General Question

nebule's avatar

Is there anything in the world that functions to represent objects in the environment exactly as they truly are?

Asked by nebule (16452points) June 7th, 2010

I immediately thought of cameras of a kind but they don’t exactly represent things as they are do they. Are there like…three dimensional cameras that take snap shots of things? And is there technology that ‘interprets’ these kinds of snapshots?

hmmm…it’s for an essay on meaning and mental content and how we manage to represent the world in our minds…but unless you need or want me to I won’t bore you with the details…

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37 Answers

dpworkin's avatar

No, because no matter what it is, it will be an extension of the sensorium, which is riddled with inaccuracies. In other words, no matter how perfect the snapshot, someone still has to look at it, or read the data from the machine that analyzed it.

nisse's avatar

There are 3D-cameras, in fact my buddy has one and it’s pretty neat.

It doesn’t catch smells and wind on your cheek or shriek of seagulls. I think you need to define more precisely what you mean by “exactly as they truly are”. Unfortunately nothing can catch an experience “exactly as it is”, in fact, because of quantum physics, science isn’t even sure what is meant by “exactly as it is”.

nebule's avatar

@dpworkin yes, that’s what I thought too… and beautifully put… @nisse this is indeed the angle I am taking in my essay and I’m trying to say… well the following is what I have got… and in the [] is where I need an example…or a reference or something…

Critics of causal co-variance seem to require that a representation of an external object or event to be analogous to [how a camera works]...representing things exactly as they are, all of the time. However, it could be argued that this is simply not possible in this world

You couldn’t point me to a quantum physics assessment of this on the net at all could you? I’ll be looking myself in the meantime.. but that’s pretty much great news anyway for my purposes!!

zenele's avatar

I am reminded of the story of the elephant – you know, each one describes what he sees. One sees the front and the trunk, the other the back and the tail, etcetera. In other words, continuing along the line of my esteemed colleagues before me in this thread, even a 3 dimentional picture must be viewed by a person – and each person sees differently. Plus the other aspects of the experience are missing – touch, scent, sound, taste.

But it’s a GQ!

edit: I defer to Matt on questions of Quantum Physics – I can barely spell it correctly let alone understand it.

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nisse's avatar

@lynneblundell: Nothing really short unfortunately, i guess you don’t want to take a course in quantum mechanics.

Here are some books and webpages that may or may not be helpful:
Wikipedia on Philosophy of the mind
Wikipedia easy intro to QM
Penrose – The Road to Reality: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe
Stephen Hawking – A Brief History of Time

There are litrally a forrest of books on the philosophy of what is real and how we percieve it and how our minds distort things, and it’s hard to pick one that is reprasentative for your purposes.

Also, even what we see is actually not what is actually there, as most serious artists are aware of, so the “reality” of a photo breaks even before you reach the quantum mechanics level.

Ie we are very susceptible to optical illusions, or what we see is distorted by the eye/brain, i would definetly include some of that and color theory if you are going down the visual road. Here’s an absolutely fascinating page on how we see color (which is really alot more complex than one would think):

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nebule's avatar

Nisse… you are an absolute star!!! thank you thank you thank you xxx love love love xxx
The colour thing will fit perfectly into my argument and basically proves that is is a question of perception and not of the truth or falsity of a representation… beautiful thank you xx

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nisse's avatar


Here’s one of my favourite optical illusions with color that may prove your point:

Trillian's avatar

All you have to do is to look at a Picasso to illustrate how perception varies from person to person.
One can never completely capture something as it truly is because one can never convey that perception to another person, much less have it done for them by a machine of any sort. And even if one were to adept at communication as to be able to convey their sense of perception of an object, or tableau, another person can hear the words and gestures and interpret them in a slightly different or wildly different way and so the meaning would be lost.

zenele's avatar

@nisse I think I am missing something there:

This is an amazing illusion using colour and tone to deceive the eye.

Take a look at either of the cubes below.

There only seems to be one cube there?

nisse's avatar

@zenele The description may be a bit off, it’s the middle faces of the (single) cube that are interesting, you can move them with your mouse.

zenele's avatar

I did that it was interesting to try it on my son – he can see colours – I can’t.
I thought I was missing a whole cube or something.

the100thmonkey's avatar

Schema Theory will be a useful resource.

lilikoi's avatar

I imagine photojournalists would argue that their photos in conjunction with descriptive text accurately portray things as they were, that bias and any other variables are negligible and do not significantly effect the accuracy of what they are portraying, and that the sensory experience in the field has been acceptably captured in the shot and accompanying description together. All of this may or may not be true depending on the photographer.

I guess my point is, while we may not all be able to experience a single moment in precisely the same way nor see precisely the same thing, generally this degree of precision is unnecessary.

nisse's avatar

@lilikoi: It can be argued that the framing of a photojournalistic picture can be about as misleading as any optical illusion. Imagine a picture of a beautiful hotel on a report on the current status of the tourism industry in Brazil. If the photographer had shot the 180 degree reverse view you would see the shanty town with starving families.

While the photograph may certainly have been a somewhat accurate representation of that small sliver of view, many would argue it would not be an accurate representation of the general situation, and that the bias in this case would not be negligeble. As you say, we are at the mercy of the photographer.

janbb's avatar

There have been some fascinating articles on the distortions of war photography by Errol Morris. He had a whole series – I believe it was as a NYTimes blog – about the shadows on stones in a critical battle photograph and how they proved that the photograph was a distorted image for propaganda.

LostInParadise's avatar

What does it mean to represent an object exactly like it is? Would an accurate depiction allow us to see things at the molecular or quantum level? Our perception of the world is indirect, mediated through our senses. Think of how different the world is to animals like dogs that get much of their information through their sense of smell. Try to imagine what things are like for a bat or dolphin, creating a picture of the world through sound images.

lloydbird's avatar

The Human eye.

The Human Mind might misinterpret though.

nebule's avatar

yes, I agree with most of you… just trying to squeeze my thoughts into an already overly worded essay… :-( xxx thank you all for your help!!

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augustlan's avatar

[mod says] Please remember, this question is in the General Section. Responses must be helpful and on-topic.

nebule's avatar

Sorted it! Thanks again guys… I seriously need to read up on my quantum mechanics though as my philosophy essays always seem to lead me down the quantum route!
love love to you all xx

lilikoi's avatar


It all depends on what story it is you are trying to tell. If you are trying to sell the hotel, and you are simply capturing its beauty on film to convey this to the consumer, then I’d say you’re portraying the hotel accurately. That it is surrounded by poverty is irrelevant to the story and simply not the point of the photograph.

If you’re trying to show the juxtaposition of class divisions or a piece about the city as a whole, then an up-close shot of a hotel would not do the story justice, obviously.

I know that there are cases where bias etc may not be negligible.

Indeed I said earlier that “All of this may or may not be true depending on the photographer.”

But not every image is highly political or taken with the bottom line as a priority.

If @lynneblundell goes outside and take a picture of her house and writes a paragraph describing it honestly, we’ll get an accurate enough image of it where going there and experiencing it first hand with all of our senses would not yield a wildly different perspective than what she had put forth.

Is it possible that a picture is not an accurate portrayal? Yes. It is possible that it pretty much is? Yes.

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jaytkay's avatar

Mods are a little over-eager here, eh? I shall repeat my statement in a less succinct and less clear way.

My first reaction is that you can’t answer the question without defining “exactly as they truly are”.

Do you mean identical to to the eye? If so, is that from a single perspective or every angle? To the touch? Does it have to be the same weight? Must it taste the same? If the original is mechanical, does the replica have to function or is a static model OK? Must there be a physical object? How about virtual reality goggles and a tactile suit? Or simply wires into the brain which cause you to dream the item is in your presence?

What I am trying to say is, “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘are’ is.”

augustlan's avatar

[mod says] I will repeat: Please remember, this question is in the General Section. Responses must be helpful and on-topic. Note that @jaytkay‘s second answer is perfectly acceptable.

@lynneblundell If you don’t mind off-topic responses, it would be better to ask in the Social Section. Then you’d get both types of answers.

nebule's avatar

@augustlan I thought that was reserved for social questions like about people… that’s what I thought it said… sorry..I’m still getting used to the guidelines.. thanks for the advice x

CMaz's avatar

“Responses must be helpful and on-topic.”

I guess that is according to your ability to understand.

janbb's avatar

@lynneblundell I put all my questions in “Social” unless it is a really practical question and I only want really practical answers.

CMaz's avatar

“really practical question and I only want really practical answers.”

That a 3rd grader can understand. ;-)

janbb's avatar

True dat.

nisse's avatar

@lilikoi I think the original question was if there was any system that accurately represents things exactly as they are, and of course there is no such system.

Sometimes a photograph may be a “good enough” representation for some limited purpose, for example a google street view of a house might be good enough if i want to find my way to it, but first-hand experience is always richer (or at least different). Not many people would buy @lynneblundell‘s house from just reading her description and seeing a picture, most would want to see it first-hand before making such a decision.

A photo can certainly capture more aspects of a scene than for example a two paragraph description (usually), but it is not an exact representation of an object in the environment, which i think is what @lynneblundell was trying to find arguments for.

To take another example, a photo of the Grand Canyon, even a 3D one, will not accurately capture the grandness of actually being there, which is why we have tourism. :)

nebule's avatar

thank you all… having a bit of a hard time this evening but will get back to you soon xxx thank you thank you xxx and @janbb thank you xx

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