The Stuff Dreams Are Made Of; An Introduction to Ontology

Presentation to the May 2007 Melbourne Philosophy Forum

1.1. Ontology (from the Hellenic onto~ (being) and logos (science, study, theory) is the study of being and existence. It can be considered, along with logic and epistemology, one of the three core components of philosophy as a discipline.

1.2. Ontology seeks to describe the basic categories of existence and being and the relationship between these categories; as well as the relationship between being and existence. Ontology seeks resolution to questions such as: “What is existence?”, “What does it mean to say something does not exist?”, “What is a substance?”, “How does one live in existence?”

2.0. The study of existence has advanced enormously in the twentieth century; however the most significant advances have come from physicists, rather thanfrom philosophers1. Ontological studies which are ignorant these advances run the risk of perpetual failure in the basic ability of philosophy to posit verifiable universals.

2.1. The two universal categories of existence are space-time and matter-energy. The space-time contiuum is independent of an observer, and whose geometry is distorted by the presence of matter-energy. Thus space-time and matter-energy universal categories whose relationships can be expressed precisely and mathematically (e.g., the relationship between mass and energy is E=mc^2; energy, in joules, is equal to the mass of an object in kilogrammes, multiplied by the square of the speed of light in a vacuum, or celeritas).

2.2. In classical mechanics, time is independent of space, which is expressed in three dimensions. In relativistic mechanics, time is incorporated as the three dimensions of space depend on a object's velocity relative to the speed of light; objects gain mass as they approach the speed of light (c300 million metres per second) and light itself has zero rest mass.

2.3. In speculative physics, such as string theory there are 11 dimensions, rather than the 3 spatial and 1 temporal in the Standard Model. These “strings” are one dimensional extended objects (“strings”) rather than the zero-dimensional point particles of the Standard Model. Further, there are five “Superstring” models, which posit even more dimensions, and M-theory which combines them all. The advantage of these speculative models is that they provide a quantum theory of gravity and unify the known natural forces (gravity, weak nuclear, strong nuclear, electromagnetic). The disadvantage is that they have not been verified.

2.4. In colloquial language, matter is a category which consists of chemical substances which occupy space. These substances are made of atoms, which in turn consist of protons, neutrons and electrons. Protons and neutrons consist of quarks, and electrons are a type of lepton; all of these are considered fermions, and obey the Pauli Exclusion Principle (multiple instances cannot occupy the same state at the same place). In contrast there are also photons (e.g., light), W and Z bosons (weak forces), and gauge bosons; some of these also have mass.

2.5. The sum total of all matter and energy in all space and time is defined as “the universe”, the entirety of existence. The dominant model in cosmology is that the universe “began” as a gravitational singularity approximately 13.7 billion years ago. The long-term “survival” of the universe depends on the critical mass at the moment of the big bang. If there is sufficient matter, the universe can expand forever; if not it may reach a stasis point, or even shrink (and time could go backwards!). Current observations suggest that we have only found 10% of the sufficient matter (hence the inferential “dark matter”).

3.0. Being, distinct from existence, is an area of ontology which is virtually entirely dominated by various phenomenological and existentialist philosophers2. Being can be distinguished between the objective category (“being-in-itself”) and the relationship with people (“geist”, or “the lifeworld”).

3.1. Phenomenology claims that consciousness must be conscious of something i.e., intentional. This leads to the situation of “being-in-the-world” (In-der-Welt-sein) and “being-toward-death” (Sein-zum-Tode). The is not death in the clinical sense, but rather the conscious recognition of temporarity (being and time) and of loss or absence (being and nothingness). Combined from a subjective perspective these categories make up Dasein (literally: being there/here)

3.2. In the world and experience of dealing with others one is challenged by normative standards which are inescapable. When one adopts moral norms, assumed facts and popular aesthetic without consideration, this is a life without care (c.f., Socrates's dictum, “the unexamined life is not worth living”). When these modes are adopted consciousnessly, suppressing individuality it is an act of “bad faith”, which paradoxically uses conscious freedom to deny free expression. When being-with-others is conducted with care (concern, consideration, analysis) and expressions are freely chosen, the life is said to be authentic.

1) Contemporary concepts of spacetime largely come from the physicist Albert Einstein's special theory of relativity and the extensions by the mathematician Hermann Minkowski. Immanuel Kant is largely considered to be the last significant philosophical contribution to space-time existence, although his views are largely considered to be inaccurate on an ontological basis, but historically important.
2) Specifically, one can include the contributions of Hegel, Heidegger, Sartre and Jaspers. Other contributions have been made by Alfred North Whitehead's “process philosophy” and the Persian philosopher Mulla Sadra's “transcendent theosophy”.