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What Is Ontology?
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What is Ontology?

Ontology definition

Ontology is the philosophical study of questions about what is real, i.e. what exist. In other words, the study of questions such as what are the fundamental elements in the world, and how are they related to each other?

The etymology of the word ontology

The word ontology derives from two Greek words. On the one hand “onto-”, which translate to "existence” and “being real." On the other hand “-logia”, which translates to “science” and “study.” Hence, ontology is the scientific study of what exists, etymologically speaking.

Ontological argument

Examples of ontological arguments are, for example: "Physical material is more real than, for example, the concept of love", and "There are generic elements. And it is possible to describe the relationships between them." Ontological questions, thus, deal with whether or not elements exist, what they are, and what the relationships between them are. For example, is there such an element as snow? Does snow and skis exist? If they exist, do they exist only in the mind of the observer, or do they exist even if there were no humans around? How about the concept of skiing, does it exist too? If so, is skiing as real as skis? What is the relationship and possible hierarchy between snow, skis, and the process of skiing, in terms of what exists?

Ontological status

It is hard (impossible?) to provide clear and definite answers to ontological questions, and to prove the ontological status of something. It is difficult to agree on what exists, and to provide rock-solid proof that something exists. Especially for the elements that are hard to measure and discuss in an objective way, such as the concept of motivation for example. Thus, an ontological model does not only imply a discussion about the model itself but also a discussion about how it may be possible, if at all, to prove that the model is real. It is not an easy challenge to determine what ontology may help us with, what types of questions can ontology help us answer, and how can ontology help us validate statements that we make about the world around us and about what is real and exists in this world?

Ontologically, how can we prove that something exists?

One way of validating a statement about what exists, is to try and tie the statement to arguments that we have already validated and thus know are true. For example, let us assume that we have agreed that the concept of numbers exist. Given this agreement, we could advance our discussion and further agree that the concept of counting also exists.

Ontological materialism

Materialism is one of two traditional branches of ontology. Philosophers and other scientists who stand by materialism believe that material things, such as particles, chemical processes, and energy, are more real, for example, than the human mind. They argue that reality exists regardless of human observers.

Ontological idealism

The other major branch of ontology is idealism. Philosophers and scientists who follow idealism believe that immaterial phenomenon, such as the human mind and consciousness, are more real, for example, than atoms and physical objects. They argue that reality is constructed in the minds of the observers.

Gene ontology and others: The non-philosophical use of the term

Researchers in fields outside philosophy, for example, gene ontology and computer science, also use the term ontology in a similar way. When they speak about ontology, they refer to a set of well-defined and recorded description of terms, items and relationships that exist within a determined field. For example, all things exist in a defined information system, including the relationship and hierarchy between these things.

Unlike the philosophers, these researchers are not primarily interested in discussing if these things are the true essence, core of the system, or if the elements are more real compared to the processes that take place within the system. Rather, they are, like Linnaeus, focused on discussing, analyzing and presenting a nomenclature and taxonomy. Once the things and concepts that are perceived to exist within a system have been described in writing, they can be used to describe the system, for example when the researchers write down their arguments and results. This, in turn, enables the researchers to communicate and exhange ideas more efficiently when they, for example, write articles and citations in academic documents. Consequently, it enhances the continued discussions and arguments about the purpose, aim and functions of that system.

There are other examples of research fields where the term ontology is used to describe the ongoing scientific endeavors. For example, the project to map out and describe the essential elements in society, and their relationships, may be referred to as a social ontology. Here, the idea is to understand and describe the underlying structures that affect individuals and groups.

Conclusion

In summary, ontology focuses on what exists, the relationship between what exists, and how we may discuss these types of questions. Ontology is truly one of the most fundamental areas of study in philosophy. We have seen that it is also used in other, non-philosophical, academic disciplines, such as bioinformatics, and computer science. For the beginner, regardless whether he or she works in academia, ontological arguments may be perceived as overwhelming and hard to grasp. However, I hope this article has contributed to a better understanding of the concept of ontology, and made you appreciate it for what it is: a tool to help us discuss, argue, and better understand our world.


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