Monday, February 12, 2007

Science and the importance of Metaphor

"Those who think metaphorically are enabled to think truly because the shape of their thinking echoes the shape of the world."
-Jan Zwicky

Van Fundy (who has an excellent blog) pointed me to an article on how metaphor and anology are foundational to science. The author began with the above quote and goes on to quote Kepler:
"I love analogies most of all, my most reliable masters who know in particular all secrets of nature,” Kepler wrote in 1604. “We have to look at them especially in geometry, when, though by means of very absurd designations, they unify infinitely many cases in the middle between two extremes, and place the total essence of a thing splendidly before the eyes."

Mars Hill Audio has a free sample issue (for download) which includes an interview with philosopher Mary Midgley, author of the book Science and Poetry, she talks how most movements in science occur when the metaphors change, and she talks about the attractiveness of the metaphor that nature is a machine.

Wendell Berry has a whole book against that metaphor called Life Is a Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition:

"The most radical influence of reductive science has been the virtually universal adoption of the idea that the world, its creatures, and all the parts of its creatures are machines-that is, that there is no difference between creature and artifice, birth and manufacture, thought and computation. Our language, wherever it is used is now almost invariably conditioned by the assumption that fleshly bodies are machines full of mechanisms, fully compatible with the mechanisms of medicine, industry and commerce and that minds are computers fully compatible with electronic technology.

This may have begun as a metaphor, but in the language as it is used( and as it affects industrial practice) it has evolved from metaphor though equation to identification."
Chemist-turned-philosopher Michael Polanyi also wrote about this relationship and the impotence of poetic and tacit knowledge to scientific discovery. Mars Hill Audio has an excellent two hour 'report' on Polanyi (Tacit Knowing, Truthful Knowing, second from the top)

"The modernist notion was that the scientist was an objective and disinterested observer, simply following the facts wherever they led, so that reason following the scientific method would reveal the nature of reality and could test every truth claim. Polanyi knew as a working scientist that this idea was false. The best scientists are not disinterested, but passionate. Many discoveries come not by following the facts in a laboratory, but as a burst of insight. And before the scientist begins his work, he assumes certain things are true, meaning that faith always precedes reason. So, after a long and fruitful career in chemistry, Polanyi turned his attention to philosophy."
-A review of Tacit Knowing, Truthful Knowing

In agreement with Polanyi, Mary Midgley thinks that "It is because we hold them [scientific and poetic knowledge] apart that we go wrong on a host of problems, from the relation between the mind and body to global warming and the debate about memes."

Related posts:
notes on science as love of beauty (aesthetics)
Leithart on the centrality of Metaphor
poet Richard Wilbur on metaphors in a God-made world

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Blogger Van Fundy said...

Stephen, thanks for the compliment. I liked the parallels you made in your post to Wendell Berry's understanding of the power of metaphor.

2/13/2007 3:50 PM  
Blogger Van Fundy said...

I also wanted to let you know that my blog address has changed (actually, I had my blog set up originally with blogger). it's now Sorry for any confusion.

2/13/2007 6:03 PM  
Blogger noneuclidean said...

Great job pulling together this different sources dealing with metaphor and science. I'm love that Audition podcast too! I bought Mediated by Thomas De Zengotita and The Children of Men after listening to some Mars Hill Audio podcasts. Mediated is amazing, Children of Men is less than it should have been. Anyway, interesting thoughts on metaphor.

2/13/2007 9:31 PM  

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