Category Archives: Philosophy of Science


What is not a metaphor: Modelling the world through language, thought, science, or action

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The role of metaphor in science debate (Background)

Recently, the LSE podcast an interesting panel on the subject of “Metaphors and Science”. It featured three speakers talking about the interface between metaphor and various ‘scientific’ disciplines (economics, physics and surgery). Unlike many such occasions, all speakers were actually very knowledgeable and thoughtful on the subject.

In particular, I liked Felicity Mellor and Richard Bronk who adopted the same perspective that underlies this blog and which I most recently articulated in writing about obliging metaphors. Felicity Mellor put it especially eloquently when she said:

“Metaphor allows us to speak the truth by saying something that is wrong. That means it can be creatively liberating but it can also be surreptitiously coercive.”

This dual nature of coerciveness and liberation was echoed throughout the discussion by all three speakers. But they also shared the view of ubiquity of metaphor which is what this post is about.

What is not a metaphor? The question!

The moderator of the discussion was much more stereotypically ambivalent about such expansive attitude toward metaphor and challenged the speakers with the question of ‘what is the opposite of metaphor’ or ‘what is not a metaphor’. He elicited suggestions from the audience, who came up with this list:

model, diagram, definition, truths, math, experience, facts, logic, the object, denotation

The interesting thing is that most of the items on this list are in fact metaphorical in nature. Most certainly models, diagrams and definitions (more on these in future posts). But mathematics and logic are also deeply metaphorical (both in their application but also internally; e.g. the whole logico mathematical concept of proof is profoundly metaphorical).

Things get a bit more problematic with things like truth, fact, denotation and the object. All of those seem to be pointing at something that is intuitively unmetaphorical. But it doesn’t take a lot of effort to see that ‘something metaphorical’ is going on there as well. When we assign a label (denotation), for instance, ‘chair’ or ‘coast’ or ‘truth’ we automatically trigger an entire cognitive armoury for dealing with things that exist and these things have certain properties. But it is clear that ‘chair’, ‘coast’ and ‘metaphor’ are not the same kind of thing at all. Yet, we can start treating them the same way because they are both labels. So we start asking for the location, shape or definition of metaphor, just because we assigned it a label in the same way we can ask for the same thing about a chair or a coast. We want to take a measure of it, but this is much easier with a chair than with a coast (thus the famous fractal puzzle about the length of the coast of Britain). But chairs are not particularly easy to nail down (metaphorically, of course) either, as I discussed in my post on clichés and metaphors.

Brute facts of tiny ontology

So what is the thing that is not a metaphor? Both Bronk and Mellor suggested the “brute fact”. A position George Lakoff called basic realism and I’ve recently come to think of as tiny ontology. The idea, as expressed by Mellor and Bronk in this discussion, is that there’s a real world out there which impinges upon our bodily existence but with which we can only interact through the lens of our cognition which is profoundly metaphorical.

But ultimately, this does not give us a very useful answer. Either everything is a metaphor, so we might as well stop talking about it, or there is something that is not a metaphor. In which case, let’s have a look. Tiny ontology does not give us the solution because we can only access it through the filter of our cognition (which does not mean consciously or through some wilful interpretation). So the real question is, are there some aspects of our cognition that are not metaphorical?

Metaphor as model (or What is metaphor)

The solution lies in the revelation hinted at above that labels are in themselves metaphors. The act of labelling is metaphorical, or rather, it triggers the domain of objects. What do I mean by that? Well, first let’s have a look at how metaphor actually works. I find it interesting that nobody during the entire discussion tried to raise that question other than the usual ‘using something to talk about something else’. Here’s my potted summary of how metaphor works (see more details in the About section).

Metaphor is a process of projecting one conceptual domain onto another. All of our cognition involves this process of conceptual integration (or blending). This integration is fluid, fuzzy and partial. In language, this domain mapping is revealed through the process of deixis, attribution, predication, definition, comparison, etc. Sometimes it is made explicit by figurative language. Figurative language spans the scale of overt to covert. Figurative language has a conceptual, communicative and textual dimension (see my classification of metaphor use). In cognition, this process of conceptual integration is involved in identification, discrimination, manipulation. All of these can be more or less overtly analogical.

So all of this is just a long way of saying, that metaphor is a metaphor for a complicated process which is largely unconscious but not uncommonly conscious. In fact, in my research, I no longer use the term ‘metaphor’ because it misleads more than it helps. There’s simply too much baggage from what is just overt textual manifestation of metaphor – the sort of ‘common sense’ understanding of metaphor. However, this common sense ordinary understanding of ‘metaphor’ makes using the word a useful shortcut in communication with people who don’t have much of a background in this thought. But when we think about the issue more deeply, it becomes a hindrance because of all the different types of uses of metaphor I described here (a replay of the dual liberating and coercive nature of metaphor mentioned above – we don’t get escape our cognition just because we’re talking about metaphors).

In my work, I use the term frame, which is just a label for a sort of conceptual model (originally suggested by Lakoff as Idealized Cognitive Model). But I think in this context the term ‘model’ is a bit more revealing about what is going on.

So we can say that every time, we engage conceptually with our experience, we are engaging in an act of modelling (or framing). Even when I call something ‘true’, I am applying a certain model (frame) that will engage certain heuristics (e.g. asking for confirmation, evidence). Equally, if I say something like ‘education is business’, I am applying a certain model that will allow me to talk about things like achieving economies of scale or meeting consumer demand but will make it much harder to talk about ethics and personal growth. That doesn’t mean that I cannot apply more than one model, a combination of models or build new models from old ones. (Computer virus is a famous example, but natural law is another one. Again more on this in later posts.)

Action as an example of modelling

The question was asked during the discussion by an audience member, whether I can experience the world directly (not mediated by metaphoric cognition). The answer is yes, but even this kind of experience involves modelling. When I walk along a path, I automatically turn to avoid objects – therefore I’m modelling their solid and interactive nature. Even when I’m lying still, free of all thought and just letting the warmth of the shining sun wash over me, I’m still applying a model of my position in the world in a particular way. That is, my body is not activating my ears to hear the sun rays, nor is it perceiving the bacteria going about their business in my stomach. A snake, polar bear or a fish would all model that situation in a different way.

This may seem like unnecessary extension of the notion of a model. (But it echos the position of the third speaker Roger Kneebone who was talking about metaphor as part of the practice of surgery.) It is not particularly crucial to our understanding of metaphor, but I think it’s important to divert us from a certain kind of perceptual mysticism in which many people unhappy with the limitations of their cognitive models engage. The point is that not all of our existence is necessarily conceptual but all of it models our interaction with the world and switches between different models as appropriate. E.g. my body applies different models of the world when I’m stepping down from a step on solid ground or stepping into a pool of water.

The languages of metaphor: Or how a metaphor do

I am aware that this is all very dense and requires a lot more elaboration (well, that’s why I’m writing a blog, after all). But I’d like to conclude with a warning that the language used for talking about metaphor brings with it certain models of thinking about the world which can be very confusing if we don’t let go of them in time. Just the fact that we’re using words is a problem. When words are isolated (for instance, in a dictionary or at the end of the phrase ‘What is a…’) it only seems natural that they should have a definition. We have a word “metaphor” and it would seem that it needs to have some clear meaning. The kind of thing we’re used to seeing on the right-hand side of dictionaries. But insisting that dictionary-like definition is what must be at the end of the journey is to misunderstand what we’ve seen along the way.

There are many contexts in which the construction “metaphor is…” is not only helpful but also necessary. For example when clarifying one’s use: “In this blog, what I mean by metaphor is much broader than what traditional students of figurative language meant by it.” But in the context of trying to get at what’s going on in the space that we intuitively describe as metaphorical, we should almost be looking for something along to the lines of “metaphor does” or “metaphors feels like”. Or perhaps refrain from the construction “metaphor verb” altogether and just admit that we’re operating in a kind of metaphor-tasting soup. We can get at the meaning/definition by disciplined exploration and conversation.

In conclusion, metaphor is a very useful model when thinking about cognition, but it soon fails us, so we can replace it with more complex models, like that of a model. We are then left with the rather unsatisfactory notion of a metaphor of metaphor or a model of model. The sort of dissatisfaction that lead Derrida and his like to the heights of obscurity. I think we can probably just about avoid deconstructionist obscurantism but only if we adopt one of its most powerful tools, the fleeting sidelong glance (itself a metaphor/model). Just like the Necker cube, this life on the edge of metaphor is constantly shifting before our eyes. Never quite available to us perceptually all at once but readily apprehended by us in its totality. At once opaque and so so crystal clear. Rejoice all you parents of freshly screaming thoughts. It’s a metaphor!
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Pervasiveness of Obliging Metaphors in Thought and Deed

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when history is at its most obliging, the history-writer needs be at his most wary.” (China by John Keay)

Die Mykologen - Glückspilze - Lucky Fellows - Fungi ExpertsI came across this nugget of wisdom when I was re-reading the Introduction to John Keay’s history of China. And it struck me that in some way this quote could be a part of the motto of this blog. The whole thing might then read something like this:

Hack at your thoughts at any opportunity to see if you can reveal new connections through analogies, metonymies and metaphors. Uncover hidden threads, weave new ones and follow them as far as they take you. But when you see them give way and oblige you with great new revelations about how the world really is, be wary!

Metaphors can be very obliging in their willingness to show us that things we previously thought separate are one and the same. But that is almost always the wrong conclusion. Everything is what it is, it is never like something else. (In this I have been subscribing to ‘tiny ontology’ even before I‘ve heard about it). But we can learn things about everything when we think about it as something else. Often we cannot even think of many things other than through something else. For instance, electricity. Electrons are useful to think of as particles or as waves. Electrons are electrons, they are not little balls nor are they waves. But when we start treating them as one or the other, they become more tractable for some problems (electrical current makes more sense when we think of them as waves and electricity generating heat makes sense when we think of them as little balls).

George Lakoff and Mark Johnson summarize metaphors in the X IS Y format (e.g. LOVE IS A JOURNEY) but this implied identity is where the danger lies. If love is a journey as we can see in a phrase like, ‘We’ve arrived at a junction in our relationship’, then it surely must be a journey in all respects: it has twists and turns, it takes time, it is expensive, it happens on asphalt! Hold on! Is that last one the reason ‘love can burn with an eternal flame’? Of course not. Love IS NOT a journey. Some aspects of what we call love make more sense to us when we think of them as a journey. But others don’t. Since it is obvious that love is not a journey but is like a journey, we don’t worry about it. But it’s more complicated than that. The identities implied in metaphor are so powerful (more so to some people than others) that some mappings are not allowed because of the dangers implied in following them too far. ‘LOVE IS A CONTRACT’ is a perfectly legitimate metaphor. There are many aspects of a romantic relationship that are contract-like. We agree to exclusivity, certain mode of interaction, considerations, etc. when we declare our love (or even when we just feel it – certain obligations seem to follow). But our moral compass just couldn’t stomach (intentional mix) the notion of paying for love or being in love out of obligation which could also be traced from this metaphor. We instinctively fear that ‘LOVE IS A CONTRACT’ is a far too obliging a metaphor and we don’t want to go there. (By we, I mean the general rules of acceptable discourse in certain circles, not every single cognizing individual.)

So even though metaphors do not describe identity, they imply it, and not infrequently, this identity is perceived as dangerous. But there’s nothing inherently dangerous about it. The issue is always the people and how willing they are to let themselves be obliged by the metaphor. They are aided and abetted in this by the conceptual universe the metaphor appears in but never completely constrained by it. Let’s take the common metaphor of WAR. I often mention the continuum of ‘war on poverty’, ‘war on drugs’, and ‘war on terror’ as an example of how the metaphors of ‘war’ do not have to lead to actual ‘war’. Lakoff showed that they can in ‘metaphors can kill’. But we see that they don’t have to. Or rather we don’t have to let them. If we don’t apply the brakes, metaphors can take us almost anywhere.

There are some metaphors that are so obliging, they have become cliches. And some are even recognized as such by the community. Take, for instance, the Godwin law. X is Hitler or X is Nazi are such seductive metaphors that sooner or later someone will apply them in almost any even remotely relevant situation. And even with the awareness of Godwin’s law, people continue to do it.

The key principle of this blog is that anything can be a metaphor for anything with useful consequences. Including:

  • United States is ancient Rome
  • China today is Soviet Union of the 1950s
  • Saddam Hussein is Hitler
  • Iraq is Vietnam
  • Education is a business
  • Mental difficulties are diseases
  • Learning is filling the mind with facts
  • The mind is the software running on the hardware of the brain
  • Marriage is a union between two people who love each other
  • X is evolved to do Y
  • X is a market place

But this only applies with the HUGE caveat that we must never misread the ‘is’ for a statement of perfect identity or even isomorphims (same shapedness). It’s ‘is(m)’. None of the above metaphors are perfect identities – they can be beneficially followed as far as they take us, but each one of them is needs to be bounded before we start drawing conclusions.

Now, things are not helped by the fact that any predication or attribution can appear as a kind of metaphor. Or rather it can reveal the same conceptual structures the same way metaphors do.

‘John is a teacher.’ may seem like a simple statement of fact but it’s so much more. It projects the identity of John (of whom we have some sort of a mental image) into the image schema of a teacher. That there’s more to this than just a simple statement can be revealed by ‘I can’t believe that John is a teacher.’ The underlying mental representations and work on them is not that different to ‘John is a teaching machine.’ Even simple naming is subject to this as we can see in ‘You don’t look much like a Janice.’

Equally, simple descriptions like ‘The sky is blue’ are more complex. The sky is blue in a different ways than somebody’s eyes are blue or the sea is blue. I had that experience myself when I first saw the ‘White Cliffs of Dover’ and was shocked that they were actually white. I just assumed that they were a lighter kind of cliff than a typical cliff or having some white smudges. They were white in the way chalk is white (through and through) and not in the way a zebra crossing is white (as opposed to a double yellow line).

A famous example of how complex these conceptualisations can get is ‘In France, Watergate would not have harmed Nixon.’ The ‘in France’ and ‘not’ bits establishe a mental space in which we can see certain parts of what we know about Nixon and Watergate projected onto what we know about France. Which is why sentences like “The King of France is bald.” and “Unicorns are white.” make perfect sense even though they both describe things that don’t exist.

Now, that’s not to say that sentences like ‘The sky is blue’, ‘I’m feeling blue’,'I’ll praise you to the sky.’, or ‘He jumped sky high.’ and ‘He jumped six inches high.’ are cognitively or linguistically exactly the same. There’s lots of research that shows that they have different processing requirements and are treated differently. But there seems to be a continuum in the ability of different people (much research is needed here) to accept the partiality of any statement of identity or attribution. On the one extreme, there appears something like autism which leads to a reduced ability to identify figurative partiality in any predication but actually, most of the time, we all let ourselves be swayed by the allure of implied identity. Students are shocked when they see their teacher kissing their spouse or shopping in the mall. We even ritualize this sort of thing when we expect unreasonable morality from politicians or other public figures. This is because over the long run overtly figurative sentence such as ‘he’s has eyes like a hawk’ and ‘the hawk has eyes’ need similar mental structures to be present to make sense to us. And I suspect that this is part of the reason why we let ourselves be so easily obliged by metaphors.

Update: This post was intended as a warning against over-obliging metaphors that lead to perverse understandings of things as other things in unwarranted totalities. In this sense, they are the ignes fatui of Hobbes. But there’s another way in which over-obliging metaphors can be misleading. And that is, they draw on their other connections to make it seem we’ve come to a new understanding where in fact all we’ve done is rename elements of one domain with the names of elements of another domain without any elucidation. This was famously and devastatingly the downfall of Skinner’s Verbal Behavior under Chomsky’s critique. He simply (at least in the extreme caricature that was Chomsky’s review) took things about language and described them in terms of operant conditioning. No new understanding was added but because the ‘new’ science of psychology was in as the future of our understanding of everything, just using those terms made us assume there was a deeper knowledge. Chomsky was ultimately right-if only to fall prey to the same danger with his computational metaphors of language. Another area where that is happening is evolution, genetics and neuroscience which are often used (sometimes all at once) to simply relabel something without adding any new understanding whatsoever.

Update 2: Here’s another example of overobliging metaphor in the seeking of analogies to the worries about climate change:  My comment was:

…analogies work best when they are opportunistic, ad hoc, and abandoned as quickly as they are adopted. Analogies, if used generatively (i.e. to come up with new ideas), can be incredibly powerful. But when used exegeticaly (i.e. to interpret or summarize other people’s ideas), they can be very harmful.

The big problem is that in our cognition, ‘x is y’ and ‘x is like y’ are often treated very similarly. But the fact is that x is never y. So every analogy has to be judged on its own merit and we need to carefully examine why we’re using the analogy and at every step consider its limits. The power of analogy is in its ability to direct our thinking (and general cognition) i.e. not in its ‘accuracy’ but in its ‘aptness’.

I have long argued that history should be included in considering research results and interpretations. For example, every ‘scientific’ proof of some fundamental deficiencies of women with respect to their role in society has turned out to be either inaccurate or non-scalable. So every new ‘proof’ of a ‘woman’s place’ needs to be treated with great skepticism. But that does not mean that one such proof does not exist. But it does mean that we shouldn’t base any policies on it until we are very very certain.

Image Creative Commons License Hartwig HKD via Compfight

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Cliches, information and metaphors: Overcoming prejudice with metahor hacking and getting it back again

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Professor Abhijit Banerjee

Professor Abhijit Banerjee (Photo credit: kalyan3)

“We have to use cliches,” said professor Abhijit Banerjee at the start of his LSE lecture on Poor Economics. “The world is just too complicated.” He continued. “Which is why it is all the more important, we choose the right cliches.” [I'm paraphrasing here.]

This is an insight at the very heart of linguistics. Every language act we are a part of is an act of categorization. There are no simple unitary terms in language. When I say, “pull up a chair”, I’m in fact referring to a vast category of objects we refer to as chairs. These objects are not identified by any one set of features like four legs, certain height, certain ways of using it. There is no minimal set of features that will describe all chairs and just chairs and not other kinds of objects like tables or pillows. But chairs don’t stand on their own. They are related to other concepts or categories (and they are really one and the same). There are subcategories like stools and armchairs, containing categories like furniture or man-made objects and related categories like houses and shops selling objects. All of these categories are linked in our minds through a complex set of images, stories and definitions. But these don’t just live in our minds. They also appear in our conversations. So we say things like, “What kind of a chair would you like to buy?”, “That’s not real chair”, “What’s the point of a chair if you can’t sit in it?”, “Stools are not chairs.”, “It’s more of a couch than a chair.”, “Sofas are really just big plush chairs, when it comes down to it.”, “I’m using a box for a chair.”, “Don’t sit on a table, it’s not a chair.” Etc. Categories are not stable and uniform across all people, so we continue having conversations about them. There are experts on chairs, historians of chairs, chair craftsmen, people who buy chairs for a living, people who study the word ‘chair’, and people who casually use chairs. Some more than others. And their sets of stories and images and definitions related to chairs will be slightly different. And they will have had different types of conversations with different people about chairs. All of that goes into a simple word like “chair”. It’s really very simple as long as we accept the complexity for what it is. Philosophers of language have made a right mess of things because they tried to find simplicity where none exists. And what’s more where none is necessary.

But let’s get back to cliches. Cliches are types of categories. Or better still, cliches are categories with a particular type of social salience. Like categories, cliches are sets of images, stories and definitions compressed into seemingly simpler concepts that are labelled by some sort of an expression. Most prominently, it is a linguistic expression like a word or a phrase. But it could just as easily be a way of talking, way of dressing, way of being. What makes us likely to call something a cliche is a socially negotiated sense of awareness that the compression is somewhat unsatisfactory and that it is overused by people in lieu of an insight into the phenomenon we are describing. But the power of the cliche is in its ability to help us make sense of a complex or challenging phenomenon. But the sense making is for our benefit of cognitive and emotional peace. Just because we can make sense of something, doesn’t mean, we get the right end of the stick. And we know that, which is why we are wary of cliches. But challenging every cliche would be like challenging ourselves every time we looked at a chair. It can’t be done. Which is why we have social and linguistic coping mechanisms like “I know it’s such a cliche.” “It’s a cliche but in a way it’s true.” “Just because it’s a cliche, doesn’t mean, it isn’t true.” Just try Googling: “it’s a cliche *”

So we are at once locked into cliches and struggling to overcome them. Like “chair” the concept of a “cliche” as we use it is not simple. We use it to label words, phrases, people. We have stories about how to rebel against cliches. We have other labels for similar phenomena with different connotations such as “proverbs”, “sayings”, “prejudices”, “stereotypes”. We have whole disciplines studying these like cognitive psychology, social psychology, political science, anthropology, etc. And these give us a whole lot of cliches about cliches. But also a lot of knowledge about cliches.

The first one is exactly what this post started with. We have to use cliches. It’s who we are. But they are not inherently bad.

Next, we challenge cliches as much as we use them. (Well, probably not as much, but a lot.) This is something I’m trying to show through my research into frame negotiation. We look at concepts (the compressed and labelled nebulas of knowledge) and decompress them in different ways and repackage them and compress them into new concepts. (Sometimes this is called conceptual integration or blending.) But we don’t just do this in our minds. We do it in public and during conversations about these concepts.

We also know that unwillingness to challenge a cliche can have bad outcomes. Cliches about certain things (like people or types of people) are called stereotypes and particular types of stereotypes are called prejudices. And prejudices by the right people against the right kind of other people can lead to discrimination and death. Prejudice, stereotype, cliche. They are the same kind of thing presented to us from different angles and at different magnitudes.

So it is worth our while to harness the cliche negotiation that goes on all the time anyway and see if we can use it for something good. That’s not a certain outcome. The medieaval inquistions, anti-heresies, racism, slavery, genocides are all outcomes of negotiations of concepts. We mostly only know about their outcomes but a closer look will always reveal dissent and a lot of soul searching. And at the heart of such soul searching is always a decompression and recompression of concepts (conceptual integration). But it does not work in a vacuum. Actual physical or economic power plays a role. Conformance to communcal expectations. Personal likes or dislikes. All of these play a role.

George Lakoff

George Lakoff (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So what chance have we of getting the right outcome? Do we even know what is the right outcome?

Well, we have to pick the right cliches says Abhijit Banerjee. Or we have to frame concepts better says George Lakoff. “We have to shine the light of truth” says a cliche.

“If you give people content, they’re willing to move away from their prejudices. Prejudices are partly sustained by the fact that the political system does not deliver much content.” says Banerjee. Prejudices matter in high stakes contexts. And they are a the result of us not challenging the right cliches in the right ways at the right time.

It is pretty clear from research in social psychology from Milgram on, that giving people information will challenge their cliches but only as long as you also give them sanction to challenge the cliches. Information on its own, does not seem to always be enough. Sometimes the contrary information even seems to reinforce the cliche (as we’re learning from newspaper corrections).

This is important. You can’t fool all of the people all of the time. Even if you can fool a lot of them a lot of the time. Information is a part of it. Social sanction of using that information in certain ways is another part of it. And this is not the province of the “elites”. People with the education and sufficient amount of idle time to worry about such things. There’s ample research to show that everybody is capable of this and engaged in these types of conceptual activities. More education seems to vaguely correlate with less prejudice but it’s not clear why. I also doubt that it does in a very straightforward and inevitable way (a post for another day). It’s more than likely that we’ve only studied the prejudices the educated people don’t like and therefore don’t have as much.

Bannerjee draws the following conclusion from his work uncovering cliches in development economics:

“Often we’re putting too much weight on a bunch of cliches. And if we actually look into what’s going on, it’s often much more mundane things. Things where people just start with the wrong presumption, design the wrong programme, they come in with their own ideology, they keep things going because there’s inertia, they don’t actually look at the facts and design programmes in ignorance. Bad things happen not because somebody wants bad things to happen but because we don’t do our homework. We don’t think hard enough. We’re not open minded enough.”

It sounds very appealing. But it’s also as if he forgot the point he started out with. We need cliches. And we need to remember that out of every challenge to a cliche arises a new cliche. We cannot go around the world with our concepts all decompressed and flapping about. We’d literally go crazy. So every challenge to a cliche (just like every paradigm-shifting Kuhnian revolution) is only the beginning phase of the formation of another cliche, stereotype, prejudice or paradigm (a process well described in Orwell’s Animal Farm which itself has in turn become a cliche of its own). It’s fun listening to Freakonomics radio to see how all the cliche busting has come to establish a new orthodoxy. The constant reminders that if you see things as an economist, you see things other people don’t don’t see. Kind of a new witchcraft. That’s not to say that Freakonomics hasn’t provided insights to challenge established wisdoms (a term arising from another perspective on a cliche). It most certainly has. But it hasn’t replaced them with “a truth”, just another necessary compression of a conceptual and social complex. During the moments of decompression and recompression, we have opportunities for change, however brief. And sometimes it’s just a memory of those events that lets us change later. It took over 150 years for us to remember the French revolution and make of it what we now think of as democracy with a tradition stretching back to ancient Athens. Another cliche. The best of a bad lot of systems. A whopper of a cliche.

So we need to be careful. Information is essential when there is none. A lot of prejudice (like some racism) is born simply of not having enough information. But soon there’s plenty of information to go around. Too much, in fact, for any one individual to sort through. So we resort to complex cliches. And the cliches we choose have to do with our in-groups, chains of trust, etc. as much as they do with some sort of rational deliberation. So we’re back where we started.

Humanity is engaged in a neverending struggle of personal and public negotiation of concepts. We’re taking them apart and putting them back together. Parts of the process happen in fractions of a second in individual minds, parts of the process happen over days, weeks, months, years and decades in conversations, pronouncements, articles, books, polemics, laws, public debates and even at the polling booths. Sometimes it looks like nothing is happening and sometimes it looks like everything is happening at once. But it’s always there.

So what does this have to do with metaphors and can a metaphor hacker do anything about it? Well, metaphors are part of the process. The same process that lets us make sense of metaphors, lets use negotiated cliches. Cliches are like little analogies and it takes a lot of cognition to understand them, take them apart and make them anew. I suspect most of that cognition (and it’s always discursive, social cognition) is very much the same that we know relatively well from metaphor studies.

But can we do anything about it? Can we hack into these processes? Yes and no. People have always hacked collective processes by inserting images and stories and definitions into the public debate through advertising, following talking points or even things like pushpolling. And people have manipulated individuals through social pressure, persuasion and lies. But none of it ever seems to have a lasting effect. There’re simply too many conceptual purchase points to lean on in any cliches to ever achieve a complete uniformity for ever (even in the most totalitarian regimes). In an election, you may only need to sway the outcome by a few percent. If you have military or some other power, you only need to get willing compliance from a sufficient number of people to keep the rest in line through a mix of conceptual and non-conceptual means. Some such social contracts last for centuries, others for decades and some for barely years or months. In such cases, even knowing how these processes work is not much better than knowing how continental drift works. You can use it to your advantage but you can’t really change it. You can and should engage in the process and try to nudge the conversation in a certain way. But there is no conceptual template for success.

But as individuals, we can certainly do quite a bit monitor our own cognition (in the broadest sense). But we need to choose our battles carefully. Use cliches but monitor what they are doing for us. And challenge the right ones at the right time. It requires a certain amount of disciplined attention and disciplined conversation.

This is not a pessimistic message, though. As I’ve said elsewhere, we can be masters of our own thoughts and feelings. And we have the power to change how we see the world and we can help others along with how they see the world. But it would be foolish to expect to world to be changed beyond all recognition just through the power of the mind. In one way or another, it will always look like our world. But we need to keep trying to make it look like the best possible version of our world. But this will not happen by following some pre-set epistemological route. Doing this is our human commitment. Our human duty. And perhaps our human inevitability. So, good luck to us.

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Who-knows-what-how stories: The scientific and religious knowledge paradox

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I never meant to listen to this LSE debate on modern atheism because I’m bored of all the endless moralistic twaddle on both sides but it came on on my MP3 player and before I knew it, I was interested enough not to skip it. Not that it provided any Earth-shattering new insights but on balance it had more to contribute to the debate than a New Atheist diatribe might. And there were a few stories about how people think that were interesting.

The first speaker was the well-known English cleric, Giles Fraser who regaled the audience with his conversion story starting as an atheist student of Wittgenstein and becoming a Christian who believes in a “Scripture-based” understanding of Christianity. The latter is not surprising given how pathetically obssessed Wittgensteinian scholars are with every twist and turn of their bipolar master’s texts.

But I thought Fraser’s description of how he understands his faith in contrast to his understanding of the dogma was instructive. He says: “Theology is faith seeking understanding. Understanding is not the basis on which one has faith but it is what one does to try to understand the faith one has.”

In a way, faith is a kind of axiomatic knowledge. It’s not something that can or need be usefully questioned but it is something on which to base our further dialog. Obviously, this cannot be equated with religion but it can serve as a reminder of the kind of knowledge religion works off. And it is only in some contexts that this axiomatic knowledge needs be made explicit or even just pointed to – this only happens when the conceptual frames are brought into conflict and need to be negotiated.

Paradox of utility vs essence and faith vs understanding

This kind of knowledge is often contrasted with scientific knowledge. Knowledge that is held to be essentially superior due to its utility. But if we look at the supporting arguments, we are faced with a kind of paradox.

The paradox is that scientists claim that their knowledge is essentially different from religious (and other non-scientific) knowledge but the warrant for the special status claim of this knowledge stems from the method of its aquisition rather than its inherent nature. They cite falsificationist principles as foundations of this essential difference and peer review as their practical embodiment (strangely making this one claim immune from the dictum of falsification – of which, I believe, there is ample supply).

But that is not a very consistent argument. The necessary consequences of the practice of peer review fly in the face of the falsificationist agenda. The system of publication and peer review that is in place (and that will always emerge) is guaranteed to minimize any fundamental falsificationism of the central principles. Meaning that falsification happens more along Kuhnian rather than Popperian lines. Slowly, in bursts and with great gnashing of teeth and destroying of careers.

Now, religious knowledge does not cite falsificationism as the central warrant of its knowledge. Faith is often given as the central principle underlying religious knowledge and engagement with diverse exegetic authorities as the enactment of this principle. (Although, crucially, this part of religion is a modern invention brought about by many frame negotiations. For the most part, when it comes to religion, faith and knowing are coterminous. Faith determines the right ways of knowing but it is only rarely negotiated.)

But in practice the way religious knowlege is created, acquired and maintained is not very different from scientific knowledge. Exegesis and peer review are very similar processes in that they both refer to past authorities as sources of arbitration for the expression of new ideas.

And while falsificationism is (perhaps with the exception of some Budhist or Daoist schools) never the stated principle of religious hermeneutics, in principle, it is hard to describe the numerous religious reforms, movements and even work-a-day conversions as anything but falsificationist enterprises. Let’s just look at the various waves of monastic movements from Benedictines to Dominicans or Franciscans to Jesuits. They all struggled with reconciling the current situation with the evidence (of the interpretation of scripture) and based their changed practices on the result of this confrontation.

And what about religious reformers like Hus, Luther or Calvin? Wasn’t their intellectual entreprise in essense falsificationist? Or St Paul or Arianism? Or scholastic debates?

‘But religion never invites scrutiny, it never approaches problems with an open mind.’ Crow the new-atheists. But neither does science at the basic level. Graduate students are told to question everything but they soon learn that this questioning is only good as long as it doesn’t disrupt the research paradigm. Their careers and livelihoods depend on not questioning much of anything. In practice, this is not very different from the personal reading of the Bible – you can have a personal relationship with God as long as it’s not too different from other people’s personal relationships.

The stories we know by

One of the most preposterous pieces of scientific propaganda is Dawkins’ story about an old professor who went to thank a young researcher for disproving his theory. I recently heard it trotted out again on an episode of Start The Week where it was used as proof positive of how science is special – this time as a way of establishing its superiority over political machinations. It may have happened but it’s about as rare as a priest being convinced by an argument about the non-existence of God. The natural and predominant reactions to a research “disproving” a theory are to belittle it, deny its validity, ostracise its author, deny its relevance or simply ignore it (a favourite passtime of Chomskean linguists).

So in practice, there doesn’t seem to be that much of a difference between how scientific and religious knowledge work. They both follow the same cognitive and sociological principles. They both have their stories to tell their followers.

Conversion stories are very popular in all movements and they are always used on both sides of the same argument. There are stories about conversions from one side to the other in the abortion/anti-abortion controversy, environmental debates, diet wars, alternative medicine, and they are an accompanying feature of pretty much any scientific revolution – I’ve even seen the lack of prominent conversions cited as an argument (a bad one) against cognitive linguistics. So a scientist giving examples of the formerly devout seeing the light through a rational argument, is just enacting a social script associated with the spreading of knowledge. It’s a common frame negotiation device, not evidence of anything about the nature of the knowledge to the profession of which the person was converted.

There are other types of stories about knowledge that scientists like to talk about as much as people of religion. There are stories of the long arduous path to knowledge and stories of mystical gnosis.

The path-to-knowledge stories are told when people talk about the training it takes to achieve a kind of knowledge. They are particularly popular about medical doctors (through medical dramas on TV) but they also exist about pretty much any profession including priests and scientists. These stories always have two components, a liminal one (about high jinks students got to while avoiding the administration’s strictures and lovingly mocking the crazy demanding teachers) and a sacral one (about the importance of hard learning that the subject demands). These stories are, of course, based on the sorts of things that happen. But their telling follows a cultural and discursive script. (It would be interesting to do some comparative study here.)

The stories of mystical gnosis are also very interesting. They are told about experts, specialists who achieve knowledge that is too difficult for normal mortals to master. In these stories people are often described as loosing themselves in the subject, setting themselves apart, or becoming obsessively focused. This is sometimes combined or alternated with descriptions of achieving sudden clarity.

People tell these stories about themselves as well as about others. When told about others, these stories can be quite schematic – the absent minded professor, the geek/nerd, the monk in the library, the constantly pracising musician (or even boxer). When told about oneself, the sudden light stories are very common.

Again, these stories reflect a shared cultural framing of people’s experiences of knowledge in the social context. But they cannot be given as evidence of the special nature of one kind of knowledge over another. Just like stories about Gods cannot be taken as evidence of the superiority of some religions.

Utility and essence revisited

But, the argument goes, scientific knowledge is so useful. Just look at all the great things it brought to this world. Doesn’t that mean that its very “essence” is different from religious knowledge.

Here, I think, the other discussant in the podcast, the atheist philosopher, John Gray can provide a useful perspective: “The ‘essence’ is an apologetic invention that someone comes up with later to try and preserve the core of an idea [like Christianity or Marxism] from criticism.”

In other words this argument is also a kind of story telling. And we again find these utility and essence stories in many areas following remarkably similar scripts. That does not mean that the stories are false or fabricated or that what they are told about is in some way less valid. All it means is that we should be skeptical about arguments that rely on them as evidence of exclusivity.

Ultimately, looking for the “essence” of any complex phenomenon is always a fool’s errand. Scientists are too fond of their “magic formula” stories where incredibly complex things are described by simple equations like e=mc2 or zn+1 = zn2 + c. But neither Einstein’s nor Mandlebrot’s little gems actually define the essence of their respective phenomena. They just offer a convenient way of capturing some form of knowledge about it. e=mc2 will be found on T-shirts and the Mandelbrot set on screen savers of people who know little about their relationship to the underlying ideas. They just know they’re important and want to express their alegiance to the movement. Kind of like the people who feel it necessary to proclaim that they “believe” in the theory of evolution. Of course, we could also take some gnostic stories about what it takes to “really” understand these equations – and they do require some quite complex mix of expertise (a lot more complex than the stories would let on).

But we still haven’t dealt with the question of utility. Scientific knowledge derives its current legitimacy from its connection to technology and religious knowledge makes claims on the realms of morality and human relationships. They clash because both also have views on each other’s domains (science on human relationships and religion on origins of the universe). Which is one of the reasons why I don’t think that the non-overlapping magisteria idea is very fruitful (as much as I prefer Gould over the neo-Darwinists).

Here I have to agree with Dawkins and the new atheists. There’s no reason why some prelate should have more of a say on morality or relationships than anyone else. Reading a holy book is a qualification for prescribing ritual not for the arbitration of morality. But Dawkins should be made to taste his own medicine. There’s no reason why a scientist’s view on the origin of the universe should hold any sway over any theologian’s. The desire of the scientist to provide a cosmogony for the atheist crowd is a strange thing. It seeks to make questions stemming from a non-scientific search for broader meaning consistent with the scientific need for contiguous causal explanations. But the Big Bang or some sort of Priomordial Soup don’t provide internal consistency to the scientific entreprise. They leave as many questions open as they give answers to.

It seems that the Augustinian and later scholastic solution of a set of categories external to the ones which are accessible to us. Giles Fraser cites Thomas Acquinas’ example of counting everything in the world and not finding God. That would still be fine because God is not a thing to be counted, or better still, an entity that fits within our concept of things and the related concept of counting. Or in other words, God created our world with the categories available to the cognizing humans, not in those categories. Of course, to me, that sounds like a very good argument for atheism but it is also why a search for some Grand Unified Theory leaves me cold.

Epistemology as politics

It is a problem that the better philosophers from Parmenides to Wittgenstein tried to express in one way or another. But their problems were in trying to draw practical conclusions. There is no reason why the two political factions shouldn’t have a good old fight over the two overlapping magisteria. Because the debate about utility is a political one, not an epistemological one. Just because I would rather go to a surgeon than a witch doctor doesn’t mean that the former has tapped into some superior form of cognition. We make utility judgements of a similar nature even within these two domains but we would not draw essentialist epistemological conclusions based on them. People choose their priests and they choose their doctors. Is a bad doctor better than a good healer? I would imagine that there are a whole range of ailments where some innocuous herb would do more good than a placebo with side effects.

But we can consider a less contentious example. Years ago I was involved with TEFL teacher training and hiring. We ran a one-month starter course for teachers of English as a foreign language. And when hiring teachers I would always much rather hire one of these people rather than somebody with an MA in TESOL. The teachers with the basic knowledge would often do a better job than those with superior knowledge. I would say that when these two groups would talk about teaching, their understanding of it would be very different. The MAs would have the research, evidence and theory. The one-month trainees would have lots of useful techniques but little understanding of how or why they worked. Yet, there seemed to be an inverse relationship between the “quality” of knowledge and practical ability of the teacher (or at best no predictable relationship). So I would routinely recommend these “witch-teachers” over the “surgeon-teachers” to schools for hiring because I believe they were better for them.

There are many similar stories where utility and knowledge don’t match up. Again, that doesn’t mean that we should take homeopathy seriously but it means that the foundations of our refusal of accepting homeopathy cannot also be the foundations of placing scientific knowledge outside the regular epistemological constraints of all humanity.

Epistemology, as I have said elsewhere, is much better explained as ethics.

Thus endeth the blog post.

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