The Perils of Metaphorical Thinking

Introduction (via Julia Galef @ Rationally Speaking)

For an organ that evolved for practical tasks like avoiding predators, finding food, and navigating social hierarchies, the human brain has turned out to be surprisingly good at abstract reasoning. Who among our Pleistocene ancestors could have dreamed that we would one day be using our brains not to get an apple to fall from a tree, but to figure out what makes the apple fall?

In part, that’s thanks to our capacity for metaphorical thinking. We instinctively graft abstract concepts like “time,” “theories,” and “humor” onto more concrete concepts that are easier to visualize. For example, we talk about time as if it were a physical space we’re traveling through (“We’re approaching the end of the year”), a moving entity (“Time flies”) or as a quantity of some physical good (“We’re running out of time”). Theories get visualized as structures — we talk about building a case, about supporting evidence, and about the foundations of a theory. And one of my favorite metaphors is the one that conceives of humor in terms of physical violence. A funny person “kills” us or “slays” us, witty humor is “sharp,” and what’s the name for the last line of a joke? The “punch” line.

Worth While Highlight (via Julia Galef @ Rationally Speaking)

Although I haven’t seen any studies on it yet, I’m willing to wager that researchers could demonstrate repercussions of another common metaphor: the “argument is war” metaphor, which manifests in the way we talk about “attacking” an idea, “shooting down” arguments, and “defending” a position. Thinking of arguments as battles comes with all sorts of unhelpful baggage. It’s zero-sum, meaning that one person’s gain is necessarily the other’s loss. That precludes any view of the argument as a collaborative effort to find the truth. The war-metaphor also primes us emotionally, stimulating pride, aggression, and the desire to dominate — none of which are conducive to rational discussion.

So far I’ve been discussing implicit metaphors, but explicit metaphors can also lead us astray without us realizing it. We use one thing to metaphorically stand in for another because they share some important property, but then we assume that additional properties of the first thing must also be shared by the second thing. For example, here’s a scientist explaining why complex organisms were traditionally assumed to be more vulnerable to genetic mutations, compared to simpler organisms: “Think of a hammer and a microscope… One is complex, one is simple. If you change the length of an arbitrary component of the system by an inch, for example, you’re more likely to break the microscope than the hammer.”
That’s true, but the vulnerable complexity of a microscope isn’t the only kind of complexity. Some systems become more robust to failure as they become more complex, because of the redundancies that accrue — if one part fails, there are others to compensate. Power grids, for example, are built with more power lines than strictly necessary, so that if one line breaks or becomes overloaded, the power gets rerouted through other lines. Vulnerability isn’t a function of complexity per se, but of redundancy. And just because an organism and a microscope are both complex, doesn’t mean the organism shares the microscope’s low redundancy.

About Miguel Barbosa

I run this site.

07. April 2011 by Miguel Barbosa
Categories: Curated Readings, Psychology & Sociology | Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Required fields are marked *