The Ontology of Events, Powers and Dispositions

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July 20-21, 2009

Randall Dipert and Neil Williams (University at Buffalo)

Two-day Course organized in conjunction with the International Conference on Biomedical Ontology.

This will be a two-part course:

Day 1: Occurrents: Events and Processes

Basic Formal Ontology (BFO) declares that there are two great divides in the ontological categorization of things. The first is between instances (tokens) and universals (types, kinds, properties). The second is between continuants and occurrents. Continuants (substances, objects) include most ordinary objects -- tables, rocks, etc. -- of which we could say that they exist. In particular, occurrents exist as the same thing through time: they endure, “continue,” or more technically, are (self-) identical over time. Occurrents are event-type entities, where we would normally say that they occur, happen, or "take place" in time. The ontological category of occurrents includes a wide variety of phenomena that are of considerable importance in everyday life and the sciences: events, processes, actions, activities, behaviors, and functioning (i.e., fulfilling or realizing a function). The election of Obama, the 2008 Presidential campaign, my walking to work yesterday, a given collision of a proton and an anti-proton, this collision's causing photons to be emitted, the first performance of a Beethoven symphony, the failure of my heart to function properly at time t, and so on. Observe that these are occurrent-instances, while causation or mitochondria functioning are occurrent-universals.

Compared with continuants, occurrents are less well studied and thus the topic is more open to debate and new ontological discoveries. Some issues are these: What are the central ontological features of occurrents? Are there (natural, bona fide) categories of occurrents? Are there atomic events, or do all occurrents have temporal parts? What is the relationship of occurrents to continuants? (One important school in metaphysics, process philosophy, maintains that occurrents are fundamental entities and continuants are derivative.) What is the relationship of event-type entities to situations, states of affairs, universals, or fluents? Of particular interest to the biological sciences and engineering are notions of process and function.

Day 2: Powers and Dispositions.

Dispositional properties occupy an important place in our scientific explanations and models, and are all but indispensible in our understanding of the causal mechanisms of the world. For instance, we understand hearts in terms of the disposition to circulate blood, and red blood cells in terms of the powers to transport oxygen throughout the body.

Three major issues to be discussed are:

(i) How should we distinguish dispositional properties from non-dispositional properties?
(ii) Can dispositions be analyzed in terms of counterfactual conditionals?
(iii) Are dispositions reducible to entities of other sorts?


Randall Dipert is C. S. Peirce Professor of Philosophy in the University at Buffalo. His research interests include American pragmatism, logic and the philosophy of mathematics, the ontology of relations, and the ontology of events.

Neil Williams is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy in the University at Buffalo. His research interests focus on the intersection of metaphysics and the philosophy of science, especially with regards to causation and the laws of nature.


GO Biological Process Ontology
Basic Formal Ontology (BFO), p. 25 and especially pp. 41f.
Borghini, Andrea and Williams, Neil. (2008) A Dispositional Theory of Possibility, Dialectica, 62, 21–41.
Williams, Neil. (2005) Static and Dynamic Dispositions Synthese, 146, 303–324.
Williams, Neil. (2007) The Factory Model of Disease, The Monist, 2007; 90(4): 555-584.


The best philosophical overview and bibliography is: R. Casati and A. Varzi, “Events” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
An anthology of philosophical literature on occurrents up to 1996 is: Roberto Casati and Achille C. Varzi, Events, Dartmouth Publishing Group, 1996.
Invited talk by Anthony Galton in Formal Ontology in: Information Systems, Proceedings of FOIS 2006; see also other papers in the session “Actions and Events”.
Bird, Alex. (2007). Nature’s Metaphysics. Oxford University Press, New York.
Molnar, George. (2003) Powers. Oxford University Press, New York.
Mumford, Stephen. (1998) Dispositions. Oxford University Press, New York.