24 September 2016

Revisiting Basic Philosophy

Twitter led me to an interesting blog post on Ribbon Farm, by Venkatesh Rao that is one of a series (see below). And in it I found what I think is a very useful way of looking at the ideas of ontology and epistemology.

He was basing his exposition of this idea on an article. "I got my definitions from this excellent 1993 paper, Choice Over Uncertainty and Ambiguity in Technical Problem Solving" (How to). The basic idea seems to be about asking the right questions.
But for everyday reading, it’s not actually that complicated. Do I know what am I looking at? is an ontological question. Can I do something with it? (such as “test for truth” or “use to poke Superman”) is an epistemological question. (The Cactus)

As Rao says, "I like to use the term ambiguity for unclear ontology and uncertainty for unclear epistemology." (How to). This is both excellent and great! Because we never have perfect knowledge of physical reality. So any ontology has a measure of ambiguity. And any epistemology has a measure of uncertainty.

On my big blog I have said "All our observations about the world have these three properties, i.e. accuracy, precision, and error". Every measurement of a physical property comes with built in error due to the nature of measurement. This is drilled into every student of science, but for some reason left out of every journalistic account of science and more or less every figure quoted by journalists - so there is some uncertainty in people's minds about science.

On the other hand, because of the nature of social reality, we can often state facts with a great deal more certainty. The £10 note in my wallet is definitely money. There is no uncertainty about this. The note itself is ontologically objective, it exists; but money is ontologically subjective. Many scientists and philosophers seem to think that money being ontologically subjective means that it is ontologically ambiguous. I disagree. There's sometimes uncertainty about money, how it works and what the value of it it, but these are epistemological issues.

When looking at a £10 note I know exactly what I'm looking at. And I know what I can do with it. This level of certainty is not available to physicists, except when they are dealing with money or some other ontologically subjective phenomena, such as consciousness.

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