The camera analogy(1) – introduction

by Neil Rickert

This is intended as the first of a series of posts, where I draw an analogy between the camera taking pictures, and people getting factual data.

When we express a factual statement, that statement is often called a representation.  That is because what is expressed in the statement represents something about the world.  A photograph, such as we take with a camera, can also be considered a representation.

In order to avoid confusion, let me be clear about how I am planning to use the analogy.  When we express verbal descriptions, those could be descriptions of what we taste or smell or feel, and not just descriptions of what we see.  In using the camera analogy, I still want to consider all possible ways of getting factual data.  That is, you should not assume that I am limiting the use of the analogy to visual data.  I restrict the analogy itself to a camera, since adding audio equipment (for sound) only make the analogy more complex and harder to use.  Thus I use a restricted analogy for simplicity, but I intend to apply across all of our sensory modalities. I also want to be clear that I am not attempting to use the camera analogy as a form of proof.  I want to use it only as an illustration.

And now to use the analogy.

When we use a camera to take photographs (to make representations), there are two things involved.  There is the camera, which is the apparatus that is used to form the representations.  And then there are the photographs, which are the representations.

There is a kind of duality between these two things.  When I use the term “duality”, I am not thinking of Cartesian dualism.  Rather, I am thinking of mathematical duality such as is seen in various parts of mathematics.  If you are not familiar with any examples of mathematical duality, that won’t actually be a serious problem for you as reader of this post.  If I make a change to the camera, then that will result in a change to the photographs taken.  For example, if I change from a standard lens to a telephoto lens, then the resulting photographs will have more details of distant objects.  It is this relation between changes to the camera and changes to the resulting photographs that I am thinking of when I talk of a duality.

Using the analogy to look at how we form descriptions of our world, we notice the same thing.  There is an apparatus – namely, our sensory system and our brains – and there are the representations formed with that apparatus, namely our perceptions of the world.  And there is the same sort of duality between apparatus and representation.  If we change the apparatus, that changes the perceptions.  Wearing gloves change feel of what we are touching.  Squinting changes visual appearances.


Philosophy appears to be largely based on the assumption that the apparatus is fixed.  And if the apparatus is fixed, then the representations are all that is important.  Hence the emphasis on beliefs.  The main goal of this post was to raise awareness to the possibility that the apparatus could also change.  And if the apparatus changes, then that is important in our relation with the world.  In short, it is (or should be) a game changer for philosophy.

Future posts in this series will discuss some of the implication for philosophy if the apparatus is not fixed.

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