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Reflection-correspondence theory

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Compare our cybernetic epistemology with the classical reflection-correspondence theory of meaning and truth. One of the oldest questions of philosophy is: What is the meaning of words and phrases of a language? The naive answer is: those things which the words denote. This is known as the reflection theory of language. Language, like a mirror, creates certain images, reflections of the things around us. With the reflection theory of language we come to what is known as the correspondence theory of truth: a proposition is true if the relations between the images of things correspond to the relations between the things themselves. Falsity is a wrong, distorted reflection. In particular, to create images which correspond to no real thing in the world is to be in error.

With this concept of meaning and truth, any expression of our language which cannot be immediately interpreted in terms of observable facts, is meaningless and misleading. This viewpoint in its extreme form, according to which all unobservables must be banned from science, was developed by the early nineteenth-century positivism (Auguste Comte). Such a view, however, is unacceptable for science. Even force in Newton's mechanics becomes suspect in this philosophy, because we can neither see nor touch it; we only conclude that it exists by observing the movements of material bodies. Electromagnetic field has still less of reality. And the situation with the wave function in quantum mechanics is simply disastrous.

The history of the Western philosophy is, to a considerable extent, the history of a struggle against the reflection-correspondence theory. We now consider language as a material to create models of reality. Language is a system which works as a whole, and should be evaluated as a whole. The job the language does is organization of our experience, which includes, in particular, some verifiable predictions about future events an the results of our actions. For a language to be good at this job, it is not necessary that every specific part of it should be put in a direct and simple correspondence with the observable reality.

Unlike our dynamic concept of modeling as production of predictions, the classical concept of reflection is static. It immediately raises the questions like what does it actually mean that one thing "reflects" another. Also, how do we know that reflection takes place? To confuse things further, a distinction between mind and matter was made, which produced the question: how our ideas, belonging to mind, can reflect objects belonging to the realm of matter.

The cybernetic understanding of knowledge is much more precise. This precision is achieved by introducing dynamics into the picture. The mapping form the world to language present in the homomorphism picture is not required to be a "reflection"; we need not compare these two strata of reality. To see that the model works, we only have to compare things from the stratum of language.

All that has been said about language can be applied also to human thought. In cybernetic view, thought works because it implements some models of the world, not because it somehow statically reflects it. The difficult questions of the correspondence between the thought and its object simply do not arise.

In a static world no knowledge, no reflection or correspondence would be possible. Correspondence make sense only if we indicate a procedure which establishes what we want to call correspondence; and a procedure inescapably includes a time dimension.

Copyright© 1991 Principia Cybernetica - Referencing this page

V. Turchin,

Sep 1991


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Philosophy, Introduction

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