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Eduardo Zubia

University of the Basque Country UPV/EHU

Visual Ontology:

Naturalised Epistemology of Images

in the Physical Sciences


“All the fifty years of conscious brooding have brought me no closer to the answer to the question, 'What are light quanta?' Of course today every rascal thinks he knows the answer, but he is deluding himself.”

Einstein (1951) in Wolf (1979) “Einstein's

Researches on the Nature of Light” Optic News

1.1 Defining the problem

Is there always an implicit ontology in physics?

“What is necessary ‘for the very existence of science’, and what the characteristics of nature are, are not to be determined by pompous preconditions, they are determined always by the material with which we work, by nature herself.”


“In attempting to characterize the nature of models of a theory, the notion of isomorphism enters in a central way. […] A certain class of models of a theory, distinguished for some clear intuitive reason, is shown to exemplify within isomorphism every model of the theory.”

Suppes (2002) Representation and Invariance of Scientific Structures

“[The] quantum state [...] represents not the particle’s motion, but a representation of it, namely, the motion of the vector in Hilbert space that corresponds to the state of the particle. But representing a representation of x is in no way equivalent to representing x […]. So isomorphism is not in general sufficient for representation.”

Suárez (2003) “Scientific Representation”

International Studies in the Philosophy of Science


1.3 Methodology

“[Theorists come to beliefs] even when their experimental colleagues disagree […] The process by which this fitting occurs is emphatically not a reduction to a protocol language [. The two traditions are linked] by local coordination.”

Galison (1997) Image and Logic

“[Epistemology] has largely returned […] to the search for a priori principles […] When epistemology fails to use the history of inquiry as a laboratory in which methodological claims can be tested, […] it becomes blind.”

Kitcher (2011)


“The theories of physics gain their definiteness from the mathematical form in which they are expressed. The function of numbering and measuring is indispensable even in order to produce the raw material of ‘facts’ that are to be reproduced and unified in theory.”

“As soon as we take one step beyond the first naive observation of isolated facts, […] we must go back to a system that develops only universal hypothetical connections of grounds and consequences, and which renounces in principle the ‘reality’ of its elements.”

Cassirer (1910) Substanzbegriff und Funktionsbegriff


Herschel (1784) “Account of Some Observations”

Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London

Herschel (1785) “On the Construction of the Heavens”


Rankine (1870) “On the thermodynamic theory of waves of finite longitudinal disturbances”

Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London

Hugoniot (1887, 1889) “Mémoire sur la propagation des

mouvements dans les corps et spécialement dans les gaz parfaits”


Mach & Salcher (1887)

“Photographische Fixierung der durch Projectile in der Luft eingeleiteten


Sitzungsberichte der Kaiserlichen


Allen & Burton (1993) Nature


“Whole generations labor in on the verification of geometry. And the conviction of its certitude is unquestionably strengthened by their collective exertions. […] But the experiences imbedded in the concepts cleave to our sensuous images. Only the actually visualized or imaged figure can tell us what particular concepts are to be employed in a given case.”

Mach (1905) Erkenntnis und Irrtum

“Experiment is the sole source of truth. It alone can teach us something new; it alone can give us certainty.”

“It is often said that experiments should be made without preconceived ideas. That is impossible. Not only would it make every experiment fruitless, [every] man has his own conception of the world, and this he cannot so easily lay aside.”


2.2 Imaging theories

“[In] rational reconstruction, construction theory has to distinguish, by means of abstraction,

between the purely given and the synthesis […]”

“From a logical point of view […] statements which are made about an object become

statements in the strictest scientific sense only after the object has been constructed, beginning from the basic objects.”


Einstein, Podolsky & Rosen (1935) Physical Review


Bell (1964) Physics


Herz & al (2003) “Probing the shape of atoms in real space” Phys. Rev. B


“The totality of our so-called knowledge or beliefs, from the most casual matters of geography and history to the profoundest laws of atomic physics or even of pure mathematics and logic, is a man-made fabric which impinges on experience only along the edges. Or to change the figure, total science is like a field of force whose boundary conditions are experience.”

Quine (1951) “Two Dogmas of Empiricism”

Philosophical Review

“[The] interpretation of a geometry may be found in the natural order of things. Our conceptual imagination, like its artistic counterpart, draws inspiration from contacts with experience.”

“[True] discovery is not a strictly logical performance, and accordingly, we may describe the obstacle to be overcome in solving a problem as a ‘logical gap’, and speak of the width of the logical gap as the measure of the ingenuity required for solving the problem.”


3.1 Final remarks

“The words or the language, as they are written or spoken, do not seem to play any role in my mechanism of thought. The psychical entities which seem to serve as elements in thought are certain signs and more or less clear images which can be ‘voluntarily’ reproduced and combined.”

Einstein (1945) in Hadamard (1945)


Staff & al (2010)

“Confronting Three-dimensional Time-dependent Jet Simulations with Hubble Space Telescope

Observations” ApJ

Hartmann (1998)


Related research:

Epistemology of images in astrophysics

Aesthetic issues

in astronomical imaging





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