Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Metaphor and Science

There’s an interesting article on metaphorical thinking in science in The Toronto Star. My dissertation at Northwestern was on metaphorical thinking and truth-speaking. I included examples of metaphor in science, and how scientific theories are, at root, inextricably metaphorical. One of my resources was Andrew Ortony’s classic Metaphor and Thought. See, e.g., Thomas Kuhn’s essay “Metaphor in Science” and other essays on metaphorical thinking and science in Ortony.

This realization, viz., that scientific theories are inextricably metaphorical, complexifies issues of truth and meaning and debunks positivistic theories of scientific truth that are indebted to non-informed, simplistic notions of such truth as “literal” (the meaning of which always remains unstated).

One problem with the Star article is that it conflates, e.g., “metaphor” with “analogy.” Metaphor is to be distinguished from “analogy,” “model,” and other tropes. “Simile” is closer to “analogy” than metaphor is. Theories of metaphor from Aristotle up to the 1960s viewed “metaphor” as only an “elliptical simile”; viz., a simile minus the word “like.” Metaphorical thinking, from Max Black onward, and especially Paul Ricoeur et. al., are careful to not reduce metaphor to simile. There are psycholinguistic studies that suggest metaphor and simile are even processed differently.

But the Star article moves in the right direction when it states that “metaphor, and its more common cousin analogy, are tools that are just as important to scientists investigating truths of the physical world as they are to poets explaining existential conundrums through verse. A scientist, one might liken, is an empirical poet; and reciprocally, a poet is a scientist of more imaginative and creative hypotheses.”

One thing this suggests is that there is not such an unbridgeable abyss between “science” and “religion,” such that science is “empirical” and religion has to do withnon-empirical “faith.”