The Nature of Knowledge


Basic Principles of Ontology

Metaphysics is the study of the nature of existence. Ontology is the branch of metaphysics which deals specifically with the nature of material existence. Since this book is about epistemology, this chapter will be confined to those aspects of ontology which are fundamental to understanding the nature of knowledge. Ontology identifies the nature of that which all knowledge is knowledge of.

Material existence is all that exists independently of anyone's knowledge or awareness. "Independent of" does not mean separate from, but, "whether or not anyone knows or is aware of that existence." Material existence includes what is usually referred to as, "physical existence," which is all that we can directly perceive, or all that is the subject of the physical sciences, as well as life, consciousness, and the human mind, which also exist independently of anyone's knowledge or awareness, but are not physical.

Ontology provides the basic concepts by which the essential nature of material existence can be understood. Since all we can know is what exists, it is our understanding of material existence which is the foundation of epistemology.

Ontology is a very broad subject. This chapter only introduces the basic principles of ontology. Three other chapters deal with the ontological nature of, "Life," "Consciousness," and "Mind."

Material Existents - Three Corollaries of the Axiom of Identity

Metaphysically, existence consists of everything that exists, without regard to its mode of existence. Ontologically, existence consists of all material existents. All other things that are sometimes thought of as material existents, qualities, events, and relationships, only exist as aspects of material existents with no existence independent of those existents. Qualities exist only as qualities of existents; events exist only as the behavior of existents, and relationships exist only between existents; there are no qualities, events, or relationships independent of the existents they are the qualities or behavior of, or relationship between. Physical existents are referred to as entities. In the physical realm, qualities, events, and relationships are existents, but not entities.

The axiom of identity, originally stated by Aristotle, is, A is A, or "a thing (or existent) is what it is." But what exactly is a thing's identity?

It is one of the most important questions of philosophy. "A is A," is fine, but what exactly is A? A thing certainly is what it is, but what is a thing anyway? There are three corollaries to the axiomatic concept of identity which answer this question. Those corollaries are, the necessity of qualities, the necessity of difference, and the necessity of relationship. By necessity is meant that all three corollaries are true of all existents and there can be no existent of which all three are not true.

Corollary 1: The Necessity of Qualities Anything that exists must have some qualities and those qualities are its identity.

[NOTE: Some philosophers use the terms "characteristics," "attributes," or "properties," instead of qualities. The word, "qualities," is preferable because it is the traditional term in philosophy that subsumes "characteristics," "attributes," "properties," "aspects," and "states."]

[NOTE: Since this book is addressed specifically to Dr. Binswanger's book on epistemology, when discussing what he has written using terms other than, "qualities," I will try to follow Dr. Binswanger's lead to make my comments appropriate to what he has written. Otherwise, I will use the terms "quality," or " qualities."]

It is true of all existents, not just material ones, that a thing is whatever all of its qualities are. Note, however, the qualities do not make a thing what it is, the qualities are what they are because a thing is what it is. Identifying a thing's qualities (an epistemological function) is not identifying why a thing is what it is, only what it is.

An existent is whatever all its qualities are, and those qualities do not exist independently of the existent of which they are the qualities. Conversely, since an existent's qualities are what it is, the existent cannot exist independently of its qualities. An existent sans qualities is a contradiction.

For example, the redness, elasticity, and roundness of a red rubber ball are qualities of the red rubber ball, but they are not things impressed on or added to something else that somehow transforms it into a red rubber ball. The qualities are simply the qualities of a red rubber ball, and have no independent meaning or existence apart from it. If there were never anything elastic, or red, or round, none of those qualities would exist or have any meaning. Conversely, independently of redness, elasticity, and roundness, there are no red rubber balls.

An entity's identity, ontologically, is all of it's qualities. This must not be confused with an existent's epistemological identity, which is dependent on what is known about it. The entity identified, both ontologically and epistemologically is the same entity. An entity is what it is regardless of how much is known or not known about it.

This is also the precise view of Objectivism:

"It is the law of identity: to be is to be something, to have a nature, to possess identity. A thing is itself; or, in the traditional formula, A is A. The "identity" of an existent means that which it is, the sum of its attributes or characteristics."
[Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand "Chapter 1óReality" Emphasis mine.]

The Nature of Things—Necessary and Possible Qualities

An existent's identity determines its nature, that is, the kind of existent it is. Everything that exists has a specific nature because, everything that exists has the specific qualities that are its identity. A full description of the nature of any existent would include all its qualities—in that sense a things identity also determines its nature.

The subject of qualities is very large and would require an entire chapter to properly address. There is one aspect of that subject that must be mentioned here, because it is a cause of much confusion both in ontology and epistemology. It is the difference between necessary qualities and possible qualities.

Necessary qualities are all of an existent's qualities which it must have to be the existent it is and without which it would not be that existent.

Possible qualities are all those qualities that an existent may have but does not necessarily have at the moment or never has, including all those qualities that may change without the existent becoming a different existent or a different kind of existent. Possible qualities also include all possible relationships an existent may have to other existents. The necessary qualities determine what other qualities and relationships are possible to an existent.

Necessary and possible qualities are very important to epistemology, especially to classes or categories of existents, called universals.

Corollary 2: The Necessity of Difference Anything that exists must be different in some way from everything else that exists. No two things can be identical.

This seemingly obvious corollary has important consequences. It is obvious if there are two things, something must make them different, else they would not be two things. Since it is an existent's qualities that determine what an existent is, if existents are different (which they must be) they must have at least one quality which is different.

Therefore, since, "anything that exists must have some qualities (corollary 1.) and "anything that exists must be different in some way from everything else that exists" (corollary 2.) and it is a thing's qualities that determine what it is; therefore, this corollary may be restated this way:

Every existent has some quality or combination of qualities which is different from some quality or combination of qualities of all other existents.

While there is probably nothing we can directly perceive that is identical in every way to any other existent, there is no logical reason why there could not be two things that are identical in every way (with identical necessary and possible qualities), so long as their relative qualities are different.

For example, though we cannot directly perceive individual molecules of water, we know if they have the same energy levels they are identical. If they are identical, the second corollary says they cannot exist, so they must be different in some way, and that difference cannot be any of the necessary qualities. The quality that differentiates things that are otherwise identical must be relative qualities. In the case of water molecules, the quality that differentiates them is the spatial quality, position. Two water molecules may be identical in every way, but if they are really two, they cannot be in the same place (position) at the same time.

[NOTE: This corollary is one of the most important concepts, not only to ontology, but all of philosophy. To exist, a thing must be different from everything else that exists. There is one creative power, the power to make different. The more difference there is, the more existence there is. It is an ultimate principle of existence. Conversely, the power to make the same, {to blur, meld, blend, or obfuscate difference} is the power to destroy or decrease existence.]

Corollary 3: The Necessity of Relationship Anything that exists must have some relationship to everything else that exists. Nothing can exist that does not have some relationship to everything else that exists.

This corollary is actually the converse of the previous. It really says that everything that exists must share some quality or qualities with other things that exists. Nothing can be totally unique.

This is the least obvious of the three corollaries and is easiest to grasp from the relationship aspect. If there could be something that shared no qualities whatever with anything else that exists, it could not possibly have any relationship to anything else that exists. It could not have any spatial relationships, because it would then have spatial qualities; it could have no physical relationship, because it would then have physical qualities; and it could not have perceptual relationships (ones that can be perceived), because it would then have perceptual qualities. If a thing has any relationship with any other existent, whatever the relationship is, there is some common quality or characteristic which that relationship shares or is a variation of.

This corollary contradicts all of those mystical and pseudo-scientific notions of other worlds and other existences, for example. There is only existence and whatever exists is part of that existence and has some relationship to everything else that exists.

I have made this aspect of ontology as brief as possible. I do not think it requires argument.

What the corollaries do not describe is to what kind of world all existents belong.

The Existence We Actually Live In

A correct philosophy will defend the view that: The ultimate reality, the primary existence, the absolute is, the "really real existence" is the material reality we are directly conscious of and the fact that we are conscious of it.

Since it is material existence as it actually is, as we perceive and experience it, as our philosophy explains it, our sciences discover it, our technology utilizes it, our arts transform it, and our souls enjoy it that is reality, it is that reality ontology must describe. This actually experienced existence has certain essential characteristics that ontology must account for. The following is a list of those essential characteristics. The descriptions that follow only explain what is meant by these characteristics. A complete ontology would discuss all these characteristics in detail. Since this book only deals with question of epistemology in the context of Dr. Binswanger's book, only those aspects of the real world directly related to that book will be included in the chapters following this one: "Life," "Consciousness," "Perception," and "Mind."

    Material Existence
  • Physical
    • Plurality
    • Dynamic
    • Interaction
  • Life
  • Consciousness
  • Volition

The physical is that aspect of existence which is directly perceived, and all that can be learned about that existence. The physical is all that can be studied by the physical sciences.

The physical has three differentiating attributes:

Plurality - means there is more than one thing. Physical existence consists of multiple entities. Since everything that exists must be different from everything else that exists, ontology must account for how those differences and the qualities responsible for them are possible and true.

Dynamic - means things happen. Physical existence is characterized by events and processes, therefore it must by capable of change. Ontology must account for the nature of change.

Interaction - means things effect each other. The events of material existence are not perpetual. Events start and stop and change their character while happening. Material entities do not act independently but interact.

There are hard things in this world that bump into each other, things that resist other things, and push other things. The entities involved in these physical reactions have a "solidness" and "substantialness" that makes these reactions possible. These reactions are not limited to physical proximity. Physical things react to one another even when separated. Physics calls this attribute "mass" and it is what makes the interaction between existents possible. It is the task of ontology to account for the substantialness of physical existence.

Life - means there are living organisms. Some material entities sustain themselves as the kind of existents they are by means of a process called living. The moment that process ceases the entities cease to be the kind of entities (living organisms) they are. Some of the behavior of such entities cannot be attributed to physical qualities alone, and can only be explained in terms of that attribute called life. Ontology must explain the nature of life as an actual material attribute.

Consciousness - means some living organism are aware. The living behavior of some organisms is a response to other existents and is different depending on the nature of the existents. These differences in behavior would not be possible if the organisms were not able to be aware of the differences in the existents they react to. This awareness is called consciousness. Ontology must describe the nature of consciousness as an actual material attribute.

Volition - means some organisms are not only aware of the differences in the existents they react to, but are capable of identifying what those existents and their differences are and able to choose their behavior based on those identifications. Identification requires a process of reason and the product of that process is called knowledge, choosing requires the faculty of volition, which is the faculty that makes reason, knowledge, and conscious choice both necessary and possible. This is the ultimate objective of ontology: to demonstrate that volition exists materially (not physically) with all other aspects of existence.

I have identified six characteristics of reality which ontology must account for and explain non-contradictorily. A complete ontology would demonstrate that these six characteristics have a hierarchical relationship to one another, and are all aspects of the same material reality.

Existents and Entities

Though some philosophers use entities and existents interchangeably, in this philosophy, entity will always refer to physical entities, and not to their qualities, actions, or relationships which will be referred to only as existents, which are nevertheless, physical facts. All other existents, material, psychological, or epistemological, will simply be referred to as existents. They are real existents, but not physical existents.

The Ontological Foundation of Epistemology

The corollaries of the axiomatic concept of identity and the six characteristics of existence are fundamental to ontology, but are also crucial concepts to epistemology. Ontology lays the foundation for epistemology because it describes the nature of that which knowledge is knowledge of. In order to understand how knowledge is possible and valid, the nature of that which is known must be established. My discussion of the nature of perception in the chapter, "Perception," together with this ontology are the foundations of a correct epistemology.