Archive for November 20th, 2010

November 20, 2010

The camera analogy(4) – conclusion

by Neil Rickert

I have used the analogy with a camera to illustrate that forming representations of the world (descriptions, facts, etc) makes use of an apparatus.  In terms of the analogy, the camera is the apparatus and the photographs are the representations.  With us, the representations are the statements that we are able to make about the world, such as are often referred to as beliefs or propositions or facts.  And for us the apparatus includes our sensory system, and the various learned behaviors that we follow in order to make the most of that sensory system.  I have suggested that the apparatus includes parts of our scientific theories, particularly those parts that are really definitions that connect the data to the world.

People often talk of a correspondence theory of truth.  That suggests some sort of way that our representations correspond to reality.  The apparatus that we use to form our representations is then what actually establishes that correspondence.  Since the apparatus is what connects our representations to reality, then it is also involved in meaning and intentionality.

I have suggested that part of our learning is perceptual learning, the fine tuning or enhancing of the apparatus that we use to form representations.  And I have suggested that part of science is in the construction of enhanced and improved ways of forming representations.  When our learning involves enhancing that apparatus, we are not acquiring beliefs.  Rather, we are acquiring meaning and we are acquiring an enhanced ability to form true beliefs when needed, the ability to pick up “just in time facts”.

We can compare the implications of a fixed apparatus with those of a variable apparatus.

A fixed apparatus

If the apparatus by which we form beliefs is fixed, as many seem to believe, then the only knowledge that we can have of the world is knowledge in the form of beliefs or representations.  As Berkeley argued, one conclusion is there might not be a reality.  The apparatus might just be a matter of representations being piped in from God.  Moreover, with a fixed apparatus, even if idealism is false and there is a reality, our knowledge of reality is limited to what that fixed apparatus can provide.  However, logic should be a sufficient tool to explore that limited knowledge.

A variable (learnable) apparatus

If the apparatus is variable, and if part of learning involves changing the apparatus, then our knowledge of reality can consist of both the representations we form of reality, and the methods that we follow in order to form such representations.  This makes idealism far less plausible.  Moreover, we are not nearly as limited in our potential knowledge of reality.  If there are aspects of reality that we are unable to represent today, perhaps we will find ways to represent them tomorrow.

My own view is that much of the advance of knowledge over the last few centuries, has depended heavily on our enhancing the apparatus with which we form representations.  However, we can no longer be sure that logic is itself a sufficient tool for exploring that knowledge, for with a change of apparatus comes a change of the relationships between our representations and reality, and logic does not easily account for such a change.  We see these changes in the paradigm shifts that Kuhn discussed in his monograph “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.”


When I started this blog, I suggested that there is a tendency for people to look at the world based on design assumptions.  The idea that we have a fixed way of forming beliefs about the world is one of those commonly held views that seems to implicitly assume some sort of design.  The alternative is to abandon design assumptions, and think of us as having an evolving relation with the world.  Our ability to change the ways in which we form representations of the world, to change the apparatus by which we form representations, is our ability to adapt to change, the ability for our civilizations to evolve and for our knowledge to evolve.