Physics and ontology - or The 'ontology-ladenness' of epistemology and the 'scientific realism'-debate


The question of what ontological insights can be gained from the knowledge of physics (keyword: ontic structural realism) cannot obviously be separated from the view of physics as a science from an epistemological perspective. This is also visible in the debate about 'scientific realism'. This debate makes it evident, in the form of the importance of perception as a criterion for the assertion of existence in relation to the 'theoretical entities' of physics, that epistemology itself is 'ontologically laden'. This is in the form of the assumption that things (or entities) in themselves exist as such and such determined ones (independent of cognition, autonomously). This ontological assumption is not only the basis of our naïve understanding of cognition, but also its indispensable premise, insofar as this understanding is a fundamentally passive, 'receptive' one. Accordingly, just as 'perception' is the foundation, ('objective') description is the aim of cognition, that which cognition is about. In this sense, our idea of cognition and our idea of the things are inseparably linked. Without the ontological premise mentioned we just would not know what cognition is, but it is basically just a kind of image that we have in our minds (an assumption that helps us understand 'cognition'). Epistemology not only shares this basic assumption (which it also shares with metaphysics), but it revolves (unlike metaphysics) entirely around it by making the idea and demand of 'certainty' a condition of 'real' knowledge. As 'certainty' is a subjective criterion this entails the 'remodelling' of the real, holistic cognitive situation (to which metaphysics adheres) into a linear subject-object-relation (which results in the strict 'transcendence' of the objects). And it also establishes, due to its 'expertise' in matters of cognition, the 'primacy of epistemology' over all other sciences. Now, on closer inspection, however, the expertise of epistemology seems not all that dependable, because it basically consists only of paradigms which, from the point of view of the holism of the real cognitive situation itself, are nothing more than relatively simplistic interpretations of this situation. However, we do not yet know what another conception of cognition might look like (which is not surprising given the high rank of the phenomenon of cognition in the hierarchy of phenomena according to their complexity). 'Certainty' as a criterion of cognition is thus excluded from the outset, and thus the linear relational model of cognition appears as what it is, a gross distortion of the real, holistic cognitive situation. The significance of this argumentation with regard to physics is that the linear epistemological model of cognition itself is a major obstacle to an adequate epistemological understanding of physics. This is because it is fixed 'a priori' to an object-related concept of cognition, and to 'description' as the only mode of ('real') cognition. But physics (without questioning our naïve notion of cognition on the level of epistemology) simply works past it and its basic assumptions. Its cognitive concept (alias heuristic) is fundamentally different from that of metaphysics. The acceptance of the real, holistic cognitive situation is, in my opinion, the condition for an adequate understanding of physics' heuristic access to objects, its transcendental, generalizing cognitive concept, as well as its ontological relevance and dimension of its own.

Author's Profile

Rudolf Lindpointner
University of Salzburg (PhD)


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