The trouble with metaphysics

by Neil Rickert

When people are talking about metaphysics, they are usually talking about ontology, or the question of what exists.  This post is mostly about ontology as part of metaphysics.  However, I used “metaphysics” rather than “ontology” in the title, because I think that there is a role for ontology.  But, I see that role as calling for a different conception of ontology, such that it should not be part of metaphysics.

Metaphysical ontology

The trouble with ontology as metaphysics (or with metaphysical ontology, as I shall term it), is that it doesn’t actually matter what exists.  Maybe elves exist, but we have no access to them or to whatever it is that they do.  And in that case, having elves in our ontology (our list of what exists) serves no purpose.  On the other hand, maybe electrons don’t exist and gravitational fields don’t exist (as the anti-realists have been arguing).  But even if those don’t exist, we want to have them on our list of things because our science has a lot to say about them.

In short, it seems to me that ontology, taken as a branch of metaphysics, seeks to answer questions that cannot be answered, and for which the answers would be useless to us even if they could be answered.

Epistemic ontology

My suggestion is that we should ignore the question of what exists.  Instead, we should look at the question of what is important enough for us to single out and name, and important enough for us to reference.  For it is those things that we name, and reference in useful ways, that become a basis for our knowledge.

Epistemic ontology, then, should be a study of what is important enough for us to name and to reference.  And it should also study why those entities are important, and how we single them out so that we are able to recognize them.

Even if elves actually exist, they don’t belong in our epistemic ontology, because they are useless to us except in stories that we recognize as fictional and use for entertainment.  On the other hand, even if the anti-realists are correct that electrons and gravitational fields do not exist (except as abstract ideas), they belong in our epistemic ontology because they are both important and useful to our science.

Emeralds

Most of us would agree that emeralds exist in a metaphysical sense.  However, as suggested in my “Just So” story about emeralds (and elaborated in a post on induction), there might be societies that would use emeralds as paving gravel, just the way that they use other small stones.  For such a society, emeralds would have no relevance.  They would not belong as part of the epistemic ontology of such a society, even though they exist.

Gavagai

Quine, in discussing the indeterminacy of translation and the inscrutability of reference, has used the made up word “gavagai” to illustrate his point.  Suppose a linguist, studying a previously unknown language, hears “gavagai” being used in the presence of rabbits.  Quine raises the question of whether the evidence available to the linguist would enable him to decide if gavagai means rabbit or undetached rabbit parts or rabbit stage.  See the Wikipedia entry for more details.

Presumably what gavagai means, would be what that particular society or culture thought important enough to single out and name.  So what gavagai refers to is whatever that culture would have as part of its epistemic ontology.

Summary

I have explained why I think that ontology, taken as part of metaphysics, is not what we need.  And I have suggested an alternative reconception of ontology as part of epistemology.

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5 Comments to “The trouble with metaphysics”

  1. “Instead, we should look at the question of what is important enough for us to single out and name, and important enough for us to reference. For it is those things that we name, and reference in useful ways, that become a basis for our knowledge.”

    A lot of people find God important enough to … etc. That is their basis for knowledge of God, and the basis for their knowledge that He wants them to persecute gays, etc.Demonstrating His metaphysical ontology is something they conveniently avoid.

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    • A lot of people find God important enough to … etc.

      Agreed. And, for such people, God should be part of what I refer to as their epistemic ontology. It is part of how they conduct their lives. They would certainly call it knowledge, even if we disagree.

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  2. “Maybe elves exist, but we have no access to them or to whatever it is that they do. And in that case, having elves in our ontology (our list of what exists) serves no purpose.”

    Maybe God exists, but we have no access to Him … in that case … serves no purpose.

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    • Maybe God exists, but we have no access to Him … in that case … serves no purpose.

      Fair enough. Of course, I agree with that. Creationists, however, might say that natural selection serves no purpose.

      With my view of epistemic ontology, there will not be a single common ontology shared by all.

      I am not trying to rewrite all of philosophy in one short post. I’m simply pointing out a small part of where I disagree with traditional philosophy.

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  3. i’ll just say that you should read books by a man called Rene Guenon, start with an introduction to Hindu Principles as it will completely dispel the overly rudimentary and unfounded ideas you seem to have on metaphysics and what it is, you should also at least read books by Schuon and other teachers of Tradition, then perhaps maybe you could speak boldly on such topics with a new perspective.

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