Understanding Human Knowledge

Part 3 of this series looks at metaphysics and ontology in science.

Posted Sep 27, 2020

This blog series maps out the key elements of human knowledge to help folks make better sense of the world. The prior post (Part 2) introduced epistemology and shared Ken Wilber’s quadrant model. Here in Part III we examine metaphysics and ontology, and argue that science should embrace the need for a "descriptive metaphysics" that clarifies the relationship between reality and our ontological claims about that reality, which are justified by the methods of science.

In the first publication on the Unified Theory back in 2003, I proclaimed that psychology’s core philosophical problem was a “problem of epistemology.” This is because when I was trained as a psychological scientist, the vast majority of philosophical issues were framed in terms of epistemology. This makes sense because a core defining feature of science is that it adopts an empirical epistemology. That is, the scientific process involves observation, systematic data collection, hypothesis testing, and falsification, all placed in a theory or paradigm that is then subject to peer review. This process gives rise to the public fund of knowledge found in journals and professional organizations and conferences. These elements constitute the core of science’s epistemology, meaning the way scientists generate knowledge claims and evaluate what claims are justified.

The problem of epistemology in psychology that I was pointing to in that original paper was the fact that the different psychological paradigms (e.g., cognitivism, radical behaviorism, psychodynamic theory) had different epistemological frames for what constitutes knowledge. That is correct in so far as it goes, but I now see that in order to fully understand the problems the science of psychology faces, we need to expand our philosophical vocabulary to include metaphysics and ontology. These latter concepts receive much less attention in philosophy of science than epistemology. Indeed, as I mentioned in the last blog, many scientists find metaphysics a highly disagreeable term, and ontology is not much different. As Lawrence Cahoone argues, this neglect by scientists is unfortunate, and we need to reintegrate these terms into our scientific vocabulary. Seeing why will help us gain a better understanding of human knowledge overall.

First, let's clarify the basic definitions of both terms. The Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines metaphysics as: 1) a division of philosophy that is concerned with the fundamental nature of reality and being that includes ontology, cosmology, and epistemology; and 2) abstract philosophical studies, including what is outside of objective experience. The same dictionary defines ontology as: 1) a branch of metaphysics concerned with the nature and relations of being; and 2) a particular theory about the nature of being or the kinds of things that have existence.

These definitions help us see why scientists might find little use for these terms. Consider that one meaning of metaphysics is that it is “outside of objective experience”. In other words, it is separate from the basic objective empirical claims that grounds science. And, since ontology is a branch of metaphysics, the same can be said of this concept. Thus, we can appreciate why a scientist like Jim Rutt “reaches for his gun” when people start talking metaphysics. However, we need to look deeper at this issue. Indeed, I think the failure to appreciate the need for metaphysical and ontological considerations in science is a major problem, especially in psychology. Indeed, as this paper explains, I now would say that psychology's philosophical problems are largely metaphysical in nature. 

The reason is that metaphysics and ontology can be thought of as being considerations about the concepts and categories that one uses to understand the world. To be clear about the different concepts and empirical facts, imagine you are walking down the street and you observe a car crash. You run over to see if everyone is OK. A police officer arrives and queries you about what you saw and heard. Cars, injuries, and police officers are concepts and categories that you have available to make sense out of what you saw. These concepts can be separated from the empirical facts of the events. Consider that you can imagine an endless number of possible factual scenarios involving different kinds of cars and crashes, different degrees of injury, and different questions from a variety of different police officers. These are empirical variations, but they are all still framed by the concepts.

I want to propose that, for both metaphysics and ontology, we differentiate a “purely philosophical” meaning from a “descriptive scientific” meaning. The purely philosophical meaning of metaphysics and ontology refers to when folks are diving into the foundational meanings of these concepts, such as Hegel does in the Phenomenology of Spirit or how the philosopher Martin Heidegger dove into the foundations of ontology—what he sometimes called “being-itself.” Science also needs to grapple with metaphysics and ontology. However, in science, the difference is that these concepts need to be tied to a scientific epistemology and empirical findings. As Cahoone argues, in science, we can think of both metaphysics and ontology in more descriptive and systematic terms.

My contention is that science requires a descriptive metaphysics to be clear about the overall conceptual scheme that it is using to divide up reality and the knowers that are knowing about it. In this meaning, things like objects, fields, and change are key concepts in understanding the scientific enterprise. They are not empirical, but rather are pre-empirical descriptive metaphysical concepts. Indeed, all the concepts that are used for sense-making are part of the metaphysics one is employing. In this sense, Wilber’s quadrants we discussed last time and the crucial distinction between an interior epistemology and an exterior epistemology are part of the descriptive metaphysics we are employing to make sense of the world. Similarly, a descriptive ontology refers to the claims that are made about what is real. This is much more straightforward than the deeper philosophical explorations into being-itself.

The conception of a descriptive ontology in science allows us to specify another term, that of the “ontic reality.” The ontic reality refers to the actual, substantial existence of an entity or event that is posited to exist independently of one’s claims about it. With this distinction between ontological claims and an ontic reality, a map begins to appear of a theory of scientific knowledge. First, the theory of scientific knowledge is a systematic, descriptive metaphysical analysis of the relationship between knowers and the known. With this being the overarching philosophical frame we can then move to say that science is the process of modeling or mapping the ontic, actual reality via developing a scientific ontology that develop via scientific methods that justify the claims (i.e., scientific epistemology). This is represented in the following figure.

Gregg Henriques
Source: Gregg Henriques

More concretely, we can apply the concepts of epistemology, ontology, and the ontic reality to the shape of the Earth and our beliefs about it. From a scientific realist perspective, one can say that the Earth is an ontic entity, in that it exists independently of human beliefs about it. We can also say that for many thousands of years humans have wondered about its shape. The question is about which geometric concept, say, roundness or flatness, accurately applies to the actual shape of the earth. This is a basic ontological question. In the current language system, believing that the Earth is round is making an ontological claim about the ontic reality of the Earth. The process by which that propositional claim is generated and the extent to which it is justified are questions of epistemology. In this way, the scientific "onto-epistemology" refers to the claims and processes of justification made about the ontic reality.

This descriptive metaphysical approach to laying out the key concepts sets the stage for us to understand science as a kind of justification system and what it tells us about the nature of reality. This will be the focus of the next post in this series, which will set the stage for explaining why the Tree of Knowledge System affords us a coherent theory of scientific knowledge writ large.