Sunday, December 30, 2007

Building a sturdy ontology

Page Navigator>>
1. On First Cause
2. First steps: The General Principle of Equivalence
3. Building a sturdy ontology.
4. The cataclysm that attends the General Principle of Equivalence
5. On the structure available to possible worlds.

6. Boundary conditions of the world - the Cartesian view.
7. On denoting and the laws of thought.
8. Something for nothing, and why this is not absurd.

3. Building a sturdy ontology.

The subject of this post is to set out a basic ontology (see below for explanation of this term) as a metaphysical system that is capable of dealing with the concepts and constructions that develop under the action of the General Principle of Equivalence


Ontology is a spooky word and philosophers use and abuse it in many ways. Ontology can be seen as having four parts (Hofweber 2005):
(O1) the study of ontological commitment, i.e. what we or others are committed to,
(O2) the study of what there is,
(O3) the study of the most general features of what there is, and how the things there are relate to each other in the metaphysically most general ways,
(O4) the study of meta-ontology, i.e. saying what task the discipline of ontology should aim to accomplish, how the question it aims to answer should be understood, and with what methodology they can be answered.
According to Hofweber:
(O4) will have to say how the other three are supposed to be understood. If (O1) has the result that the beliefs we share commit us to a certain kind of entity then this requires us either to accept an answer to a question about what there is in the sense of (O2) or to revise our beliefs. If we accept that there is such an entity in (O2) then this invites questions in (O3) about its nature and the general relations it has to other things we also accept.


Let's look at the view of the Cartesian Meditator (one who accepts only that which is transcendent of doubt - see my post on the General Principle of Equivalence and Broughton's interpretation of this) as it relates to O1 to O4.
A NOTE FOR HARDCORE PHILOSOPHERS (to be ignored by everyone else): First recall that the Meditator I adopt here is the Meditator who sticks rigorously to Descartes' Method of Doubt as interpreted by Broughton (2002), but not the one that later drops this method for a softer view of a non-deceiving God. To complicated and long winded to talk about that here.

On O1: The Cartesian Meditator commits only to that which is indefeasible - meaning that which cannot be doubted. But this means directly that if there is something which is transcendent of doubt, one is obliged to accept it. One cannot say 'Oh that's all very good, but here is a counterexample' unless one can show that the counterexample is transcendent of doubt. If this were properly shown then my thesis fails, but there can't be two truths that disagree in reality, so I feel quite safe as Cartesian Meditator.

On O2: Virtually all that presents to the Cartesian Meditator is suspect - an illusion. It can't be trusted because one might be dreaming or tricked by an evil genius (see Descartes work or that of Newman in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy ('Descartes Epistemology') for more on this). Two things must be brought into the 'actual' ontology, from the 'possible' ontology (see Fine (1991), and that is the Meditator himself or herself, and the General Principle of Equivalence (seem my posting on this). Actually, everything else is suspect.

On O3: What are the general features of what there is? This concept is to my mind monumentally dangerous. We talk about properties, relations, tropes, space, things and no end of other aspects of what there is or might be. The Cartesian Meditator is very concerned about these. Kant looked at these in detail and showed that all these are essentially concepts manufactured in the mind, any or none of which might be a proper term for what is. No matter what we think of properties and so forth, we have no way of properly supposing that such notions are any proper basis to create a system that relates to the World-as-it-is-in-itself. If this is perfectly obvious to you, you can skip the next few paragraphs.

Swinburne (1995) investigates various kinds of properties, providing notions of hard and soft properties, general relational properties, general properties, particular relational properties, soft past-related properties and other variations, and then enunciates six different versions of the Principle of Identity of Indiscernibles (Leibniz - look up Wikipedia or the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on this if you are interested) relating to these definitions. For example (p. 390): ‘Any two individuals which have all the same general hard and past-related soft properties are the same individual.’ He then explores the implications of adopting each form of the principle. His purpose in doing so is to investigate which individuals might have ‘thisness’.
Armstrong (2005) takes a different tack. Rather than supposing various categories of properties, he compares and contrasts properties from the majority views, asking (p.309)
1. ‘Are properties universals or tropes?’
2. ‘Are properties attributes of particulars or are particulars just bundles of properties?’
3. ‘Are properties categorical (qualitative) in nature, or are they powers?’
4. ‘If a property attaches to a particular, is this predication contingent or is it necessary?’

I will consider Armstrong’s paper in some detail because this thesis provides terms under which these questions may be addressed, using a principle of equivalence. In particular, the question is not whether universals are properties or tropes, or categorical in nature or powers, but how properties, or whatever there is, can form unified structures having complexity any greater than a simple.
Armstrong supports universals rather than tropes. He is prepared to forego the simplicity of tropes, because identities across particulars (that is, universals) seem to be necessary to hold the world together. I will later argue that universals are not imbued with this characteristic, whether property or trope, or anything else.
He asks (p. 311) ‘How do properties stand to the particulars that have the properties?’ and finds that bundle theories have (p. 311) ‘great difficulty with the metaphysics of the uniting principle or principle of bundling,’ but admits that a similar problem applies to the alternative view (which he later addresses). He wonders what might bundle ‘dispositions’. Again he implies that all things may be expected to fall apart, and he infers that this is one of the most confounding metaphysical problems. Later he expresses the view that he likes the idea that every property should bestow power, presumably because this would provide some connection between cause and effect. This would be consistent with his adherence to the Eleatic Principle (Colyvan 2004).
Armstrong explains (p. 317) that
Baxter had wrestled with the problem of the ‘fundamental tie’ that is supposed to hold together particular and universal. It is the great difficulty that is regularly raised against universals. It apparently relates particular and universal, but it seems to be more fundamental than a relation. Philosophers sympathetic to universals have said apparently desperate things such as ‘non-relational’ tie’. Baxter came up with the idea that the particular and its universal actually overlapped, were partially identical. A thing’s properties, the universals it instantiates, go to make up a thing, and the things that a universal is instantiated by go to make up a universal. [my emphasis]
I have quoted this at length, because this is very similar to the solution that will derive in this work. However, to achieve this unity I have to drop the idea of universals, particulars and things. This is a tack that Armstrong warns against, for to remove any universal could have unwanted results. ‘The damage might ripple on further. So beware!’ (Armstrong 2005, p. 318).
I say 'rubbish'. If that is what removing universals does, then so be it. Let's not presume that such a fragile system would be a proper model of the world. The universe has been here since the beginning, so it is a bit stronger than all that.

By adopting the terms omnet and asset as described in The General Principle of Equivalence there is no presupposition about the way the world is, the terms are purely nominal. One might argue that merely referring to an omnet or asset presupposes the existence of such but this is not so. For whether there is just nothing or a singular something or a plural something, which exhausts the possibilities, these are nominally omnets. Similarly for assets, and if each omnet has only itself and is otherwise indivisible then the asset is the omnet. The GPE in this respect is just a global tautology that says what is, is what it is, has what it has.

On O4: This was said to be the study of meta-ontology, i.e. saying what task the discipline of ontology should aim to accomplish, how the question it aims to answer should be understood, and with what methodology they can be answered.
Ontology for this Meditator would ideally be able to answer all physics, mathematics and philosophical questions about the world, at least in principle. This is a big ask, but there are reasons for thinking this should be possible. The principle reason I have to thinking this, is that the GPE will be shown to imply that the only complex structure that can exist, must be constructed in reality as an effect of the condition of the world that the GPE statement mirrors. Pause for a moment and consider what this means. ALL complex structure. Then, if one can properly understand its implications, one can properly model the world, at least in principle. This is why I adopted the constructional ontology as a suitable model. Actually the constructional ontology is just the framework implied to be the right kind by the GPE itself - start with the Meditator and the constructor (GPE) and watch what happens.


Now we have a sturdy ontology. The ontology that the Meditator adopts is very much simplified in its early stages, for there is only a very sparse universe that might be admitted into the ontology, as will shortly be shown. One simply places all that might be into a possible ontology. This is just a construct in which all that might be is quarantined for consideration. No ontological commitment is given to any of what might be other than the meta-ontology itself, which is validated by the method of doubt. Then the only constructs that are carried into the actual ontology are those that are transcendent of doubt, namely the Meditator and the GPE. From there we can test possible omnets (meaning omnets that might have a Cartesian basis in reality) as candidates to enter the actual ontology.

I carry out this test in my upcoming post: The cataclysm that attends the General Principle of Equivalence. Then we get to see what is left in the system.

Armstrong, DM 1978a, Nominalism and realism, vol. 1, Universals and scientific realism, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne.

---- 1978b, A theory of universals, vol. 2, Universals and scientific realism, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne.

---- 2005, 'Four disputes about properties', Synthese, no. 144, pp. 309-20.

Broughton, J 2002, Descartes’s method of doubt, Princeton University Press, Princeton.

Fine, K 1991, The Study of Ontology, Noûs, Vol. 25, No. 3 (Jun., 1991), pp. 263-294

Swinburne, R 1995, 'Thisness', Australasian Journal of Philosophy, vol. 73 no. 3, pp. 389-400.

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