Sunday, March 27, 2005

Ontology and Evidence

Evidence and inference in their modern form (in US law, in any event) presuppose the death (or nonexistence) of a grand ontology -- a general theory of (or about being), a theory that sees some sectors of being as the foundation and basis of everything else. Much or most contemporary (US legal) thinking takes the view that anything can in principle be evidence of anything else. But if one has an ontology -- a theory that points to an accessible, or intelligible, foundation of things --, then the best evidence of how things stand in the world is how things stand at the foundation of everything that one sees in the world.

In Western intellectual history ontologies came to an end with the rise of the nominalism that was British empiricism. After Hume, philosophy was possible as epistemology, but not as ontology. Kant rebuffed Hume's skepticism -- or attempted to do so -- by giving causality theoretical validity. Did Kant (perhaps despite himself) thereby rejuvenate ontology? I think not. If Kant vindicated causality, he vindicated the thesis that there are -- or that we can rationally believe that there are -- mechanisms in the world that lead to the phenomena that we see. But Kant's theory of causality did not give primacy to any particular sector of being, to any particular set of mechanisms -- e.g., DNA, quantum processes, or whatnot. Hence, (wo)man cannot (rationally) "privilege" -- give epistemic priority to -- any particular sector of the cosmos when seeking to draw inferences about phenomena in the world.

N.B. But perhaps quantum processes (of some kind) are the foundation of "everything." I gather that some or many physicists and scientists think that this is the case. So do we now have, once again, a universal ontology? I think not. If such physicists and their spiritual allies are correct -- and I am definitely not in a position to challenge them -- their universal ontology is not an accessible ontology; i.e., we (and they) do not yet know how to use this alleged foundation of everything (e.g., quantum mechanics or whatnot) to explain how many or most phenomena in the world happen. (Perhaps in the fullness of time we will know how to do this, but we and the quantum theorists are not there yet.)