Immanent and Transcendent Ontology

In my previous post I characterized ontology as follows.

Ontology is the effort to articulate and justify the composition and structure of what there is-reality- so that our beliefs can be true, proper or apt. Broadly speaking, ontology is a theory on what would constitute truth conditions for beliefs.

I do not use “assertion conditions” instead of “truth conditions” because the conditions have to be in reality apart from human conventions which might warrant making an assertion.

What I characterized above as ontology is not the final step in determining the composition and structure of reality. I call this first step “immanent ontology.” In immanent ontology we ask: What must exist for our basic beliefs about the reality which we experience to have truth conditions. A further question is to ask what must exist for these truth conditions to exist. This further question is about what transcends facts, morality, goodness and beauty. It is what must be so that there can be facts, morality, goodness and beauty.

I illustrated these two steps in my post on an ontology for secular naturalism. There the immanent ontology was that only the objects and processes of natural science, which regarded all talk of purpose or goals as eliminable, needed to exist for truth conditions. As a transcendent ontology for secular naturalism, I went on to propose how analogues of theistic arguments could be used to show that an ultimate moving and causing must exist for there to be the truth conditions for natural science. I did not propose that the foundations for natural science truth conditions constitute God. There needed to exist nothing like mentality -having a purpose or exercising intelligence-in these foundations.

In my construction of the philosophy of secular naturalism as the philosophical opponent of my stance, I do not include a move to transcendent ontology. I am constructing this philosophy from the anecdotal evidence collected over years of working on the immanent ontology of secular naturalism. Just citation of the name of W.V. Quine with his aphorism “To be is to be the value of a variable” should indicate that in the second half of the twentieth century an immanent ontology for a very narrow naturalism was a significant philosophical activity.

I am embarrassed to confess how many hours I spent hoping to write something significant about the ontological investigations of the the Ideal Language methodology led by Gustav Bergman. To myself, I used to mock the methodology of Quine, Bergman et al. by attributing to them a belief that God created the world in the image and likeness of a first order predicate calculus. Presumably we could find the basic items of reality by developing a formal language in which all of the truths of science could be expressed. The basic items would be those in the domain of the existential quantifier (Quine) or the referents of the constants (Bergman). This was all fantasy. There was nothing approaching such a language beyond the mathematical portion..

But a genuine naturalist would never ask a question which could lead to acceptance of anything transcending the natural. They begin with a bias which limits possible results. For instance, a genuine naturalist would never ask: What must there be for there to be that which justifies claims about the big bang?

This brings us to an important methodological principle for ontology. It’s Occam’s Razor: Do not multiply entities beyond necessity. Since there was no intelligence in the truth conditions for the ontology of secular natural science, there was no need to find some ultimate foundation for intelligence. Similarly, if you do not have truth or assertion conditions for normative statements in your ontology, you will find no need to find an ultimate foundation for the truth conditions of normativity.

Before I close this post in order to make a few posts on the immanent and transcendent ontology for a divine command morality, I offer a caution about use of Occam’s Razor. Once you uncover ontological assumptions for your beliefs, you should analyze your assumptions to see whether you need assume all of them or if some are based on others. In ontology we are looking for what is fundamental.

For instance, I needed to assume as a foundation of my notion of moral harm, particular norms that harm ought to be done upon violation of a moral law. But analysis led me to see that I did not need to assume the type of harm or the victim of the harm.

But what should not be done to follow Occam’s Razor is to begin with some assumption about the basic items in reality and then dismiss as unnecessary anything which cannot be shown to be dependent upon those basic items. A classical example of this reductionist misuse of Occam’s Razor in nominalism which begins with the assumption that everything is unnecessary except individuals which can be designated with “this here now.”