Ontology or epistemology?

Craig asked:

Does a researcher adopt an ontological and epistemological position and then use the position to study the subject matter? Or does the subject matter get ‘assigned’ an ontological and epistemological position which is then used by the researcher to study the subject matter? Would the answer affect the selected stance, methodology, and method?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

A really good question, Craig! Let me answer the last sentence first: Yes, absolutely! However it depends on the species of research being done, for when you say “researcher”, you don’t specify the branch of research. This makes it almost impossible to give a valid answer that might apply throughout. Accordingly I’ll give you three specimens to ponder.

Consider quantum science. It is highly questionable (indeed improbable) that this research deals with definable items or even definable processes. The debate on what a ‘particle’ might be is only provisionally settled, i.e. there is a consensus of a sort, but nothing remotely certain. Accordingly the old saw that “all research is theory-laden” applies here in full force, for a scientist conducting an experiment must bring an appropriate frame of mind to it beforehand. It will guide the set-up and expectations, and it will prejudice the results. This cannot be ontological, as the doubts clinging to ‘particles’ render this approach almost useless. Whereas an epistemological approach can under given circumstances compensate for the lack of certainties by emphasizing probabilities.

On the other hand, an anthropologist looking for bones in an antediluvian habitat has no such problems to cope with. Here the agenda is completely different. Ontological facts surround him; he can pick them up and put them in his bag of samples. Epistemology enters the picture only in relation to the effort of assigning his objects to a category. But in contrast to the quantum scientist, this researcher needs not bother with questions such as “does it really exist?” A typical issue like “do these bones belong to Homo afarensis or Homo faber?” can usually (if not always) be settled by comparing their anatomical features to known precedents.

The really problematic aspect of your question arises from contentions in research areas that deal with non-physical items like life, thoughts, intentionality, teleology, psychology and the like. In our day, there is a vast industry and literature devoted to this essentially epistemological philosophy which they would like to ground in the ontological research of chemistry. But despite a great deal of clamour on the pro side of the fence (not to mention pop science and entertainment media), ontological certainty is waver thin and cannot lend a hand to epistemology on the question of “what kind of phenomena are we dealing with?”

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