Ontology: Not Down for the Count?

Ontology as What Lies Beneath

I’d like to explore some of what I wrote previously about giving phenomena pride of place when confronting the phenomena/ontology duality.

What is ontology?  Need it be the Kantian “thing in itself” that leads to all phenomena, or can it be relative — that which gives rise to a particular phenomenon, even if it itself is another phenomenon?  If the latter, then we can speak of levels and types of ontology.

For example, let’s say someone bumps into me, and I wonder if this was intentional or an accident. This is an ontological speculation of a sort (the intention behind a phenomenon). The result of that speculation can lead to me being angry or brushing it off. Since my reaction to things defines my happiness (or misery), this means my belief in ontology may not be that easy to dismiss.

The bare facts of the phenomena are neutral, it’s the ontological speculation that gives rise to emotional responses.

Out of convenience  I may conflate ontology with belief in an ontology, but this doesn’t affect what I have to say.  In this sense, I regard belief as the phenomenal expression of an ontology. Indeed, what can it mean to say something could even have an ontology if this ontology isn’t in my awareness as some potential belief?

Other ontologies factor into my emotional response to phenomena. For instance…

  • Is a mental image a fantasy or a memory of a real event?
  • Is an act right or wrong?
  • Is a course of action good or bad?
  • Is an act intentional or accidental?

Some of these dualities (e.g.: good/bad) are short-hand for the quality of phenomena I expect to follow (for instance, breaking up could lead to many phenomena I’d rather avoid).  However, ontologies often get reified, so that beyond being short-hand, the good-ness or bad-ness of an event seems real on its own.  Once reified, I may cling to the (imagined) object on its own terms, and with a greater emotional response than the (expected) resulting phenomena called for.

The phenomena/ontology divide figures heavily in philosophy. Plato, Descartes, Bundle Theory,  substance ontology, PhenomenologyPyrrhonism, Madhyamaka Buddhism — the list goes on and on.  But I’d like to focus on the ontological views of one philosopher in particular.

The Philosophical Bishop

Bishop George Berkeley had a front row seat to the phenomena/ontology duality.  In particular, his phenomena/ontology views were a response to this age-old epistemology question:

How do we know if our experience reflects reality?

This question is familiar to many of us today.  Every time someone says “I could be a bump on a log”, she is acknowledging this question.  Every time someone watches “The Matrix”, they’re confronting this question (with more explosions). Note the phenomena/ontology duality here.  Experience is phenomena, and reality is ontology.

Berkeley had an elegant approach to this problem. He realized that the question arose only because one assumed there was something behind experience, and once that belief was in place, a question of how it related to experience occurred. Put another way, the creation of the phenomena/ontology duality created the conflict at the center of epistemology!

Rather than solve the problem, Berkeley eliminated ontology and hence erased the question — and a good deal of philosophy.

Berkeley claimed that all we can know of an object came from our senses.  For instance, a cup consisted of a color, shape, texture and so on.  There was nothing outside of the sensory data that defined a cup, and any attempt to talk about the cup outside of the senses was literally senseless.

So why did people do this? Berkeley claimed it was because of the illusions of language.  With language, we can abstract and name things — even the nonsensical.  Since naming often reifies, we end up believing in the reality of a purely linguistic construct.

For instance, when I talk about a cup, I say it HAS a particular color, it HAS a particular shape, and so on.  Yet HAS implies an object outside of those properties, an object that possesses them.  In reality, the cup IS a color, shape and so on.  Thus language gives rise to an illusory ontology belying phenomena.

Berkeley’s views were clearly laid out in The Principles of Human Knowledge and in The Three Dialogues

Phenomena/ontology goes beyond philosophy.  Science’s theory building could be seen as constructing an ontology which is simply a framework for predicting phenomena (stolen from SelfAwarePatterns), and even software development deals with this subject head on.

The Philosophical Computer

Software is often divided into a user interface (phenomena) and data processing (ontology) portion.  The user interface is considered more transient than the data processing (shades of Plato’s Forms), yet the data processing reveals itself only through the user interface. All the user can know of the data processing is what the user interface provides, yet the data processing determines the contents of the user interface. Programmers often think in terms of this duality and focus on the data-processing, yet one could see software as a sequence user-interface changes (phenomena) instead.

Further, a variety of ontologies (data processing) can give rise to the same phenomena.  For instance, if the software doubles a number provided by the user, this doubling could be done by many means, including…

  • multiplication
  • adding the number to itself
  • constructing two arrays of that size, then counting the elements

Granted, some of these are silly, but the point is that the user sees the same phenomena from radically different ontologies.  This means the user’s ontological assumptions need not reflect what’s really happening, but need only be equivalent.

Makes me wonder about reality and theory building in science.

Indeed, I wonder if being a programmer has informed my philosophical views. As a programmer, I create worlds, and thus play God in limited domains.  Thus I confront some of the most fundamental questions of existence head on, on a regular basis.

I’ll try to remember this the next time I’m debugging 🙂


  1. I think the points about scientific theories are spot on. Scientific theories are actually metaphysical frameworks. Every theory assumes that the phenomenal experiences we’ve used to construct it won’t be contradicted by future experiences (the problem of induction). Of course, when the observations reach the billions, we’re on much firmer ground than when we’re at two observations.

    My programming background definitely has an effect on my philosophical views. Most strongly, I think it informs my awareness of two limitations. The first is that human abilities to assess logical correctness are far more limited than many philosophers are comfortable accepting. (Most programmers, on the other hand, have to learn to live with it.) The second is that, even with perfect logic, we can still be wrong if our premises are defective. (In programming, this usually arises when the programmer’s understanding of the requirements is flawed.)

  2. Agree with most of Bishop’s theory, but language alone is not the main culprit. Humans build their “phenomenal vocabulary” not just from language, but by how they evolve over their life time (personality, character, tendencies, behavioral impulses/inertia, etc). All the ontological questions you raised may go through one’s mind like, as bishop pointed out, some language gymnastics (do not mean anything by themselves), but their meaning is reified purely subjectively. Often one’s faith, beliefs, upringing/culture, purpose-in-life, etc.etc come into play.

    One’s ontological views may be expressed in language alone, but human thinking is driven not just by language but by one’s “whole package”. Hence the strong advocacy for karma, morality, dharma in buddhism. These are subtler forces that help one build a wholesome “phenomenal vocabulary”, if perfected, its nirvana.

    Concepts (words, language) in general have always been a problem in one’s spiritual/material evolution too. Hence the concepts like “kill the buddha”, nagarjuna’s emptiness doctrine, most of zen.

    • Excellent points, and I agree.

      I didn’t mean to imply that Berkeley said that ONLY language was the problem (although he might have said that), but it’s definitely a big — if not prime culprit.

      Or is it? If it’s conceptualization that’s the issue, then language can be seen as the verbal expression of conceptualization, in which case one could cite language as the prime culprit if one is willing to abuse the word a little to embody concepts as well.

  3. “What is ontology? Need it be the Kantian “thing in itself” that leads to all phenomena, or can it be relative — that which gives rise to a particular phenomenon, even if it itself is another phenomenon? If the latter, then we can speak of levels and types of ontology.”

    Wow, I had this thought just the other day. I’m sort of embarrassed that I hadn’t thought to formulate this question in this way sooner, given that I did study philosophy in college.

    It’s an interesting question because it forces us to think about the derivation of “thing in itself,” which seems like a really extreme concept. In everyday life, I think ontology is steeped in phenomena. In this realm, it’s hard to distinguish between phenomena/being and it does seem to admit many levels.

    • Ontology is so steeped in phenomena, that it may be more beneficial to speak of ontology as a type of phenomena, at which point, we can’t disentangle it from belief. Once we get to the “thing itself” we have something whose existence (or even if it exists) is unknowable, at which point we have to ask if there’s any point in even talking about that.

      • Kant is one of those philosphers with whom I disagree on a lot, but who I still appreciate for clarifying my thinking about a lot of things. It seems the more strongly I react against some of his views, the more it teaches me about those views.

      • My introduction to epistemology really started with Kant. At first I really bought into a lot of his philosophy (not so much the moral philosophy) but as time went on I changed a bit. Still, I’m glad I gave myself over to The Critique of Pure Reason in that way. There was a lot of struggle to get through, but a lot of learning too. Really indispensable stuff. I always seem to go back to him to explain other concepts.

  4. “The bare facts of the phenomena are neutral, it’s the ontological speculation that gives rise to emotional responses.”

    I wonder, are the ‘bare facts’ (allowing for a moment that they might exist) of the phenomena ‘neutral’? What is the ‘bare fact’ of any given sense contact, or its correlated representation? Is it the percept that follows from the primary sense contact, or is it the indistinct, initial sense contact?

    If it is the latter, then it is not known to the mind in conceptual/perceptual terms; it remains, in effect, unknown by the mind, even though it presents to the nervous system. This event is not retained in memory, only its re-presentation is. So, how can we ever establish that this unknown event is ‘neutral’ – whatever that may mean in this context?

    If it is the former, that’s to say, the percept that knows the initial sense contact, then it is highly fallible, and thus presents nothing other than its own, impenetrable lack of neutrality.

    • Yep!

      If I experience pain instantly when I encounter something, then isn’t the pain a bare phenomenon? Conversely, if (because of training/worldview) I no longer experience pain under the same conditions, can I claim I’m really at the level of bare phenomena?

      This is one of those pseudo-problems that plagues all philosophies (including Buddhism) and that arises because we use a convenient designation for what we’re doing (“ontological cleansing”) and reify it. In truth, it doesn’t matter whether we cleanse ontology or not; it matters if we achieve peace, and whether we’re cleansing ontologies or adding new ones is irrelevant.

      Yet sometimes people take this process too seriously — they elevate it to an ontology — and they end up in this vicious circle. Yet if we keep focused on what we’re doing (sotoriology) this problem vanishes.

      • “If I experience pain instantly when I encounter something, then isn’t the pain a bare phenomenon?”

        I would say this never occurs, if by ‘encounter’ you mean a physical contact with the body – the stubbing of one’s toe or some such. What happens in the actual ‘encounter’ is that I feel pressure, and ephemeral pin pricks of heat. Then in the next half-second I conceptualise the event, concluding that I am in pain, without pain or suffering yet being existent – the pain arrives two or three seconds later, and the suffering is a mental overlay that may or may not occur, as you suggest.

        So, when we talk about specific phenomena, we’re almost always talking about phenomena related to what we think of as the primary phenomenon, yet isn’t in actuality. The primary phenomenon is not a percept, or re-presentation, or interpretation, and yet our mind’s are conditioned to bring along such perceptual overlays to all experience, and it’s these that we confuse and conflate with the primary, (or what you call) bare phenomenon.

      • Well, I’m trying to move away from any ontologies like bodily contact, and instead focus on how things seem. When I used to encounter events that “caused” me pain, they seemed tightly bound. As I developed mindfulness, they seemed less coupled and hence I experienced less pain. Was the event and pain separate all along, and I simply needed to develop the mental skills to see this or did I simply graft another/different conceptual layer on the experience? My contention isn’t that it’s one or the other, but that we can abandon all this speculation as long as we keep our eye on the prize; is what I’m doing contributing to less pain? Of course to a certain extent I’m still presuming an ontology of causality — that what I’m doing is leading to the better experience (the separation of the event and pain).

  5. Nice one BiR.

    As Buddhism gets a few mentions it seems relevant that the Abhidharma literature denies the reality of all phenomena except one. So ontologically-speaking any talk of pain, bodies and so forth would reduce to a discussion of things that are not real but appear only as relative/dualistic phenomena having no self-existence.

    Soteriology and ontology would then end up being indistinguishable, since it would by knowing or (equivalently) being that which is real that one would realise the unreality of suffering and bodies and all space-time phenomena. There would be no ‘thing-in-itself’. For this view the tern ‘phenomena’ would not imply any ‘thing-in-itself’, which is not an idea that is endorsed by mysticism. .

    Not sure how this affects your thesis since I’m unclear ion some points, but it would be one way of reconciling soteriology, ontology and epistemology.

    • I really like this angle; Abhidharma merges sotoriology and (relative) ontology! This view is compatible with my article on relative ontology. It’s a shame Abhidharma doesn’t get more lay press. It and Madhyamaka are very fascinating angles on Buddhism.

      If you could let me know what points are unclear, I’d be happy to elaborate.

      • I didn’t find it clear what you were saying overall but this may be because I need to read it again, which I will.

        Meanwhile, by ‘relative’ ontology do you mean the ontology of relative phenomena? Or do you mean the relative degrees of phenomenal existence? Or neither?

      • A little of both. Some phenomena precede others, and seem to cause them, as such we claim those phenomena cause the others, and hence claim they are ontologies relative to the phenomena we decide they cause. For instance, if I see that stubbing my toe is always followed by pain, I can say that toe-stubbing is the cause of that particular pain. Now the toe-stubbing itself is not an absolute ontology (it too is a phenomena), hence my use of “relative ontology”.

  6. My problem is that I don’t come at ontology in the same way so find the use of words tricky. As the study of what exists I see ontology as the search for what is not relative, so ‘relative ontology’ sends my cognitive system into turmoil. This was why I couldn’t quite follow your thinking. But this may be just me.

    • I don’t think it’s just you. “Relative Ontology” is in quotes for a reason; it somewhat abuses the term, but I could find nothing better to explain what I was trying to get at — our inference that some phenomena are caused by, composed of, of the nature of (etc…) other phenomena, and to stress the fact that our only experience of “ontology” is as other phenomena (the most obvious example being the phenomena of belief).

      • I think I see your first point, I’d say ‘ontology’ has this meaning already but in addition seeks the source of these relative phenomena. If ‘relative’ ontology is a sort of limited ‘scientific’ ontology, one that does not aim to go beyond what is relative and observable, then I can see a use for the phrase.

        The second is less clear to me. Are you saying that ontology must be relative because our only knowledge of it must be as a relative phenomenon? It’s an interesting idea, and in some ways seems true, but it seems to me it only works if we assume that we are no more than a relative phenomenon. I don’t make this assumption, and would say that to make it is to put an end to ontology with an unnecessary prior assumption.

        The whole think is complicated, of course, by the perennial claim that existence is not the same thing as reality but quite the opposite. since all existent phenomenon are relative and impermanent.

        Maybe this is a major source of confusion since ontology asks what exists while the mystics say nothing really exists and that what matters is what is real. From this would emerge relative phenomenon and ‘relative’ ontology or the hierarchy of being. But this would be smoke and mirrors in ontological terms.

        My view would be that the most important phrase in ontology is ‘Know Thyself’, which nicely covers epistemology, soteriology and ontology all in one go.

        So while I both like and sort of agree with your post I feel it to be still rooted in a materialist or ‘wysiwyg’ paradigm so raises questions that cannot be properly resolved without going back to the starting premises. Metaphysics is intractable if we reify relative phenomenon.

      • I’m not saying that our ontologies must be relative. Rather, I was providing a counter-point to a point I made in another article. Previously, I had claimed that ontology was irrelevant to practice. However, depending on how you looked at it, that was not true. If we argue that our beliefs shape our experience, and that our beliefs are the phenomenal expressions of an ontology, then one can claim that ontology is relevant to happiness. Now, the most obvious (numerous) examples are ones related to whether or not a thing is good, or an act intentional, etc… However, I didn’t think these qualified as true ontologies (which I think are more ultimate), which is why I used “relative” ontology, as that phenomena which gave rise to other phenomena. I hope this clarified and didn’t confuse the issue even more 🙂

      • I think it’s mainly your use of the word ‘ontology’ that confuses me.

        “our beliefs are the phenomenal expressions of an ontology.”

        What does this mean? Surely our very existence as human beings is the phenomenal expression of an ontology. If we are to avoid a pile of turtles the relative must come from the absolute, and if we haven’t got an absolute in our theory then we haven’t got an ontology.

        Materialism and theism, say, regardless of whether they could ever work, are ontologies, but they are beliefs, the beliefs of a person who is a phenomenal expression of whatever phenomenon is not relative like us but absolute.

        I’d like to think I could convince you that there is nothing more important or relevant to happiness than ontology, but one thing at a time. 🙂

      • Let’s use the example of electrons. I don’t experience electrons, I experience sights, sounds, etc… Now, we can argue that electrons constitute what I experience, but where is that in my experience? That electrons exist at all in my phenomenal field, they exist as a belief (perhaps justified) that they are the constituents of matter. This is what I mean about belief being the phenomenal expression of an ontology. In this case, I’m using phenomena as (largely) a synonym for experience.

      • Pardon me Biar if this is too long. I feel in an evangelical mood.

        I see that you could argue that electrons are a belief and thus not empirical phenomena. (Perhaps this is shown by the scientific validity of the theory that there is only one electron). But one can argue that all empirical phenomena are not real and are only beliefs. A Cartesian approach to ontology would dismiss them as having an uncertain existence. So electrons would be beliefs AND empirical phenomena.

        Hence I agree about electrons but don’t see them as a special case. Ontology has difficulty in establishing the reality of anything at all. This would be consistent with your view that ‘phenomenal’ is a synonym for ‘experienced’ (which is a great point).

        How about his. In ontology we have no choice but to start with the unfalsifiability of solipsism and to recognise the limits it places on our conclusions. If an empirical phenomenon is an experience then all empirical phenomena are beliefs. They exist relative to us, but so did all the illusory phenomena in Neo’s universe. Only his awareness was an exception.

        I’d agree with a lot of your reasoning and you’ve said some important things here, but as it stands it leaves your ontology with nowhere to go. It is the claim of mysticism, the claim of many researchers, that all existence is relative. You seem to agree. But it is also a further claim that what is truly real transcends the distinction between existence and non-existence, (or, that we don’t think about existence correctly). If we endorse the first (relativity) claim we will hold an unfalsifiable view of phenomena but we won’t have an ontology. For an ontology we would need a an absolute phenomenon from which or within which the phenomenal world emerges.

        The only absolute phenomenon logically compatible with the idea that existence is always relative is one that encompasses existence but has its roots prior to relativity and this human world of opposites.

        As Eddington said, ‘There is no phenomenal way out of the phenomenal world’. For a complete ontology or fundamental theory there would have to be a non-phenomenal world as well.

        I’m assuming that an ontological scheme in order to qualify for the name, must be fundamental or at least capable of becoming so. The buck must not stop in mid-air or with an infinite regress of turtles, higher-order thoughts or prior universes.

      • I’m not denying the ontological status of electrons, I’m just saying that electrons qua electrons only exist in my experience as a belief, and I did this to elaborate on what I meant by ontologies finding phenomenal expression as beliefs.

        The only place I’m going is to argue against unnecessary ontological thinking. We can often stay with phenomena, and our beliefs create frameworks that can radically change our reaction to phenomena. This has ramifications on happiness.

        I believed that a (the?) reason we often couldn’t be with phenomena was that we valued ontologies as being truly real, and so I tried to invert that valuation by pointing out that phenomena were prime, and ontologies were inferences from phenomena

        That’s all I was trying to do. Does this make more sense?

        My article “The Bird and the Bastard” (https://bloggingisaresponsibility.wordpress.com/2015/04/14/the-bird-and-the-bastard/) uses a dialogue to illustrate an example of this. It’s actually based on a real experience I had (but dramatized in the form of a dialogue).

      • Great story! Fun but with an important message,

        Ontology for me would be first and foremost the study of what exists. An ontology therefore must always be (first and foremost) an explanation or theory of what exists.

        “We can often stay with phenomena, and our beliefs create frameworks that can radically change our reaction to phenomena. This has ramifications on happiness.”

        You state a finding of mysticism very clearly. But I cannot quite ‘get’ what ontology has to do with this. Most people have no ontology and do not think about such things. Yet they do not ‘stay with phenomena’.

        So while I’d agree about the ordinary mind getting in the way of direct or theory-free experience of phenomena, I wouldn’t see this as being much to do with a discussion of ontology. Usually people assume that phenomena exist without worrying what they mean by ‘existence’ or checking their assumption, so it’s pretty rare for anyone to have actually an ontology (as opposed to, say, an assumption of naïve realism). No scientists I know of has one. and hardly a living professional philosopher that I’ve read.

        But I do see what you mean. We are always categorising and naming things, and how we do it determines the nature of our experience. Just doing it gets in the way. In the beginning was the word…

        So I’m not disagreeing with your thesis, just struggling with the words. No need to flog it to death though, as I tend to do. 🙂

      • Theory-free is exactly what I’m talking about, and had I thought of that term, I might have used it instead of ontology. It sounds like you object to how I use ontology, and I may in fact be misusing it. So where I say “ontology” just use “theory-free” 🙂

  7. Hell, In my previous post that should have read, ‘yet people do stay with phenomena’, and not the opposite.

    ‘Theory-free’ doesn’t help me much but it doesn’t matter. I would agree with a lot of what you say, just cannot quite see the overall message.

    “The bare facts of the phenomena are neutral, it’s the ontological speculation that gives rise to emotional responses.”

    Another crucial point. A Buddhist would say that it is desire that leads to attraction and aversion, and this would begin with the ego. I was going to suggest that this is a different view, but on reflection perhaps one could say that it is the assumption that the ego is real that leads to desire that leads to attraction, aversion and other assorted emotional responses. In this case you are expressing more or less the Buddhist view of these things in your post. (Which is one reason why it interested me).

    Believing the ego to be real is an ontological belief and theory, as you say. My point was just that it is not an ontology, a general theory of what exists, but a belief about the existence of the ego. It is not a theory that solves any problems, and in fact it causes an infinite number of them.

    Buddhist ontology is easy since nothing would really exist, as would be consistent with your comments about the relativity of phenomena. Perhaps this shows how clearly you are thinking.

    • Well, there’s a point, but there’s also a rumination. The totality of these posts were building up to the role of theory in perception and its ramifications on happiness. I started stressing theory-free by pushing perception above theory and even going as far as to claim theory’s irrelevance, but then as a counter-point followed up ruminations on theory framing perception. Essentially, the point is epoche, sunyata, but from a different angle that tries to look at perception first rather than theory first (existence precedes essence)? Maybe because it’s a rumination, the message doesn’t stand out as clearly? In any case, I think you completely got what I had to say, and put it in a much better way. Again, I much prefer theory-free over ontology and may well have mis-used ontology in my posts.

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