Today, I had an interesting conversation with one of my fellow bloggers, Jason Petersen. The conversation took place in the Clarkian Apologetics Group. I greatly enjoy the opportunity to work through issues with other people who care about the philosophy of Gordon Clark. It is an even greater privilege to discuss philosophy with people who have actually read a fair amount of Clark.
The purpose of this post is to reflect on the conversation between Petersen and I and to discuss some politics (if you will). If you are not particularly interested in the Clarkian Apologetics group or the views of Jason Petersen on the relation of epistemology to ontology, this post will probably not be interesting to you as there really isn’t much philosophical substance here. I also want to preface this by saying that I don’t know hardly anything about Jason Petersen. Everything I’ve read, leads me to think he’s a great guy, but this post is not meant to approve or disapprove of his philosophies or his interpretation of Gordon Clark’s views.
Joel Tay and I were having a conversation about his (Joel’s) distinction between the ontological and epistemological aspects of knowledge. It seemed to me that his distinction was very confusing so I asked him to define “ontology.” From what I can gather, Joel had garnered his distinction from Jason Petersen because he didn’t define ontology but restated the distinction and then asked Jason to answer for him. Jason replied that he didn’t have time to get into it.
However, today Jason had time. So, he said that ontology tells you the nature of things or what things are. Yet, he wanted to keep ontology separate from epistemology.
I, personally, am all for keeping them separate. However, this conversation wasn’t about my view. Rather, I was trying to understand his. So, I pointed out that knowledge is a thing so he’d have to make epistemology a subset of ontology by his definition. The reasoning was this: If ontology is the study of nature of things, and if knowledge is a thing with a nature, then the study of the nature of knowledge (epistemology) would, by Jason’s definition, be part of the greater study of ontology. I also pointed out that if ontology just tells us what things are, ontology and definition are synonyms since a definition tells us what things are. I didn’t press the point this far but actually, on his definition, he’d have to make any and every study a subset of ontology since everything study-able is a thing. If Jason wants to use such an unlimited definition of ontology, why does he resist the consequences? Or, rather, why didn’t he use a more specific definition of ontology so as to exclude epistemology? Either option would have been easy enough to accept.
Instead of choosing one option or the other, he ended the conversation, but not in the normal way. I was not able to participate in the discussion anymore because I was removed from the group. I think it was because he felt “insulted.” This was quite disappointing to me because it was a good conversation among fellow philosophers and I meant no insult. Apparently, he has also told other people (the whole group maybe) that I am not a Clarkian. This, I suppose, was said in anger because, as far as I can see, nothing happened in the conversation which even remotely merits such a conclusion. If you look at the conversation below, I think you will agree that I hardly even expressed my views at all. I simply questioned Jason’s views.
I hold absolutely nothing against Jason and I still like him. I still like him even if he never will agree with me. Unfortunately, since it was all fairly public and folks have been choosing sides, he probably feels unable to talk about it with me. Anybody who knows him should tell him that I will do anything to work things out with him. I will not hang up on him, block him, mock him, or slander him. I cannot promise that I’ll agree with him, but I see no reason why we can’t get along, and the world of true philosophers (lovers of wisdom) is small enough as it is, so it is important to me that we help each other not fight against each other. I like Jason and I appreciate his zeal, even though it got me kicked out of the group. My priority is pursue the truth and to help others pursue it.
What is hardest to understand is how any of this relates to Joel’s ontological vs. epistemological aspects of knowledge. I guess I made my point that Joel’s distinction was confusing, although I’m not sure I liked the costs.
I’ve not mentioned my views on ontology vs. epistemology at all in this post. In this regard, I think that those of us who already possess a working definition of “ontology” would do well to pay attention to Clark’s numerous statements about the word “exist” and the copula “to be.” Clark’s criticisms deal harshly with the ideas of metaphysics and ontology. Clark admits that he never wrote much on metaphysics. What I think most people who read Clark fail to understand, is why he didn’t. In my opinion, the answer is plain enough in Clark’s writings, but don’t we all have selective hearing sometimes?
Below is my transcription of the conversation:
Luke: Does anybody know what they mean when the say the word ontology?
Jason: Luke Miner, Yes, the nature of things. One such example is the nature of man.
Jason: I don’t agree with the phrase, “ontology of knowledge.” Epistemology is the study of knowledge and the nature of knowledge. “Ontology” should only be used in reference to things such as man. While you could say “ontology of knowledge,” it doesn’t really make sense because the ground is already covered by epistemology.
Luke: Jason L. Petersen, Cool. We have a definition. Ontology is the study of the nature of things. It should answer the question What is ___? So ontology is basically definition. But if you deny to Joel Tay and Oshea Davis ontology of knowledge, aren’t you saying that knowledge isn’t a thing?
Jason: Luke Miner, No. I just think that using the term “ontology” for it would be superfluous since epistemology already covers the nature of knowledge. In other words, referring to it as ontology may cause confusion.
Luke: Why would it be superfluous? If knowledge is a thing, it should be included in your ontology by your own definition
Jason: Luke Miner, As I have already said, epistemology already covers the nature of knowledge. Invoking another term can cause confusion. I do not object that there is a nature, or “ontology” to knowledge, but epistemology already technically covers this ground.
Luke: So ontology is the study of the nature of all things except knowledge?
Jason: No. Please read what I wrote.
Jason: Here is my original answer. Emphasis will be placed on the part that you missed: “I don’t agree with the phrase, “ontology of knowledge.” Epistemology is the study of knowledge and the nature of knowledge. “Ontology” should only be used in reference to things such as man. WHILE YOU CAN SAY “ONTOLOGY OF KNOWLEDGE,” IT DOESN’T REALLY MAKE SENSE BECAUSE THE GROUND IS ALREADY COVERED BY EPISTEMOLOGY.”
In other words, my cause for concern is that there is an overlap between epistemology and ontology. Therefore, using ontology in reference to knowledge (particularly without clarification of what is meant, as Oshea pointed out), can cause confusion on the part of the listener. For sake of clarity, I would not invoke the term in that way even though it would not technically be incorrect.
Luke: I think I understood you rightly. By your own definition of ontology, you make epistemology a subset of ontology. It seems to me that you are saying that, while we must technically confuse epistemology and ontology, we shouldn’t confuse them.
Jason: Luke Miner, No. That is not what I said. I cannot clarify things for you anymore than I already have. In fact, your interpretation is so uncharitable that I feel insulted. My only objection was that by adding in ‘ontology’ when referencing knowledge, you may confuse the listener, particularly if they are not familiar with the terms.
My next comment was deleted by Jason and then I was removed from the group. Jason messaged me with: “You have been removed from the group. I dislike your attitude and your insistence on misrepresenting me.” I tried to reply but he also unfriended me and blocked me from messaging. In doing so, he has severed all lines of communication between himself and me.
I transcribed the above from some screenshots that Cjay sent to me. I apologize for any typos in the transcription. Nothing was changed purposely. I’m happy to provide the screenshots to anybody interested.
 A selection of Joel’s verbiage is provided here not to incriminate Joel, but to try to explain the conversation: “If he has true belief in the gospel, he has knowledge (ontology). Now…If you want him to defend how he knows that the gospel he hears from the preacher is indeed true (epistemology), he will need to point to deductions from scriptural proposition[s].” So, for the sake of conversation, it seemed like Joel was identifying “what we know” with ontology and “how we know” with epistemology. How we know vs. what we know is a good distinction. What we know are certain propositions, how we know explains the methods of us coming by that knowledge. However, I was baffled as to why he would identify this distinction with epistemology vs. ontology. That’s why I asked him to define “ontology.”
 Ordinarily, I think philosophers understand ontology either to discuss the nature of “existence” or “being”. Also ordinarily, philosophers may define “ontology” to be identical to “metaphysics” where the latter is defined as the study of what exists or what there is.
 This probably is meant to suggest that my views are at variance with the views of Gordon Clark at many points. I probably have some differences with Gordon Clark’s position on covenant theology but that’s about the only major deviation I am aware of.