How do you interest a scientist in ontology?
Ok. It’s a bad word. Please keep reading. Ontology is a terrible word. Rings of something incredibly complicated. (see comments on philosophers, edited out of previous version).
If you feel like writing. Here’s a question. If not, read on…
The question you need to ask yourself is simply this. What is real? What is reality like? If you had to describe it objectively, capturing everything, what would you say?
Scientists are a clever bunch. All my criticism is of science applied to the wrong things, not science as used in the right way.
The problem, in an impossibly abstract sense, is that scientists work on an incoherent ontology. It is not scientists fault in a way. They are by definition not interested in a conceptual argument.
In the most basic sense an ontology is just an abstract conceptual description of what is real. Science does deal with defining what is real, but only after you have decided what kind of questions you need answering, and what importance the answers have.
It is not in the interest of science to question the conceptual system in which their investigation takes place. The inevitable answer is that science does not provide the whole answer.
Scientists themselves don’t seem to believe that they have all the answers. They happily use concepts that lie outside of scientific investigation – the purpose of the investigation, for example. Because the ontology is everything it obviously decides the importance of everything, thats all.
Language does not comply to the laws of physics
Ontologies can be really easy.
I’ll try an ontology from the most coherent materialist angle possible:
Everything that happens is made of matter. Matter can be explained by the rules of physics, chemistry, biology and cosmology.
One part of the material world is brains and nervous systems in humans.
Living brains and nervous systems in humans generate a complex, communal form of life, experienced by each living and awake human.
Every fact about the world only matters to us insomuch as it is part of the brain-created, conscious, conceptually organized life we live. This life takes place in the material world, but a material world overlayed with a complex network of interconnected concepts which are shared by massive groups, cultures, societies and populations of humans. You obviously cannot see these in the normal sense.
Of course everything real is a concept that is made of something. But tell me how where a concept is, is the most useful part of the explanation?
Lets try one. The concept of the novel. All the paper and ink in books and led and computer chip as well, on which they are being written. And add the interconnected neurons of novelists – the ones that do the thinking, and the writing, and the history and criticism of novels and the great novelists, and all the reading.
The question is, so what? I know what a novel is. There is no scientific discovery about paper or LEDs that will help me explain what a novel is.
And here we hit the sticky point. We get confused talking about our own brains. There are discoveries about the brain that are obviously yet to be made. The question is the most useful explanation of how the neurons are connected.
I would argue that the scientific explanation is not very useful in conceptual matters. The best, and most comprehensive possible answer of what the neurons are doing, the organisation of the atoms, is the description of the practice of reading and writing novels. This is inevitably an expansive inquiry based on finding out about the connected concepts, practices and ideas – the grammar of our form of life, to put it in Wittgenstein’s terms.
You explain what a novel is by explaining what reading and writing are, you explain narrative and characterization, the history of novelists, the science of printing and of neurobiology, the anthropology of storytelling. All these things and more give the best, most complete explanation of the novel. (the words explanation and description here mean the same thing).
How can you say that life is not real?
It makes no sense to say that life is not real, but that is exactly what many people seem to believe.
Basically, we all bloody well know that we are conscious. That we are all living lives.
There is all this debate about the science of consciousness. We discovered consciousness long ago, but have yet failed to comprehend the implications of the discovery.
We know that our brains do subjectivity, that this is “what it is like to be your brain and nervous system”. We have known the ontology for a long time. But who would herald the discovery of something they were already plainly aware of.
No. We found out that conscious life took place in the brain, and not for example, the lungs. But we were not particularly interested. The logical conclusions are still sinking in.
These thoughts are so far from the scientist’s interests that it is clearly possible to discount them entirely.
The scientist’s question – “how do I find out what is real?”
The scientist’s answer – “it’s what I do”.
1.What is real? Come on you scientists and atheists and rationalists of all shapes and sizes. For the sake of nothing but inquiry and curiosity, indulge me in this trivial matter. What do you think, in the most abstract terms you can face using, is real? What ontology are you working from? Do it in 140 if you like.