Modelling and Representation. How to make world(s) with symbols

Donostia-San Sebastián, 10-12 December 2015


Aim and motivation

The received view of scientific representations takes these, under a strong demarcationist view of science, as a specific and genuine type of representation in which the preservation of some particular structure — which each proposal attempts to characterise in its own terms— is the central concept.

Such preservation of structure in turn provides scientific representations with an objective informative value, in contrast with other kind of representations. In the received view thus most ontological and/or epistemological issues around representations are therefore laid out in terms of the question as to what is it for a scientific object (e.g. a theory, model, etc.) to represent a particular phenomenon. Answers to this question most often involve the analysis of diverse problems concerning validation or verification of representations.

An increasing amount of new work in the area during the last three or four decades has lead to a substantial reshaping of our standard understanding of scientific representation under the received view. In particular, the understanding of (i) what is it what we represent, and (ii) how we actually represent it, has been subject to modification. Such new results build on a generalisation into extended domains where representations are performed —e.g. image production in nanoscience/technology, computer simulations, etc.— on the one hand, and on a departure from the traditional views on representation on the other —e.g. emphasising the role of models in representations instead of theories, or focusing on the actual scientific representation practices. More generally, these new views point to a wider richer notion of representation, which is to be better comprehended in a practice-based framework, strongly dependent on the specific local contexts where actual representations are produced.

The conference aims to contribute to the debate by exploring some specific aspects of the departure from the tradition mentioned above. Under the received view the (represented) images in scientific representations are determined by reference to imposed conditions or features of a world taken as external and preexisting with respect to the representational function itslef. However, an alternative view on representation as a performative function was advanced already in the first half of the 20th century by philosophers such as Cassirer, Carnap or Goodman. In doing that these philosophers provided a fresh look into the question as to how scientific representation is to be understood and stressed the main concerns to be taken into account in the attempt to answer it.

Nelson Goodman's proposal, in particular, conceived "world representations" as monadic single predicates, i.e. "representation-world", instead of the standard predicates involving two distinct relata, i.e. the represented object on the one hand, and the description within the representation itself on the other. Thus Goodman's monadic predicates do not involve two distinct entities linked by denotation but a single one, that is the representation itself, which in turn refers to further representations.

In this view then the most salient and relevant aspect to be analysed is what Goodman calls the "ways of world(s) making" by means of representations which are now to be understood as symbols. (This once more is in sharp contrast with the analysis typical of the received view, in terms of the actual features of the world, or of the descriptions that are taken to adequately represent it.)

The conference is conceived as a discussion forum to advance in the understanding of world-making representational practices. The topics to be discussed include, but are not limited to: What kind of devices we make worlds through? What is the role of models in these? What is the role of instruments in such world-making procedures? Can such a constitution of worlds be said to be embodied in any sense? Are such world-making practices fundamentally different from other performative representational practices, e.g. art production practices? What are the validation and verification mechanisms for scientific world-making?

We also aim to shed light into questions such as: How can we refer to a world (i.e. our actual world) in the pluralistic —both methodologically as well as ontologically— view suggested by performative representational practices? How should objectivity be semantically framed in such kind of world construction?

Finally, can we still speak of representations in this context, and if so, in what sense can this be done? And are scientific practices also representational practices, and how should they be understood in that case?