“Ontology” is a word that refers to the study of reality, of what entities are real and how these are related to each other. It is sometimes described as “carving nature at its joints”, reflecting the idea that we are substructures of some evolving fabric – colorless, soundless, and flavorless – that has contours, which we are capable of approximating, even though reality itself could not care less. The word is often interchangeable with “metaphysics”, but less burdened by negative connotations of self-important old men comfortable in their armchairs, and as such, “ontology” has an important role to serve, for to us, getting the contours right is something we should care deeply about.
We may not ponder such profundities on a daily basis, and we may not have reasons to doubt the general truthfulness of our impressions, but there will come times when important decisions must be made and ontological quandaries suddenly make themselves acutely felt. Decisions about the reliability of research, about risky investments, and romantic advances have in common their agonized faith in perceived patterns, patterns that may later turn out to be statistical flukes or spurious confounds. From the feedback provided by such rare reality testings, our normally harmless tendencies of self-deception might come crashing down with resounding disillusionment, and an awareness that we walk a treacherous tightrope to distinguish what’s real from what isn’t.
It is for this reason that ontology is far from a rarefied pastime for white-bearded professors emeritus, or something we can afford to be afraid or impatient about. The delicacies of ontology have real implications and are very much a down-to-earth concern.
There is, however, not an awful lot you can say as an aspiring ontologist without making a fool of yourself. While metaphysicists active before the cognitive scientific revolution of the 20th century could confidently assert some entities to be mere figments and others to be fundamental, today we may smile smugly at their naïveté. Today we know that this very intellect so aching to understand it is actually continuous with physical reality, made of the same stuff and obeying the same rules. Structure in the environment may impress itself on the nervous system, and through a flurry of unconscious computation translate to a consciously perceived object, but ultimately, by its mediated nature, a mind cannot access the raw, mind-independent reality any more than, say, a barometer can. We can put a brooding metaphysicist into a brain scanner and observe the process of matter struggling to comprehend matter (meanwhile being brooding matter ourselves), and mindful of this strange, self-reflexive regress towards infinity, the study of what is “real” and what isn’t emerges as, well, a little bit pathetic. It raises the question what ontology actually hopes to accomplish, and whether this hope is fundamentally misguided.