My problem with ontology

by Neil Rickert

In his post on the role of philosophy, John Wilkins listed three questions that concern philosophers.  The first of those was “What is there? [Metaphysics].”  This is what is often referred to as “ontology”, the study of what exists.

My problem with ontology is that I don’t see much point to it, and that it seems to be used in ways that are problematic.  If there is to be a study of ontology, then I would want it to be part of epistemology rather than part of metaphysics.  And, as epistemology, it should be more concerned with questions of how and why we treat things as separate entities.

My first encounter with ontology was when I bumped into a philosophical discussion of the ontology of mathematical entities such as numbers.  Some mathematicians see these entities as existing in a platonic realm of ideal forms, others see numbers as fictions, and some see numbers as having a physical existence as pencil marks on paper.  I was puzzled as to why philosophy should care.  The mathematics works the same way, and has the same usefulness, regardless of one’s ontological view.  I was given an explanation of why it was important, but I did  not find that explanation at all satisfying.

So here’s my skeptical view, in abbreviated form.  Suppose it turns out that elves and goblins exist.  Since none of us can detect these creatures, and since they do not in any way affect our lives, it should not matter at all whether they or not they exist.  And suppose somebody tells me that a reflection doesn’t exist, that it is merely an appearance.  That would not alter the fact that I use a reflection when shaving.  So whether or not that reflection is said to exist has no consequences for me.

The history of science is a history of conceptual change.  The trouble with ontology as metaphysics, is that it suggests that there should be a fixed set of concepts and no conceptual change.  And that is inconsistent with our experience.

Perhaps my attitude toward ontology is why I don’t see much point in the atheist arguments that God does not exist,  nor in the theistic arguments that God does exist.

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