Fundamental Ontology

by Neil Rickert

Coel has a post over at his blog:

I thought of posting a comment there.  But I then decided that it might be worth a full post.

Coel’s view

Coel quotes Feynman, as suggesting the atomic theory of matter as particularly important.  But Coel seems to disagree with this.  The trouble with atoms, is that they are made of subatomic particles.  In turn, quantum mechanics has something to say about those subatomic particles that makes them look less particle-like.

Coel delves down to a number of possibilities.  He even mentions Tegmark’s idea that everything is made of mathematics.  But Coel himself is not so certain that we can give a good answer at this, or perhaps ever.

I do recommend reading his post.

Searle’s view

I have recently been rereading Searle’s perception book.  And he discusses the same question:

One of the most fundamental distinctions among philosophers and types of philosophy, perhaps the most fundamental distinction, is in their answer to the question of what the philosopher regards as ontologically rock bottom. That is, for any philosopher who is willing to work out the implications of his philosophical position, there is an answer to the question, “What, if anything, is that in terms of which everything else has to be explained, but which does not itself have to be explained in terms of something else?” On the account that I have been giving you in this book, it is clear that rock bottom is the world as described by atomic physics.

(p. 222 of “Seeing Things as They Are”)

My own view

As I see it, the world is made of stuff.  And we cannot really say what that stuff is, which is why I call it “stuff”.  We then divide that stuff up, and give names to some of the divisions — names such as “cat”, “table”.

Philosophers describe this as “carving the world at its seams”.  But I don’t think there are any seams.  We carve up the world in ways that are easy enough or at least doable by us, and such that our way of carving up the world gives results that are useful to us.

We can see some of this in our history and experience.  The classical explorers carved up the planet at rivers and mountain ranges.  But, if we were doing that today, we would carve it up in accordance with GPS coordinates.  Our technology has given us better ways of carving up the world, and we use those.

My conclusion can only be that the structure we see in the world depends on us.  It depends mostly on our biology, but it also depends partly on our culture and technology.  And so the structured components that we see should not be considered fundamental.

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2 Comments to “Fundamental Ontology”

  1. Hi Neil,

    “My conclusion can only be that the structure we see in the world depends on us.”

    I agree that the structure we see in the world depends on us, but it ALSO depends on the world itself. For example, if the world did have a fundamental 2D-structure, then we would notice a world that is structured in such a way that objects can only move in two dimensions, so even if we add/hypothesize/mentally-construct all sorts of other structural properties and so forth, we still would have that structured world (limited by our biology, evolution and so forth) constrained by whatever properties it has independent of the structures we ourselves see.

    “It depends mostly on our biology, but it also depends partly on our culture and technology. And so the structured components that we see should not be considered fundamental.”

    Again, I agree here as well that it depends mostly on our biology, and culture and technology. But even all the possible ways that we could conceivably see the world in terms of what structure we think it has, regardless of any technology, cultural change, etc., would still be limited by properties that exist independently of our limited categories, ontologies, and so forth. So trying to ascertain for example, what “atoms” are composed of, and going further down a reductive path, leads us to a point where we are limited by Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle (for example), unable to predict with 100% certainty what future trajectory any particle/wave will take. This means that any conception of the world that we come up with moving forward, given that “fundamental” knowledge of how the smallest scales limit the largest scales of our existence, will be limited in that it can never produce a known structural conception (of how things move/change over time) that involves 100% predictability. Just as a hypothetical world limited by 2 dimensions would constrain the number of possible conceptions of how that world is structured to any conscious minds existing within it (assuming, for the sake of argument, that conscious minds are possible in a 2D world, which is see no logical reason to discount).

    What I think would be fairly useful to say here is that what we tend to call “fundamental” structures or structural components are really just the structural elements that most heavily constrain the number and type of any possible higher level structures that we may posit (such as a chair, or a cat, or a table, or love, or what-have-you). We are able to draw those higher level boundaries of categorization in different places only because multiple higher-level boundaries are compatible with the lower level fundamental structure. I can argue that “the cat” and “the bed” it lies on are actually one object (and call is a “ced”), but that doesn’t change the fact that both conceptions involve objects that are composed of particles that are indistinguishable from one another (e.g. protons are indistinguishable regardless of if they are in the cat or bed). Therefore I can call them two objects rather than one (because it’s more useful) but only because both possibilities are compatible with an underlying structural conception that we have less degrees of freedom to variably interpret. There may still be multiple conceptions at a lower level (perhaps even the lowest level, if there is such a thing) that are both compatible with what we see at the higher level, but there aren’t an infinite number of them and there are certainly less possible conceptions of lower level structure when compared to the number of higher level structures that can be derived from them.

    Any higher level constructions/conceptions of structure that are not compatible with any lower level structures that underlie them, are simply never going to be used because they are not only completely USELESS to us (they don’t allow us to predict causal patterns), but also because they are logically incompatible with the underlying set of structures that ARE useful to us. So again, I think that any higher level structures we choose to adopt are themselves limited by lower level structures that we don’t have nearly as much freedom to have multiple interpretations of, if that makes sense. That seems to be what people mean when they discuss “fundamental” ontological structures, even if multiple possible versions exist. My two cents anyway…

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    • I agree that the structure we see in the world depends on us, but it ALSO depends on the world itself. For example, if the world did have a fundamental 2D-structure, then we would notice a world that is structured in such a way that objects can only move in two dimensions, so even if we add/hypothesize/mentally-construct all sorts of other structural properties and so forth, we still would have that structured world (limited by our biology, evolution and so forth) constrained by whatever properties it has independent of the structures we ourselves see.

      If our biology were such that our interaction with the world were similar to that of the flatlanders, then we would notice only a 2-dimensional world. According to some views on quantum mechanics, the world is really discrete. And that would imply that the world has a fundamental 0D-structure.

      The viewpoint that I am taking, is that the world in itself has no fundamental structure at all. The structure that we encounter is the structure of our interactions with the world.

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