synthetic zero

August 20th, 2009

Katharine reminds me I vowed to write every day and I’m already four days behind.

What I really want to write about is a huge revelation Susan and I had in a recent conversation, the culmination of a long series of conversations about a difficult concept that we’ve been discussing relating to time, in which she realized that the whole problem, the reason she had been unable to grasp it until now, was that she was confusing the reference and the referent; it’s a problem she’s had all her life. It’s a very common problem, in fact — and as I was listening to her I realized it was the crux of many difficulties in human cognition, all the way up to and including political and social issues. However, to explain why this is would take volumes of writing which I don’t have time to do just now, but I will try to address this question slowly over the coming days and weeks.

Teasing apart these subtle distinctions in our lives is crucial, I believe; we often tend to take thoughts as the world, directly, not as a sort of effect which is related to, but not identical with, the world, by necessity, i.e., the map is not the territory, or as Borges beautifully put it:

In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.

But while this observation appears obvious there are more subtle conflations; for example, one can think of a concept as something you understand, but you can also think of it as a kind of tool, a dynamic stance, i.e., not so much something to figure out as something to apply, almost like a lens, where the ostensible idea isn’t important for its conceptual content so much as a metaphor for an attitude one can actively apply to fresh situations.

The subtlety of the problem of reference reminds me of work done by the computer scientist-turned-philosopher Brian Cantwell Smith (I highly recommend his work), in particular he has done a lot of work on the problem of reference (for example, consider his paper on self-reference). He once wrote a computer language in which all the varieties of implicit reference, naming, etc., were made explicit; as he puts it in his bio:

Real-world computer systems involve extraordinarily complex issues of identity. Often, objects that for some purposes are best treated as unitary, single, or “one”, are for other purposes better distinguished, treated as several. Thus we have one program; but many copies. One procedure; many call sites. One call site; many executions. One product; many versions. One Web site; multiple servers. One url; several documents (also: several urls; one Web site). One file; several replicated copies (maybe synchronized). One function; several algorithms; myriad implementations. One variable; different values over time (as well as multiple variables; the same value). One login name; several users. And so on. Dealing with such identity questions is a recalcitrant issue that comes up in every corner of computing, from such relatively simple cases as Lisp’s distinction between eq and equal to the (in general) undecidable question of whether two procedures compute the same function. The aim of the Computational Ontology project is to focus on identity as a technical problem in its own right, and to develop a calculus of generalized object identity, one in which identity — the question of whether two entities are the same or different — is taken to be a dynamic and contextual matter of perspective, rather than a static or permanent fact about intrinsic structure.

I will say much more on the subject of reference/referent in the future, as well as explain Sue’s revelation (but that will take a lot more background which I’ll have to slowly supply).

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