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April 5 2012 5 05 /04 /April /2012 00:29

A recurrent "motif" throughout much of MSOU is the importance of our choice of metaphors in enabling us to approach a true understanding of the world. What I primarily wanted to emphasize was that metaphors can both enlighten us, and lead us astray; In some cases dangerously astray, as Herbert Spencer's portrayal of competing human groups struggling for "the survival of the fittest" did. (That mode of thinking contributed both to the worst manifestations of eugenics, and eventually to the Nazi-engineered Holocaust. It's also significant that Wallace himself warned Darwin of the dangers inherent in the metaphorical extension of the word "selection" in explaining his theory to the general public.)

 

In view of their potentially harmful effects, then, it doesn't hurt to give a bit more attention to how we actually choose the metaphors we use. One of the absolute virtuosos of metaphorical thinking was clearly Einstein, whose thought experiments eventually led to the special and general theories of relativity. (Riding on a light wave, indeed!) Perhaps, too, we should consider Schrodinger similarly gifted, for his thought experiment of the cat either dead or alive in the box, depending on when we might have chosen to open it, certainly dramatizes the logical difficulties involved in coming to terms with the implications of quantum theory.

 

Currently, pace Schrodinger, though, we are almost daily over-exposed to the metaphor of "thinking outside the box." Over-used or not, however, the "box" metaphor itself gives a clue as to what metaphors actually do for us––they enable us to break free from unproductive modes of thinking, and they are triggered by, if not frustration, then at least by dissatisfaction with a prior mode of conceptualizing the world. That sense of dissatisfaction is less likely to be a factor for those whose experience of the world is an eager engagement with it, or those who. like Blake, characteristically "think" in visual imagery, or poets, like Shakespeare, whose associative genius is of the type so beautifully illustrative of Einstein's own defiinition of genius itself as "the ability to see connections."

 

How, then, do metaphors lead us astray? I think it is when the primary motivation for them is dissatisfaction––of the sort that betrays a yearning for greater simplicity. The fact is that the metaphors that lead us astray are those that oversimplify the complexities that frustrate us. Blake's wonderful metaphor of the tiger "burning bright / in the darkness of the night" is an example of one that rather takes us deeper into the experience of complexity itself.

 

It's possible, I suppose, that Richard Dawkins was insufficiently attentive to the widespread tendency for us to have interpreted his idea of the "selfish gene" in an oversimplfying manner, for, after the publication of the book with that title, it took him quite a while to backpedal on the initial assertions of which Mary Midgley was so scathingly critical. I won't attempt a chapter-and-verse history of the dispute, and it's unfortunate that, of course, feelings were badly hurt, but the long-term effects of the Dawkins metaphor have undoubtedly been seriously negative, in that many of us clearly felt that our responsibility for our effects on the world could be simply attributed to forces in the face of which we ourselves were powerless. I rather think that I am spending so much attention on this because the issue of whether we do or do not have free will is still an unanswered question for many of us. It is astounding to me that here in the early years of the twenty-first century there are still so many of us prepared to believe that our future, both immediate and long-term, is determined by factors that are beyond our responsibility to confront. My book is of course part of my own conviction that our responsibility for our future belongs to us. Any of you who have read Zygmunt Bauman's book on the Holocaust, or Tony Judt's devastating final chapter in Postwar, will be well aware of the almost universal human tendency to rationalize and justify the disregarding of our obligations to one another. It wasn't only Anne Frank who was betrayed.

 

There are many ways to engage in such justifications, but I'd better leave my discussion of them to another time. I find myself getting fiercely angry about it, and that's an ample sign that I'd better cool down a bit! In the meantime, would you consider sharing your own perspective on these issues?  Thanks! More, soon,

 

John.

 

 

 

 

 

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