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Background: Some time ago, it was recommended that I read the book Anathem by Neal Stephenson. Since then I have read several others and reread this, my favorite by far.

The central concepts of the book are philosophy, and I was introduced to a number of very interesting concepts. Because, however, the book does not take place in our universe, it has some oddities. Largely, this is a difference in jargon, which is almost immediately labeled arbitrary at the beginning of the book. But the real problem is the names of the philosophers.

In the book, the analog of Pythagoras is Adrakhones, and many, many others are mentioned. But because the book's perspective is so flawlessly separate from our world, and because I'm just slowly picking up data about Philosophy as I go along, I cannot name but a few analogs.


So, one of the questions posed by one of the characters was to do with communicating with an alien. The alien can perceive a region of space in some non-visual manner. After assuming that communication was possible, the characters discussed how one might explain that one person is in a specific location, that said person has sides you cannot see, and even the incredible ability humans have to see a thing separately and yet recognize it as the same thing.

Who in the history of philosophy posed these questions regarding multiple observers coming to a consensus on the identity of an object?


Caveat:Given the nature of the book, I can only assume that this has been written about by some likely prominent philosopher in the past. Partly because of the book's terminology, I don't know how to search for it effectively.

I realize that to someone with a really good grasp of the subject matter, this book could be hard to read because of either the terminology or the parts which make it fiction. I just read part of a massive scathing review of everything in the book which primarily complained that Stephenson is trying to get everyone to see reality the way he does. Happily accepting the book as fiction, I still want to know more about some of it's influences.

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    @virmaior: This question is not about a work of fiction. It is about a particular subject in philosophy. The work of fiction is the context of the question, but not the question itself. The book makes many mentions of real-world philosophy, and I'm trying to find material that tackles a particular subject, which is succinctly stated in my final line. – Magus Oct 17 '14 at 14:31
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    For future questions (and you could edit this one), could you highlight the question portion? I read the first few paragraphs several times and didn't see any philosophical questions. There's a lot of other things that might help stage in a certain way, but using more advanced formatting would help show where the philosophy question is. – virmaior Oct 17 '14 at 15:10
  • Here, I've given it a shot (undo / edit as you see fit) and retract what I said earlier. But at least for me, it would be a lot easier to grasp the question if I don't need to wade through a lot of background one wouldn't need to know to answer about the question of how observers can recognize different observations as the same object. – virmaior Oct 17 '14 at 15:14
  • @virmaior: Fair enough. Thanks for the edit. – Magus Oct 17 '14 at 15:51
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The question of what is involved in multiple observers coming to a consensus on the identity of an object incorporates a whole range of philosophical questions, each of which has its own literature, including:

  • Is there a gap between what we perceive and how things are? A classic discussion of the gap between the world as it is itself, and the world as any individual perceives it, is Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason. I would not specifically recommend reading Kant, at least to begin. You might enjoy reading this analysis, specifically the section Kant's Project in the Critique of Pure Reason.
  • How do we perceive three-dimensional objects if we can only see one side at a time? A philosophically-influential work on the problem of vision, and how we neurologically arrive at a 3D picture of the world given only 2D retinal images is David Marr's Vision. You might look at that classic not-too-challenging work, and work that cites it. (See, e.g. the SEP article “The Contents of Perception.")
  • Why do we think the universe contains individual things that persist over time, when the only access we have to them is individual moments of seeing one side of them? This is the problem of identity over time—how we come to believe that an individual can persist as a single thing. A classic, and very-readable source on this is 17th century philosopher John Locke. See, e.g. the Early Modern Texts version here of the Essay Concerning Human Understanding. In the subsequent philosophical literature, this is called “the problem of identity.”
  • How can individuals reasonably come to a consensus about what they perceive? This problem is discussed in the subfield of social epistemology, or theories of knowledge as it is developed by groups. For an emphasis on science, you might look here at the work of Miriam Solomon on consensus, for starters. Or see the SEP article on Social Epistemology.

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