Assessing the Stability and Generality of Ontological Confusions


Lee Richardson

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Ontology is the study of how people classify entities in the world. People use ontological categories to attribute properties to the entities subsumed by those categories (Slotta et al., 1995). For instance, entities like "dogs" and "flowers" are subsumed by the ontological category "living things" and are thus attributed properties true of living things (e.g., needs food, needs air, grows, reproduces, dies) in addition to properties true only of those entities. Empirical research on ontological knowledge has only focused on one domain at a time, such as factual knowledge about the physical sciences (McCloskey, 1983; Reiner et al., 2000; Wiser, 2002), superstition and rational thinking (Lindeman & Aarnio, 2007), or religious beliefs (Barrett & Keil, 1996; Shtulman, 2008), with each case using different materials and measures. The present study attempted to shed light on the occurrence of ontological confusion across multiple domains and two different response types. Participants (n=49) completed a two-part questionnaire in which their beliefs about five entities (plants, God, heat, force, and rainstorms) were explicitly assessed using a closed ended property attribution task and implicitly assessed by an open ended paraphrasing task. The results found that participants? scores on God did not match with their scores on the other entities, indicating that ontological confusion about God is unique when compared to ontological confusion about the other four entities.


Andrew Shtulman




Ford Research Endowment Fellowship

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