Metaphysics 101: The Importance of One's Ontology

A common thread running through most arguments between theists and atheists is what grounds reality. This is often framed in such a way as to ask how we can have morality without a moral authority, but the question goes considerably deeper than that. While I plan on addressing that question in due time, I believe an investigation of some basic philosophical concepts would be helpful here. For those who have not delved deeply into metaphysics, welcome! It's going to be a wild ride.

Metaphysics is, loosely, the branch of philosophy dealing with the nature of reality. It aims to answer questions like, “what types of things exist?” or “what is the basic nature of reality?”. These are very important questions that are often overlooked as people dive straight into higher-level debates, such as ethics, free-will or politics. To ignore the questions that will ultimately inform those other debates is problematic, as it often leads to impasses caused by unnamed assumptions. Metaphysics covers a wide range of areas, many of which we will simply not have time for here, and as such I would like to focus on what we can determine about the basic qualities of the reality we live in. There are many ways to approach reality, but I believe the following way is most relevant to our task: of what is reality composed? This is a question about ontology, or the things that exist and the basic relations between them.

The answers may seem obvious: atoms, you might say, or God, or the forces of nature, but these presuppose an even more fundamental distinction: is reality (a) comprised of material things; (b) immaterial things; or (c), a mixture of both? Notice that, logically, these are the only three options available to us. Let us define the terms to give us a better handle on them:

 def(1): material - of matter or energy. Examples: quarks, gluons, the weak nuclear force, etc.

 def(2): immaterial - not of matter or energy. Examples: spirits, souls, deities, universals, etc.

Being two sides of the same coin, these two necessarily capture every logically possible object one can name and in doing so carve up the universe into two possible camps. Something is either A or not-A (written as ~A). If one takes view (a) then immaterial things are not part of our ontology (therefore, logically, one cannot postulate souls or spiritual beings in the traditional sense within this metaphysical framework.) This would be the camp that I fall in with, though there is no reason a priori that one need take this position.

View (b) is not commonly held, though there have been those that postulated that reality was entire mental in nature and was determined solely between the interactions between immaterial minds (see George Berkeley, for a prominent example). View (c) is by far the most commonly held worldview, at least according to the numbers given of those professing religious faith and, usually, belief in spirits, gods, souls, angels and the like. The qualities of immaterial objects vary, but a general notion is this: immaterial things are not bound to the laws of physical reality and are categorically different from them. This independence, at a fundamental level, is what allows a soul to transcend the body after death and sojourn to the immaterial realm of Heaven, a place that cannot be found or traveled to by any physical means (at least to those who believe in such things).

This is a basic distinction to make, as it presupposes nothing and merely asks one to choose between three possible worldviews based on two possible premises. Notice that adhering to material objects does not imply anything about the nature of reality other than that it does not contain immaterial things. Likewise, believing in immaterial objects does not mean anything except that one allows for non-material things into his or her ontology. The nature of those objects is in no other way defined. One could believe in immaterial objects and still be an atheist – believing in the former does not necessitate belief in the latter, though under most common conceptions of divine beings belief in them does rest upon worldview (b) or (c).

It is important to spell out these terms carefully as they put in place the boundaries of one's ontology. A true materialist cannot allow a soul as commonly conceived into his or her ontology, for example. This then limits the possible coherent worldviews that are open to this person, assuming they strive to have logically consistent beliefs. I aim in following entries to flesh out the consequences of particular assumptions based on the distinctions roughly fleshed out above, including topics such as free will, morality and ethics, among others.

Until next time!


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