Metaphysical Ontology
A philosophical discussion of metaphysical ontology.
On the nature of the enterprise and the distinction between abstract and concrete ontology.

On the nature of the enterprise and the distinction between abstract and concrete ontology.

First let me observe that my interest is primarily in the ontology of science rather than of ordinary discourse. It is possible that these deliberations have a bearing upon ordinary discourse, but this is not something I propose to consider here.

Note the apparent oddity, that while approaching a discussion of metaphysical ontology, i.e. of what really exists, I should find it desirable to align myself with somm particular enterprise (science) and distance myself from ordinary language. Surely what really exists is an absolute, not something which can depend upon whether we are speakind as scientists or as laymen?

Put these also in the context of my being a sceptic and a positivist. Surely the questions of metaphysics must be for me without meaning?


Meaning is crucial, and standing apart from common discourse is desirable for this reason. In respect for positivistic reservations about metaphysics I propose first to take some care to attach meaning to the ontological questions at issue, and secondly to try to be clear about whether particular ontological questions are of a kind to be resolved by reason or by observation.

Meaning will in these discussions always be settled by fiat, by choice of language suitable for the task in hand. Never by appeal to usage, accepted or otherwise, but often with reference implicit or explicit, to pragmatics.

Separating the Absolute from the Conventional

It is a major part of the enterprise of metaphysical ontology to find a way to separate out the abosolute from the relative or the conventional. This is so difficult that complete scepticism about the possibility is by no means unreasonable.

Even if we are convinced that there really is "out there" some objective substance to our world, it is not clear that there is any way of talking about it which is not riddled with artifice and loaded with elements which depend more on choice of language than on the nature of objective reality.

Consider the ontological status of continuously extended material objects (if such there be). In out mathematical mndels, space itself, though continuous, is modelled as a continuum of points. One extended body may be mathematically not a single entitiy but a function consisting of a graph corresponding to the distribution of matter over a region of space. This would typically involve a collection of entities with the cardinality of the continuum.

Are we to suppose that there really are so many parts to an extended material object? Or should we take this ontological plenitude as an artifice of our mathematical methods, and the reality as something which may conveniently be modelled and predicted by such means but in its essence consists of some smaller collection of entities?

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