Posted by: dacalu | 25 March 2012

Dangerous Assumptions

Much of my writing over the past few weeks has dealt with a subject philosophers call ontology – the question of what exists.  I think it might be more meaningful to say it’s the study of what matters, or what we can talk about.  If you and I were playing chess, and I looked up and asked, “How does the Frisbee move?” what would you say?  Presumably, you would be puzzled and tell me that I wasn’t making sense.  Philosophy works much the same way.  We have a set of entities that we can meaningfully talk about and everything else doesn’t parse.

We often make the mistake of assuming an equality between “that which exists” and “that which we can meaningfully talk about.”  In a recent conversation with a friend, I brought up the teaching of martial arts.  Both of us study at Enso Center for International Arts (  When teaching martial arts, I often show people techniques that I cannot explain in words.  I can only demonstrate how pushing someone just so makes them lose their balance.  It’s a beautiful example of something people don’t think they can do until they do it.  (It’s surprisingly like science that way.)  We talk about it in terms of balance, internal energy, centering… and for most people who come in, those words don’t make any sense.  And so we teach by example.

Ontology can be tremendously empowering because it allows us to set up a system for describing and discussing our experience, but it can also be limiting.  The problem become especially bad if you have spent most of your life around people who talk about the same things you do.  On the other hand, we wouldn’t get anywhere unless we had some common assumptions, some common language.  So where is the balance?

This is where preferences come in.  We face the extreme existential challenge of choosing what and how we are willing to communicate with others.  I recommend an open ontology rather than a closed one.  That is, I’m willing to provisionally accept any entity unless and until it runs into something that actively conflicts with my own way of operating in the world.  I’ll often very carefully line it up against the categories I already have and see if it fits in.  The alternative, a closed ontology, begins with the assumption that only one type of entity exists and therefore other types must be illusory.  I find closed ontology annoying, chiefly because of the number of times I’ve been wrong.  There’s no doubt in my mind that judgment must occur, I just prefer to judge after honestly assessing what this ontology does for the person I’m speaking with.

And, I begin to see the rough edges of my own ontologies.  I know that the universe of atoms works extremely well for me, but I also know it’s intentionally blind to preference and agency.  I know that the universe of agents works for me, but I also recognize that it fails to correspond to the physical world in detectable ways.  I know that the holistic philosophy gives me tools for dealing with world sympathetically, compassionately, and proactively.  I also know that it is not analytically tractable.  So I use the different ontologies to forward my central goal, my preference for healthy relationships.


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