Forrest Cameranesi: Geek of all Trades

On Ontology, Being, and the Objects of Reality

Ontology (from the Greek word "ontos", meaning "being") is the study of being, as in existence, or reality. It is about the kinds of things that exist, and what it is to exist, or to be real. As such it is the core field of the slightly wider field of metaphysics, and often simply what it meant by the latter term. I think of it as the study of the objects of reality, in that it is about the things that are real, the things being described by descriptive speech-acts. I would also characterize it as being about the criteria by which we judge such descriptive speech to be correct, inasmuch as descriptive speech makes claims about what states of affairs are real, and ontology is about what it is for some state of affairs to be real.

Abstract and Concrete Existence

Traditionally ontology deals with existence in its widest variety of senses. But I have already dealt with the topic of abstract existence, like of numbers and other mathematical objects, in my previous essay on logic and mathematics. The topic of what philosophers call "universals" (like redness, roundness, or bigness) is traditionally considered a subtopic of that topic, those things abstractly existing inasmuch as we can define what we mean by them, in a slightly looser version of the same way that mathematical objects are defined into existence. I also consider the topic of fictional objects to be a subset of that topic, fictional objects being defined into abstract existence by works of fiction in roughly the same way mathematical objects are defined into abstract existence by mathematicians.

I hold that all of those kinds of abstract objects exist in an abstract sense, in the manner detailed in that previous essay. But in this essay, I am only dealing with the topic of concrete existence, by which I mean the existence of empirical phenomena, the kinds of things that we can experience via our senses; as well as the existence of slightly more abstract, but still at least indirectly observable objects like those posited by theories of physics as explanations of empirical phenomena, what we might call instrumental abstractions.

Objectivism vs Subjectivism

As should be expected from the positions already argued for in my previous essays against transcendentalism and against relativism, and summarized in my previous essay about commensurablism, my general position on the nature of reality is empirical realism.

That is to say, I hold that there definitely is a universal reality, as opposed to any kind of relativism, which hold that what is real is relative to someone's beliefs or experiences, or else (as I consider equivalent to those) that nothing is actually real at all. But I also hold that the content of that reality is entirely empirical in nature, that there is nothing real that is in principle beyond all observation, that if something exists, there will be some noticeable difference in the reality that we experience compared to what we would experience if it did not exist, and the whole of that thing's existence is the observable differences in reality it makes.

This empirical realism might well also be called physicalist phenomenalism, in that it holds that only physical phenomena exist – which is to say, things that are observable (phenomena) in a universal (physical) way accessible to all observers and not mere figments of any one person's imagination. This kind of view traces back to at least John Stuart Mill, who held the "permanent possibilities of experience" to constitute the entirety of an object's existence.

This is a kind of monism, holding that there is one kind of stuff that exists that all the many things in reality are made up of, in contrast with pluralist ontologies that hold that there are multiple fundamentally different kinds of stuff, especially with dualism as espoused by the likes of Rene Descartes which holds that there are wholly different mental and physical kinds of stuff. It is not quite the usual monism held contrary to that dualism, namely materialism, though as described above it is definitely physicalist; nor is it quite the other usual kind of monism, idealism, though as described above it is definitely phenomenalist.

Neither is it quite neutral monism in the usual sense, as espoused by the likes of Baruch Spinoza, as that holds that there is one kind of stuff that has both mental and material properties; whereas I hold, as will be elaborated by the end of this essay, that there are not so much different kinds of properties, much less different kinds of stuff, as there are what could crudely be called mental and material ways of looking at the same properties and the same objects, that are essentially both mind-like and matter-like in different ways, that distinction no longer really properly applying when we really get down to the details.

I would say that the most concrete things that exist are, as Alfred North Whitehead called them, "occasions of experience". These are the things of which we have the most direct, unmediated awareness, and the only things of which we can have no doubt.

Rene Descartes famously attempted to systematically doubt everything he could, including the reliability of experiences of the world, and consequently of the existence of any physical things in particular; which he then took, I think a step too far, as doubting whether anything at all physical existed, but I will return to that in a moment. He found that the only thing he could not possibly doubt was the occurrence of his own doubting, and consequently, his own existence as some kind of thinking thing that is capable of doubting.

But other philosophers such as Pierre Gassendi and Georg Lichtenberg have in the years since argued, as I agree, that the existence of oneself is not strictly warranted by the kind of systemic doubt Descartes engaged in; instead, all that is truly indubitable is that thinking occurs, or at least, that some kind of cognitive or mental activity occurs. I prefer to use the word "thought" in a more narrow sense than merely any mental activity, as I've touched upon in my previous essay on language, so what I would say is all that survives such a Cartesian attempt at universal doubt is experience: one cannot doubt that an experience of doubt is being had, and so that some kind of experience is being had.

But I then say that the concept of an experience is inherently a relational one: someone has an experience of something. An experience being had by nobody is an experience not being had at all, and an experience being had of nothing is again an experience not being had at all. This indubitable experience thus immediately gives justification to the notion of both a self, which is whoever the someone having the experience is, and also a world, which is whatever the something being experienced is. One may yet have no idea what the nature of oneself or the world is, in any detail at all, but one can no more doubt that oneself exists to have an experience than that experience is happening, and more still than that, one cannot doubt that something is being experienced, and whatever that something is, in its entirety, that is what one calls the world.

It is of course possible that oneself is the world, that self and world are the same thing. But then one just has solipsism, which is trivial: even if the world just is oneself, there is still a divide between the parts of it that one has direct knowledge and control over, and parts that are beyond ones knowledge and control. Even if that whole world-self is all there is, there is still the same practical reason to investigate into and act upon the parts of it that seem 'other' exactly as one would if it were in fact other. In the end, identifying the world with oneself (divided into a known and controlled part and a largely unknown and uncontrolled part) is no different than identifying oneself (which one knows and controls) as just a part of the world (the rest of which is largely unknown and uncontrolled), which is uncontroversially true.

So from the moment we are aware of any experience at all, we can conclude that there is some world or another being experienced, and we can then attend to the particulars of those experiences to suss out the particular nature of that world. The particular occasions of experience are thus the most fundamentally concrete parts of the world, and everything else that we postulate the existence of, including things as elementary as matter, is some abstraction that's only real inasmuch as postulating its existence helps explain the particular occasions of experience that we have.

On Indispensable Abstractions

Some of these abstract things are so fundamental that we could scarcely conceive of any intelligent beings comprehending reality without the use of them. Immanuel Kant called these kinds of things, things we cannot exactly observe but which we cannot help but use to structure the things that we do observe, "categories". The ones that I will describe here are not exactly the ones that he describes, though there is significant overlap.

On Qualitative and Quantitative Identity

The first thing we need to do to structure our experiences is to identify patterns in them. To do that, we need a pair of concepts that I call "quality" and "quantity", which allow us to think of there being several things that are nevertheless the same, without them being just one thing: they can be qualitatively the same, while being quantitatively different.

Any two electrons, for instance, are identical inasmuch as they are indistinguishable from each other, because every electron is alike, but they are nevertheless two separate electrons, not one electron. In contrast, the fictional character Clark Kent is, in his fictional universe, identical to the character of Superman in a quantitative way, not just a qualitative way: though they seem vastly different to casual observers, they are in fact the same single person. If two people are said to drive "the same car", there are two things that that might mean: it could mean that they drive qualitatively identical cars (or as close to it as realistically possible, e.g. the same year, make, and model), or it could mean that they drive the same, single, quantitatively identical car, one car shared between both of them.

With these concepts of quality and quantity, we can describe patterns in our experience as quantitatively different instances or tokens of qualitatively the same tropes or types. Out of this arise the notion of several different things being members of the same set of things ("qualities" as I mean them here mapping roughly to the mathematical concept of "classes", an abstraction away from sets, and "quantities" as I mean them here mapping roughly to the mathematical concept of "cardinality", an abstraction away from the measure of a set or class). And with that can be conducted all of the construction of increasingly complex abstract objects built from sets as detailed in my previous essay on logic and mathematics.

On Spatial, Temporal, and Modal Dimensions

Then to further structure those patterns, we need conceptual spaces in which to figuratively lay out those instances of those tropes, in which to cluster them together and separate them apart. The most elementary of those conceptual spaces, I hold, is what mathematicians and physicists call a phase space or configuration space, which is an entirely abstract, imaginary kind of space wherein each point represents one way the system under consideration could be, a kind of abstract space of possibilities, wherein the potential changes of our experiences can be structured.

If we then identify patterns, trends, in the movement of our experience through that abstract space of possibilities, we have constructed the concept of time in its usual linear sense, with one direction in the configuration space being designated the past and another designated the future. I hold that time is best conceived of literally as a line through an abstract configuration space like this, with other "possible worlds", other possible configurations of the world, being literally, ontologically the same kind of thing as other times, other times being merely a special subset of other possible worlds in which the present, or the actual world, can be found.

My conception of possible worlds, each being an instantaneous possible configuration of the universe, is different from the usual kind promoted by supporters of modal realism – this view that other possible worlds really exist – like David Lewis, who hold that other possible worlds each contain within them a whole temporal history changing from past through present to future. Other philosophers, such as logician Saul Kripke, seem to take possible worlds to be instantaneous configurations of the universe like I do, and speaking of things being possible, necessary, etc, "from" one world or another, rather than in absolute terms; something being possible in some world if it occurs in any other world "accessible" from that world, rather than just if it occurs in any possible world at all.

I would interpret that, on my model, as being equivalent to the temporal relationship between possible worlds: a world that is "accessible" from another is a possible future of that other world, and things that lie in possible futures of a given world are in a sense relatively possible from that world. But we can still speak meaningfully about things being possible in the absolute sense of occurring in any possible world at all, irrelative to any particular world from which that world is accessible.

With a concept of time established, we can then construct a concept of space, that being the time that it takes a change to one part of our experience to affect another part of our experience. This does not depend on any particular claims of contemporary physics about the speed of light being constant or anything like that: any arbitrary speed could be picked, even if the speed of light were not constant, by which to derive distances from durations, and to construct a concept of space from a concept of time. This is actually quite commonly done in casual speech: places may be said to be hours away by foot or minutes away by car, their distances given as the time it takes to travel there at a given speed (implied by the mode of transit).

On Spatial, Temporal, and Modal Bundles

Within these spaces, we can then separate bundles of experiences from each other into different objects, giving rise to concepts such as substance, which as outlined in my previous essay against transcendentalism is not directly observable and cannot really be said to exist unto itself, but is a useful concept for structuring bundles of experiences in space.

Patterns in our experience bundled together in time give rise to the concept of causation, which David Hume famously argued cannot be directly observed, only patterns of "constant conjunction". I agree with him about that as much as I agree with the likes of George Berkeley about substance, in that neither can really be directly known or said to really exist in any independent way, but they are nevertheless indispensable concepts in structuring the patterns of our experiences in space and time.

(These notions of substance and causation also map neatly onto the notions of mass and energy, inasmuch as mass can be thought of as the amount of substance in an object, and energy thought of as the capacity to cause changes).

Lastly, the concept of a kind of modal identity is useful for structuring ideas about counterfactual scenarios, bundling things together across possible worlds in a way broader than mere temporal causation. For instance we might want to say that had I made different choices in the past I would find myself in different circumstances in the present, and yet that counterfactual me in some other possible present is still nevertheless me in some sense, just as much as the past version of me that we both have in common is also me in some sense, connected to this present me by a chain of causation. I am presently what that past me became, in this timeline; and some other possible me is what that past me could have become, had things unfolded differently.

On the Subjects of Experience and Behavior

Two other useful concepts for structuring our experiences are what we might call mind and will, in very particular senses of those words, but I will explore those concepts in much greater detail in later essays. In short for now, the concept of "mind" as I mean it for these purposes is just that of whatever it is that is the subject of experiences, as opposed to the objects of those experiences: minds in this sense are whatever it is that are having the experiences, in contrast with whatever it is that the experiences are of. I hold that these are not ontologically different kinds of things, but rather, different roles that the same things can take on, and that all things do take on simultaneously.

(Note that by "experience" here I don't necessarily mean anything so robust as the kind of experience humans have, though that is a subset of what I do mean, which is something much more simple, shared by all objects; similar to, and I think identifiable with, what is meant by "observation" in quantum mechanics, which does not require a thinking person, but just any other physical system capable of interacting with the thing being "observed". I will detail my thoughts on "mind" in a more robust and useful sense than this in my later essay on that topic.)

And the concept of "will" as I mean it for these purposes is likewise a very simple subjective role that I hold anything can and everything does take on (with my thoughts on "will" in a more robust and useful sense than that to be detailed in my later essay on that topic). But rather than being the subject of experience, "will" as I mean it here is the subject of behavior, which is to say it is essentially agency in a very broad sense, the capacity to behave, to do things, in the same way that I mean "mind" here as the capacity to experience. And experience and behavior, as I am about to elaborate, I hold to be but two different perspectives on the same singular thing: interaction.

George Berkeley famously said that "to be is to be perceived", and as I've already detailed in my previous essay against relativism, I don't agree with that entirely, in part because I take perception to be a narrower concept than experience in a broader sense, and because I don't think it is the actual act of being experienced per se that constitutes something's existence, but rather the potential to be experienced. I would instead say not that to be is to be perceived, or that to be is to be experienced, but that to be is to be experienceable.

And I find this adage to combine in very interesting ways with two other famous philosophical adages: Socrates said that "to do is to be", meaning that anything that does something necessarily exists; and more poignantly, Jean-Paul Sartre said that "to be is to do", meaning that what something is is defined by what that something does. Being, existence, can be reduced to the potential for or habit of some set of behaviors: things are, or at least are defined by, what they do, or at least what they tend to do. (Coupled with the association of mass to substance and energy to causation above, this notion that to be is to do seems to me a vague predecessor to the notion of mass-energy equivalence). To combine this with my adaptation of Berkeley's adage, we get concepts like "to do is to be experienced", "to be experienced is to do", "to be done unto is to experience", and "to experience is to be done unto".

This paints experience and behavior as two sides of the same coin, opposite perspectives on the same one thing: an interaction. Our experience of a thing is that thing's behavior upon us. For example, an object is red inasmuch as it appears red, and it appears red inasmuch as it emits light toward us in certain frequencies and not others: the emission of the right frequencies of light, a behavior in a very broad sense, constitutes the property of redness.

Every other property of an object is likewise defined by what it does, perhaps in response to something that we must do first: an object's color may be relative to what frequencies of light we shine on it (e.g. something that is red under white light may be black under blue light), the shape of the object as felt by touch is defined by where it pushes back on our nerves when we press them into it, and many other more subtle properties of things discovered by experiments are defined by what that thing does when we do something to it.

Web of Reality

We can thus define all objects by their function from their experiences to their behaviors: what they do in response to what it done to them. The specifics of that function, a mathematical concept mapping inputs to outputs, defines the abstract object that is held to be responsible for the concrete experiences we have. Every object's behavior upon other objects constitutes an aspect of those other objects' experience, and every object's experience is composed of the behaviors of the rest of the world upon it. All of reality can then be seen as a web of these interactions, the interactions themselves being the most concrete constituents of that reality, with the vertices of that web constituting the more abstract objects, in the usual sense, of that reality.

We each find ourselves to be one complex object in that web, and the things we have the most direct, unmediated awareness of are those interactions between our own constituent parts, and between ourselves and the nearest other vertices in that web, those interactions constituting our experience of the world, and also our behavior upon the world. By identifying the patterns in those experiences, we can begin to build an idea of what the rest of the world beyond that is like, inferring the existence and function of other nodes beyond the ones we are directly connected to by their influence in the patterns of behavior of (and thus our experience of) those nearest nodes.

This work is where philosophy ends, as far as investigating reality goes at least, and the physical sciences take over, postulating the existence of abstract objects with functions that would give rise to the concrete experiences we have of the world. Early physics began by identifying the behavior of large complex objects, and the different kinds of stuff that they are made of, "elements" like "earth", "water", and "air". But in time it has found those all to be made of many kinds of smaller particles of a similar nature to each other, molecules, interacting with each other in different ways.

Those many diverse molecules have in turn been found to all be composed of a more limited set of still smaller particles, atoms; and those in turn of an even smaller set of smaller particles still, electrons and nucleons like protons and neutrons; the latter in turn made up of triplets of two still smaller and more fundamental particles called up and down quarks. And I believe that contemporary physics has come far enough along, dug deep enough into the constituent particles of reality, that it has now identified as its most fundamental particles objects that are literally identifiable with the very "occasions of experience" that make up the web of reality described in my ontology above.

For clearest illustration, consider the experience of vision, which is now understood to be mediated by particles of light called photons. Whenever we see anything, all we're actually seeing in the most technical sense is the photons that hit our eyes; the objects we see, in the casual sense most people mean, are only inferred from the patterns in those photons hitting our eyes. Because of the distortion of space and time relative to motion, from the frame of reference of any given photon, the distance that it travels between whatever emitted it and your eye is zero, and the journey takes no time at all; from the photon's perspective, it exists only at a point and only for an instant, the whole of its being constituted entirely by the interaction between whatever emitted it and your eye.

Contemporary theories of physics hold that fundamentally, all of the most fundamental particles are essentially like photons in that way, all naturally moving at the speed of light, and so finding themselves, in their own frames of reference, to exist for but an instant at the point where two other objects interact, and their own existence consisting entirely of that interaction between them. It is only the aggregate patterns of interactions between these particles that gives rise to the appearance of the conventional, slower-moving particles out of which all of the aforementioned structures arise, up to the macroscopic scale we're familiar with.

For instance, electrons as we commonly understand them are understood to be an aggregate pattern of two different light-like particles, each similar to an electron and to each other but differing from each other in a property called spin, neither of which is able to travel any measurably large distance in space without immediately interacting with something called the Higgs field. The Higgs field absorbs that particle, and immediately emits another identical to it other than having opposite spin, only for that to be immediately reabsorbed and a particle like the first one emitted again, the overall pattern of those two kinds of particles, oscillating between each other immeasurably quickly as they interact with the Higgs field, constituting the particle that we conventionally think of as an electron.

Those light-like fundamental particles, that I think are identifiable with the interactions or "occasions of experience" that constitute the web of reality as described here in my ontology, thus make up, in a sense, the electrons and quarks that make up the atoms that make up the molecules that make up all of the matter that makes up the entire world, including people like you and me.

Continue to the next essay, On the Mind and the Subjects of Reality.