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, Phenomenology, Pyrrhonism, 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.
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…
- 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 🙂