The Graduate Forum



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November 19, 2008
Presenter: Mike Raven
Respondent: Ryan Booth
"Ontology, from a fundamentalist point of view" (job talk)

Mike delivered a fascinating talk that touched upon both the nature of his field of study, ontology, as well as his current research. He began by articulating an intrinsically fundamental, yet elusive, question that ontologists have pondered for millennia: When is an object real? Following this, he described his job market paper, which offers an alternative to the discipline’s current methodological approach to answering this question. This response will review the talk and offer several reflections along the way.

As mentioned above, Mike started the evening by posing a simple, yet profound, question: “Is the chair that I am sitting on real?” While a layperson’s natural knee-jerk reaction would be, “Of course. You are sitting on it, and thus it exists and is real,” Mike explained that some philosophers take a more subtle approach to answering the question. A second, perhaps even more perplexing, question that Mike proposed was, “Is the number two real?” Again, the answer seems obvious (my two hands are typing this response!), but then again, there does not exist a “two” in the world – the notion of “two” is a mental construct.

Mike then segued into an explanation of the standard methodology for assessing whether or not an object is real. For the last several decades, quantificationalism has reigned as the dominant ontological view. This approach yields a simple, stark way of judging whether or not an object is real: If there is at least one of the object, then the object is real. Consequently, chairs are real because Mike was sitting on one, and numbers are real because “there exists a number greater than five.” In other words, quantificationalism equates things that exist with things that are real.

From the point of view of an economist, and I would imagine many scientists as well, quantificationalism has some appeal by virtue of its tight definition of what is real. Theoretical economists, for instance, construct tidy, unambiguous results by virtue of a proof either being correct or fallacious, while empiricists attempt to provide convincing evidence that particular phenomena exist. Likewise, quantificationalism offers a stark methodology to test whether or not an object is real, thus offering a reduction in the number of potentially ambiguous grey areas, such as the existence of the number “two.”

Nevertheless, there exist several inherent flaws in the quantificationalism methodology. For example, if we can conclude that numbers a real because there exists a number greater than five, can we also conclude that other mental constructs, such as fictional characters and other fantasies, are real because there are “facts” about them?

While reading and listening to Mike’s explanation, my initial concern with quantificationalism was that it is overly liberal by allowing too many objects to be defined as real: As we discussed, are Sherlock Holmes and Pegasus real? Given that Mike was going to present an alternative methodology to quantificationalism, I assumed that his proposal would simply refine quantificationalism’s definition of real. In my head, I created an analogy between answering “what is real?” and equilibrium refinement in economics: When analyzing a model, economists often employ equilibrium concepts, such as the famed Nash Equilibrium, to solve for “conceivable” outcomes within the model. Under some classes of models, however, a particular concept might be too inclusive (or conversely, too exclusive). In other words, a concept might allow for a very large set of equilibrium outcomes, with some of these outcomes being unintuitive or realistically implausible. To correct for this surplus, an alternative equilibrium concept, with a more restrictive definition, is often used instead to “refine” the set of equilibria.

As the discussion progressed, however, it became clear that Mike’s alternative view, fundamentalism, does not simply differ with quantificationalism in degree, but in principle. Fundamentalism is rooted in the classical, “naïve” ontological approach of Plato and Aristotle, an approach that distinguishes between objects that exist and object that are real. Mike’s chair, for instance, consists of a seemingly uncountable number of quarks, photons and other subatomic particles. Thus while the chair certainly exists, it nevertheless may not be real because it is simply the combination of these more fundamental subatomic particles. As Kate so passionately professed, quantificationalism precludes interesting debate about whether or not the chair is real: Its convenient, tidy formulation robs ontology of its essence.

The fundamentalist methodology, on the other hand, asserts that an object is real if and only if it is fundamental. To briefly summarize, all objects are either fundamental or derivative. If all facts about an object are grounded in facts about other objects, then the object is derivative (and conversely). On the other hand, an object is fundamental if and only if there exists at least one fact about the object that is not grounded in another object. Such a view thus allows for open debate about whether or not a particular object is real – as Mike described, this represents an intrinsically hierarchical approach to ontology, as opposed to the stark view espoused by quantificationalism. Ironically, Mike’s “fundamentalist” ontological methodology represents values that run orthogonal to the present-day popular interpretation of “fundamentalist:” Mike’s fundamentalism creates an egalitarian structure in which the Muslim, Hindu and atheist can come together and discuss their perspectives on equal footing.

While fundamentalism certainly offers a more interesting and inclusive approach to ontology, it nevertheless leaves open a practical question: Can one ever determine if an object is a derivative, and thus not real? As the number of facts about a particular object may approach infinity, one may never be able to show that all facts about the object are grounded in other objects. On the other hand, however, a fundamentalist may not be overly concerned with determining whether or not a particular object is real: In the end, the methodological approach itself, and the debate it fosters, is of the most importance.

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