Thursday, August 09, 2007

Not seeing the Oasis for the Mirage

Consider the next girl to be named Oasis. She might be an American, and clearly by “she” I mean Oasis, but if that “Oasis” refers to her directly (i.e. not via that name’s sense but via some appropriate causal connection, between that use of her name and her baptism) then is there some sort of backwards causation, acting from her future baptism to that reference? Maybe it’s indeterminate who I’m referring to (unless that aspect of the Universe is already determined) until the time of her baptism (or until that aspect is determined), but would there then be some instantaneous causation-at-a-distance? Or is my feeling that I’ve just been referring to Oasis just a mirage?
......I’ve no idea, so consider a more traditional kind of scenario. Suppose you’re in a desert, looking for an oasis. You know that there’s an oasis to the North, and so you look northwards, and see what you take to be the oasis. Of course, it’s really a mirage. Still, just where you take the oasis to be does happen to be where the oasis is, hidden behind the mirage. In fact, had the oasis not been there, reflecting sunlight and evaporating, the air would’ve been so differently heated by the Sun that the mirage wouldn’t have been there either. As you move northwards, the mirage fades, and is imperceptibly replaced by an increasingly clear sight of the oasis. What you are looking at changes smoothly from mirage to oasis, but does the reference of your “that oasis” also change smoothly, from nothing (via referential failure) to that oasis?
......I’m not sure. In the traditional (epistemological) scenario, a vase is hidden behind a hologram (a picture whose image has depth) of the same vase (apparently in the same place). If you saw that hologram and said “That vase,” you might well be referring to the vase because the hologram is of the vase, but would you know that the vase was there, just by seeing its image? Is it that you would not, because anything might have been behind the hologram? But then, even were the hologram switched on by placing the vase there, and even were only that vase ever put there (in what might be a fairly deterministic bit of the Universe), still, would it not seem that you wouldn’t know, just by seeing its image, that it was there?
......Perhaps the relevant personnel would only ever put that vase there. So suppose instead that the hologram was built up from live feed, from cameras trained upon the plinth. That might give you the same picture, of the same vase, and again only when the vase is there. And again maybe only that vase is ever put there, but now it seems that you might know that the vase was there (even if again, you don’t know about the mechanism). After all, that situation is like having night-sight cameras in front of a vehicle, showing the driver what’s in front of it, which is itself not unlike wearing goggles, or spectacles (or indeed, simply having eyes).

7 comments:

Laïyna Sauvage said...

Hey, sorry I'm very new at this - This is in reply to your comment you left me. I agree with the writer of that article. The article said "Teaching kids that you can't understand math without God is lying -", well, I agree with this statement - that would be utter lying. I didn't mean that you can't understand math without God. Math is math, I think it is eternal as well as from our imagination. I believe there can be logic as well as faith in a person. It can't be solely either. I'm Christian, but I also love and admire science and I do not dismiss science or math. I just like to think that both faith and science can co-exist within one person. Hehe, my dad is a scientist as well as Christian, maybe I get it from him =P. And I like to think that, sort of how Einstein thought, that science does not necessarily disprove the possibility of a higher being, but instead that science is so wonderful it would be no surprise if there were a higher entity behind it. I meant what I said in my interest like this: that because we are intelligent beings and have discovered mathematics and certain sciences, it may point to an intelligent higher being whose intelligence came off on us. I guess these are just my personal ponderings and beliefs, and to each their own (i.e. I respect others' own beliefs about things). Thank you, interesting article indeed!

Enigman said...

Having got to your blog via Tchaikovsky, I was wondering what you'd make of that article. I feel that way about music (that it says such strangely meaningful things that the divine would not be a total surprise) rather than maths, even though I'm much better at maths; although I'm more interested in philosophical views of maths (especially ones like yours) than of music. (And many thanks for liking my poem :)

Enigman said...

Anyway, to return to this post's thought, imagine that I'm in a desert, that I've seen the mirage (where the oasis is) and fixed my eyes upon that goal, and that I'm moving slowly (and smoothly) towards it, thinking of myself as approaching that oasis. Presumably the reference of "that oasis" changes smoothly from referential failure to the oasis as my perceptual input changes, since the sense (the meaning) of "that oasis" ties its reference (its meaning) down via my perception.

More interesting (it occurs to me today) is the scenario from Hitchhikers' Guide, where the continents of Earth spell out a rude word in an alien language. We say of a word (or a sentence) that it is rude, but not that the Earth is (nor even that it is a word). What are we doing, when we see stuff as words (that might refer), except accepting our place within a language-using community? So if we sincerely and accurately decide that the reference of "Oasis" is indeterminate, then presumably it is. Is it?

Richard Brown said...

Hi Enigman,

You do not refer to Oasis. In the scenerio you described you are using a definite description, 'the next woman named "Oasis"'...as for the other example, yes the reference of 'that oasis' changes without your being aware of it

Enigman said...

Although there is a definite (if Oasis turns out to exist) description there, it does pick out someone called "Oasis," and so if I say "Oasis," as I just did parenthetically, then surely I'm referring to her, to that girl called "Oasis." By hypothesis there will be such a girl, called "Oasis," and it is she and no other that I'm talking about. "Oasis" is her name, so why do I not refer to her with it? (Is it because the theory says not?)

As for the other scenario, it is not particularly problematic that the reference of my words should change as the world does, but I'm wondering about how it changes. Is there some intermediate point where it is partly failing, referentially, and partly referring? That seems contradictory, so does it flip catastrophically at some point? And is that point determined objectively? Whilst it does not seem so bad that knowledge turns out to be a bit fuzzy at the edges, if reference does then what of (correspondence) truth? (I suspect that there is a connection between the two scenarios, at the meta-level of why referential externalism seems desirable.)

Richard Brown said...

You don't refer to anyone because that person does not exist. If I say 'the square circle is beautiful' I have not reffered to the square circle.

As for the issue of reference shifting, there are those (e.g. Michael Devitt) that do in fact think that there are cases where a word will 'partially refer' (madagascar is the classic example due to Hartry Field)...I think that is what is happening in the mirage/oasis situation that you describe....

Enigman said...

Thanks for the references re partial reference. But can I refer to tomorrow's headlines, though? That is a description, not a name, but still, if they don't exist yet then how does my description refer to them?