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Do Mountains Exist?

Only a philosopher could ask this question with any degree of seriousness. As if mountaineers don't have enough to contend with without worrying whether the thing they cling to exists!

The question trades on a common-sense distinction between appearance and reality. For the obvious answer to the question is 'yes, of course mountains exist!'. But perhaps it only seems to us as though we have a firm grip on the concept of a mountain; perhaps, in reality, there is nothing genuinely corresponding to our use of the term. So to understand the question it is perhaps better to read it as asking 'Do mountains really exist?'

It is the question's implications for the nature of reality itself that brings it under the purview of the metaphysician; and the ontologist in particular. For it is the job of the ontologist, in partnership with the scientist, to keep a tight rein on the inventory of the constituents of reality; weeding out any illusory entities like pixies, phlogiston and yeti.

The existential question 'do mountains exist?' is closely related to the constitutive question 'what are mountains?', and to the individuative question 'how do we count mountains?'. For an answer to any one of these three questions will impact, on pain of incoherence, on an answer to the other two. It is part of the ontologist's skill and training to be able to keep track of these parallel questions, and to describe for us a coherent picture of reality.

An interesting engagement with the question, by the metaphysician Barry Smith and the geographer David Mark, is available online: Do Mountains Exist? Towards an Ontology of Landforms .