What is Ontology?

Science conducts experiments. Experiments produce hard facts that philosophers call empirical data. Metaphysics is a branch of philosophy that deals with concepts. Concepts are not hard facts but ideas we invent to make sense of empirical data. Gravity, electrons, energy are examples of metaphysical concepts. Weight, electric current, temperature are examples of empirical measurements that we associate with these concepts.

Ontology is the part of Metaphysics that deals with the fundamental things that exist. It asks what reality is made of. For example, are space and time actual things themselves or are they a sort of impression we get from the way that objects move and change? Is an electron a material object, a fundamental piece of matter? If not, is it made of other more fundamental things? Or maybe the concept of matter is misleading and we should look for other concepts to say what reality is made of.

Ideally, physics would have a theory, derived from experimental data, that describes what the universe is made of. This is not possible. Analysis of the results of measurements can only yield the quantitative relationship between something that we measure and another thing that we measure. Any wordy description of what the results mean in everyday terms is abstract. It is an addition of abstract concepts, a story made up to fit the facts, not a conclusion derived from them. These theories, descriptions and explanations are indispensable. The intention here is not to belittle them but to highlight their assumed position in the process of doing science.

Explanatory theory cannot be done until there is something to theorise about, which is the observed or measured data and its analysis. One would suppose then that the function of physics is to obtain raw data then analyse it, without any preconception of what the data or the results of its analysis might mean. The problem with this seemingly ideal scientific method is that investigations would be undirected. Data would be obtained at random from apparatus that was not designed with any particular purpose in mind.

Unplanned measurement -> Analysis -> Theory -> Interpretation

Of course, physics must proceed in a directed way. There is always an established view of the meaning of existing theories and this view influences the direction of research, the design of experimental apparatus and the interpretation of new findings. Thus, as the body of scientific theories grows, we find the interpretation of previous science being used as the framework that guides current science.

Interpretation -> Measurement -> Analysis -> Theory

So the metaphysical, philosophical interpretation of science reappears right at the front of the scientific method, guiding its direction. We all know the popular interpretation. We know what reality is thought to be made of because we learnt it in school, college and from popular science in the media.

Ontology is a specific part of the interpretation of the empirical findings of science. It refers to the fundamental things that make up reality, the essence of reality. A complete Ontology provides a broad description of the parts and how they fit together to make up the universe. It should be thought of as supplementing the metaphysical content of science, providing a broader picture that unites existing theories and overcomes any of their mutual contradictions.

There is no correct ontology, or at least there is no way to know whether any ontology is absolutely a true and correct description of reality. But it is possible to distinguish better ontologies from worse ones. A better ontology fits the findings of science more accurately, more completely and with fewer paradoxes. In these terms, there is no current ontology that could be described as correct at all since none of them fits all of science.