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oncology versus ontologyFrom my wheelchair I noticed that there was only one letter different between these two words—the word for the study of cancer, and for the study of being. That posed me a challenge. What is this difference?

What is cancer, and what is being? Why is there no “Ontology Ward” in my local hospital? Would the world be a better place if there were? I somehow think it would be.

Cancer is an illness that disrupts the harmonious working of the body thanks to the disproportionate growth of a cell or group of cells. Oncology is therefore the study of tumors—a tumor being an unwanted bulk or mass in the body.

The jump to ontology is easy enough to make. With ontology we are concerned with that which exists, how it “fits” within the scheme of things, and perhaps “why” it exists. We are concerned not with bulks or lumps, which are meaningless, but with things that have a meaning or belong to the “form” of reality—flowers, as it were, rather than weeds.

Tumors, like other living things, change and grow. They don’t, thank goodness, move around, although they do extend themselves or metastasize, as I have found to my cost. Growth alone is not the problem—only disproportionate growth. With the notion of “disproportion” I might bring into discussion here the entire Pythagorean tradition. Cancer is an assault on proportionate harmony. It is the music of Melkor (see the “Music of the Ainur” in the opening pages of Tolkien’s Silmarillion).

There is something about cancer that reflects the philosophical movement known as nominalism. Nominalists divide things up into lumps and clumps, into atoms and elements, giving to each of these a name that they think will prove useful. And indeed they may be useful, for a time.

Universals or abstract objects, according to the nominalists, do not exist. Certain realists claim they do. Whether they do or they don’t, cancer does. Unfortunately. A Cancer Ward would have to decide this one way or another, because it would have to be sure of what it was treating.

In a way it is the same throughout the culture. What are we dealing with? What is real and what is not? Which are the weeds, and which the flowers?

Try to decide, before it is too late.

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