Lately I’ve been doing some more thinking about ontology. So what the heck is ontology? Put succinctly, it’s the study of being. It’s a big topic in both philosophy, science, and religion. That’s because it represents the basis of all things. There has been much written about ontology over the ages starting during the Axial Age circa 800 BCE to about 300 AD. This is the period where some of the great classical thinkers weighed in on this issue. It was the time of Confucius, Lao-Tse in China, Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha) in India, Zoroaster in Persia, and in Greece the likes of Plato, Aristotle, Democritus, Anaxagoras, etc.
So what’s all the fuss about? Well, if you want to think about some of the deeper questions in life, you need a starting point. Ontology is just that. Everything flows from the basis of all things.
Many of the ideas that emerged from these early thinkers are still hanging around, albeit with modifications and explications. The two forms I want to talk about could be labeled in the modern terms of materialism and idealism.
The idea of materialism probably first arose around the sixth century BCE in what is now known as India. At that time there was a Carvakan school of thought. These philosophers were perhaps the first materialists because one of the things they postulated was that all there is, is matter and it has “svabhava” or self-nature. In other words matter has an intrinsic nature that produces the world we see. Today this self-nature is thought of as “properties” such as mass, spin, charge, etc. Apparently this line of thinking made its way to early Greek thought probably through the Persian trade routes because about a hundred years later materialist atomistic thought emerged most notably by Democritus. In atomism it is claimed that reality is constituted by atomos, small indestructible elements which have intrinsic properties and when combined in various ways produce the variety we see. This particular characterization of reality caught on in the West and eventually led to the predominant view in science.
However, this “svabhava” view was not without its detractors. There were those both in the East and West who rejected this view. In the East the Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna developed his sunyata concept or “emptiness” saying that nothing has an essential independent nature but only a conditional or relational existence. The term for this is often “dependent co-arising” in Buddhist thought. (To me this has are remarkable similarity to quantum theory concepts of nonlocality and emergence) In early Western Greek thought the rejection of atomism was more subtle. Anaxagoras did not reject atomism, per se, but claimed that what animated atoms was not a self-nature but nous or mind. Anaxagoras is considered by some to be the first panpsychist. Plotinus also posited the primacy of mind, “For there is for this universe no other place than the soul or mind”.
Perhaps the most forceful attack on the svabhavan atomism came later with the Idealism schools of thought in Germany and England. They maintained that what constituted reality was, in fact, mind or perception. George Berkeley was one of the most notable of idealistic proponents. He was considered by Schopenhauer as the father of Idealism. Berkeley shows his view that the mind and perception are primary in his famous statement, “To be is to be perceived or to perceive”. Although Berkeley and his “subjective idealism” fell under considerable criticism for being unable to account for common experience, he later became more of an absolute idealist by attributing our perceptions to God. A parallel strain of criticism also came from forms of panpsychism that date back to early Greek thought, predominantly Heraclitus. Most notably among modern proponents is the philosophy of Alfred Whitehead. Whitehead was a contemporary of Einstein and even developed his own physical theories. Later in his life he forged off into speculative metaphysics and founded process thought which today finds many adherents among philosophers, theologians, and scientists. Whitehead claimed that reality is constituted by occassions (events) of experience. Like the quote below from Stapp, Whitehead rejected the enduring substance view of reality in favor of the event model of becoming. There have been other critics of svabhavan materialism, but materialistic atomism has maintained its prominence among many thinkers because it has proved a helpful framework within which to do science. It’s hegemony continues to this day among many scientists. The twentieth century with the advent of quantum theory, however, called into question its scientific validity. In quantum theory a complete description of the properties of fundamental elements cannot be determined until a measurement is taken. This is not an epistemological restriction but an ontological one. This introduced the concept of the observer in how reality is constituted. In other words, it is the mind of the observer and what they are measuring that effects what is observed. This interpretation of quantum mechanics is called the Copenhagen interpretation. While this still remains the most prominent interpretation of quantum mechanics, it was not without its detractors either. The most prominent was Einstein with his famous statement, “God does not play dice.” Even so, the essential element of the observer in constituting reality remains foremost within mainstream quantum physics. Here’s a couple of citations that are representative of the criticism of a svabhavan worldview: Berkeley Physicist, Henry Stapp states:
An important characteristic of this quantum conceptualization is that the substantive matter-like aspects, have dropped out. The theory is about: (1) abrupt events, each of which is tied to an experiential increment in knowledge; and (2) potentialities for such events to occur. Events are not substances, which, by definition, endure. And the potentialities have an “idea-like” character because they are like an “imagined” idea of what the future events might be, and they change abruptly when a new event occurs. Thus neither the events nor the potentialities have the ontological character the substantive matter of classical physics. Yet the predictions of quantum mechanics encompass all of the known successes of classical mechanics.
In Measurements and time reversal in objective quantum theory, Purdue physicist F. J. Belinfante goes even further to include God his interpretation:
If elementary systems do not “possess” quantitatively determinate properties, apparently God determines these properties as we measure them. We also observe the fact, unexplainable but experimentally well established, that God in His decisions about the outcomes of our experiments shows habits so regular that we can express them in the form of statistical laws of nature….this apparent determinism in macroscopic nature has hidden God and His personal influence on the universe from the eyes of many outstanding scientists.
Of course the jury is still out on this ontological question. This is because by its nature, resolving this issue may be conclusively intractable by our minds and empirical investigations. However, one could ask the question, which one solves some of the most difficult problems? I believe some form of idealism offers advantages. Here are some:
The Hard Problem.
Take the hard problem of consciousness (to be precise, phenomenal consciousness). David Chalmers, probably the most prominent consciousness philosopher of our time, coined this phrase (the hard problem) because it seems that “what it’s like” (i.e. qualia) cannot be explained scientifically. For instance here’s a summary of famous thought experiment. There is a neuroscientist in a room who hypothetically knows everything to know physically about vision and color. She knows about wavelengths of light and how vision works in the mind, but when she sees the color red, she then knows something more: “what it’s like” to see red. Even with all her knowledge about the physical properties, the experience of seeing red is something new that all the physical attributes can’t describe or explain.
This problem led Chalmers to at least entertain the prospect that consciousness is somehow fundamental. Something “more” or even perhaps fundamentally basic to reality that is not encompasses by the material (or physical). Enter panpsychism, “the doctrine or belief that everything material, however small, has an element of individual consciousness.” Pretty crazy, huh? Well, it may seem strange to think that an atom has some type of consciousness, but the idea that consciousness is fundamental does offer a possible solution to the “hard problem.” My view is that if you follow this line of thinking to its logical conclusion and roll in other ideas then everything is mind. The term “material” is just an abstraction for something in mind.
Free is a big problem for materialists. If reality is constituted just by elements that operate through their intrinsic properties to create everything, then basically all events occur either by chance (quantum indeterminacy) or necessity (natural law). In this model everything just happens based on prior events or by chance. No freedom. Now materialist philosophers have gone through some pretty extreme semantic gymnastics to try to salvage freewill, but basically what they have done is use a slight of hand to redefine free will that no reasonable person would be satisfied with.
However, if reality is constituted by mind, then things are very different. What this means is that the regularities we see are really habits of the mind. I use the term habits because with a mind that is free, these regularities need not be rigid and static. They support a regularity so that life can exist but there is still can be an openness to novelty where it will not disrupt the life giving order. If our minds are an aspect of a universal mind that constitutes reality then we also have an element of freedom as an aspect of that mind. This type of idealism has been formulated both in the East and the West. In the East there is a school called Vishishtadvaita and in the West there forms of Absolute Idealism that propose to this type of framework. In my view, only if there is an intrinsic intentionality and freedom as the basis for reality can there be true freedom of the will.
There are some other areas where idealism can be a helpful view but that’s for another post.