Analogies, all the way down…

A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: ‘What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.’ The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, ‘What is the tortoise standing on?’ ‘You’re very clever, young man, very clever,’ said the old lady. ‘But it’s turtles all the way down!

Hawking, Stephen. A Brief History of Time. Bantam Books, 1988

The human mind is a black box. We know the inputs (sensory data) and the outputs (behavior), but we don’t really know exactly how it works inside. While we can study the inputs and outputs to try to reconstruct what has happened in between, often times our best recourse is self-reflection. But if you’ve ever sat in a barber’s chair between two mirrors, you know the strange effect the two mirrors facing each other create. Each mirror will reflect an infinite sequence of progressively smaller reflections of the image on the other mirror. This is self-reflection.

Self-reflection or self-awareness is recursive, much like a beautiful fractal. Because the object under observation is doing double-duty also as the observer as well, it creates an infinite recursion. The reflexive nature of self-awareness creates a rich, bottomless sensation—you watch your mind, you observe yourself watching your mind, you see yourself observing yourself watching your mind…­. Self-reflection is like using a telescope to study said telescope seems apt to me. I think Emerson Pugh said it best:

“If the human brain were so simple that we could understand it, we would be so simple that we couldn’t.”

To further complicates matters, the ‘observer effect’ from quantum physics posits that the very act of observation affects the phenomenon being observed. So, in addition to recursion, the very act of self-observation further alters the results of our self-observation. In light of such recursion and alterations, explaining accurately how our mind works is rather difficult, if not impossible, and has kept philosophers busy for millennia. Perhaps, however, this very inability to fully explain the workings of our mind offers us a clue; there seems to be an inextricable relationship between language and thought.

That which cannot be expressed in words or symbols lies beyond the reach of the tools of explanation, so, by most definitions, that which is ineffable to the percipient is likely to be incomprehensible to the non-percipient. This is why word and symbols play such a ubiquitous role in our human experience, from science to art; we are trying to express our understanding of the world to others.

Try as we may, you cannot escape words. No matter how cleverly we try to avoid them, there they are—scribbled in our books; flashing on billboards; broadcasting over the radio and television; dancing as pixels on our computers; popping up in our conversations with families, friends, and strangers; and underlying our most private of thoughts. Oral and written explanations can even travel through time and provide tales of the past that come from well before we were born and will continue to be received by those that are born long after we die.

Beneath the rule of men entirely great,

The pen is mightier than the sword. Behold

The arch-enchanters wand! — itself a nothing! —

But taking sorcery from the master-hand

To paralyse the Cæsars, and to strike

The loud earth breathless! — Take away the sword —States can be saved without it! (Emphasis added)

Bulwer-Lytton, Edward. Richelieu; Or the Conspiracy: A Play in Five Acts. Conduit St., London: Saunders and Otley, 1839

Symbols are indeed mighty; they matter. They can save life; they can kill. Simple words can spark massive epistemological and political revolutions. For instance, the impact of Copernicus’s heliocentric model of the cosmos not only reverberated through the scientific circles but also shook the religious spheres of the Renaissance and Reformation years.

In the beginning, the Word existed. The Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1)

In Genesis, Adam became the master of the world when he took control by assigning names “to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field”. In the ancient world, naming was associated with possession and dominion. Maybe, language is what has alienated us from the natural world, but maybe it has really given us greater integration or “oneness” with it by giving us the tools to manipulate and think abstractly about it?

Clearly, words are powerful. Spelling creates words, and casting spells creates magic. Gandhi’s words inspired the actions that gained India its independence, while Hitler’s led the world into one of its worst wars. The words of the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States insure the freedom of speech, while much of the nation’s National Security budget goes toward cryptology and the monitoring of the speech of American citizens. The tension between the two illustrates the power that language possesses to not only model our reality, but to shape it too.

“Why shouldn’t we quarrel about a word? What is the good of words if they aren’t important enough to quarrel over? Why do we choose one word more than another if there isn’t any difference between them? If you called a woman a chimpanzee instead of an angel, wouldn’t there be a quarrel about a word? If you’re not going to argue about words, what are you going to argue about? Are you going to convey your meaning to me by moving your ears?

Chesterton, G. K. The Ball and the Cross. Kessinger Publishing, 2004

Law (i.e. “legal-ese”) is written with meticulous detail so as to avoid ambiguities so that miscommunication is minimized; however, speaking of the Constitution, we see laws being interpreted and re-interpreted to deal with our ever evolving reality. As hard as we try to be unambiguous, we fail because the reality we try to capture is infinitely more complex than our the symbols used to codify it. This is why mathematics is the language du jour of science; it aims for concise recipes to help avoid the ambiguities with the help of universal mathematical symbols. Yet, despite the best efforts of science, the slippage between these signs and the signified still occur.

Philosophers have noted this slippage between language, thoughts, and reality for a very long time. For the Ancient Greeks, thought is tightly bound to language. In fact, the Greek word for reason logos also refers to speech. For linguisitic naturalists in the tradition of Plato, the sounds of words came directly from, and were intrinsic to, those objects that they actually referred to. However, as David Crystal points out, the infrequent instances of onomatopoeia show the naturalists’ case to be a weak one (Crystal, David. How Language Works. New York: Avery [Penguin], 2005). For linguistic conventionalists in the tradition of Aristotle, the relationship between words, and the things they referred to, is arbitrary. All words, including the onomatopoeic, were symbols that stood for concepts/idea of something in reality. As Sister Miriam Joseph writes:

Words are symbols created to represent reality. A term is a concept communicated through a symbol. Once words are used to communicate a concept of reality, they become terms.

Communication is dynamic; it is the conveying of an idea from one mind to another through a material medium, words or other symbols. If the listener or reader receives through language precisely the ideas put into it by the speaker or writer, these two have ‘come to terms’—the idea has passed successfully, clearly, from the giver to the receiver, from one end or term of the line communication to the other.

Joseph, Sister Miriam. The Trivium: The Liberal Arts of Logic, Grammar, and Rhetoric. Philidelphia: Paul Dry Books, Inc., 2002, p. 71

What Do You “Know”?

When the human mind, with its limited powers, attempts to mirror in itself the rich life of the world, of which it itself is only a small part, and which it can never hope to exhaust, it has every reason for proceeding economically. …In reality, the law (Laws of Nature) always contains less than the fact itself, because it does not reproduce the fact as a whole but only in that aspect of it which is important for us, the rest being intentionally or from necessity omitted.

Mach, Ernst. “The Economical Nature of Physical Inquiry.” In Philosophy of Science: The Historical Background, by J. Kockelmans. New York: The Free Press, 1968

Western philosophy often categorizes knowledge in two ways, the a priori and a posteriori. A priori knowledge is “built-in” knowledge that is independent of experience, such as ‘all children are young’ or ‘all bachelors are unmarried.’ They are always true because the concepts ‘young’ and ‘unmarried’ are built into the meanings of ‘children’ and ‘bachelors’ respectively and the other way round. A posteriori knowledge, on the other hand, is knowledge derived solely from experience and is falsifiable. For example, “some bachelors are young.”

Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume (whom Immanuel Kant aptly dubbed the “geographer of human reason”) chose a different bifurcation—instead he made a sharp distinction between the ‘relations of ideas’ and ‘matters of fact’. For Hume, mathematics and logic (i.e., the manipulations of symbols) really had little to do with reality and, as such, were simply tautologies (Hume 1748).

Influential scientist and philosopher Ernst Mach (this is the guy whom the speed of sound is named after) held that the Laws of Nature are nothing but the sum of sensory experience and nothing more (Mach 1968).  Influenced heavily by Mach, a lesser-known German philosopher named Fritz Mauthner also rigorously explored the philosophy of language and extended the epistemological critiques of language made by Mach:

Language never coincides with nature, even where real or approximate laws have been found: in mathematics, in mechanics.

Mauthner, Fritz. Dictionary of Philosophy: New Contributions to a Critique of Language. Vol. 1. Leipzig: Felix Meiner, 1910-11

If thought and speech were one, said Mauthner, language was not an instrument of thought but “nothing other than its use (Gebrauch). Language is the use of language.” No knowledge was possible apart from language, yet language was inadequate to the task. Sensation were contingent, the meaning people gave them stable; the same words were used to describe invariably different sensations. This made it impossible for language to describe the world with any precision, and rendered all language metaphorical.

Hacohen, Malachi Haim. Karl Popper–The Formative Years, 1902-1945. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cambridge University Press, 2002

While not well known today, Mauthner was enough of an intellectual powerhouse during his day that none less than 20th Century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein took to him task, by name, in his book Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (arguably one of the most influential philosophical writings of the twentieth century). However, Wittgenstein and Mauthner did hold some congruent beliefs with regards to language and its use:

For a large class of cases — though not for all — in which we employ the word ‘meaning’ it can be defined thus: the meaning of a word is its use in the language.” (Emphasis added)

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations. Translated by G.E.M. Anscombe, Hacker, P.M.S. and Schulte Joachim. Wiley-Blackwell, 2009

Modern semanticists see it the same way. They look at the sense of the word; that is to say, its use in language, not necessarily what the word refers to. So again, we are faced with the gap between what language can express and what is real. But don’t despair, as language may be inadequate to the task, it is still our best hope. As Galileo writes:

“Philosophy is written in this enormous book which is continually open before our eyes, but it cannot be understood unless one first understands the language and recognizes the characters with which it is written. It is written in a mathematical language, and its characters are triangles, circles, and other geometric figures. Without knowledge of this medium it is impossible to understand a single word of it; without this knowledge it is like wandering hopelessly through a dark labyrinth.

Galilei, Galileo. Il saggiatore (The Assayer). 1864

So while Mach, Mauthner, and Wittgenstein saw this gap between language and reality as damning for science (ultimately relegating one to silence, according to Wittgenstein), the esteemed philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn instead saw this gap as an opportunity. He saw this gap as the very catalyst for great revolutions in knowledge. Kuhn called this gap an “anomaly” (Kuhn 1977).

Kuhn believed that establishment science is driven by adherence to a particular model, or paradigm, which provides scientists questions to answer and the tools to answer them with. Occasionally a crisis arises when paradoxes begin to undermine the current paradigm. These paradoxes between what is expected by the paradigm and what actually happens are anomalies. Revolutionary science resolves these crises of confidence by studying and integrating the anomalies into a newly accepted paradigm. In the Kuhnian sense, everything that we’ve been talking about up to this point—the slippage between a word/model and the corresponding reality—offers not just crisis, but also an opportunity for new, revolutionary knowledge!

That said, not all “anomalies” are created equal insofar as they may only lead to further nonsensical beliefs. On December 21, 1954, a worldwide flood was predicted to bring an end to the world. The doomsday UFO cult that made this prediction expected aliens to rescue them at midnight, the day of the flood. As you guessed, the Armageddon never came, nor did the UFO. The book When Prophecy Fails chronicles how the cult adapted its expectations in the face of reality. As they sat and prayed that night, they noticed a glaring anomaly: the cataclysmic flood, as well as the promised UFO, failed to materialize. The world was still alive and they were still in it. One of the book’s authors, Leon Festinger, coined the term ‘cognitive dissonance’ to describe the mental state of the cult’s true believers when their prophecy failed to come true. Instead of abandoning their model in the face of the anomaly, they resolved their cognitive dissonance by giving their God a merciful face. Their God spared the planet because of their prayers (Festinger, Leon. When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study of a Modern Group that Predicted the Destruction of the World. University of Minnesota Press, 1956).

Regrettably, anomalies are often marginalized because of this cognitive dissonance and the inconveniences and psychological turmoil they can cause. Very few people are comfortable with that annoying feeling that accompanies anomalies, especially when it means revising the dominant paradigms of the day. Most commonly accepted paradigms, or tropes, whether scientific or not, tend to offer their users some combination of prediction, control, falsification (what I call anomaly hunting), and explanatory power. For example, classical mechanics (the physics equations you learned in high school) presents excellent examples of models that offer predictive ability, control over things, falsification, and great explanatory power (not at the sub-atomic level of course). The UFO doomsday cult had a model too; unfortunately, it wasn’t very accurate in its prediction and was very easily falsified.

As Alfred Korzybski says, “Man’s achievements rest upon the use of symbols.” (Korzybski, Alfred. Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics. Institute of General Semantics, 1958, p. 76). Symbols, analogies, models, terms, and metaphors shape the way we think about our world and ourselves. They must be reviewed with care since these models ultimately shape our lives.

Schemes and Tropes

Before moving on to the question of how we develop or acquire these models, let’s take a brief peek at analogies and metaphors in the context of classical rhetoric. In the canon of classical rhetoric, the more ambiguous and “figurative” models and structures are known as ‘trope’ and ‘schemes.’ While trope is an unconventional use of a word, a scheme is an unconventional word order, both used to create an impact on the listener/reader. If analogy is the lifeblood of thought, then trope can be the lifeblood of error. When used in poetry or prose for beauty, trope can truly enrich our lives, but in the hands of the con-artist, politician, or the unwitting purveyor of loose language, trope offers a path to both error and/or manipulation. In his dystopian novel 1984, Orwell called the totalitarian state’s dumbed-down trope “Newspeak”. Unfortunately, modern education has all but abandoned the study of one of the greatest forms of mental self-defense; classical rhetoric:

In classical rhetoric, the tropes and schemes fall under the canon of style. These stylistic features certainly do add spice to writing and speaking. And they are commonly thought to be persuasive because they dress up otherwise mundane language; the idea being that we are persuaded by the imagery and artistry because we find it entertaining. There is much more to tropes and schemes than surface considerations. Indeed, politicians and pundits use these language forms to create specific social and political effects by playing on our emotions.

Cline, Andrew R. Tropes and Schemes. 2006. (accessed September 12, 2009)