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Ambiguity

Probability, Uncertainty, And The Arrow Of Time

In the 1680s Isaac Newton's concept of absolute, mathematical time depicted a uniform flow deprived of any psychological aspect, including a propensity to flow only toward the future. In the 1700s Pierre-Simon Laplace's rigid, deterministic viewpoint left no space to uncertainties and contradictions.

In the 1820s, however, Nicolas-Léonard-Sadi Carnot's second principle of thermodynamics and Rudolf Clausius's principle of the increase of entropy or disorder in isolated systems attached a directional arrow to time from past to future. In the 1900s Albert Einstein's theory of relativity assigned time an additional role in the fourth dimension of physical space known as the space-time continuum. In the 1920s the Roman copy of Discobolus by Myron, created 2nd century B.C.E. The concept of arrested motion, as seen in Myron's sculpture of a discus thrower, illustrates the substitution of opposite qualities that can sometimes characterize ambiguity. © DAGLI ORTI/CORBIS probabilistic approach and Werner Karl Heisenberg's uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics brought an end to certainties. In the 1960s, the irreversible thermodynamics of nonlinear systems removed from equilibrium by fluxes of energy, matter, and information regarded time as the creator of spatial, temporal, or functional structural order. These systems include the mind.

Most likely the above breakthroughs in the Weltanschauung (worldview), relevant for an analysis ennobling ambiguity, played a role in focusing the attention of eminent philosophers—Immanuel Kant, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Arthur Schopenhauer, Friedrich Nietzsche, Henri-Louis Bergson, and Jean-Paul Sartre, among them—on the dynamics of the processes of transformation rather than on Aristotle's statics of the objects.

Even closer correlations can be conjectured between the scientific and artistic milieus. Look at, for example, Claude Monet's Waterloo Bridge, Effect of Fog (1903, Hermitage State Museum). While looking at this painting, the observer, driven by curiosity, correlates his or her sensory stimuli, assembling them in an interiorized pattern. While this mental pattern develops, the fog on the Thames seems to lift slowly, until a critical state is reached where the bridge, the boats on the river, and the urban background merge into the meaning of the painting. This critical state, at a boundary sharing foggy and meaningless scenery and, at the same time, a meaningful picture, is loaded with ambiguity.

The mental process just described can be viewed as a metaphor of Jean Piaget's statement, "The intelligence organizes the world while it organizes itself." This aphorism leads to self-referentiality. Contextually, ambiguity sneaks in: "Concerning what one cannot talk about, it's necessary to be silent," Ludwig Wittgenstein writes, and yet he talks—and is "silent"—at the same time.

Should one agree in interpreting ambiguity as equivocalness, self-referentiality would make the language totally ambiguous. Rome? A city, a town, and a four-letter word. Again with reference to the above breakthroughs, think of a cubist portrait by Picasso. Its perception lends itself ambiguously to several reconstructions of percepts—front figure, profile, and so forth—and recalls the process of measurement of a quantum structure: a process whose result allows us to access, with different probabilities, the several possible basic modes of being (or behaving) characteristic of the structure.

Similar considerations hold for the ambiguous representation of the fourth dimension on a two-dimensional canvas, seen in several futurist de-structured paintings and in Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 (1912, Philadelphia Museum of Art), an organization of kinetic elements expressing the space-time continuum through the abstract representation of movement.

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