Ontology is the branch of philosophy concerned with questions about the essential nature of reality. When you ask, “Is this real?” you are asking an ontological question.
Ontology is often what we think about when we think about philosophy. In fact, for a long time ontological considerations were the bedrock of philosophical inquiry, but something interesting happened as we moved through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries – we lost confidence in our ability to know what is real.
This ontological hesitation can be traced back at least to the German philosopher Immanuel Kant who in the 1780’s explained that we can never know reality directly because we only have access to our experience of reality and we can’t know how that experience relates to reality itself.
We experience the world phenomenally, which means in a form that has been filtered by our perceptual limitations and shaped by mental assumptions that compile raw sense data into forms that are intelligible to us.
In this view there is an unbridgeable gap that separates us from reality. This gap leaves us in a state of existential uncertainty and this doubt is what the philosophical school known as Existentialism attempts to address. Thinkers like Soren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, Albert Camus, Jon Paul Satre, and many others, all recognized that once we emerged from the middle ages we entered into a time of profound doubt.
For centuries God was assumed to be all-knowing and the word of God as it was recorded in scripture was assumed to tell us exactly what was real. The European Enlightenment was ignited and fueled by the recognition that we could know what was real directly through observation and rational thinking. We had the capacity to reason the truth for ourselves without needing to rely on the word of God.
This was profoundly liberating for humankind. It was a step into greater maturity as a thinking species. We were now able to accept responsibility for ourselves in ways that we never had before.
It also left us existentially insecure. Without an all-knowing God to guide us, what were we to trust? The answer we came up with was natural law. Science is based on the premise that the universe is not ruled by God, but in accordance with universal laws of nature that are immutable and undeniable. You can’t argue with a force like gravity, or the need to breathe.
Science became the arbiter of truth. Saying something is “scientifically proven” is modern code for “really true.” Everything else is relatively true at best, or maybe even just opinion.
So through the course of the early twentieth century philosophy took what is now referred to as the ‘linguistic turn’ and separated itself from science in a way that it never had been before.
Philosophical truths were no longer seen as ontological truths, but as linguistic agreements. The truth is what we agree on. So philosophy gave up its fascination with the question ‘what is real?’ and instead asked questions like ‘what do we agree upon?’ and ‘how do we come to and express that agreement?’ This linguistic turn further alienated us from reality and is in many ways a natural extension of Kant’s views.
So we live in a world that attempted to liberate itself from absolutism and landed in relativism. We live in a philosophical context that has lost the security of a truth that can be known. Instead we live with truths that are conditionally valid only in relationship to the context they appear in.
Philosophy largely became uninterested in universal truths and even mistrustful of them. Centuries of tyranny gave us good reason to mistrust absolutes, but the tyranny of relativism is not necessarily any better. If every truth becomes equally valid it is like no truth at all.
Ontology, or the quest to discover what is real, needs to be revived and revised. It needs to be liberated from a monistic, or one truth, assumption and unleashed into true pluralism.
Let’s define a few terms.
Monism is the belief that there is only one truth. If we believe that we know what that truth is, then everyone else must be wrong and this leads to the danger of Absolutism – or the concentration of power in a single individual, group or entity.
Pluralism is the belief that truth is multiple. That more than one thing can be true at the same time. The danger here is that we fall into Relativism believing that everything is only true relative to the context it is in and nothing is ultimately true. Relativism in turn can lead to nihilism – the belief that nothing really matters – and manifests as insecurity and depression.
The question I want to pose is how do we move beyond Absolutism without falling into Relativism?
I believe it would mean embracing Radical Pluralism and that means embracing the possibility that more than one thing can be really true at the same time – even if they contradict each other.
Try to experience that for yourself. Try to open up to the possibility that more than one thing can be really true – even though they oppose each other.
Our minds have been conditioned by Monism and Relativism. We can easily relate to one thing being really true, and we can easily relate to many things being relatively true. The mental groove for Radical Pluralism has not been established so the idea that more than on thing can be really and ultimately true simply does not compute.
Embracing Radical Pluralism means embracing paradox and this is a capacity that I firmly believe we need to develop.