Ontology 101

I’m no expert in metaphysics, so this post won’t be a polished lecture for a philosophy class (I do, however, have certification from Honda Motors to do repairs and maintenance on their cars, but that was from 1980, so it probably has expired).  But the questions raised by Jeff Lowder in his recent post on Moral Ontology  (https://secularfrontier.infidels.org/2012/12/an-explanatory-argument-from-moral-ontology-against-metaphysical-naturalism-v2-0/) intrigue me, and perhaps I can make a small contribution towards development of the basic categories needed to get the Argument from Moral Ontology off the ground.

I have previously noted that the use of three criteria creates the possibility of not three but, rather, eight types of entities (2 to the 3rd power).  On the face of it, there are actually four criteria used in Jeff Lowder’s proposed ontology, which would create the potential for not eight but sixteen different types of entities (2 to the 4thpower):

C1. Is this entity a natural entity?
C2. Is this entity able to affect nature?
C3. Is this entity a person?
C4. Is this entity a part of nature?

Since ‘nature’ is defined as “the spatio-temporal universe of natural entities”, it might be possible to reduce the above four criteria to three criteria by means of the following assumption:

A. Something is a part of nature IF AND ONLY IF it is a natural entity.

If (A) were true, then (C4) could be reduced to (C1), and we could replace references to (C4) with qualified references to (C1). 

But (A) appears to be false to me.  Time is a part of nature, but time is not a natural entity.  Space is a part of nature, but space is not a natural entity.  I’m no metaphysician, but these seem more like relations than entities.  One entity can begin to exist prior to another entity (temporal relationship).  One entity can circle around another entity (spatial relationship).  Time and space appear to be about relationships between entities, rather than being entities themselves. 

But (A) might be salvageable by restricting the scope of the statement to entities:

A1.  An entity is a part of nature IF AND ONLY IF it is a natural entity.

If we accept (A1), then (C4) could be reduced to (C1), and we could get down to just three criteria (and eight types of entities), instead of four criteria (and sixteen types of entities).  I don’t see an obvious problem with (A1), so I’m going to provisionally accept (A1) and continue on under the assumption that we can reduce (C4) to (C1).  Since (A1) relies on the distinction between ‘entities’ and ‘non-entities’ it would be good to have a clear understanding of this distinction, but I’m not going to attempt to make that clarification here (I would expect to distinguish between entities, properties, events, and relations, for starters).

The Argument from Moral Ontology (hereafter: AMO) will probably not be successful if the three criteria carve out eight different types of entities as opposed to three, so it is worth thinking about how many of the possible combinations of the remaining three criteria end up making sense.  Some combinations of these criteria may be self-contradictory or incoherent.  If so, then we can reduce the number of types of entities to something less than eight.

Let’s take the criteria two at a time, and consider four combinations for each of three different pairs of criteria.

Natural vs. Able (to Affect Nature)

N    A
T    T
T    F
F    T
F    F

In order to avoid reference to the fourth criterion (‘part of nature’), I will interpret (C2) as follows:

(C2*)  Is this entit

y able to affect a natural entity?

NA1.  Natural and Able
This is a no-brainer.  Obviously there are natural entities that are able to affect a natural entity.  The sun can warm a stone, for example. The sun is a physical entity, so it is a natural entity.  A rock is a physical entity, so it is also a natural entity.  The sun can affect a stone, so the sun can affect a natural entity.

NA2.  Natural and Non-Able
This is an interesting combination.  Physical entities are paradigm cases of natural entities, based on the definition.  It seems to me that physical entities not only are typically able to affect a physical entity, but that a physical entity must, of logical necessity, be able to affect a physical entity, and thus be able to affect a natural entity.   Isn’t this a necessary condition of being a physical entity?  So, at first blush, this category appears to be incoherent.

But what about an isolated single atom or sub-atomic particle?  Can’t we imagine, for example, a single electron existing all by itself, with no other physical particles with which to interact and affect?  Such a lonely electron would not be able to affect other physical entities because there would be no other entities to affect.  Although there may never have been a time when the only physical entity in existence was a single electron, we can conceive of this scenario, and there appears to be no logical contradiction or impossibility about there having been such a circumstance at some point in time.

Nevertheless, such an electron would still have the power to repel another electron if another electron were to come into existence.  So, the one lonely electron does have the potential to affect another physical entity, once such an entity comes into existence.  Apart from such potential, the single particle would not be an electron, for being an electron means having a negative charge, and having a negative charge means having the power to repel other particles with a negative charge.

So, given some clarification of the concept of ‘able to affect a natural entity’, my inclination is to reject the ‘natural and non-able’ category as being incoherent.  In doing so, I commit myself to understanding the concept of a ‘physical entity’ to logically entail the concept ‘able to affect a physical entity’.

NA3.  Non-Natural and Able

If there are supernatural persons, then there are non-natural entities that are able to affect natural entities.  Whatever ‘supernatural’ means, it surely excludes natural entities.  So, a supernatural entity would necessarily be a non-natural entity.  Furthermore, supernatural entities, or at least some supernatural persons are supposed to be detectable by means of their occasional interventions and interactions with natural entities: ghosts appear or make noises,  demons possess people or animals and cause odd behavior or illness,  gods intervene in nature causing storms or calming a raging sea.  If there are such supernatural persons, then there are non-natural entities that are able to affect natural entities.

However, the idea of a ‘supernatural person’ has seemed to some people to be an incoherent idea.  If a supernatural person is a bodiless person, and if Antony Flew was correct that the idea of a bodiless person is incoherent, then the idea of a supernatural person is also incoherent.  Further, if the idea of a supernatural person is incoherent, then it might well be the case that the more general category of non-natural entities that are able to affect a natural entity  is also incoherent.

It is not clear to me that Flew was correct on this point, so I’m not ready to set aside this category as a logical impossibility.  But it is certainly controversial whether this category represents a coherent concept.

NA4.  Non-Natural and Non-Able
Numbers and other abstractions appear to fall into this category.  The number two is clearly not a physical entity, nor is it reducible to physical entities.  Like other sorts of entities, numbers exist, and numbers have properties.  The number two is an even number and it is greater than one and less than three.  So, it is plausible to think of numbers as entities.  

But numbers don’t occupy space, nor do they begin to exist at a particular moment, nor cease to exist at a particular moment.  Numbers do not have mass, nor do they have energy, nor do they have a size, shape, or velocity.   So, the number two is not only not a physical entity, but it is nothing like a physical entity.  Even supernatural persons (gods, ghosts, and demons) have positions in space and time.   A ghost can be here now, or have been in that house over there last week, but not the number two. A demon can come into existence at one point in time, and cease to exist at a later point in time, but not the number two.  So, it seems right to say that if the number two is an entity, it is NOT a natural entity, and thus it must be a non-natural entity.

Because the number two cannot occupy space, have a shape or size, have mass or energy, have a velocity, begin to exist or cease to exist, it is difficult to see how the number two could affect a physical or natural entity.  Furthermore, the properties of the number two don’t ever change, and cannot change. The number two cannot be less than three today but more than three tomorrow.  The number two cannot be even today but odd tomorrow.  

So, the number two appears to possess a quality that even God cannot have: immutability.  Ancient theologians tried to attribute immutability to God, but the idea of an immutable person is, as Swinburne argues, an incoherent idea.  But numbers   not only can be immutable, they appear to be necessarily immutable.  Since the properties of numbers cannot change, it

is difficult to see how an unchanging number can cause a change in a natural entity.  

The same problem exists for the idea of an unchanging cause of the origin of the universe.  In the Kalam cosmological argument, the cause of the beginning of the universe is inferred to be a person, because only the choice of a person can explain why the universe would begin to exist at a particular point in time (an unthinking mechanical cause would always be operative and thus cannot explain why the universe began at a particular instant rather than at some previous instant).

Setting aside my theological musings, it appears to me that the number two is a non-natural entity which is NOT able to affect natural entities, in which case the ‘Non-natural and Non-able’ combination represents a coherent idea or category of entities.

Could there also be a ‘supernatural person’ who is not able to affect natural entities? hmmmm.

I’m not sure what to say about that.

To be continued…