Mirrors aren't even mirrors

Sat 07 Sep 2013 01:22 PM

I am puttering around today and thinking about scientific realism.*

A standard albatross to hang around the neck of realists is that they are committed to thinking that proper science doesn't depend on us at all. Catherine Elgin, for example, writes, "Scientific realism holds that scientific representations are utterly objective. They describe the way the world is, independent of any point of view."**

Elgin rightly rejects that view. What caught my attention today, though, is something she says in summarizing her rejection of it. She writes that, "science, as currently practiced, or foreseeably improved, is not the mirror of nature."

This a common metaphor, of course, famously associated with Rorty's rejection of it. Today I was struck by the oddity of it. Actual, literal mirrors aren't utterly objective and point-of-view independent. They don't provide a cosmic and inhuman truth.

They are partial: I can't see the back of the back of my head in a single flat mirror. Contriving to see the back of my head with multiple mirrors is hard, and the effort required is because each individual mirror has a point (or at least a surface) of view.

They misrepresent in certain ways: The image of me in the bathroom mirror is out there, even though I am still right here. It's handy to see my hair as-if-at-a-distance, and I have learned to look at that image to adjust my hair. The phenomenology is complicated, but navigating the representation is something that requires experience. A device which literally pulled off my hair and presented it to me as-if-in-a-mirror would be a very different sort of thing.

So the (trivial, blog-weight) point, is that the metaphor of philosophy or science as a mirror of nature is deeply confused. It is used to point out a bad way of understanding the target of the metaphor, but does so by presuming a confused conception of the metaphor's source.

* A sure sign of having gone off the rails.

** "Keeping things in perspective", Philosophical Studies, 2010; because she's as Harvard, there's a free preprint.