Ok, I did that philosophically bad thing again and headed to Buffalo Wild Wings with my friend. Bad in that it always turns into several hours worth of rather exhausting philosophical/rhetorical discussions. Good, though, in that I always seem to get a blog post out of it.
The other night we ended up spending a lot of time on his subject of choice – mathematics as a metaphor. And it struck me that this could be a solution to an idea I’ve been grappling with for a little while. That is, the overlap that often exists between science and literature (or, more exactly, between scientists and literary authors). You see, I’ve always been intrigued (and routinely perplexed) by how often you’ll read of prominent scientists with a strong affinity for poetry or classic literature.
And my friend’s comments on the means by which math (and, indeed, science) is a metaphor for understanding the natural world seems to me to be a possible solution to that. So, while he can do far more justice to this argument than I can, I’d like to give the math-metaphor thing a shot. The argument is that math exists as a bridge between the purely abstract and the physical world. There is the abstract, that is the ability to propose a number of possible mathematical systems that all operate within their various ground rules. And we then apply those ground rules to the world that we see. Each mathematical system operates with its own accuracy – they are able to accurately represent the world in varying degrees. Think pre/post-relativity as a great example here. Both Newtonian physics (pre-Einstein) and relativistic physics (Einstein) are simply sets of abstract mathematical equations. They gain their weight from their ability to accurately model the world we see around us. If you’ve followed some of the recent theorizing about the multiverse, you’ll have noticed that there’s a number of mathematical sets out there that represent a number of possible multiverses, from 11 dimensions to 12, cyclical views of time, and “bubbles” of universes emanating from a multiverse big bang.
Now, what all these have to do with metaphors come from the way we apply these abstract mathematical ideas. My friend’s contention is that we are using these math ideas as metaphors when we apply them to explain the world we see. a2=b2+c2 and E=mc2 are all just a bunch of mathematical proofs that bear a correlation for what we see around us. They’re metaphors.
So, what struck me is the connection between what scientists do and what literary scholars do. Both use metaphors to explain the world around us. Sure, scientists try to explain the natural world and literary scholars try to explain the human condition, but the general mindset is largely the same. (If you’re wondering how literary scholars use metaphors, just ask yourself – did Huck Finn accurately represent the tear between white and black cultures, or did Dante actually mean to describe the makeup of Hell?) And this recognition that both scientists and literary scholars use metaphors answered a much less fundamental question of why so many scientists were amateur literary scholars.
I was always fascinated when reading biographies of historical scientists, how often they would read and study literature feverishly. Aristotle is an obvious place to start. True, he was a Greek, so he dabbled in everything. But Aristotle laid the foundation for much of the scientific process. And he’s still a major player in literary circles. Newton was an extremely well read theologian. Einstein could most definitely hold his own at a cocktail party for the English Department at the Prussian Academy of Sciences. Darwin, he was highly schooled in Christian literature and philosophy. More recently, Brian Cox (personally, my favorite modern Physicist) got his start in a rock band, a variant of literature. The number of scientists who read and/or write poetry is really quite massive.
So, my reasoning is that scientists so often develop a fascination with the literary world because of an implicit connection they see between its use of metaphors and their use in the sciences. Now, I don’t think that many scientists think in quite that manner, but there’s perhaps a Freudian connection going on there.
Religion & Philosophy
And this got me thinking about the overlaps between science, literature, religion, and philosophy. Placing major thinkers into these categories is a really tricky business, as they bounce so quickly from one to the other. Even religion and science, despite the modern divide that exists between them, have a deeply intimate past historically. Gregor Mendel, if you recall, developed the concept of genes that is a cornerstone of modern evolutionary theory.
So, the line of reasoning goes that if science and literature are connected through metaphors, can the connections between science, literature, religion, and philosophy be explained in the same way? I think maybe so. Religion often operates in metaphors. David slaying Goliath is not meant to be taken literally. Neither are the ubiquitous quotes from Confucius, the dances of American Indians, or the infighting amongst Ancient Greek gods. Philosophy, I think it can be argued, operates much like Mathematics when it comes to metaphors. The various philosophical traditions that dominate Western thinking (I can’t speak with much expertise for Eastern) act much like mathematical sets. Empiricism, rationalism, and existentialism are all just philosophical “sets of equations” that help to explain the world around us – in this case usually human to human interaction.
Big Picture Thinking
So, going really big picture here, maybe the human mind has developed in a way in that it understands the outside world purely through metaphors? I know we like to think that we directly observe and interpret the world we see, but do we? Maybe that’s why we so easily slip into the “virtual reality” of the Internet. We’re simply swapping one particular metaphor of reality for another? Same with getting lost in a good book – it’s a metaphor for an existence that we can easily apply.
I’m not sure about all this. It’s based on a loose association between a scientist’s profession and leisure activities. But it is an interesting train of thought – er, metaphor – for explaining human inquiry into the surrounding world. I guess I need to go hit the psychology journals to see what’s been done on metaphors recently.