comfortable saying that my coffee cup is a substance; a stuff-ontologist might say that the metal and plastic in my cup are genuine substances and that my coffee cup is made out of them. Things are often called objects, stuff is often called material, or by Aristotle's term, hyle. In either case, properties are going to be ways for substances to be, rather than themselves beings (and it can get tricky to differentiate properties from relations, states, locations, and other ways for substances to be).
Stuff-ontologies go back at least to Anaxagoras among the pre-Socratic Greek thinkers, and even earlier arche theorists like Thales look pretty stuff-like.Ancient Greek atomism, such as Democritus, is a great example of a thing-ontology and atomism was present in ancient India too, under both Carvakan and Vaisheshikan styles. It seems that Aristotle's own position on things vs. stuff is too nuanced to fall snugly in either camp, but there are certainly interpreters who read him as a thorough stuff-ontologist. Some later Aristotelians are basically thing-ontologists with only a few nods to stuff, though. The Stoics are basically thing-ontologists or Monists; the world is divided into things which exist, and other ways of being which subsist. By the 1600s the West had swung back mostly to thing-ontologies, and the rise of atomic theory certainly supported this trend. Descartes, Berkeley, and Fichte are all basically thing-ontologists.
Bundle theory, which is well-developed in Hume, and (disputably) already present in Locke presents us with a somewhat tricky case, and my current temptation is to lump it as 3rd kind of substance-ontology distinct from both object based thing-ontologies, and material based stuff-ontologies. The idea here is that properties (or at least some primary properties) are genuine ontologically primary beings, but that substances only have a kind of derivative being as the locus of a collection of properties. As Locke says "... a philosopher ... whatever substantial forms he may talk of, has no other idea of those substances than what is framed by a collection of those simple ideas which are found in them ..." It is still the case for this picture that the world at its most basic levels is divided into things, and ways for things to be; but here the things are but placeholders for habitual patterns of collections of properties. Similarly, it is possible that what I will later describe as lattice-ontologies are really best thought of as a subvariety of substance-ontology similar to Bundle theory where substances are constituted by relations rather than by properties. Or perhaps both should be seen as distinct from substance ontologies, because they privilege properties or relations over substances.
Patrick Suppes in Probabilistic Metaphysics argues that old Aristotelian stuff-ontology makes better sense of 20th century physics than many other pictures. But even fairly recently, thing-ontologies have been tempting to high-end philosophers in the West. Frege's logic assumes two kinds of beings, objects and functions, which fit the basic substance division, of things and ways for things to be. Substance-ontologies make a lot of sense for speakers of a subject-predicate language, and my guess is that most speakers of Western languages use common-sense substance-ontologies of some kind unless they get exposed to a lot of philosophy. It is still common to refer to substance/property ontologies as "traditional" metaphysics.
The most famous of what I'm calling a type-ontology (in the West) is Plato's theory of the forms. The idea is that forms, or types, or categories are the most fundamental layer of being: human, red, just, circle. The goal is to efface the noun-like/predicate-like distinction, and imagine the important beings as able to stand on either side of it. A type or form is amphibiously noun-like and adjective-like. We can say of a rock that it is circular, or of a circle that it is red. The form circle can be said of other beings, or other beings can be said of it. This seems grammatically counter-intuitive in Germanic languages, but in Greek and in Romance languages it is common to have terms that are amphibiously adjectives or nouns. "Alba" can mean "white" the adjective or "white thing" with equal ease in Latin. In the Platonic theory of forms, what really ultimately exists, are the forms: the white, the circular, the red, the just, the good, and so on. Or perhaps we might name them whiteness, circularity, redness, justice, goodness, and so on. My coffee cup will then be a derivative being, dependent for its being on the many forms in which it participates, cupness, circularity, blackness, particularity, and so on.
It would be tempting to think of a form or type, say the red or redness, as the set of all red things, as if types were built out of tokens, but that would be to use a thing-ontology instead of a type-ontology. In a thing-ontology there are things which have the property red, and then another thing, a set, which contains all red things. But, for a type-ontology, red things are only red because they participate in the form of the red; the form is fundamental and the things only derivative. Tokens are built out of types. The red is the being it is on its own, and causes red things to be red, or well if not "cause" then the form "constitutes" red things as red, or even better "red things depend in their being red on the being of the red."
Thus, instead of a fundamental divide between beings and ways for beings to be - type-ontologies have every being also being a way for other beings to be, the cosmos is an array of combinations of beings.
Type-ontologies also do a good job with category hierarchies, because types participate in other types. The human is a variety of the mammal, which is a variety of the vertebrate, which is a variety of the animal, the living, the physical and the existent. Type-ontology is a kind of anti-atomism, instead of the world being built up from tiny basic things, into larger and larger collections of things which are themselves things of a different kind, it imagines the whole of being being sub-divided into types, and sub-types, and sub-sub-types, until reaching the level of particularity.
Properties exist in their own right on this picture, but there is no real dividing line between properties and things, things are just particular properties.
In the West, Pythagoras develops a type-ontology by extending Anaximander's thought that the unlimited is the arche, by asserting that the unlimited and the limited are jointly the arche, and that number and ratio are the primary layer of being. Plato modifies the role of the limited, to get a less numerical picture of form. Type-ontologies of Pythagorean, Platonic, or Neo-Platonic styles are interacting with substance-ontologies in the West until modern philosophy when they fall out of favor.
I can't think of any Indian type-ontologies off-hand. But normal Chinese thought is type-ontological at least until philosophers get involved. Confucius appears to think type-ontologically, without highlighting this fact. Logician Kung-sun Lung appears to have directly advocated this kind of picture in ancient China, perhaps even against the thought of logician Hui Shi.
In much the same way that substance-ontologies just seem like normal common sense for languages that have rigid subject-predicate distinctions, type-ontologies just seem like common sense for languages that conflate nouns and adjectives, like Chinese. Even after philosophers start proposing other options in China, many Chinese philosophers retain allegiance to type-ontologies until the 20th century, (and probably do unconsciously still when they aren't being careful).
Another thoroughly ancient approach to ontology, is to insist that being is united and singular, that there is really only one being, which might be called Being, or The One, or The All, or Nature, or the Cosmos, or Brahman, or God, or Prakriti, etc. If being is radically one, then it doesn't really matter "one what?" Monists can say that the one being is the only substance, or the over-type, of the total event, or the one great fact, or the field of all being, or whatever. Monism becomes a kind of end-point for all other ontologies. However, everything else, becomes a secondary existence, of non-ultimate existence of some kind. Everything else that is, is a way for the one being to be. As Spinoza puts it in Ethics, Prop 6:
"the modes of any given attribute are caused by God, in so far as he is considered through the attribute of which they are modes, not so far as he is considered through any other attribute."
Everything that is, is a part of God, and is caused by God, as a mode of the being of God. But this is so, of people, and circles, and redness, and events, and so on. One danger is that our categories of being will be swamped by the single distinction of ultimate being vs. everything else, and so any Monist that wants to do metaphysics (like Spinoza or Plotinus) will need to try to rescue differences within the "everything else" category to some extent. In this account, properties will be non-fundamental beings, modes of the being of the one true being at best, and there isn't much reason to hope for properties to be very distinguishable from relations, or events, or things, unless the particular Monist-ontologist does a lot of work.
Monist-ontologies are very old in India. They go back at least to Parmenides in Greece. Both in the West and in India they received both religious and naturalist elaborations. Plotinus and some later Christians and Muslims, think of the one true being in God-like terms, as does Sankara (opening them to charges of pantheism). Thinkers like Parmenides or Sartre think of the one being in fairly naturalistic terms (opening them to the charge of atheism). Thinkers like Spinoza, the Stoics, Einstein, or the Samkhya-darsana are willing to admit that the one being is an appropriate target of both religious and naturalist impulses. It is worth mentioning, that four-dimensionalist pictures of the cosmos even from physicists often wind up sliding into Monism if they aren't trying hard to resist it. After all they make the whole of time look like what is, and all events, facts, things, properties, etc., look merely like modes of being of the whole of the cosmos. Monism has been popular in India in some times, but it is at least present if not popular, in almost all times and places, because it is a sort of end-point for any other ontology.
Another classic strategy on fundamental ontology is to give up, refuse to answer, or retreat to perplexity, what the Greeks call an aporia. As Plato says in the Sophist:
"For manifestly you have long been aware of what you mean when you use the expression 'being.' We, however, who used to think we understood it have now become perplexed." (The Sophist, 244a)
The Skeptics suspended judgment on the question of the most fundamental being as they did on other topics. Skepticism of the fundamental nature of being was present in ancient India too. In ancient China, Zhuangzi argues that fundamental ontology is the wrong project to pursue throughout chapter two of the book named after him. Some ancient and medieval aporetic-ontologists were not skeptics, and were willing to make lots of claims on many topics, but as one approached the fundamental layer of being, they retreated into negative theologies, apophatic theologies, and other elaborate devices to avoid logizing the ontos. Pseudo-Dionysius and Maimonides are good examples. Kant develops elaborate metaphysics, but his price for doing so is giving up on the question of fundamental ontology, even claiming that "it is precisely in knowing its limits that philosophy exists."
Even Heidegger is in this camp. His famous Being and Time, raises the question of the meaning of being, and seeks to once again tackle a question he feels has been covered over and forgotten by the philosophical tradition, the question of the most fundamental meaning of being. He argues that our being, which he calls da-sein, is the being to be interrogated to pursue the question of the meaning of being, and that "thus, fundamental ontology, from which alone all other ontologies can originate, must be sought in the existential analysis of da-sein" (Being and Time, p. 11).
But Heidegger sees his task has having two parts each with three divisions. Part two would be "destructuring of the history of ontology on the guideline of the problem of temporality (p. 35)." He never wrote part two of Being and Time, but didn't really need to for his project to work. Part one was "The interpretation of Da-sein on the basis of temporality and the explication of time as the transcendental horizon of the question of being (p. 35)." And it was to have three divisions,
1) the preparatory fundamental analysis of Da-sein,
2) Da-sein and temporality, and
3) Time and Being.
So the idea was we try to understand our being in division 1, use that to understand temporality in division 2, and use this to understand the meaning of being (as opposed to just our being) in division 3 (and then argue against three rival pictures in Part 2). But Heidegger never wrote Division 3! Thus Heidegger's REAL answer to the question of the meaning of being, is to work diligently on the project for 400 pages, and then give up 2/3rds of the way to the answer! He just never found a way to make his mediations on the relation between our being and temporality shed any light on being in general. It is possible, but controversial, that even the later works of Wittgenstein are ultimately aporetic with regard to fundamental ontology.
2.5 Factor-Ontologies or Dharma-Ontologies
The Buddhist tradition develops a different picture of fundamental ontology early on, traditionally called dharma theory, or Abhidharma theory. Within a few centuries of Buddha's teaching a series of texts called the Abhidharmas (roughly, "advanced teachings") arises. In the words of Paul Williams, a scholar of Buddhism, they are "lists which enumerate with maximum possible exactitude what is actually occurring in a particular psychological or physical situation spoken of in the Sutras or in life generally. The lists are lists of what is seen to be the case by one who sees things the way they really are (Buddhist Thought, 2000, p. 88)."
We have a reduction program in which normal and unusual "occasions" are to be analyzed into their components, the skandas or "heaps", which are in turn to be analyzed further until we reach the ultimate level of being. Those elements which remain even at the ultimate level are called dharmas, a Sanskrit word that elsewhere means everything from "thing" to "truth" to "teaching" to "factor" to "topic of discussion." So for example, "eating a strawberry" consists of some volitions or habits (samkhara), consciousnesses (samjna), sense-consciousnesses (vijnana), feelings (vedana), and physical forms (rupa).
The vijnana will further divide into particular strawberry-taste-consciousnesses, strawberry-mouthfeel-consciousnesses, and so on. The material form of the strawberry will divide into solidity, fluidity, energy, and motion, and perhaps some other physical factors dependent on these. But the particular solidity of the strawberry cannot be analyzed any further. Solidity is simply one of the basic factors in physical occasions.
Dharmas are primary existents (dravyasat) and are what all other existents are composed of. They have "own-being" (svabhava), which is how they differ from secondary existents, like chairs, or persons which do not have own-being. Each dharma has an "own-mark" (svalaksana), which is how it differs from every other dharma. A dharma is a genuine factor in the ultimate ontological analysis of complex occurrences. Later Buddhist schools disagree with each other over exactly how many kinds of dharma there are, how to categorize them, what the best way to analyze particular occurrences into dharmas is, and what dharmas themselves are like.
In the Sautrantikan school, dharmas look a lot like short events, or even what Dretske calls event-aspects, and they exist only in the present. For them what it is to be is to exert activity, and only present factors do that. Whereas in the Sarvastivadin (literally "everything exists") school, dharmas in the past and future do not exist in quite the same way that present dharmas do, but they do nonetheless still exist. Sarvastivadins do, however, admit that present dharmas, and not past or future ones, have a sakaritra, or "characteristic activity," which is the present form of its own-mark, or characteristic feature. Many of these schools die out; only Theravada, retains this picture of Buddhism today.
Where does this leave us for properties? Well some things that look like objects do wind up being dharmas: space, greed, pleasure, attention, and so on. But other dharmas look more like properties, red, for example, is a particular visual-sense-consciousness, or in most cases a particular visual-sense-contact, but it is a real factor in the ultimate analysis of occasions. Contrariwise, many properties will wind up being secondary existents, rather than dharmas; personhood is a real existent, but it is a secondary one, not a dharma at all (for most schools of Buddhism).
What is ultimately real of beings on this picture, comes in many varieties, and these varieties combine to give us the complex occasions we encounter. Factor-ontology winds up being a kind of logical atomism, that isn't much like physical atomism, or any of the metaphysical pictures of the West, except perhaps the event-aspect metaphysics that is beginning to be explored now.
Somewhere around 0 BCE, a newer form of Buddhism develops which calls itself Mahayana, or the great vehicle. One of its chief characteristics is to reject the dharma-ontology discussed above and replace it with something called prajnaparamita - "the perfection of wisdom." At least early on, the point does not seem to be that dharma-metaphysics is wholesale wrong, but rather that it, too, is not the most deep or fundamental truth of things; that it is a metaphysics but not really an ontology.
Exactly what was supposed to replace the dharma picture as our understanding of the deepest reality of things, was taken even by the Mahayanists to be a mysterious, difficult picture to express. See my longer work "Logical Atoms and the Astasahasrika Prajnaparamita Sutra," for a fuller discussion. But the basic story goes like this.
Give up all talk of dharmas, or factors, or things, or properties or occasions, none of that is ultimate. Being is "empty" of all that. Things just are the way they are. "Thusness" or "suchness" is the main feature of genuine being. Being is "just like this." If we are to speak with precision (such as in a merit dedication formula) we say "let the merit, such as it is, generated donating this book, understood as the Buddhas understand it, to this monastery, understood as the Buddhas understand, be dedicated to the leading all beings, taken as they are seen by the Buddha, to ultimate enlightenment, as it is understood by the most holy ones."
The danger is that we will falsely reify such concepts as merit, book, monastery, all beings, or enlightenment. Dharma metaphysics allows us to avoid reifying books, or selves, or monasteries, but at the cost of reifying the ultimate factors, space, sense-consciousness, etc.
Prajnaparamita metaphysics says avoid reifying anything by your verbal expressions, let being be as it is. The solution is to repeat, "such as they are," or "such as they are understood by the Buddhas." The ontological picture is not intended to amount to Monism or nihilism, but to walk a middle path between falsely reifying what does not exist, and denying the existence of what does. It is almost as if the ancient Buddhists agreed with Wittgenstein's first claim, "the world is all that is the case" but disagreed with his second claim "the world is the totality of facts, not of things" instead thinking "the world is not the totality of facts, or things, or properties, or factors, or dharmas, or activities; it simply is as it is."
Prajnaparamita-ontologies do not reject properties or things entirely, they are among those things that exist conventionally, but they are simply not present at the deepest level of reality. For these pictures, it is often appropriate to speak of properties or things or factors, when our goal is not to speak about ultimate reality, or not to speak with aching precision, but instead to converse with people on day to day matters or to introduce them gradually to the deeper aspects of reality.
Tu Shun lived from 557-640 CE in China, and was the first Patriarch of the Hua-Yen or Flower Garland school of Chinese Buddhism, which focused on the interpretation of the Sanskrit Buddhist text the Avatamsaka Sutra (which existed by 420 CE and parts or all of it are probably earlier than that). Tu Shun thinks he is just interpreting the Avatamsaka Sutra, and that may be so, or perhaps his commentary is improving or systematizing the ideas of the Sutra. His school teaches that we come to understand reality in a series of stages.
Tu Shun's succinct formulation is: 'First, one in one. Second, all in one. Third, one in all. Fourth, all in all.'" (Buddha Boogie, "The Tautological Paradigm", pg 305).
Object/property metaphysics, Monism, and the prajnaparamita picture, are each correct stages of understanding, but none are the ultimate layer of being, which is the "all in all." The Avatamsaka Sutra uses the metaphor of the Jeweled Net of Indra (the king of the gods). Imagine a vast net (that is a lattice) with a jewel at each juncture. Each jewel reflects every other jewel in the net, so that every jewel stands in "relation" or "connection" with every other jewel, so that any change in any jewel is reflected in some way in every jewel. Now let each jewel represent an individual life form, cell, atom or unit of consciousness. For the Avatamsaka Sutra, and Tu Shun reality at its most basic is a vast array of inter-relationships. Individual objects are constituted by their pattern in the whole, and indeed their distinctness and independent existence is fairly suspect. They are at all only because of their network of interrelationships to all other beings.
In Bundle theory, we saw a picture where substance is dependent in its being on primary properties which are ontologically fundamental. A lattice-ontology imagines relations, rather than properties or objects to be fundamental, and properties and objects to be derivative upon the relations.
Interestingly, Leibniz in the West advances almost exactly the same picture in his Monadology. One of the principle features of monads is that each reflects the entire universe. In Leibniz, though, monads are thought of as "substantial forms of being." So probably it is best to think of him as a substance-ontologist, who is trying to resist both thing and stuff pictures. It is only if one goes one step further and says that interrelations are the fundamental beings, and substances are merely modes of interrelation that the ontology starts looking distinct from substance-ontology. My guess is that this kind of picture is going to become slowly more popular. Substance-ontologies work great for mechanical views of the world, but Vitalist and ecological views tend to fit better with process-ontologies or lattice-ontologies. Also from a modern mathematical perspective it is very natural to think of properties as unary relations, and to think of k-ary relations as interpretations of k-ary predicates, so it is fairly easy to think of properties and predicates as degenerate cases of relations.
If we think of substances and properties as nouns and adjectives, then it is natural to look for a metaphysical category for verbs or adverbs. Western traditional metaphysics has a lot of trouble with verbs and verbal phrases. It tends to assimilate, adjectival phrases, prepositional phrases, and verbal phrases all to the broader metaphysical category of predicates, and then have troubles distinguishing them again.
In Aristotle, for example, action is categorically parallel to quantity, quality, relation, place, position, state, time, and even affection. How exactly verbs are supposed to work is a source of controversy and confusion in India, too. But you could, in theory, make verbs or adverbs the primary layer of being, and try to make noun or adjective-like modes of being look derivative. Modernly, this is the goal of Process-ontologies. It has been suggested that some parts of ancient Chinese thought look a lot like process-ontologies or precursors of them, especially reflection on the Yi Jing (the Classic on Changes), or Yin-Yangist reflection on the wu hsing (5 elemental processes).
But even trickier is the thorny question of how to interpret early philosophical Taoist thought, such as the Daodejing (the Classic on the Way and the Power) attributed to Laozi. Here the fundamental ontological category is the Dao or Tao or "Way." It is the origin of heaven and earth, and the mother of all things, but is not itself very thing-like. The very first line of the text (in its modern versions) is "tao k'o tao fei ch'ang tao" or "The 'way' that 'can be' 'wayed/walked' 'cannot be' the 'unchanging' 'way.'" The word "dao" appears 3 times in 6 words: as a noun, a verb and a modified noun. It is a path and a walking of a path, a river's course and its coursing of its course. And changing is essential to it. Exactly what this text is trying to say is a subject of much contention and interpretation, but it is pretty clearly rejecting substance and type ontologies.
Maybe it too is advancing a process-ontology of some kind. Maybe it is essentially a kind of verbal-monism, in which all things are modes of the way. But this can be interpreted as a kind of adverbialism where all things other than the way are at root adverbs, ways for the way to way. One of my old colleagues liked to put it like this: The world is appearing to me treely. The world is happening stop-the-war-in-Iraqly. The world is appearing to me confusedly. The world is happening driving-down-the-roadly.
If adverbs are the fundament of being, then processes would merely be constituted by the more fundamental ways to process, and objects and properties would be merely odd ways of trying to express adverbial realities. A property like being red, winds up being a way of happening redly. I'm not entirely convinced that anyone, even the Taoists, have actually advanced an adverbial-ontology, and its not clear to me what you buy yourself ontologically by making adverbs fundamental, but its possible that this is what some Taoists are trying to do, and even if they aren't it's a logically possible form of ontology.
There is no real requirement to say that at the basic level reality is of one grammatical category. Even traditional western ontology usually acknowledges both substances and predicates as jointly fundamental. You could, in principle, hold that objects and factors are both fundamental, or that processes and types are, or that the one substance (Nature) and variety of ways for the subject to behave are jointly fundamental. You could even say that all these ontological categories are among the ways for being to be, and plenty more besides, and that forms of being are not typically built up out of more basic forms of being, but rather that there are lots of varieties of primitive or fundamental being. But this is not usually popular.
There is some kind of powerful reductionist impulse in the history of world ontologies, whereby most ontologists seem to want to reduce other categories of being to some one or two fundamental ones. Perhaps this is because people are reductionists at heart, or because one's native language has a kind of trump, or maybe it is because Unificationists are right about how explanation works.
Medieval Neo-Confucians in China, (Like Zhu Xi) interpret the Yi Jing as describing two distinct but inter-related layers of reality "the tao of every class of things" and "the tao of the transformation of all things." Maybe Zhu Xi is best thought of as hybrid-ontologists who admit the fundamental reality of both process and type. Maybe. Similarly, contemporary western thinkers Casati and Varzi grant that you could think of events and objects as equally ontologically fundamental (in their Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article "Events"), but they don't give any examples of thinkers who actually do. Hybrid-ontologies seem to be theoretically possible, but simply not very tempting, both anciently and contemporarily.
2.10 Hamiltonian mechanics, Field-Ontologies, Group-Ontologies and Others
By the 1800s Western mathematicians are inventing ontological categories left and right, but not generally arguing for them as being fundamental. In 1788, LeGrange had found a way to mathematically reformulate Newton's mechanics, so that the results were all the same, but the equations were (sometimes) much easier. Legrangian mechanics did not and does not seem to have altered anything important at the ontological level. William Rowan Hamilton invents quaternions in 1843, and then some of his allies such as Peter Tait argue for restating the claims of physics in terms of them. Maxwell's famous equations are stated in quaternion notation in 1865 in his own research, but the quaternion notation isn't really that far from our normal intuitions about objects as occupying space and time. Indeed, a big chunk of Hamilton's goal is to show why the one dimension of time seems to work so differently than the three dimensions of space.
Hamilton's ontology leaves objects and properties intact, and merely tries to situate them in a 4-space in which three of the dimensions work differently than the fourth. In a Hamiltonian formulation of a classical mechanical system we have three basic ingredients, states (which in many ways are algebraic precursors of Wittgenstein's states of affairs), observables (which work just like properties), and dynamics (by which we can represent conjugate momenta, via only 1st order differential equations.) Hamilton is trying to re-understand space and time, and he doesn't think he is shaking object-property metaphysics at all. But in order to make equations for figuring out object-property physics easier, he is taking short-cuts through quite different ontological categories, such as "states" and "dynamics" which are probably setting the stage for later fact-ontologies and process-ontologies.
But by the late 1800s other mathematical physicists are moving to a more radical position, that fields, especially vector-fields or later tensor-fields or spinor-fields, are fundamental. A vector-field is an assignment of a vector (a quantity + direction) to every point of an N-space of some kind. So, for example, the gravitational field of a single large mass (say the earth), would be a collection of force vectors pointing towards the center of the earth, with magnitudes depending on (roughly) the inverse square of the distance to the center of the mass. The gravitational field of a two mass system, (say the earth and moon) is more complex, but still quite mathematically tractable.
Newton imagines gravitational attraction as a thing, namely a "force" with properties like magnitude and direction. You could think of a field as an infinite array of possible forces depending on one's location. But it is more natural to think of a field as a single entity, but one that isn't very thing like. It spreads over a whole space and can be fully co-spacious with other fields. It is natural to think of the two-body gravitational field as the product of two distinct one-body fields.
During the 1800s fields are becoming more and more prominent in physics. Electricity, magnetism, gravitation, hydrodynamics, and meteorology all start using them. They begin as notational devices, but increasingly become ontological categories. Mathematical physicists like Gibbs, Heaviside, and Lord Kelvin, argued for physical theories to be expressed in field notations. Gibbs, for example, believed that mathematics IS a language, and thus that the job of the theoretical mathematical physicist is to improve the language in which we can express physical truths. Thus moving to vector-field notations amounted in Gibb's mind to linguistic-ontological reform in how we think and speak about the fundamental ontology of physical entities. The Gibb-Heaviside field picture of physics is powerful, flexible and extremely abstract, relying (intentionally) heavily on high end algebra and analysis. It is intended to be as general to matter as possible and to work well on many scales and contexts, rather than to focus on matter's structure at very-small scales, or very large ones. I'm inclined to think it is a departure from traditional object/property metaphysics (fields aren't really either) and from natural language (preferring the artificial language of algebraic analysis). The Gibb-Heaviside picture is still used a lot, especially for physics and engineering at super-atomic scales, but it's rare to find folk who think it is fundamental anymore. It is certainly also possible to use field notations in physics without particularly subscribing to a field-ontology. Einstein, for example, described his theories as "A true triumph of the methods of the general differential calculus founded by Gauss, Riemann, Christoffel, Ricci, ... p. 626." Thus, for him, the fields used in differential calculus were methodological innovations, not insight into how things are.
Field-ontology isn't the only attempt to make 19th century mathematical entities fundamental constituents of being. My old differential equations teacher, Pimon Ajanapon, an ex-Buddhist monk and mathematician, was trying to build an ontology in which sets would be the only fundamental beings, but as far as I know he never got very far.
More importantly, Max Klein began a project in algebra called the Erlangen Program which wanted to use group theory to look at invariants over transformations. After the success of the Lorenz transformations, this started looking like it might be the path to fundamental physical ontology, and motivated a lot of the work of the 1930s and 1940s.
The Weyl-Fock-London gauge theory was popularized by Pauli in the 1940s. By 1947 Hungarian physicist Cornelius Lanczos is arguing that all physical laws are self-adjoint variational principles, in effect that gauge groups are the presence of physical laws at the level of fundamental ontology. Yang and Mills explored non-abelian gauge symmetry groups in the 1950s and later models, such as the Standard Model and string theory continue to have a hefty gauge group component today. If I am understanding correctly, and that's a big if, particles (that is objects with properties using the traditional ontology), fields (now often tensor or spinor fields, rather than the more basic vector fields), and gauge groups are all used in many formulations of physical theories. The Standard Model, for example, is expressed in gauge group notation, but can derive particle-notations and field-notations with a fair bit of ease.
It seems that some physicists think of the particles as fundamental and the fields and gauge groups as notational schemes to make the math nice, whereas others think of the fields, or gauge-groups as fundamental. On the other hand, "the Standard Model" is probably not all the way to fundamental yet. The question is, if it could be extended to a model that included gravity as well as electromagnetism, strong nuclear, and weak nuclear interactions, would it rely on particles, fields, gauge-groups, all three or something else? Gauge groups are, or perhaps are close to being, sub-species of the forms that Plato was on about, they are invariants over local and global transformations. It is possible that gauge group ontologies are really best thought of as a contemporary sub-variety of type-ontology, but I'm suspending judgment on that at the moment.
There is an active contemporary group called the IIFB, the International Institute of Field-Being, it was formed in 1996 and holds symposia and meetings in conjunction with the American Philosophical Association. Its goal is the study of non-substantialist ontologies in both the East and West, and has roots in American study of Chinese thought and Chinese study of American thought. While fields are part of Lik Kuen Tong's ontology, the IIFB are really pretty clearly what I'm calling process-ontologists. See http://www.iifb.org/. They categorize all ontologies into two kinds, substantialist and non-substantialist, which seems to me to be running together a lot of alternatives, but gives a feel for where the current thinking on typologies of fundamental ontology is prior to this paper.
Continued in "A Taxonomy of Fundamental Ontologies, Part 3"
- 0 replies
- 3,291 views
Brian M added a article in PhilosophyA Taxonomy of Fundamental Ontologies, Part 1By Brian Morton (2009)
A colleague once asked if I could give him “a taxonomy of ‘forms of ontology’ and where properties fit within it.” This paper is a preliminary attempt at filling that tall order. Since the history of human thought about ontology is so greatly diverse, it is really beyond the scope of this paper to do anything more just sketch out the basics of over about a dozen forms of ontology in order to give a rough survey of philosophical reflection on ontology fundamentals. But, this is not just a history of ontologies paper, because, in some cases, I am trying to point to a way in which one could attempt to construct an ontology – especially when I am not entirely convinced that anyone has actually yet attempted to fully develop some particular form of ontology.
The West’s traditional picture of the world imagines particular objects – things - to be the central reality of our world, and for these things to have properties - adjective-like modifiers of exactly how they are. Wittgenstein however disagrees. He begins his Tractatus:
1. The world is all that is the case.
1.1 The world is the totality of facts, not of things.
For Wittgenstein, being at its most basic level is composed of facts not of things. He is advancing what I will call a fact-ontology, rather than a thing-ontology which itself, according to this preliminary taxonomy, is a sub-variety of a substance-ontology.
According to some substance-ontologies, substances are all physical; according to others, substances are all mental; for still others, substances come in both kinds, or come in exactly four kinds, or an infinity of kinds, etc. But, for all substance-ontologies, being is noun-like at its most basic level, regardless of substances having properties of some kinds and perhaps other predicables, such as relations or locations or states. There are many good questions of ontology and metaphysics, besides the ones we are exploring here, but in this paper my goal is to explore the question “what grammatical categories is being most like at its most fundamental?”
The thing-ontologist answers “nouns.” The fact-ontologist answers “complete sentences.” But what other answers have tempted people over the years? Not everyone is going to be happy with this analogy to grammar, but it will work well for many of the pictures. Personally, I suspect that much of ontology is merely unconscious following of the prejudices of the grammar of one’s native language, and much of the rest of ontology is conscious reflection on what the grammar of a more ideal language would be like.
It currently looks to me like the rough history of fundamental ontology goes in three basic periods: classical development from ancient times to the 1800s; a period of transition in the late 19th and early 20th century; and a great rebirth of fundamental ontology in the 1920s leading to the contemporary situation.
In the West, substance-ontologies of one variety or another have dominated from pre-Socratic days until now; so much so that Heidegger complained that the tradition covers over the very possibility of dispute on fundamental ontology. I disagree. It seems that Platonic form-theory, styles of Monism (especially Neo-Platonic ones), and aporetic approaches have been important competitors with the standard picture throughout Western history. The Islamic world seems to fit the European experience pretty closely on ontology.
In India, both Monism and substance-ontologies have old roots, (as probably does the aporetic approach). The Buddhists also develop 3 newer positions, factor-ontology (circa 300 BCE), prajnaparamita-ontology (circa 0 BCE), and lattice-ontology (by circa 600 CE), all of which also find their way into China by the 700s.
In ancient China, a type-ontology similar to Plato’s form theory seems to be the normal default position. However, it is arguable that the later Mohists advanced something quite like a substance-ontology, and Zhuangzi and Hui Shih advanced aporetic pictures. Sometimes Taoist philosophy is interpreted as advancing an adverbial picture and the Yin-Yang school is advancing either a process-ontology or the beginnings of one, or something like it. Medieval China perhaps sees hybrid fundamental ontologies trying to integrate type and process.
In the West it is surprising that the revolutions of modern philosophy don’t shake up pictures of fundamental ontology much, but they don’t seem to. Descartes tries valiantly to doubt everything, but winds up importing medieval substance/property metaphysics pretty much wholesale, but fiddles with the boundaries of the mental and physical. Idealism, Empiricism, Romanticism and so on, challenge much of epistemology, metaphysics and ethics, but leave the basic substance/property picture more or less untouched. Leibniz is trying to break out of the pattern here, and creates something much like Tu Shun’s picture (see section 2.7 in Part 2 of this essay). Maybe this is just a new wrinkle on substance-ontology, or maybe it is something more fundamental. Likewise, perhaps Hegel has something new to offer here too, maybe.
But by the 1800s mathematicians are inventing all kinds of stunning new ontological entities: groups, fields, rings, functions, sets, non-standard geometries, matrices, etc. Of course, they aren’t (generally) claiming them to be fundamental constituents of being; that comes later. Hamiltonians in 1860s, argue that the discovery of quaternions are fundamental and that physics should be re-phrased in terms of them, and in the process of doing so give us early versions of modern notions of state and process. Likewise in the 1880s physicists rephrase everything again in terms of vectors and vector-fields. This seems to often be a shift in thinking about fundamental ontology rather than just a methodological issue to many of them. Discoveries about the behavior of electricity and magnetism have simply made fields more plausible as underlying beings, and shown how fields aren’t really that close to traditional substances. Neither Hamilton, nor the field and vector advocates are really setting out to alter fundamental ontology; they are setting out to try new mathematical formalisms. But they and later folk are slowly convinced of the deep reality of their formalisms.
Things really heat up from 1887-1920s as the Michealson-Morley experiments, Einstein’s relativity theory and the quantum mechanics results start pouring in, making classical ontologies look inadequate. At the same time, more purely philosophical innovations from Wittgenstein, Whitehead, and Heidegger are re-opening the question of fundamental ontology directly, typically by explicitly disagreeing with the traditional ontology. In the 1920s it looks like ontology is a question that can be re-examined, and one that needs to be (although some conclude upon examination that the old ways are still best). Fact-ontologies, Process-ontologies, Trope-ontologies, and the Copenhagen ontology all emerge during the 1920s. These as well as many further variants of the “cope-with-quantum” strain have continued to develop over the 20th century, as (perhaps) have event-ontologies.
Table of fundamental ontologies:
Continued in "A Taxonomy of Fundamental Ontologies, Part 2"
- 0 replies
- 4,037 views
Brian M added a topic in ExploreFrankfurt-Style Cases, Free Will, and Moral Responsibility
The classic Frankfurt-style free will problem goes something like this. Imagine that our hero, Jones, has been secretly knocked out while sleeping, by the evil Dr. Sinister, who has installed a control device in his brain, a small microchip say. This microchip is programmed so that if at noon the next day, Jones has not decided to raise his hand, then the chip will cause him to raise his hand anyway! But if Jones does decide to raise his hand at noon the next day, the chip will remain silent and allow Jones
- 5 replies
- 6,532 views