Saturday, January 17, 2009

Evolving Thoughts: The ontology of biology 4 - pattern and process

Today's blog from John Wilkins demonstrates that he gets the phenomenological/ideational distinction and its implication for biology - Evolving Thoughts: The ontology of biology 4 - pattern and process] The addition of some ontological schemes might contribute to his pondering about where ontology comes from... perhaps some Sellars would do the trick.


John S. Wilkins said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
John S. Wilkins said...

Sorry about that. I wanted to ensure a followup by email.

Carl, I've read a fair bit of Sellars. Did you have any particular item in mind? "The Manifest Image"?

Unknown said...

Hi John,

First, I just want to say that I appreciated your post on patterns and processes. In anthropology/archaeology, the majority of practitioners treat these concepts as real and hold that the purpose of the discipline is to find them. This view makes disciplinary development quite difficult since effort is spent on new clever ways of "finding" the "right" patterns in the archaeological record rather than constructing appropriate concepts for measuring, generating and explaining patterns vis a vis theory.

This confusion is deeply embedded in archaeology though I have also found that many researchers in the "functional" sciences (i.e., those that have a recognizable product) see their work in the same way. This is understandable in some ways. Those that have a working language simply can use that language to do their work and treat the nouns they use as real. The assumption works in some science l since concepts/things are isomorphic with the theory that underlies their meaning. Take chemistry for an example. Hydrogen isn't "real" but can be treated as such for the purposes of chemistry. But having such a blindspot means that when researchers venture outside of their area of expertise they have no idea how things work -- such as the many good scientists who take an interest in archaeology (and there are many, *cough* Diamond *cough*). There is often no appreciation about the fact that the patterns we measure are manufactured - and work because of the theoretical framework that accounts for them in the first place (both epistemologically and ontologically).

Thus, when I read your thoughts on biology, I found your argument to be exactly on the money.

With regards to ontology, I suggested Sellars as he makes the good points (1) that our own "image" (the manifest) is innate and through which we create other views and (2) scientific images must be conceived of as explicitly and conceptually separated from the manifest. Like you point out in your discussion, this notion is a bit paradoxical since a scientific image is one that can only start with the manifest (we have only what is in our heads to study/create understandings of the world). But one can see that the explicit nature of the scientific image (where it can be discussed and evaluated) provides its major value (not that its "right" but that it can be changed and passed on).

Once that recognition is made, one can then see that the scientific image can be constructed with any ontology - though the ontology itself may not be the same as the one of the manifest. Here is where many get confused. Evolution has shaped our commonsense to be essentialist -- we live in a world where nouns and the ideas behind nouns are the same thing. Nouns are real - there is no difference between dog" and the "idea of dog." This is implicit in the bulk of our language and even much of our perception.

Now this essentialist ontology works okay for fields that seek to look at interaction between things (e.g., chemical interactions, ecological studies of species interaction) -- and the need to introduce a different ontology for the scientific image is fairly minimal (the focus is largely on epistemology). But in cases where the goal of a discipline is to look at change -- such as any evolutionary discipline -- this ontology is entirely inappropriate. Instead we need a way of looking at the world where there are no "things" but simply relations. This allows us to view change (rather than difference). Here a materialist ontology is appropriate (as Darwin introduced and as many have said).

In this way, we base our views using an ontology that is appropriate to our goals - something we have to constantly evaluate. We ask questions, such as, "are we making assumptions about the nature of reality that prevent us from measuring an aspect of it in which we are interested." Like the rest of science, this questioning is iterative and cumulative.

While wildly differing from views taken by other archaeologists, I see these distinctions (ideas vs. things; manifest vs. scientific images; essentialism vs. materialism; phenomenological vs. ideational) as key to developing archaeology as a historical science. If we worry about this stuff, then we end up with exactly the kind of "find the pattern" kind of exercises you described in your post.