Representation as a Meaningful Philosophical Quandary


The deliberation on representation indeed becomes a meaningful quandary, if most of the shortcomings are to be overcome, without actually accepting the way they permeate the scientific and philosophical discourse. The problem is more ideological than one could have imagined, since, it is only within the space of this quandary that one can assume success in overthrowing the quandary. Unless the classical theory of representation that guides the expert systems has been accepted as existing, there is no way to dislodge the relationship of symbols and meanings that build up such systems, lest the predicament of falling prey to the Scylla of metaphysically strong notion of meaningful representation as natural or the Charybdis of an external designer should gobble us up. If one somehow escapes these maliciously aporetic entities, representation as a metaphysical monster stands to block our progress. Is it really viable then to think of machines that can survive this representational foe, a foe that gets no aid from the clusters of internal mechanisms? The answer is very much in the affirmative, provided, a consideration of the sort of such a non-representational system as continuous and homogeneous is done away with. And in its place is had functional units that are no more representational ones, for the former derive their efficiency and legitimacy through autopoiesis. What is required is to consider this notional representational critique of distributed systems on the objectivity of science, since objectivity as a property of science has an intrinsic value of independence from the subject who studies the discipline. Kuhn  had some philosophical problems to this precise way of treating science as an objective discipline. For Kuhn, scientists operate under or within paradigms thus obligating hierarchical structures. Such hierarchical structures ensure the position of scientists to voice their authority on matters of dispute, and when there is a crisis within, or, for the paradigm, scientists, to begin with, do not outrightly reject the paradigm, but try their level best at resolution of the same. In cases where resolution becomes a difficult task, an outright rejection of the paradigm would follow suit, thus effecting what is commonly called the paradigm shift. If such were the case, obviously, the objective tag for science goes for a hit, and Kuhn argues in favor of a shift in social order that science undergoes, signifying the subjective element. Importantly, these paradigm shifts occur to benefit scientific progress and in almost all of the cases, occur non-linearly. Such a view no doubt slides Kuhn into a position of relativism, and has been the main point of attack on paradigms shifting. At the forefront of attacks has been Michael Polanyi and his bunch of supporters, whose work on epistemology of science have much of the same ingredients, but was eventually deprived of fame. Kuhn was charged with plagiarism. The commonality of their arguments could be measured by a dissenting voice for objectivity in science. Polanyi thought of it as a false ideal, since for him the epistemological claims that defined science were based more on personal judgments, and therefore susceptible to fallibilism. The objective nature of science that obligates the scientists to see things as they really are is kind of dislodged by the above principle of subjectivity. But, if science were to be seen as objective, then the human subjectivity would indeed create a rupture as far as the purified version of scientific objectivity is sought for. The subject or the observer undergoes what is termed the “observer effect” that refers to the change impacting an act of observation being observed. This effect is as good as ubiquitous in most of the domains of science and technology ranging from Heisenbug(1) in computing via particle physics, science of thermodynamics to quantum mechanics. The quantum mechanics observer effect is quite perplexing, and is a result of a phenomenon called “superposition” that signifies the existence in all possible states and all at once. The superposition gets its credit due to Schrödinger’s cat experiment. The experiment entails a cat that is neither dead nor alive until observed. This has led physicists to take into account the acts of “observation” and “measurement” to comprehend the paradox in question, and thereby come out resolving it. But there is still a minority of quantum physicists out there who vouch for the supremacy of an observer, despite the quantum entanglement effect that go on to explain “observation” and “measurement” impacts.(2) Such a standpoint is indeed reflected in Derrida (9-10) as well, when he says (I quote him in full),

The modern dominance of the principle of reason had to go hand in hand with the interpretation of the essence of beings as objects, and object present as representation (Vorstellung), an object placed and positioned before a subject. This latter, a man who says ‘I’, an ego certain of itself, thus ensures his own technical mastery over the totality of what is. The ‘re-‘ of repraesentation also expresses the movement that accounts for – ‘renders reason to’ – a thing whose presence is encountered by rendering it present, by bringing it to the subject of representation, to the knowing self.

If Derridean deconstruction needs to work on science and theory, the only way out is to relinquish the boundaries that define or divide the two disciplines. Moreover, if there is any looseness encountered in objectivity, the ramifications are felt straight at the levels of scientific activities. Even theory does not remain immune to these consequences. Importantly, as scientific objectivity starts to wane, a corresponding philosophical luxury of avoiding the contingent wanes. Such a loss of representation congruent with a certain theory of meaning we live by has serious ethical-political affectations.

(1) Heisenbug is a pun on the Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and is a bug in computing that is characterized by a disappearance of the bug itself when an attempt is made to study it. One common example is a bug that occurs in a program that was compiled with an optimizing compiler, but not in the same program when compiled without optimization (e.g., for generating a debug-mode version). Another example is a bug caused by a race condition. A heisenbug may also appear in a system that does not conform to the command-query separation design guideline, since a routine called more than once could return different values each time, generating hard- to-reproduce bugs in a race condition scenario. One common reason for heisenbug-like behaviour is that executing a program in debug mode often cleans memory before the program starts, and forces variables onto stack locations, instead of keeping them in registers. These differences in execution can alter the effect of bugs involving out-of-bounds member access, incorrect assumptions about the initial contents of memory, or floating- point comparisons (for instance, when a floating-point variable in a 32-bit stack location is compared to one in an 80-bit register). Another reason is that debuggers commonly provide watches or other user interfaces that cause additional code (such as property accessors) to be executed, which can, in turn, change the state of the program. Yet another reason is a fandango on core, the effect of a pointer running out of bounds. In C++, many heisenbugs are caused by uninitialized variables. Another similar pun intended bug encountered in computing is the Schrödinbug. A schrödinbug is a bug that manifests only after someone reading source code or using the program in an unusual way notices that it never should have worked in the first place, at which point the program promptly stops working for everybody until fixed. The Jargon File adds: “Though… this sounds impossible, it happens; some programs have harbored latent schrödinbugs for years.”

(2) There is a related issue in quantum mechanics relating to whether systems have pre-existing – prior to measurement, that is – properties corresponding to all measurements that could possibly be made on them. The assumption that they do is often referred to as “realism” in the literature, although it has been argued that the word “realism” is being used in a more restricted sense than philosophical realism. A recent experiment in the realm of quantum physics has been quoted as meaning that we have to “say goodbye” to realism, although the author of the paper states only that “we would [..] have to give up certain intuitive features of realism”. These experiments demonstrate a puzzling relationship between the act of measurement and the system being measured, although it is clear from experiment that an “observer” consisting of a single electron is sufficient – the observer need not be a conscious observer. Also, note that Bell’s Theorem suggests strongly that the idea that the state of a system exists independently of its observer may be false. Note that the special role given to observation (the claim that it affects the system being observed, regardless of the specific method used for observation) is a defining feature of the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics. Other interpretations resolve the apparent paradoxes from experimental results in other ways. For instance, the Many- Worlds Interpretation posits the existence of multiple universes in which an observed system displays all possible states to all possible observers. In this model, observation of a system does not change the behavior of the system – it simply answers the question of which universe(s) the observer(s) is(are) located in: In some universes the observer would observe one result from one state of the system, and in others the observer would observe a different result from a different state of the system.


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