Some Naturalistic Ontology

This is a guest post by Eric Steinhart, Professor of Philosophy at William Paterson University.

Over the next few posts, I’m going to do some heavy metaphysics.  So a bit of background is necessary.  An ontology is a taxonomy of categories (usually at a very high level of generality).   To avoid misunderstanding, the ontology I’m working with is outlined below.  This ontology is naturalistic in exactly the sense that objects in all its categories are found in our best scientific theories.

Material Things – Material things are either simple or complex.  Simple material things are instances of the types of particles found in the Standard Model of Matter.  For instance, they are quarks or leptons or bosons.  Complex material things are wholes composed of simple or less complex material things.  For instance, protons, planets, and people are complex material things.  All material things are physical things.  Also, they are particulars.  Scientific theories refer to material things.  But scientific theories also refer to lots of non-material things – materialism is an incomplete ontology.

Geometrical Things – Geometrical things include space-time points and regions.  Regions are wholes composed of space-time points.  Our best current physical theories (e.g. field theories) refer to points and regions.  They are physical but not material.  Points have properties like force vectors and points participate in distance relations.  All geometrical things are particulars.  Scientific theories refer to geometrical objects.  The theories of relativity as well as quantum field theories refer to points.

Mathematical Things – Mathematical things include all the objects of mathematics.  These are numbers, sets, functions, vectors, etc.  It’s common to define all mathematical things in terms of sets.  So, in my ontology, all mathematical things are sets.  Sets are defined using some standard set theory like ZFC.  Sets are not physical.  Sets have properties (e.g. their cardinalities) and participate in relations (e.g. the membership or subset relations).  Sets are particulars.  Scientific theories refer to mathematical things.  Scientific theories refer to numbers, vectors, tensors, functions, matrices, and on and on.  If you’re looking for arguments justifying the existence of mathematical objects on scientific grounds, a great book is Colyvan’s The Indispensability of Mathematics.

Particulars – Any particular is either a material, geometrical, or mathematical thing. I’ll often use the term “thing” to refer to particulars.  The term “thing” is more specific than terms like “object” or “entity”.  Particulars have properties and participate in relations.  Physical things participate in spatial, temporal, and causal relations.

Properties – Some properties are features of things.  These include: being-square, being-liquid.  Some properties are types of things.  These include: being-an-electron, being-a-silicon-atom, being-a-human, being-a-man.  Mathematical properties include being-empty or being-prime or being-infinite.  Properties are usually given abstraction suffixes like “ness” or “hood”.   Thus “treeness” is the property of being a tree, “emptiness” is the property of being empty, and “motherhood” is the property of being a mother.  The essence or forms of things are properties. Properties are not particulars and thus are not things (but they are objects or entities).  Properties are universals.

Relations – Pluralities of objects participate in relations.  Examples of relations include loving, being-heavier-than, being-a-subset-of, and so forth.  Relations are not particulars; hence they are not things.  On the contrary, they are universals.

Patterns – Patterns are also known as structures or forms.  They are described by logical templates involving lots of variables.  An example of a pattern is the simple family pattern.  It has three slots or variables x, y, z.  The pattern is: x is male; y is female; x is married to y; x is the father of z; and y is the mother of z.  Some of the variables in a pattern may be bound with quantifiers.  The laws of nature are patterns.  Computer programs are patterns.  Scientific theories and mathematical axiom systems are propositions. Aristotle said that the soul is the form of the body (De Anima, 412a5-414a33).  If he’s right, then souls are patterns.   Patterns are not particulars, they are universals.

Universals – Universals include properties, relations, and patterns.  Universals are not things.  However, they are objects or entities. Obviously scientific theories refer to universals (such as mass, charge, spin, distance).   And scientific theories themselves are universals.  There are good arguments to justify the existence of universals.  You can find them in in David Armstrong’s Universals and in Michael Loux’s wonderful book, Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction.   Universals are here understood as immanent universals rather than as transcendental universals (they are universalia in re rather than  universalia ante rem).    Universals are not things.

Possibilia – Since our best current physical theories talk about other possible universes, the ontology includes possible particulars and universals.  These exist at other universes.  David Lewis says his ontology “consists of possibilia – particular, individual things, some of which comprise our actual world and others of which are unactualized – together with the iterative hierarchy of classes built up from them” (1983: 9).  Add immanent universals, and the result is the ontology I’ll be using going forward.

References and other posts in this series below the fold:

Armstrong, D. (1989) Universals.  Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Colyvan, M. (2001) The Indispensability of Mathematics.  New York: Oxford University Press.

Lewis, D. (1983) New work for a theory of universals.  In D. Lewis (Ed.) (1999) Papers in Metaphysics and Epistemology.  New York: Cambridge University Press.

Loux, M. J. (2006) Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction. Third Edition.  New York: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-26107-4.

Other posts in this series:

Atheism and Wicca

The Wiccan Deity

The Wiccan Deity: An Initial Philosophical Analysis

The Wiccan Deity: Related Concepts in Philosophy

On Atheistic Religion

Nine Theses on Wicca and Atheism

Atheistic Holidays

Criticizing Wicca: Energy

Atheism and Beauty

Some Naturalistic Ontology

Criticizing Wicca: Levels

Atheism and the Sacred: Natural Creative Power

Atheist Ceremonies: De-Baptism and the Cosmic Walk

Atheism and Possibility

The Impossible God of Paul Tillich

Atheism and the Sacred: Being-Itself

Pure Objective Reason

Criticizing Wicca: Rationality

The God and the Goddess

Wicca and the Problem of Evil

The Wiccan God and Goddess: Reality and Mythology

On Participation in Being-Itself

Criticizing Wicca: God and Goddess

The Increasing Prevalence of Woo

Wiccan Theology and Sexual Equality

Revelation versus Manifestation

  • SAWells

    This: “Scientific theories refer to mathematical things” could usefully be expanded a little. Scientific theories generally try to refer to physical things and to relationships; we use mathematical models in which mathematical things represent physical things and their relationships. So e.g. we have an atomic theory of matter which describes the sort of thing that matter is made of, and we use mathematical models to try to calculate properties of matter based on the theory.

    • SAWells

      In fact, let me upgrade this objection. The theory of plate tectonics deals with massive slabs of rock thousands of miles wide. These are not mathematical objects.

  • grung0r

    Since our best current physical theories talk about other possible universes…

    This is simply not true. There is a very real ongoing debate among physicists as to whether the ‘multiple worlds’ hypothesis or the variety of multiverse theories are inherently untestable and therefore unscientific. It’s putting the cart significantly before the horse to call them “our best theories” when it hasn’t even been decided if they can be called ‘science’.

    Further, this just smacks of being the category of: “when all else fails, I will just makes shit up”. Maybe I don’t understand what you’re going to do with it, but I can’t imagine what it’s utility could be.

    • http://www.ericsteinhart.com Eric Steinhart

      To say that T is among our best current scientific theories does not imply that T is true. The Standard Model of Matter is very likely false yet it is our best current theory of matter.

      But now to the point: if inflationary cosmology is not among our best current physical theories, please tell me which competing theory is better.

    • grung0r

      To say that T is among our best current scientific theories does not imply that T is true

      Agreed, but I wasn’t saying that. I was saying your statement that it was one of our best theories was false.

      if inflationary cosmology is not among our best current physical theories, please tell me which competing theory is better.

      I’m going to give you a chance to clarify this. You can’t possibly mean that the inflation includes multiple universes in it’s model. You must be talking about something else, I’m just sure of it.

    • http://www.ericsteinhart.com Eric Steinhart

      I’m glad you gave me the chance to clarify. Thus:

      Linde, A. D. (1983) The new inflationary universe scenario. In G. Gibbons, S. Hawking, and S. Siklos (Eds.), The Very Early Universe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 205-249.

      Linde, A. D. (1986) Eternally existing self-reproducing chaotic inflationary universe. Physics Letters B 175 (4) (14 August), 387-502.

      Linde, A. D. (1994) The self-reproducing inflationary universe. Scientific American 271 (5), 48-55.

      Tegmark, M. (1998) Is ‘the Theory of Everything’ merely the ultimate ensemble theory? Annals of Physics 270, 1-51.

      Tegmark, M. (2003) Parallel universes. Scientific American 288 (5), 40-51.

    • grung0r

      You know that Andrei Linde’s Chaotic Inflation theory isn’t the same Inflation theory that is well accepted by physicists right? You know that current inflation theory makes predictions about the universe that have been borne out, while Chaotic Inflation theory suffers from the exact problems I mentioned in my original post, namely that it may be inherently untestable and thus unscientific? No, I’m going to guess you didn’t know that.

  • http://www.ericsteinhart.com Eric Steinhart

    @grungOr — You are indeed guessing. But perhaps you prefer the recent work on the string theory landscape. Or maybe the work of Laura Mersini-Houghton.

    • grung0r

      your responses are just mind boggling. I made a very general point, and instead of responding to that point, you name dropped and evaded. I’ll try one more time.

      1:Do you agree or disagree that there is a real and ongoing debate among scientists and physicists as to whether all theories that involve the multiverse could even be considered science, since said theories may be inherently untestable?

      2: do you agree or disagree that a theory that is not scientific could not be reasonably called one of “our best physical theories “?

    • grung0r

      oops, double negative on ’2′. It should read:

      do you agree or disagree that an unscientific theory cannot reasonably be called one of “our best physical theories “?

  • http://www.russellturpin.com/ Russell

    Among particulars are animals. And thanks to Borges, we all know their proper ontology:

    1. those that belong to the Emperor,
    2. embalmed ones,
    3. those that are trained,
    4. suckling pigs,
    5. mermaids,
    6. fabulous ones,
    7. stray dogs,
    8. those included in the present classification,
    9. those that tremble as if they were mad,
    10. innumerable ones,
    11. those drawn with a very fine camelhair brush,
    12. others,
    13. those that have just broken a flower vase,
    14. those that from a long way off look like flies.

  • http://www.ericsteinhart.com Eric Steinhart

    @grungOr –

    As for your concept of what is scientific, since I’m not a positivist, I deny that to be scientific is to be empirically testable. And if you think that to be scientific is to be empirically testable, then good luck defining empirical testability in a rigorous way.

    Scientific theories are theories that arise within the historically and pragmatically defined activity of doing science. It’s quite likely that any theory that resolves the contradictions between quantum mechanics and relativity will never be empirically testable, not even in principle. But I leave that for the scientists to work out.

    If you took the time to look, you would see that the multiverse theory proposed by Laura Mersini-Houghton has been empirically tested and has empirical support. All you have to do is use Google. Go to Wikipedia. It’s pretty easy. You could even go read her papers – many of which are freely available on the Web. Yes: I drop names. That means I gave you a reference to relevant scientfic literature. That means you should do some research before writing your comments.

    • SAWells

      “It’s quite likely that any theory that resolves the contradictions between quantum mechanics and relativity will never be empirically testable, not even in principle”.

      Eric, you really don’t know enough about science to make this claim, even in principle.

    • http://www.ericsteinhart.com Eric Steinhart

      @SAWells — Are you capable of reading my mind? If not, then you really have no idea what I know or do not know about science. If you object to my claim, then offer evidence against it. You have yet, in all this discussion, offered a single piece of evidence in support of anything you say. You do, however, have a persistent and perverse desire to offer insults, obscenities, and ad hominem attacks. But evidence? You offer none.

    • SAWells

      I love it that you think you can make claims like “The rituals and ceremonies collectively practiced by atheists will become socially recognized as an atheistic religion” and then ask _me_ for evidence that it’s _wrong_ instead of you offering evidence that it’s right. Funny.

    • F

      As far as responding to your claim, no one need to read your mind, as the relevant bits are on display right here. Your redefinition of science needs some support to fly. The term “theory” also means something specific in science, which is different from the term “theory” as used in maths (string theory, better still m-theory), and completely different from common uses of the word “theory” which variously equates to “hypothesis”, “guess”, “my personal opinion”, “what I believe or want to be true”, and other yet more vague connotations.

      You make the claim, you provide the evidence.

      ad hominem attacks.

      Oh. Dead giveaway, that.

      I didn’t see any arguments made based on an ad hominem fallacy. What this phrase means is “I thought you were rude, and I’ll say so, in a manner calculated to conflate my being offended with a logical fallacy, to be used as a fallacious point in my argument against your position.”

    • SAWells

      Just for the record:

      i) You cannot say that the predictions of unknown theory X will be untestable because you do not know what they are. If you did you would already have theory X.

      ii) People do tend to wibble on about the Planck time, length and energy scales being inaccessible to experiment (ten to the minus large numbers). But the Planck mass is accessible (ten to the minus eight kg) and we expect interesting phenomena in quantum entanglement on systems at that scale. Penrose’s “one-graviton limit” suggestion, for example.

      iii) If a theory doesn’t make testable predictions it is indistinguishable from any other theory including its own obverse, so describing it as “successful” begs a hell of a lot of questions.

      But heaven forfend that you consider the opinions of actual scientists before you tell us all what Science is. Like Truth and Beauty. Oh yes.

    • grung0r

      The reason I did not acknowledge your Laura Mersini-Houghton assertion is not from lack of knowledge or research. It is because you have once again abandoned a previously held position without any acknowledgement or reason given. Once you either defend or withdraw your claim that Inflation contains multiple universes within it model, I’ll be glad to tell you why you are wrong about Laura Mersini-Houghton’s work.

      Scientific theories are theories that arise within the historically and pragmatically defined activity of doing science.

      This means nothing other then to demonstrate your almost endless ability to generate tautologies and circular statements.

      to wit:
      Scientific theories = arise from doing science
      Science = That which scientific theories arise from

      Please, by the way, don’t claim that “historically and pragmatically defined” gets you out. If it did, your sentence would have instead read:”Scientific theories are theories that arise from doing activities such as X, Y & Z”(X, Y & Z being whatever you think these historical or pragmatic definitions are)

      I would love to address your claim that science need not be empirically testable. I will do so just the second that you define it in a non-circular way. I’m not going to hold my breath.

    • http://www.ericsteinhart.com Eric Steinhart

      It’s not my definition of science. You’re stuck in the 1930s with the logical positivists. Read your Thomas Kuhn. Learn about bas van Fraassen’s concept of empirical adequacy. Study Patrick Suppes and the model-theoretic conception of science. And is the definition circular? I’d say it’s inductive, or recursive. But so what: the circularity isn’t vicious; it’s the same as the circularity in the inductive justification of induction. Anyway, the original issue was about the existence of other universes. I referred you to Mersini-Houghton. Do you disagree with her work? Do you have evidence against her work?

    • grung0r

      You’re stuck in the 1930s with the logical positivists.

      I’m not going to add anything to this statement, I just thought it should be repeated for emphasis. I wonder how a certain someone who wrote their dissertation on a philosophizer from the late 1800′s will feel about the implication that: newer philosophy = progress and older philosophy = bunk?

      Read your Thomas Kuhn. Learn about bas van Fraassen’s concept of empirical adequacy. Study Patrick Suppes and the model-theoretic conception of science

      Are you suggesting that you agree with EVERYTHING these people said on this subject? I sincerely doubt it. Quit it with the fucking name dropping. Make an argument, or don’t.

      the circularity isn’t vicious; it’s the same as the circularity in the inductive justification of induction.

      The title of the ‘inductive justification of induction’ is indeed circular, but the argument itself, while a load of horseshit, isn’t. Black was very careful to state it such a way as to avoid repeating his premise. Your argument was not so careful. As I demonstrated above, you do in fact repeat your premise, and it appears your only defense is yet more name dropping. Stating that your argument is like some other argument isn’t a defense. You need to actually show how you escape from the circularity, not just assert it via analogy to someone else’s argument.

      Anyway, the original issue was about the existence of other universes. I referred you to Mersini-Houghton.

      You originality referred me to 5 papers on Andrei Linde’s Chaotic Inflation theory after stating that inflationary cosmology, without addendum, implied a multiverse. When I put the lie to to this, you ignored my argument and switched to your Mersini-Houghton assertion. Like I said before, defend or withdraw your original claim, and I will glad to address your new one.

  • Physicalist

    Possibilia – Since our best current physical theories talk about other possible universes, the ontology includes possible particulars and universals. These exist at other universes.

    When I read this I thought you were simply talking about modal facts — which can be expressed in possible worlds talk.

    But in your response to grung0r it sounds like you’re talking about multiverse or many worlds scenarios. But (of course?) from the perspective of metaphysics, multiverses or many worlds would be part of the actual world, not of some other possible world.

    So what is the meaning of your phrase “other universes”? If they’re actual, then it doesn’t seem like you’re talking about possibilia.

    Also (although I’d only admit this under a pseudonym) I’ve never fully understood the locution “at a universe/world” by contrast to the phrase “in a world.” I usually use the preposition “in”, but I can make sense of something being true “at” a world. But even then, wouldn’t we want to say that something exists “in” a world and not “at” a world?

    (And this seems like it’s going to be even more true in your “universe” is some region of the actual world. You wouldn’t say that something exists “at” a region, would you?)

  • felicis

    Is a line a ‘Geometric Object’ or a ‘Methematical Object’?

    You describe these as two categories, when one (Geometric Objects) is completely contained in the other. Similarly, you call relations and patterns universals when they are also Mathematical Things…

    I also do not see the purpose of ‘Possibilia’ as a distinct category – indeed I am not really sure how it fits in with your scheme. Is something that is possibilia a material thing or non-material? If material – it is either simple or complex, etc… If non-material, then it is either a geometric or a mathematical object, etc. What are the distinguishing characteristics of a thing in the category Possibilia?

    As Physicalist points out – ontologically the number of ‘universes’ has no effect on our discussion of ‘things’ (forgive me, P., if I misunderstand). So why bring it up?

    You (Eric) say, “the multiverse theory proposed by Laura Mersini-Houghton has been empirically tested and has empirical support” – well kind of. I see nothing newer than from 2008 on this, even from her own publications, yet – if true – this would be an area with a lot of interest. I am also not convinced that the other universes do, in fact, exist. Her *prediction of a void at a specific location* has empirical support – her *assumption that this leads to the existence of another universe* does not (at least not yet). Ironically, you throw this out immediately after saying, “I deny that to be scientific is to be empirically testable.” So – what is it to be scientific and why did you specifically talk about the empirical support for her theory if it isn’t necessary to be ‘scientific’?

    By the way, “And if you think that to be scientific is to be empirically testable, then good luck defining empirical testability in a rigorous way.” What level of rigor do you wish? Set your goal posts before we start. And if you’re going to set them to the point where we can’t truly know *anything*, then what’s the point of the debate? If you do not accept the standard idea of empirical data (that is data that can be repeatedly and consistently measured independent of observer or even consciousness of the observer) what do you propose to substitute? Will that fit your own test of rigor?

  • felicis

    Pardon me – ‘mathematical’ not ‘methematical’ (which is something completely different…

  • F

    Properties are not particulars and thus are not things (but they are objects or entities).

    I’m have a bit of difficulty thinking of a Property (spin, being-a-human, tree-ness, hardness, mass) as an object or entity, particularly where an entity (or object!) is not a thing.

    While I can separate thing out as you define it, or indeed grasp any of your other definitions and relationships given, your ontology needs to more specifically define entity – as any ontology must. (Object would be strictly bonus.) While I make assumptions about entity given the examples, I’d prefer to see a leading definition, or I will never be certain about anything you say regarding properties, entity, or object. And I’d rather like to be able to follow your discourse.

    • SAWells

      You’ll love what he said about Truth – check back through the posts! It’s an Immanent Power, apparently. That gives it +10 versus Fire damage.

    • grung0r

      That gives it +10 versus Fire damage.

      Only if you get an ultimate immanent creative power of being saving throw. Luckily, since that is apparently everything in the universe(whether it’s everything in the multiverse has yet to be established), you are quite likely to hit it.