Ontological Confusion

Satish Joshi

“Ontological Confusion” is a new phrase I learned a few days ago while reading a paper that described some recent research about why so many otherwise level-headed and sane people accept “bullshit” as profound wisdom. Here “Bullshit” is defined as “Profound sounding yet entirely meaningless statements constructed by abusing scientific language”.

One of the experiments reported in this paper, was designed to measure how susceptible the participants in this research were to “Ontological Confusion“. Because one of the most important findings of this paper is (among many others) that there exists a very strong correlation between “Ontological confusion” and the propensity of a person to accept even obvious bullshit as truth.

But what is “Ontological Confusion“?? – a term I was not familiar with and had never come across before.

Formal definition of the word “Ontology” goes something like this – “A set of concepts and categories in a subject area or domain that shows their properties and the relations between them“. Ontological Confusion should therefore mean – Given an object or objects, the failure to correctly identify the category that the object(s) belongs to and therefore misconstrue the nature of the real relationship between them.

For example, consider this sentence – “A rock lives for a long time”. Is this sentence literally true or only metaphorically true? If your answer is that this is literally true, then you are ontologically confused. Because the words “rock” and “live” belong to two different categories (inanimate Vs living things respectively) and by accepting the sentence as literally true you are making a mistake about the nature of the real relationship between them (metaphor Vs reality)

As another example of how “Ontologically confusing” the terminology of modern technology could be to those who have no real knowledge of technology, consider this –

Remember Sophia? The famous robot that was paraded all over the world as an advertisement of the achievements of modern technology. Consider the statement “Sophia has learned to speak English”. If you think this statement is “Literally” true, are you Ontologically Confused? I would argue that you are. This statement is only metaphorically true. The literally true statement is “Sophia has been programmed to create an illusion of having learned to speak English”. But how many of those uninitiated in the mysteries of modern technology are likely to be able to make this distinction (between the two sentences above).

In fact, aren’t even the basic terms like “Artificial Intelligence” or “Deep Learning” really conducive to creating Ontological Confusion by assigning attributes of one category of objects – sentient living beings to another category of objects – inanimate machines. And as a consequence (if we have to accept the findings of this paper, I referred to above) isn’t modern technology making the common person more susceptible to accepting bullshit as profound truth, through Ontologically Confusing terminology?

Using terminology to deliberately create ontological confusion is the favourite trick of all clever marketers. Even a simple claim such as “silky smooth skin” (you may see it in an advertisement for soaps or hair removal creams or razors) is designed to create ontological confusion because it is forcing you to imagine a property that silk has and transfer its benefits to something altogether different a human organ like skin, which can never be smooth like silk no matter what you do!

How often do you think you see this in the world of personal finance?

Every time you see insurance being positioned as an investment, every time you see a debt mutual fund being positioned as a fixed deposit, for example!

In the wealth space, structured products are positioned as debt and equity both.

There are new frameworks and products that people come with all the time similar to the “Silky Smooth Skin”. In the world of personal finance, the equivalent of a silky-smooth skin is the combination of low(est) risk and high(est) returns. People love low(est) risk and high(est) returns. After all, who doesn’t want this.

The trick to avoid this confusion is to ask –

a. Is the desired property that is being used to tempt you, is truly an attribute of the category to which the product belongs?


b. Does it actually belong to a different category that is being used as an analogy or a metaphor?

E.g., Is Growth of the Investment, a property of insurance or of some other category of financial products such as stocks or mutual funds? Is guaranteed returns a property of mutual funds or some other category of products such as fixed deposits?

Dane Cook’s quote comes to mind when I reflect on Ontological Confusion.

I can smell bullshit from a mile away but it’s so much harder to detect when it’s around you all day.

Indeed, we are all surrounded by Bullshit 24*7 and Bullshitting is not simply a social pastime now, it’s an international sport and big business in every part of the economy.

Our success in personal finance and more importantly in avoiding costly mistakes lies in recognizing (smelling) and then avoiding ontological confusion (aka bullshit).

I wish you and your family a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. Have a wonderful one.