Monday, December 05, 2011
Conference on Psycho-Ontology
There’s a conference on that topic at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem on 11-15 December of this year, with David Chalmers, Steven Pinker, Lera Bofoditsky and Jesse Prinz headlining. Here’s how the conference bills itself:
Do the operations of the human mind have something to teach us about the fundamental structure of reality? Philosophers such as Hume, Kant, James, Bergson, Husserl, Kuhn, and Goodman have, in different ways, seemed to believe this question should be answered in the affirmative. Yet as disciplines, cognitive science and metaphysics are usually conducted without reference to one another.
“Psycho-ontology” can be defined as the investigation of the relationship between human cognition and features of reality: We do psycho-ontology when we study the way perception, thought, and emotion play a role in helping constitute the world we inhabit. But psycho-ontology can also move in the opposite direction: It can involve studying the fundamental features of reality in order to gain insight into how human cognitive processes work.
It’s a subject of some interest to me, what with my long-standing interest in psychology of ontological cognition.
However, in looking over the program a bit, I suspect it may miss the point as far as object-oriented ontology (OOO) is concerned. The blurb for Chalmers gives it away: “What is the minimal vocabulary that Laplace’s demon would need in order to know all truths about the world?” That’s not what OOO is about nor is it quite what I’m about. For my part, I fear that the notion of a fixed vocabulary is somehow adequate to all truths is somewhere between deeply problematic and hopeless one. But the broader point is simply that Chalmers seems concerned about enumerating the kinds of things in the world, which is what ontology seems to mean for this conference.
Harman calls that the Taxonomic Fallacy (The Quadruple Object, pp. 119-120):
The difference between people and minerals is vast indeed, but so is that between stars and black holes, or hunter-gatherers and string theorists. The point is to avoid the Taxonomic Fallacy of assuming that basic ontological divides can be identified with specific kinds of entities.
Instead, the basic rift in the cosmos lies between objects and relations in general: between their autonomous reality outside all relation, and their caricatured form in the sensual life of other objects. Whatever the special features of plants, fungi, animals, and humans may be, they are simply complex forms of the gap between objects and relations, just as heavier chemical elements arise from hydrogen and helium.
Finally, I take note of two of the ten areas of investigation posited for the conference:
2. Is the philosophical study of metaphysics actually the study of the nature of human cognition? Can metaphysics be conducted as a discipline independent of engaging with human psychology?
On that first question, I’ve made such a suggestion about Plato in an essay review on two books on cultural evolution (PDF). As for this are of inquiry:
10. To what extent is naturalism committed to a sharp separation between ontology and psychology?
What happens if we drop naturalism?