Objectives of Ontology

Metaphysics answers the question, "What is existence and what is its nature?" Ontology answers the question, "What is material existence and what is its nature?" Ontology is a branch of metaphysics.

Material and Physical Existence

In almost all cases, the words physical and material mean the same thing. After all, it is matter the physical sciences study. For purposes of this philosophy, however, I have chosen to use these words to distinguish two different concepts of existence. I will use the word physical to mean what is usually meant by material, but use the word material in a broader sense."

By physical existence I mean that existence we are directly conscious of, the world we see, hear, feel, smell, and taste. By "world" I do not mean just the earth, but all that we can see and be directly aware of, including the sun, moon, planets and stars, or what we sometimes call the physical universe.

Physical existence, includes ourselves, not just externally, as we see ourselves in a mirror, but all those internal aspects of ourselves we are directly aware of, as well, like a pain in our arm, or nausea, or a tickle in our throat, and those even more subtle direct perceptions we identify as grief, joy, fear, or happiness, that is, the "emotions".

The emotions themselves are not physical, because they are perceptions and psychological. Since we are only able to perceive the physical, however, and the emotions are direct perceptions, it is physical states of the body we experience as emotions. The "feelings" themselves are not physical, but what those feelings are feelings of is physical.

Physical existence also includes all we discover using tools or instruments, such as telescopes, microscopes, chemical analysis, and x rays. Finally, physical existence includes, in addition to all of these things we are directly and indirectly aware of, all that we can deduce from them, as well, such as atoms and sub-atomic particles. In fact, another way to describe the physical is all that is the proper subject of the physical sciences.

This description of physical existence must not, however, be construed to suggest physical existence is physical existence because we are aware of it. Our awareness of physical existence is only possible because there is a physical existence for us to be aware of. There would be physical existence even if there were no one to be aware of it. If there were no physical existence, we would not be either, since it includes us.

If you have never taken a course in philosophy, all this probably seems painfully obvious. For those who have been exposed to philosophy in an academic atmosphere, be assured, I am very much aware of the supposed conflicts in schools of philosophy such as realism vs. nominalism, empiricism vs. idealism, and many more unnecessary difficulties introduced by philosophers.

The Physical a Subset of the Material

Material existence, as I use it, is a broader concept than physical existence. Material existence includes all that exists independent of anyone's consciousness or knowledge. It includes all that the physical includes but also includes, for example, life, consciousness, and volition, which physical existence, in its strictest sense, does not, because we cannot be directly conscious of any of these. We know they exist indirectly and only as they are manifested in physical entities (organisms) or by introspection.

By "independent of anyone's conscious awareness or knowledge," I mean material existence, including physical entities, the life of living organisms, the consciousness of conscious organisms and the volitional faculty of rational organisms all exist and have the exact nature they do, whether anyone is or is not aware they exist or understands anything about their nature. Of course, life, consciousness, and volition could not exist if there were no living, conscious, or volitional beings, but they could certainly exist without those beings being aware of or understanding their own or other creature's natures.

Since I am using the term material in this broader sense, to include all existents, both what is directly perceived as well as what is known but not directly perceived, when referring to the physical only, I will specify "physical". Otherwise, by material I mean anything that exists independent of our knowledge or consciousness of it.

Not Materialism

In one sense, this ontology may rightly be called materialism, because I define everything that exists independent of human consciousness or knowledge as material; but, in the sense the word materialism is usually used, this ontology is not materialism.

What is usually meant by materialism is the view that all that exists is the physical. If the physicalists (or materialists in the usual sense) were correct, physicalism and materialism would be the same thing. That is what distinguishes this ontology from materialism in its usual sense. The physical is not all that exists, because life, consciousness, and volition are not physical, in themselves, but certainly exist. I stress, however, life, consciousness, and volition are not possible outside the context of physical existence. Ontologically, they are hierarchically dependent on physical existence, but not physical existents themselves.


This philosophy is obviously empirical in nature, because it assumes all knowledge is derived from the directly perceived. There is no other source of knowledge. Since physical existence is all we can be directly conscious of, all our knowledge is derived from that. It is human rational consciousness that makes it possible for us to know more than we are directly conscious of, and that knowledge, too, is ultimately derived from direct perception, and the fact of perception itself.

As human beings we are able to discover the nature of physical existence and observe that living, conscious, and volitional creatures exhibit attributes that cannot be explained strictly in terms of physical characteristics. Such knowledge is still derived from that we are directly conscious of, but extends beyond it. All scientific knowledge extends beyond that we know by direct observation. The nature and validity of that kind of knowledge is fully explained by epistemology, and will be discussed fully there.

What Is Matter, Really?

A permanent problem of philosophy is the apparent dichotomy between "mind" and "matter." If they are different things, how is mind able to comprehend physical matter and how does mind, if it is different from matter, "effect" it. If they are the same thing, how to does mind come to be, if we start with matter, as the empiricists insist, or how does matter come to be, if we start with mind, as the idealists insist?

The part of this problem ontology must address concerns the nature of material existence, itself. If we understand that nature, we are in a much better position to understand how we are conscious of it, and are able to know it. The first question is, "what is the true nature of physical existence?"

In their attempt to answer this question the ancient philosophers imagined a great many things as the possible answer. Early theories held that all physical matter consists of four "elements," earth, air, fire, and water (Empedocles), or of "atoms," tiny indivisible particles differing only in size and shape (the prescient Leucippus and Democritus), or a single universal substance (the proto-GUT theories of Anaxagoras).

Surprisingly, the last two of these ancient answers persisted in some form throughout history and even to this day. I call these two views the "atomic" view and the "primal substance" view.

The atomic view assumes every substance or entity consists of simpler, or at least smaller, entities, which explain the nature of the substances, or larger entities, comprised of them. This approach seeks some simplest or smallest particle or set of particles out of which everything else is comprised. It is sometimes called reductionism, because it is an attempt to reduce everything to some simplest parts. (Materialism, that regards the physical as all that exists, is another kind of reductionism.)

The primal substance view assumes there is some ultimate "stuff" from which everything is made, and that differences in material things are the result of different arrangements, qualifications, configurations or behavior of the ultimate "stuff".

Taken Over by Science

Within the physical sciences, both the primal substance and atomic views have been remarkably successful, and that success has largely removed the study of physical material existence from the field of philosophy, which has been largely taken over by the sciences. In the sciences, physical existence is indeed "atomic" or particulate, and that aspect of matter's nature is addressed by chemistry as well as atomic and sub-atomic physics. Science has not yet been able to reduce material existence to some ultimate particle or set of particles, however.

Neither has science discovered some "ultimate stuff" or "primal substance" from which all matter is derived, but it has discovered a fairly consistent set of laws or principles that explain, so far, the behavior and existence of particulate matter at every level. Science no longer looks for an ultimate stuff, it instead seeks an ultimate principle that will describe how everything works.

Science and Philosophy

But science is not philosophy. The answers science has provided, while answering many of the questions philosophy was originally interested in, do not and cannot answer the ultimate questions of philosophy about material existence. In some ways, science has made the job of philosophy simpler, because many of the questions about the nature of material existence that plagued philosophy have been answered. This has also helped define the questions that remain for philosophy to answer.

But the sciences have also made the job of philosophy more difficult. The very success of the sciences is very impressive, and the suggestion that everything can ultimately be answered by science, particularly about the nature of matter, is difficult to resist.

Philosophy has also been greatly influenced by the sciences and many philosophers have attempted to take the conclusions of science and apply them to philosophical questions. In general, this has been a mistake and commits the logical fallacy of reification. There are questions that require answers that science is not able to answer, and will never be able to answer, because they are philosophical in nature, and must be answered by philosophy.

There are also questions which science itself raises that were, before the success of science, unknown to philosophers or anyone else, but now demand answers, such is the problem of volition in a "determined" physical universe.

Finally, it is ultimately philosophy that must establish the principles which validate science. Philosophy must describe the nature of physical existence that makes it knowable and establish that objective science is the means of knowing it.

Ontological Questions

There are a number of interesting questions that philosophers have grappled with over time, which all have their roots in ontology. I have identified nine such questions in the following list. A brief description of each follows.

  1. The Nature of Physical Existence
  2. The Nature of Material Existence
  3. The Nature of Cause
  4. Cause and Determinism
  5. Determinism and Volition
  6. Matter and Consciousness
  7. What are Qualities Qualities Of?
  8. The Substantialness of Substance
  9. Analog Versus Discrete

The Nature of Physical Existence

Just what is the nature of that physical existence we are directly conscious of. That physical existence is the real, the ultimate existence, just as it is perceived, and everything else is either subordinate to it (ontologically) or a means of understanding and explaining it (epistemologically). A correct ontology describes the exact relationship between the real, solid, perceived physical existence, that same existence as it is described by the sciences, as well as our consciousness and knowledge of it.

The Nature of Material Existence

This ontology includes everything that exists independently of anyone's knowledge or consciousness of it as material existence. Since life, consciousness, and volitional (rational) consciousness all exist independently of any particular individual's awareness of them, they exist materially, but since they cannot be directly perceived, they do not exist physically. A correct ontology explains what the exact nature of all aspects of material existence, physical, living, conscious, and volitional, is and the relationships between them.

The Nature of Cause

We are not only conscious of material existence, but have knowledge of it. That knowledge is only possible if material existence is, "knowable," that is, it can only be known if it has a nature that can be comprehended in terms of principles or concepts that can be discovered and understood. It means, what exists and what happens cannot be a collection of random unconnected entities and events but that things must all be connected in some way, and it must be possible to discover what those connections are.

The idea of this connectedness between all entities and events is the concept cause.

Is there such a relationship between all things? If not, real knowledge of material existence would not be possible. If there is no cause, there is no way to be certain what the consequence of any action, choice, or even a thought will be. If there were no discoverable governing principles material existence must conform to, neither science nor philosophy would be possible.

One objective of this philosophy is to discover and describe the true nature of the interconnectedness of all entities and events which we call "cause."

Cause and Determinism

If cause is a real characteristic of physical existence, it would seem everything that has ever happened and everything that will ever happen must be determined by those very causal relationships that make knowledge possible. But, if everything is determined for all time, both the present and the future are as certain and unchangeable as the past.

This is a problem for ontology, but has even more significant implications to other areas of philosophy that depend on a correct ontological view. If everything is already determined, how can there be any values, for example, or even a point to anything. The most profound question however relate to reason and volition.

Determinism and Volition

If the material universe is to be knowable and conforms to some set of principles (laws) that are universal (apply to everything) and eternal (all the time), and those laws and principles are discoverable and understandable, everything must be determined by those laws or principles.

If the human mind is only an aspect of physical existence, it is determined (that is, its function) by the same laws or principles that govern all of physical existence, and whatever our supposed ideas, thoughts, or knowledge are, they are in fact only naturally occurring events with no more meaning than a dead tree falling or a burp. Not only does absolute determinism seem to make volition impossible, it seems to make knowledge itself impossible. Since we know we are volitional creatures and do have knowledge, how are these possible without contradicting the nature of cause itself?

It is the objective of this philosophy to describe the truth nature of both physically determined existence and the nature of mind that resolves, without contradiction this perennial false dilemma of philosophy.

Matter and Consciousness

The question here is not the one referred to by the concept of dualism, not mind vs matter, but a more subtle question of how consciousness apprehends material existence. Part of the answer is in the nature of perception itself, already addressed in the article "Perception," but part of the answer belongs to ontology.

The ontology part is the question, what is the ultimate objective nature of material existence that makes both the subjective experience of it (perception) and our objective comprehension of it (conception) consistent (true and non-contradictory)?

If material existence is independent of our consciousness or knowledge of it, our knowledge of it cannot be limited to our subjective experience of it. While our knowledge of material existence must be derived from our direct subjective consciousness of it, our knowledge of it must be expressed in terms which do not depend on that subjective experience alone. Our knowledge must be as objective as the existence which it knows

It is impossible to communicate our subjective experience. We cannot show or tell someone else what we are actually seeing, for example. We can point to the thing we see and say, "I am seeing that," but we cannot show another person what our "seeing that" is to us, as we actually consciously experience it. Though our perception of things is totally reliable and true, it is subjective and non-demonstrable.

Just as we cannot communicate to someone else our subjective experience, we cannot ourselves, understand that subjective experience, at the conceptual level, in terms or our subjective experience alone. If we are to have true knowledge of what we know by direct perceptual experience, our understanding of our subjective experience must be in objective conceptual terms—whether explaining the nature of things to someone else or to ourselves, the same level of objectivity is required.

Part of the answer to the question has to do with our own conscious nature, which is epistemological, but ontology must provide the part of the answer that explains the nature of material existence that makes it possible for us to be conscious of it, and for that consciousness to be valid.

The ontological nature of consciousness must also be explained. It is not necessary for ontology to provide a complete explanation of the nature of consciousness, but it must demonstrate where in the hierarchy of existence consciousness fits; that demonstration includes the ontological identity of consciousness as an actual material (not physical) existent.

What are Qualities Qualities Of?

A things identity is whatever its qualities, attributes, and characteristics are. Both science and philosophy describe a thing's nature in terms of its attributes, that is, its qualities.

There is an oddity about this that is not always noticed, but is very significant, philosophically. A red rubber ball has the qualities, round, red, and elastic, for example. Though a red rubber ball is a round, red, elastic thing, we cannot create a red rubber ball by plunking together some redness, some roundness, and some elasticity. First of all, we cannot do this, because independent of a red, or round, or elastic things, there is no redness, roundness, or elasticity. These, like all other qualities, only exist as qualities of something; they have no independent existence.

The question is, what has those qualities? What is red, and round, and elastic? What are these qualities of?

While it is correct to say a thing is whatever its qualities are, it is difficult to see how a thing can be nothing but its qualities and attributes. For example, in physics, the photon is described as having both the properties of a wave and the properties of a particle. But what has these properties is not only not explained, it is considered irrelevant. What the wave properties of a photon are waves of (as sound is waves of air) is not only not described, it is assumed to be meaningless. What photons are particles of is never even asked.

Obviously, there cannot be something which is only a "red" thing. Neither can something simply be "particulate," even if the mass, energy, or other characteristics of the particle are described. A particle is a particle of something. Neither can something just be a wave, even an electromagnetic wave. A wave must be a wave of something.

Ontology must at least address this question and provide an objective answer, even if that answer is not a complete one.

[The answer relates to the supposed problem of universals.]

The Substantialness of Substance

One of the results of science is not so much an explicit idea as it is an impression. Such expressions as, "the atoms are mostly space," the concept of "fields," give the impression that this physical, material world is illusory in some sense; that the substantialness of substance and the solidity of the solid is only an "impression."

Since reality is the world we are directly conscious of (and everything that is true about it) it is the solid, liquid, gaseous world of perception that is the real world. But what are we to do with the apparent results of scientific investigation that suggest even diamonds are mostly space?

Analog Versus Discrete

If, as metaphysics asserts, existence consists only of existents, since ontology deals with material existence, ontologically, existence consists of material existents, or entities. In ontology, there are only entities; everything else, qualities, events, and relationships, are only aspects of entities. This suggests that material existence must be discrete, comprised of discrete and independent entities. (Independent does not mean without relationships.)

To both science and our consciousness, however, an existence consisting only of discrete entities seems problematic. It would make existence discontinuous, starting and stopping at the boundary of each discrete entity.

Science sees the world as analog. While entities have characteristics which are, "local," and "bounded," they also have properties which extend indefinitely, such as their gravitational affects on other entities. To our consciousness, the field of perception is continuous, not "broken-up" by separate entities, and while we perceive entities as distinct, there is nowhere in that field where there is not something. Existence is not discontinuous to either consciousness or to science.

At the conceptual level, discreteness is required by every concept. We certainly have concepts for the analog aspects of reality, but our concepts for things, by which they are identified, is based on the axiomatic principle of identity, A is A, a thing is what it is. But a thing is what it is only if it is really a unique separate thing from everything else. If entities were only "approximately" unique and independent, but in fact their edges "blended into" other things, the whole structure of conceptual knowledge would be reduced to an incomprehensible blur.

Ontology must address and resolve this apparent dichotomy of natures of physical existence.

The Significance of The Ontological Questions

There are many more questions that might be listed than these nine, but these seem to me those most important for two reasons. The first is because they are the best examples of the kind of questions that anti-intellectualism and post-modernism (only the latest version of anti-intellectualism) use to repudiate objective reason. The entire argument behind all such irrationality is, "there are some things which cannot be known, therefore no knowledge is certain." That is the whole of the latest anti-mind anti-knowledge assault on reason, which reduced to its simplest terms only says, "if we cannot know everything, we cannot know anything."

Even if these kinds of questions could never be answered, the argument is absurd. However, the questions can be answered, and to do that is one of the objectives of this ontology.

The questions also serve as a kind of test. If an ontology is correct, the answers to these and all such questions should flow almost automatically from it. The fact that an ontology does answer such questions is not itself proof the ontology is correct, but any ontology that answers them is superior, and certainly closer to the truth than any ontology that does not answer them or even addresses them.

The Criteria of a Correct Ontology

There is no shortage of answers and explanations for any of the ontological questions. Every philosophy and religion in the world has answers to some or most of these questions. Almost all of them are wrong.

They are wrong because the answers they provide result in more unanswered questions, result in paradoxes, explain away rather than explaining, require one to accept the answers without understanding them, or are dependent on subjective, "experience," or "revelation."

It is not enough that an ontology answer the questions, it must do so within the constraints of objective reason. The following defines what I consider the minimum requirements for answering the ontological questions objectively.

A correct ontology must be objective. It cannot depend on subjective experience, individually or collectively. This ontology recognizes consciousness as real and material, but the content of consciousness is a subjective experience. The ontological explanation of how material existence can be perceived must itself be purely objective. While knowledge, as an aspect of consciousness is subjective, the validity of that knowledge as true and non-contradictory is demonstrably objective. If ontology is correct, it must be both true and non-contradictory and based on demonstrable evidence.

—Reginald Firehammer (9/8/04)


  1. Material existence is a broader concept than physical existence. Material existence includes all that exists independent of anyone's consciousness or knowledge. It includes all that the physical includes but also includes, for example, life, consciousness, and volition.
  2. It is ultimately philosophy that must establish the principles which validate science. Philosophy must describe the nature of physical existence that makes it knowable and establish that objective science is the means of knowing it.