Ontology and Science

Ontology concerns the way things are in actuality. Science, by contrast, attempts to establish principles that lead to predictions which are consistent with how the universe behaves; building models of reality which have predictive power. There is an important distinction here. Ontology concerns a description of the totality of existence, of which a subset is the universe. We can conceive of other universes which do not in any way interact with our own or have any implications on our own in terms of logical necessity. They are conceivable, although fundamentally unknowable.

I cannot conceive of an experiment that proves the definitive existence of a universe, let alone a logically consistent universe which is amenable to understanding. Nevertheless, assuming there exists something external to oneself (and also that one’s self exists), we have methods of building models of reality. These models of reality, where they move beyond merely empirical descriptions, posit a specific view about the way of things. In our daily lives, we generate a world view, a model of the way things are. A scientific world view provides a subset of a coherent view; it is part of a world view that is consistent with the data that have been gathered, and has methodologies to prevent self-deception.

In what follows, I propose an a la carte view of ontology, where a specific ontological view is chosen within a specific scientific framework, provided it is logically consistent to do so.

Limitations on ontology

Ontology, in its broadest form, is the attempt to uncover the singular true model of reality that captures an understanding of the fundamental nature of reality. It seems then, that it must be the case that a true understanding of the ontology of reality is fundamentally unrealisable for three reasons.

Firstly, Science provides a specific subset of knowledge. A world view which makes claims in the domain of science, but which is itself not viewed as scientific, can be refuted on scientific grounds. That is, science creates coherent descriptions of reality, makes predictions which fit the data we have thus far and has some predictive utility. In the worst cases, limitations are acknowledged when these are known and the theory fits some empirical window.

For example, we can take astrology, many of whose proponents claim is not a science whilst others claim it is.[1] Assuming we are charitable, we will grant, temporarily, that it is logically consistent and that the astrologers all talk with one principal voice when making predictions. Each specific astrologer can sometimes be convinced to make specific predictions (as in the famous Carlson test), which can then be compared with the empirical results, and thus support, or refute, the astrological hypothesis under consideration. Of course, someone might note that auxiliary hypotheses could be invoked etc to save the “theory”, but in practice this doesn’t happen with most pseudoscience. The proponents merely reject the existence of the results, make an ad hoc rationalisation to explain away (by post-hoc explanations) a specific result that allows their cognitive dissonance to dissipate, and continue on exactly as before. They ignore falsification rather than adapting their hypotheses, or as in the case of Gauquelin’s Mars is good for sports claims, they cherry pick the piece that agrees with themselves, whilst ignoring the part that completely refutes their proposal; a classic demonstration of confirmation bias. Kuhn pointed out that astrological endeavours merely involve explaining away events and failure, but never actually solve puzzles; there has never been any advancement, historically, on problems to astrology which are raised by empirical reality. Astrologers make predictions which are inconsistent with each other and at odds no greater than chance. Since astrology lacks a plausible mechanism it also provides no interesting insights whatever. One can only conclude that there is no utility, in explanatory terms, in astrological belief.

Secondly, coming back from the segway, it is possible for different assumptions about ontology to have the same implications, the various interpretations of Quantum Mechanics being the obvious example. For any specific view about reality, it is possible for another view to have exactly the same predictive power in terms of observation. For another example, conceive of some view about the nature of the universe, then add the additional premise that there exists another separate universe which does not interact in any way with this. Now, of course, there is no scientific utility to this since it does not increase the predictive power of the proposal nor make any difference to anything whatever, but it is conceivably the case. Since it is epistemically unwarranted to either dismiss or accept the existence of the conceivable other universes, one should augment this view of reality to highlight this uncertainty; thus realising no complete knowledge is possible about things.[2]

Thirdly, while there is a fact of the matter with regards to science, there is no possible method of having full epistemic certainty of whether we actually have grasped the solution. This is because the only reliable method of learning about the nature of the universe is through experiment, which provides specific data about reality,

A la Carte Ontology

I think there exists an external universe, which I am in, and I’d wager you do as well, since you are necessarily interacting with it and assume it’s existence if you are reading this. There is no logical proof of it’s existence through reason alone, nor that what happened before is an indicator of what will happen in the future. That is, by interacting with me, you are conceding that, whatever your view of reality, acting as though you can communicate with me is a more likely view of reality than one in which I do not exist. If you thought it was more likely that you were the only thing in existence, say, there would be no reason to eat food, or talk to others, as well as no normative distinctions in your actions since it’s mere inventions of your mind. You necessarily assume it or else you don’t live for long; you don’t stick your hands in the fire, because you expect to get burnt.

As mentioned earlier, a model can not definitively establish whether it’s ontological assumptions are necessarily valid and unique (in that there are no rival assumptions which lead to the same conclusions). This is not a problem for science though. The conceptually simplest model should be used for a discussion. For example, when discussing standard atomic physics, where some interaction takes place and some observable is measured, a Copenhagen-like interpretation is perfectly serviceable as a framework for discussing what is happening in an experiment, for someone discussing classically sized objects, it makes perfect sense to talk in a Newtonian framework, while for a galactic astrophysicist, it makes sense to think in the conceptual framework that comes with general relativity. There are 3 examples out of many, but they also highlight something important. While currently there is an incompatibility between quantum mechanics and general relativity, even if that were resolved, and there was a grand unified theory, it may still be useful to keep exactly and unmodified the same ontological pictures as before in the specific domains of study, just as we keep a classical picture in our heads in the physics of the everyday.

The scientist should choose a metaphysical framework which has utility in being the conceptually easiest metaphysical view he can think of in which to explain the theory. The theory doesn’t change, rather the way we tell the story changes; the science is the bones of the explanation while we use the metaphysics to flesh out things. The language may then, not correspond to some fundamental nature of reality in physics, but nor does any language in any specific scientific discipline and they appear to get along just fine. There is no concept of biology at some fundamental constituent level in the physical world, rather biology is what occurs through a physical medium but which can not purely be described in terms of that physical medium (i.e I think the strong reductionist thesis is fundamentally impossible) But it is certainly meaningful to label things as people, and chairs and tables even if they don’t have an existence beyond being an aggregate of particles; the concepts have scientific utility.

So we have again chosen an ontological view, whilst ignoring the actual nature of reality and no matter that a deterministic view of, say, choices made, is seemingly at odds with a possible fundamental indeterminism in quantum mechanics. Neither can say something fundamentally true about ontology, except to say what is probably not true.

Of course, a minimal ontological view itself is likely to cause unanswered issues in itself, and in this way, may itself prove an interesting venue to fuel research to see where that analogy becomes a disanalogy.

1. Incidentally this causes confusion for one particularly badly thought out demarcation of science which demarcates non-science from pseudoscience on the basis of whether proponents claim they are doing science.
2. As an aside this also refutes the intelligibility argument of Pope Benedict XVI, which is premised on the claim that we can have knowledge of the fundamental nature of reality.

edit: Corrections by Anto and Cormac.

Abortion and morality

There is a current controversy caused by comments Richard Dawkins made on twitter. In a longer write up of his argument, he states there is a moral situation when the pre-screening of a pregnant woman shows that the child will have Down Syndrome. He says that his morality is based on “on a desire to increase the sum of happiness and reduce suffering”. This is basically the definition of a standard utilitarian position. To him, it therefore seems immoral to allow the pregnancy to continue if it could be aborted in preference of getting pregnant again.

So, to review this I will first look at the main arguments for and against abortion and provide some context. First I’ll get some bad arguments out of the way (one is flawed for logical reasons, the other is flawed because it makes incorrect empirical claims). Some of these are bad because they are extremes of otherwise potentially reasonable positions.


I should first note that abortion opponents generally are against abortion because of their religious view that life begins at conception. Indeed, in a poll in the US a majority of Christians (54% of Catholics and 57% of other Christians) were pro-life while a large majority of the non-religious (which includes those with syncretic beliefs that don’t belong to any church, the apathetic, deists, atheists and agnostics) identify as pro-choice. This is generally applicable to other countries, where religious symbology is frequently displayed at pro-life rallies. Indeed, of my friends, it is those in religious movements that attended the pro-life rally after being mobilised by the clergy etc. I’m going to assume (I will address this in another post) a Christian God is logically inconsistent, and that there is neither evidence nor reason to think one of these gods exists. Since that is the case I don’t have to address arguments referring to such a possibility. Further, since I can’t tell the difference between a person who has talked to God and someone who is hallucinating, it seems not possible for me to get knowledge of whether the mystical intervention happened or not.

Mental health claims

The abortion opponents sometimes also make empirical claims about mental health, while generally cherry picking bad papers such as this one by a pro-life supporter. Which indeed was critiqued by Ben Goldacre  also in this article by researchers funded by the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges “The Coleman meta-analysis cannot be regarded as a formal systematic review because search strategies and exclusion criteria were not published”. If you look through the citations to the article you can see many other criticisms. Further, this APA report highlights limitations and flaws with much of Coleman’s other work (as well as many other pieces in the literature by others).

In terms of the standard arguments concerning the rights of the child, it’s not exactly clear why they do this. If mental health of the woman were improved by abortion, they wouldn’t change their position anyway. What does this have to do with the rights of the unborn? Presumably they aren’t trying to make a utilitarian argument that abortion is immoral because it increases the net suffering? It seems if they want to argue in terms of the mothers suffering, they will lose and spectacularly so. Indeed, if one thought it could have worse mental health outcomes in some cases, isn’t that merely an argument that women should be still allowed to make an informed decision? After all, there are many activities we allow which are bad for our health but which are perfectly legal; smoking as well as excessive consumption of sugar, fat, and alcohol are obvious ones.

Right to life

Opponents of abortion generally focus on discussing about the right to life of the unborn fetus (mainly because religious belief in Ireland has dramatically fallen off, so they want to dissociate themselves from religious argumentation). This is most evident in the 8th amendment to the Irish constitution. There are some obvious limitations on this about when this applies.

Instead of taking a defensible position of no abortions, the anti-abortion activist takes an extreme position; let’s look at the extreme case, of the zygote or fertilised egg produced at conception.


Some argue it has the potential to be human, so it should be given full human rights or extra protection. What they mean is that cell multiplication occurs and that eventually a baby is formed in the womb (which then is human). The initial zygote contains the genetic information for this process. Well, clearly, equally, a sperm and the egg in the womb which have not fused have the potential to be human just prior to fertilisation. The same genetic information is present. If the fertilised egg has the right to life, why does the sperm and the egg in the womb not? Why is it different?

One can now perform a Reductio ad absurdum now. A fertilised egg has the potential to be human, but so does the sperm and the egg in the womb, so do the sperm and the egg in the testes and ovaries. Indeed the material which goes into creating the sperm and the egg, and into the subsequent cell multiplication during development also have the potential to be human.

Pro-life on steroids

Now let’s look at what one of the main activist group says. They don’t argue that a fertilised egg it has the potential to be human, they say it is human. I’m not straw-manning the pro-life activists here with a ridiculous case, they actually say this single celled organism is literally a human life.

What definition of human are they operating under? It is unclear. Clearly they aren’t, arguing on the basis of the cell having a human nature. As the philosopher and biologist Massimo Pigliucci notes in a podcast he presents with Julia Galef Rationally Speaking (great podcast), there is actually a cross-cultural index of what characteristics humans share. It takes into at least early childhood to develop many of these attributes. Needless to say, single celled organisms don’t fulfil these. A zygote can not think, it can not feel pain, it can not do anything beyond biochemical processes and cell division. How is it in any meaningful way human? If it’s merely that it has human genetic material, so does my cheek cell. If it’s that it is a unique combination of genetic material, well twins are not unique in terms of genetic material but they are still human, etc. Anyway, I see no reason why genetic material dictates having human rights. If it were possible to have a thinking, sentient human without genetic material, then it would still be human. Also, a person who becomes brain dead, is dead in every meaningful sense; their cells continue to live, and they have much more genetic material than the zygote, but they are still a former human rather than a current one.

The questions of what amount of brain activity amounts to person-hood is a question for philosophers to discuss and when the brain activity reaches those levels is one for the biologists, but low estimates would seem to be to be erring on the side of caution.

Bodily rights

Pro-choice activists contend that it is the right of the pregnant women to do with her body as she wills. Thus she can terminate the pregnancy if she chooses to. This is because it’s “her body her choice”. Well, there are at least two problems with this. Firstly, why is the foetus part of the pregnant women’s body rather than something distinct inside the body? And secondly, just because it’s your body, why is it your choice?

On the second point, just because it’s your body doesn’t mean it’s your choice what to do. The trivial example of this is with vaccination. Just because you oppose vaccinations for reasons of bodily autonomy doesn’t mean you can necessarily refuse vaccinations; where someone puts something you don’t want into your body. This is because your decision has a potentially harmful effect on society. In the case of vaccination this is because you are putting others in society at risk from contagious diseases (particularly those who have allergies and get the vaccinations). If I swallow a bag of Heroin, to smuggle it across a border, the police have the legal right to interfere with my bodily integrity to search for it through means such as a cavity search of a person. Bodily rights aren’t a trump card everywhere, nor are they universally recognised. If you think they do, then you should bite the bullet and follow the logical conclusions.

Further, just because the foetus is nourished by the woman doesn’t amount to an argument of it being part of the mother. A tape worm is also nourished by people who have them, and a tape worm (or other parasites) can be born and live all its life in a human body, but it’s not part of the body, and further, the baby is also still nourished by the mother after birth by breast feeding. Where you get your food from doesn’t mean you are that person. If I eat lots of beef, I don’t become part of a cow, rather, some of the beef becomes part of me as I metabolise it.

The crux of the issue

So from the above we can extract two main issues that seem to be the crux of the issue.

On the one hand, it’s clear that at some stage the foetus becomes a human, when that happens if one holds that humans have a right to life then it’s unethical to kill the baby. Pro-abortion advocates rarely seem to focus on this issue, nor do they adequately address this; it’s not purely an issue of bodily rights, nor is bodily rights an automatic trump card. At some stage there is a baby present, and it has rights. The pro-life crowd, with their dogmatic focus on conception as the moment when someone becomes human avoid giving any ground at all, even when they have no rational argument against early abortion.

When we think of what it is to be human, I’m sure most of us also think of our own conscious experiences. It seems hard to consider someone as human if they are an automaton which does not have consciousness. Of course this does not require you to be conscious at every moment, but that you have a history of being conscious; you were conscious in the past and will be in the future. Considering consciousness is not fully understood, when this develops is not fully known, so we must use some proxy. But at the very least a brain, with brain activity, should be required. So, it seems to me that brain activity is a better measure of when someone has achieved a significant milestone in achieving person-hood.

Of course an unborn baby can’t mentally do the things which are typical of humans; making of tools, forming societies, communication etc, so you can say they don’t yet have the capacity for human nature typical of older humans because they haven’t developed the abilities to do these things and maybe they are not yet physically able (nor can children of a young age either, several months after birth). The brain size of a newborn is much smaller than a fully grown adult, but this is clearly going to be the case since a newborn has a smaller body to control. It doesn’t indicate possible cognitive ability if brain growth ceased at that point, but nor is it clear that being less intelligent makes one not human at some point (only in the extremes of no ability). I’m not arguing in terms of future potential here, I’m saying they have the capacity to exhibit human nature and need no further cognitive growth.

Thus it seems to me that early abortions are morally permissible as uncontroversial actions since I see no defensible argument against it, while killing a foetus which has significant brain activity is not.

One could argue that Dolphins, Apes, and Octopus are possibly conscious too, or at least there is some evidence that it’s reasonably the case to posit it. I’ll bite the bullet and say if there is a reasonable argument to be made that this could be the case, it’s morally wrong to kill Dolphins, Apes, and Octopodes.

As a last point, I see no bearing of viability on the issue. Who cares if a foetus is viable or not? If it was viable to develop a baby from a single cell outside the womb, I still see no issue with aborting the single cell at that point. It does not have a brain or any brain activity and is not human in any meaningful way. Just because we could take the foetus out of the womb, doesn’t mean we have to or should.

I think severe brain abnormalities, death on birth, or suicide are separate distinct arguments which can justify abortion later than the standard abortion period, but I’m not dwelling on that at the moment, but I’m referring to the abortion on demand scenario.

Objections to Dawkins

So, from the above you can see that, to me, morality, is involved. There is some point where moral objections prevent further abortions; when there is a human baby there. Obviously reasonable people can disagree on the specific age until which abortion can be allowed, but there is going to be a cut off.

Now, back to Dawkins.

Dawkins said “I think the moral and sensible choice would be to abort”. Clearly he thinks it will maximise happiness and reduce suffering to abort. Since it’s a moral philosophy, it inherently means it’s a moral judgement of what is the good thing to do and what is the bad. Of course, a moral judgement doesn’t mean a legal judgement. It doesn’t mean we should make it illegal, we don’t legislate for all moral judgements unless they affect other people (the killing of unborn babies who have brain activity is one situation).

Ashling O’Brien stated that: “But to say it is immoral to not abort is not taking a pro-choice position, it is judging women”, later responding to a hypothetical scenario about a possible immoral action regarding abortion she said “What good will judging her do, apart maybe from making us feel morally superior? In what way will it change the situation for either her, a possibly vulnerable addict, or her child?”

This argument appears to me to be easily refuted. I am pro-choice on helping old people across the road. If there is an old person who needs help to cross the road, I think people have a moral duty to help if he/she asks but of course I don’t demand it. People have the choice to do it, even though I think it is immoral not to. I don’t think me silently judging the person who refused to help as immoral changes the situation, nor does it help, but that isn’t the point of viewing something as moral or not. Or when a thief robs a bank, it does no good to the situation me considering it as immoral.

Further, for a woman who accepts the utilitarian position, considering which choice is moral or not clearly does change the situation she is in. She can decide based on viewing one as moral and one as not what to do. Her viewing one choice as moral, and one as not in her ethical system influences what she did. Her judgement changed the situation.

Dawkins considers that if he were in a situation, his ethics would compel him to view one of the choices as immoral. If you don’t like it you don’t need to accept the premise: “a desire to increase the sum of happiness and reduce suffering”. If you accept his premise it appears to be the case that in this situation, the moral act for him is to have the abortion and get another child. I don’t accept the utilitarian premise, so I have no logical reason to accept his conclusions about what is immoral.

Later Ashling says: ” The woman addicted to heroin is judged immoral in one jurisdiction for choosing not to have an abortion, the same woman is judged immoral in another jurisdiction for seeking an abortion. I would argue that neither is a pro-choice approach because neither has the welfare of the woman at it heart.” Firstly, she states that neither has the welfare of the woman at heart, well as is quite obvious from what Dawkins said, he is considering the welfare of the child and the woman in his consequentialist type of view. It’s not clear to me why pro-choice means only focusing on the woman and ignoring the child. Secondly, her post confuses a moral judgement with a legal one. Just because people consider something immoral doesn’t mean they think the choice should be illegal, just as my “old person across the road” scenario shows. Yes, people are allowed to think your choices are immoral, the difference is when they try and legislate for it; then the effects on the person and society are taken into account. Dawkins still thinks reasonable people can disagree.

Now, one last point. Ashling compares the issue to gay rights and appears to say that people aren’t pro-choice because of religion. Dawkins isn’t pro-choice according to Ashling, but he is certainly not religious, and not using a religious argument. It’s unclear how you can overturn Dawkin’s position with evidence since it’s not an empirical claim. The difference with gay rights is a call for equal rights, gay people want to get married like everyone else, adopt like everyone else can, etc etc while an abortion is a call to be allowed to kill babies. There are gay people, but there are no abortionist people. Reasonable people can disagree with specific abortion laws and where they draw the line with respect to late term abortion.

This piece by Peter Singer is also interesting. I should note that Colm influenced my thoughts on some of this, as well as the podcast Rationally Speaking generally. Proofreading was done by Anto. Edit: Cormac spotted some bad grammar.