Metaphor, Map and Model

Metaphor

1. a figure of speech in which a term or phrase is applied to something to which it is not literally applicable in order to suggest a resemblance…
2. something used, or regarded as being used, to represent something else; emblem; symbol.

dictionary.com

Metaphor is the basis of language and related creativity. While this has always been apparent in the arts and literature, it is perhaps not so readily associated with other fields.

Just consider the two domains of thought that have dominated Western cultures for thousands of years: religion and science.

Religious texts are full of metaphor pointing towards the great religious and spiritual truths that can never be precisely expressed in language. Religions become problematic for human society when these texts are interpreted literally, rather than metaphorically. Then fundamentalism becomes a big problem, as it was for centuries in Europe and still is in many parts of the world. In the terms of Iain McGilchrist’s book The Master and His Emissary, the Left Brain Emissary has usurped the function of the Right Brain Master.

But surely science is different, you exclaim – it’s objective. Piffle! In essence, science makes mathematical models of the real world. And what are these models but metaphors that reach towards the underlying reality. Scientific fundamentalism becomes a problem when the scientist believes that the model accurately describes the real world, rather than being a metaphor, leading to losing touch with reality itself. The map is not the territory (another metaphor).

Of course, science’s handmaidens technology and modern capitalism have this problem in spades. It is not a huge leap to suggest that this Left Brain dominance has significantly contributed to today’s ecological and climate problems, and to the mealy mouthed response to these problems so far.

It’s all metaphor really!

Inspired by Iain McGilchrist’s magnum opus The Matter with Things.
Featured image includes a quote from Genesis I, King James version.

Mapping the Universe

I love Mekhi and Joe’s posts on physics on the blog Rationalising the Universe, which brings me more up to date on the enthusiasms for mathematics, physics and cosmology of my youth. But I had to take issue with the conclusion of the recent interesting post on What is a Field, which ended with the following statement:

There we have it, space is no longer a separate entity, space is a field and the universe now consists of fields and particles alone.

That’s exciting. Newton set the ball rolling on mathematical models of the universe, and the current mathematical model of the universe has now simplified to just fields and particles.

But look at the statement again. It says “the universe now consists of…”. Well actually it doesn’t, and I suggest that we still have little idea of ‘what the universe consists of’. But we do have a great model that explains what we see and can measure in a reasonably consistent manner.

The point is

“The map is not the territory”

Alfred Korzybski, 1931

Featured image from the blog Rationalising the Universe