Ontological vs. methodological assumptions

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There is a significant difference between methodological and ontological assumptions.

One of the prerequisites of a good scholarship is ability to draw distinctions. To see critical differences between one thing, subject, method, process (…) and another. Especially if the two seem very similar or even the same. What has started with Plato’s critique of Parmenides’s confusion over the meaning of a verb ‘to be’, continues till now as a feature of what Westerners label philosophy, or to be more humble, scholarship. The aim of this post is to draw attention to the one signalled in the lead – between assumptions about ontology of the object of inquiry and assumptions internal to the method of inquiry.

This post is inspired by one sentence uttered by prof. Bratosz Brożek about a year ago, over coffee and a cookie, during Law & Logic summer school. We discussed law & neuroscience, a hip subject nowadays. When I mentioned a problem that I’ve considered an important one in philosophy – the problem of reductionism (assumption that mind can be reduced to physical, chemical and biological processes occurring in a brain), prof. Brożek just looked at me, quite annoyed, and said:

Those people (reductionists) confuse methodological assumptions with ontological ones

That was quite illuminating. So I’ve been thinking about it for a year now. I wanted to write an article about it, but of course found no time, and so hope that a blogpost will suffice for the time being. To be clear – I am not referring Brożek’s position here – I actually don’t know what he really meant. I just had to share my state of thought on the statement, which I personally consider extremely important.

I proceed in three parts. Firstly, I try to generalise, to explain what is the difference between ontological and methodological assumption in general. Secondly, I apply it the the field of neuroscience & law/philosophy/(…) and the brain/mind problem. Thirdly, I apply the distinction to ‘what is law?’ debate, especially to the natural law vs. positivism sub-debate.

What should go without saying, but let me say it just in case – there is probably tons of literature on these subjects, which I do not refer to, because I have not read it. That is why this a brief(ish) blogpost. Not a scholarly article.

I. In general

Every scholarly inquiry assumes a particular reality. It delineates its fragment, a fragment that it wishes to describe, explain and (possibly) criticise. It asks a question and sets up a method of answering it. Here the source of the distinction lies. For a method is a function of a question, and so the assumptions internal to the method will be a function of the question, not a function of the reality itself.

Take the example of the evolutionary theory of the origins of species and the problem of God’s role in the creation. In order to explain evolution, within the positivist paradigm (what we nowadays limit ‘science’ to), one does not need to assume existence of God. Probably, it’s even better not to do so. Each good scientist shaves with the Ockham’s razor, and so an evolutionist should be able to explain the origin of species relying just on the phenomena ‘matter-up’. Explanation not involving God will be a better one. This, however, does not yet mean that there is no God. This just means that assuming God is not necessary in order to answer the question. But God might be out there, creating the World through evolution. And He might be not. This does not matter. And the other way round –  If the question would be ‘can the story of Genesis be reconciled with the theory of evolution?’, then existence of God would be a possible methodological assumption, even if the scholar would personally believe that He does not exist.

II. Neuroscience and X

The problem I signalled above – the problem of reductionism – could be summarised in having to accept or reject the claim: ‘The Mind, meaning the sum of intentional, intellectual, emotive etc. mental states can be reduced, and so described and explained, by solely ‘natural’ phenomena of physics, biology and chemistry’. Philosophically it is hard to defend, and yet many neuroscientists, often seeming as smart people otherwise, defend it vigorously. I claim, after Brożek, that this perplexing state of academic affairs can be blamed on the confusion of methodological assumptions with ontological ones.

For, in a sense, neuroscience needs to be reductionist in its method. Unless the assumption is there, the results would need to be always preceded by a word ‘probably’. Unless the mental states can be explained by the analysis of the brain, the analysis of the brain in order to explain the mental states would be silly. So we assume it is.

This, however, does not mean that ontologically speaking, mind is brain. There are many philosophical arguments against this claim. But as in the example of evolution, one does not really matter for another. The problem appears when a neuroscientist makes a claim that his or her methodological assumption is an ontological assumption. The argument: ‘Since I need to assume X for my method to make sense, and it seems that sometimes my method leads to true conclusions, then X is necessarily the case as a feature of the reality’ is logically invalid.

III. Natural law vs. positivism

‘What is law?’ question should trouble any lower with at least vague interest in philosophy and theory. I do not aim at answering it here, of course. But I am in the middle of a project of explain why it remains so hard to answer. In this post I just point to one of the reasons, being exactly the confusion of a method with ontology.

For the purpose of this post, take ‘legal positivism’ to mean ‘an approach according to which all the law is man-made, and if something is law, its pedigree can be traced down to sources acceptable in a given society’ and ‘natural law’ mean ‘an approach according to which, apart from man-made law, there is some sort of higher law, given by God or discoverable in nature, unchangeable by men’.

One can easily imagine a descriptive research question concerned just with human practices, e.g. ‘what is the law concerning drinking alcohol in public in Poland, and what is the official practice of its enforcement?’. In order to answer it, one would hold first doctrinal and then empirical legal research, taking social practices as sources and disregarding any assumptions about higher law. This, however, does not in itself mean that there is no natural law. On the other hand, one could imagine a question ‘what are the possible ways of regulating in-vitro fertilisation, such that they would not be contrary to the teaching of Catholic Church?’. If the question is so, since CC assumes the existence of natural law (in ontological sense), the researcher would need to methodologically assume it as well (in order to reconstruct it). But this does not mean that any natural law is out there.

Ontologically speaking, natural law exists or it does not, though it’s probably hard to find out whether it does. But this has no significance for legal method. For the method, and its assumptions, will depend on the question asked.

Scholarship is aimed at a truth, and this truth (to follow Kuhn), will always be relative to the method. It has little to do with the Truth, unless it claims to do. But this claim, one way or another, need to be explicit.

Otherwise, people will just talk past each other.

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