Evaluation of Ontological Arguments and Theories

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Ontological Commitment

The Ontolgical Argument deals with the nature of being; of what exists and what kind of things exist in the universe. Onto (being) and Logia (spoken or written discourse) from Greek. It is apart of Metaphysics which looks at the fundamental structures of what exists and the general features of existence. There are various concepts and forms of arguments that relate to the nature of being and what exists. An Ontological argument may ask questions like; what kinds of things exist, what kinds of things don’t exist and how can you truly say something exists, in mind or reality or both? Meta-ontology gives us the methods and nature of ontology interpreting the significance of ontological questions, the issues in Ontological commitments are addressed in Meta-ontology. So, what exists according to a given theory and follows its ontological commitments.

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“On its face, the notion of ontological commitment for theories is a simple matter. Theories have truth conditions. These truth conditions tell us how the world must be in order for the theory to be true; they make demands on the world. Sometimes, perhaps always, they demand of the world that certain entities or kinds of entity exist. The ontological commitments of a theory, then, are just the entities or kinds of entity that must exist in order for the theory to be true. End of story (compare Rayo 2007: 428).”[i] (Bricker, 2016).

The main issues start to happen when you try to identify the truth conditions of a theory or ontological commitment. Because the truth conditions vary across theories and ontological commitments change. This causes the issue of how do we determine an existence or nature of being as a truth condition, to give us a valid and sound Ontological argument. Therefore, there is a need for a method or test that can determine the Ontological commitments of a given theory. Even these tests and theories for Ontological commitments are still subjected to disputes, because even a neutral method or test is subjected to the same issues as before; how do we determine what is the neutral ground to test an Ontological commitment.

Around the mid twentieth century, philosopher Willard Van Orman Quine (1908-2000), was inspired by progresses in formal logic, developed a new method for addressing questions in ontology, which became the standard in metaphysics. Quine presents this in his paper “On What there is” (1948);

“A curious thing about the ontological problem is its simplicity. It can be put in three AngloSaxon monosyllables: ‘What is there?’ It can be answered, moreover, in a word— ‘Everything’—and everyone will accept this answer as true. However, this is merely to say that there is what there is. There remains room for disagreement over cases; and so the issue has stayed alive down the centuries.”[ii] (Quine, 1953).

In this paper Quine gives the example of two philosophers McX and I, that have different views over ontology. Quine goes on to say, McX maintains that there is something which I says there is not. McX can then maintain by his own point of view that their difference of opinion is because I refuses to acknowledge certain entities. Then I can maintain that there are no entities in which McX alleges to exist. It does not matter whether I finds McX wrong in his formulation, it is unimportant because I is committed to thinking his ontology is wrong anyway. Therefore, when I tries to formulate the difference of opinion, there is a predicament, because I cannot admit that there are some things McX acknowledges and I do not, because in doing so would be admitting there are such things therefore contradicting the rejection of them. According to Quine, if this reasoning were sound in any ontological dispute the negative opponent has the disadvantage of not being able to admit his opponent disagrees with him. Which Quine describes as ‘the old platonic riddle of nonbeing’, which is ‘Nonbeing must in some sense be, what is it that there is not?’, sometimes referred to as Platos Beard.

Quine explains this by using the example of Pegasus; “If Pegasus were not, McX argues, we should not be talking about anything when we use the word; therefore it would be nonsense to say even that Pegasus is not. Thinking to show thus that the denial of Pegasus cannot be coherently maintained, he concludes that Pegasus is.”[iii] (Quine, 1953).

This creates the confusion that even if McX cannot convince himself that anywhere in space time a Pegasus exists, and claims the Pegasus is only an idea in man’s mind. But we can argue that there is an entity of the mental Pegasus idea, even though this not what we are referring to when we deny the existence of Pegasus.

Quine then goes to explain the subtler minds come out with theories like Pegasus, and are less misguided then McX’s, and therefore more difficult to eradicate. He gives one these minds named Wyman, according to Quine Wyman claims the Pegasus being is an actualised possible, so when we say that there is no such thing, we are saying that the Pegasus does not have the attribute of actuality. That we would be saying something about an entity whose being is unquestioned. In Quines view though, Wyman is a philosopher who has contributed in ruining the word ‘exist’, he says that he limits the word ‘existence’ to ‘actuality’, which preserves the illusion of an ontological agreement between himself and us reject the rest of his ‘bloated universe’. He claims that Wyman destroyed what we mean by ‘exist’, therefore his way of coping with this is to give Wyman the word ‘exist’ and instead use the word ‘is’. According to Quine this isn’t even the worst of it, in his opinion Wyman’s possibles is a breeding ground for disorder, and he gives us this example;

“Take, for instance, the possible fat man in that doorway; and, again, the possible bald man in that doorway. Are they the same possible man, or two possible men? How do we decide? How many possible men are there in that doorway? Are there more possible thin ones than fat ones? How many of them are alike? Or would their being alike make them one? Are no two possible things alike? Is this the same as saying that it is impossible for two things to be alike? Or, finally, is the concept of identity simply inapplicable to unactualized possibles? But what sense can be found in talking of entities which cannot meaningfully be said to be identical with themselves and distinct from one another?”[iv] (Quine, 1953).

He goes on to say these elements cannot be changed or reformed and feels it would be better to just be done with it. Quines Slogan “No entity without Identity”  means that if something exists there must be facts as to what it is identical to and what it is not identical to for example, the British philosopher Alan Watts, Alan exists because there is such a person as Alan Watts, and there facts as to what he is identical to and what he is not. He is identical to his notable work The way of Zen (1957) who interpreted and popularised Eastern philosophy for a Western audience. Alan Watts is not identical to New Zealand’s current prime minister. If it was vague and there were no facts who he was identical to and he could be identical to the prime minister, then according to Quine’s theory we should be sceptical of his existence. According to Quine we shouldn’t believe there are any unactualised possibles because there are no precise answers to identity questions.

Finding one’s ontological commitment, Quine’s method; we know that Quine rejects the idea that there are non-existent entities like the Pegasus or the possible fat man in the doorway. However he still accepts that both sentences are true; the Pegasus does not exist and the possible fat man in the doorway does not exist. According to Quine just because these are true and meaningful, this does not commit us to believing in these. Because they lack being and they must be meaningful even when they do not name anything. In order to do this according to Quine we need to use a procedure Quine calls regimentation. This means we need to represent the sentences in first order predicate logic, then it will be clear what the ontological commitments are. For example, replacing Pegasus with ‘P’ and possible fat man with ‘M’;

¬x (x=p)

¬x (x=m)

These are still meaningful, but now we can see in this structure they do not claim the existence or being of these things. Although the negation signs claims the nonexistence of both. Quine also addresses the idea that the words themselves must mean something in order for the sentence to be meaningful, by emphasising that we shouldn’t confuse idea that words like ‘Pegasus’ must mean something with the idea that they name something. Quine uses the view from the logician and philosopher Bertrand Russel (1872-1970), he suggested that names are actually descriptions in disguise. So Quine considers that ‘Pegasus’ means the same as ‘winged horse that was captured by Bellerophon. Using symbols to stand in for the predicates this is expressed like this;

¬ ∃x (((Wx ∧ Hx) ∧ Cx) ∀y (((Wy ∧ Hy) ∧ Cy) ⊃ y=x))

( x is winged and x is a horse and x is a horse and x was captured by Bellerophon, and for any y, if y is a horse and y was captured by Bellerophon, then y is identical to x)

The sentence is still meaningful but does not claim the existence of a winged horse, but rather denies the existence. Quines method for determining one’s ontological commitments;

  1. Decide which sentences you take to be true.
  2. Regiment the sentences by symbolising them in the language of first-order logic.
  3. Commit yourself to all and only those entities needed to stand in as the values of bound variables in order to make the sentences true.[v]

“To be assumed as an entity is, purely and simply, to be reckoned as the value of a variable… The variables of quantification, ‘something’, ‘nothing’, ‘everything’, range over our whole ontology, whatever it may be; and we are convicted of a particular ontological presupposition if, and only if, the alleged presupposition has to be reckoned among the entities over which our variables range in order to render one of our affirmations true.” (Quine, Introduction to ontology, 2014)

[i] Bricker, Phillip, “Ontological Commitment”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2016/entries/ontological-commitment/>.

[ii] Orman, Quine, “On what there is”, Semantics Scholar, Review of Metaphysics (1948). Reprinted in 1953 From a Logical Point of View. Harvard University Press. https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/05f2/9bb9be63647f8897775461c18e96026cec20.pdf

[iii] Orman, Quine, “On what there is”, Semantics Scholar, Review of Metaphysics (1948). Reprinted in 1953 From a Logical Point of View. Harvard University Press. https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/05f2/9bb9be63647f8897775461c18e96026cec20.pdf

[iv] Orman, Quine, “On what there is”, Semantics Scholar, Review of Metaphysics (1948). Reprinted in 1953 From a Logical Point of View. Harvard University Press. https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/05f2/9bb9be63647f8897775461c18e96026cec20.pdf

[v] Ney, A. (2014). Introduction to ontology. In A. Ney, Metaphysics an introduction (pp. 30-37). Oxon: Routledge.


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