Saturday, January 07, 2006

Do Scientists Use Metaphor?

If you haven't discovered Amardeep Singh's blog yet, you should. He teaches English at Lehigh University in the USA and writes about a wide range of cultural ideas.

Recently, he has picked up on a couple of my blogs and expanded them with some of his own thoughts. I am all in favour of this. Indeed it was exactly what I hoped for in starting up a blog: to find a community of other writers with similar interests and to advance towards new ideas through discourse.

Amardeep liked the discussion which I mention in my article on the relationship between science and poetry (Roger Caillois and the Mexican Jumping Bean) and expanded the ideas contained within it in this article which he also posted on The Valve. In fact, he has moved the argument on from how to approach the mystery of the Mexican jumping bean to question whether, in fact, scientists use metaphor in a similar way to poets, making science and poetry somewhat complimentary.

Amardeep quotes from my translation of 'Siliceous Concretions' by Roger Caillois and comments:

Notice the intriguing anthropomorphizing of the rocks under the water. Obviously Caillois knows as he writes that the objects he's looking at are neither "lazy" nor "evasive" in any proper sense, nor does water "flee." These verbs are all metaphors, which do not deny the truth of science, though they do perhaps move laterally away from its mode of perception.

The last phrase of this comment is important. We have to be clear that although Caillois is writing in a scientific and clinical style, he is not writing a scientific text, he is just looking at things which only scientists typically bother to look at in detail, taking some of the interpretations about the origins of the rocks that scientists have deduced, such as the interpretation that water has flowed through them, and then trying to extend this information into a sort of vision of the relationship between the water and the rock, to explain that the water is a creative force, that in 'fleeing' through the rock it creates objects that look as if they are also 'fleeing' but cannot because they are cemented in place, and which he then says are 'works of art'. This is, indeed, a wonderful metaphor for the relationship between the artist and the work of art.

Firstly, there is the mystery. How does the water produce concretions? How can water make rock? Water which is so mobile, fleeting, transparent, almost invisible. Stone which is solid, immobile. There is a diagenetic process which takes place in order to precipitate minerals from solution into a solid state. It is analogous to the transformation of ideas into art, a mysterious process: the metamorphosis of faint electrical impulses in the poet's brain and arm into muscular movements which push the pen across the paper and eventually produces words which are solid and immobile on the page. The words are the solid residue of the fleeting or fleeing thought.

The concretions produced by water flowing through the rock are perfect for describing this. And when they have formed they 'hold up an efficient shield to invisible pressure' by being 'evasive'. Is this not exactly what art should do? Resist by being evasive? A friend once told me that all writers are dissidents, and I believe this. In fact I would extend this to say that all artists are dissidents. Art everywhere resists. If it does not resist, it is not art. But it cannot resist simply by shouting 'Stop doing that!' That is not art at all. Rather art evades, refuses to be trapped, is ambiguous, undermines plain meanings, chips away at plain meanings, removes the support for whatever oppression these plain meanings support and eventually, inevitably, removes it. Nothing is stronger than art and yet, to quote W.H. Auden, 'poetry makes nothing happen'. I think he was being ironic.

So Caillois is not writing as a scientist, he is writing as a poet, using scientific understanding as a means of generating a sophisticated metaphor. He doesn't do what Breton would have done which is simply to look at the cliff face and write down the first thoughts that came into his head, instead he invests a bit of time in background reading and finds out the historical reality behind the piece of 'modern art' that he perceives in front of him.

In this subsequent article Amardeep proceeds from these points into a wider discussion of what he sees as the use of metaphor by scientists:

What I was after in my previous post is the idea that scientists are as dependent on metaphor (especially the metaphor of anthropomorphism) as we are.

I suppose by 'we' he is talking about artists, but I'll remind him that scientists can also be artists... and artists scientists. He goes on to say:

They are, of course, not dependent on it when they are actively performing experiments; that is something else, and it doesn’t make sense to see it as connected to poetry at all. But the rest of the time, it seems to me that the attempt to comprehend and theorize requires metaphors.

To support his claim, Amardeep refers to a text by a computer science professor who describes his experience of watching some film of an amoeba reproduce by splitting itself in half. The watchers of the film, a group of scientists, breathe an audible sigh of relief when the amoeba finishes its splitting process and by this the writer infers that the scientists have projected their own feelings onto the amoeba, thereby anthropormorphising the amoeba and this process by which one individual becomes two.

It is interesting that the writer uses the word 'felt' to describe this anthropomorphising. We are in the realm of the sense, the emotions. What were the viewers feeling? In fact, if they were really anthropomorphising they would have been thinking: what if I, as an individual split in half? Wouldn't that be very painful? I'd want it over with as quickly as possible. But look at this amoeba, it's taking forever. Hence it's a relief when it's finally over. Or maybe they were thinking about the splitting apart of two conjoined entities which in the human sense would remind them of siamese twins, or perhaps a couple who were once 'inseparable' and yet finally, and painfully divorced. In both cases, the final separation would be something of a relief.

Although the audience are scientists, I don't view their response as particularly scientific. After all, the inferences they are making about the process being painful may be entirely incorrect. I don't say they are incorrect because, as a scientist, I don't know. I have no evidence to say yes or no. That is what science is about: evidence. Just as I would require evidence to say why the larva inside a jumping bean jumps. I would have to study the jumping beans, in the wild so to speak, and find out what benefit they accrued from this behaviour. It is sure that it must be of some advantage to them or they wouldn't expend this energy unnecessarily. Nature is very frugal...

So actually, I think most scientists would be suspicious of metaphors, especially those based on anthropomorphising 'feelings'. What they are often up for, however, is analogies. A good analogy is often used for explaining a complex phenomenon in terms of a simpler one. A good example in the domain of fluid flow is the use of the flow of traffic into a city as an analogy for the movement of a turbulent flow. I've only been able to find one reference to this analogy on the internet and it is buried somewhere here.

In this analogy, the cars on the road stand in for grains of sediment in the turbulent flow because the behaviour of the cars is much easier to examine than the grains of sediment. The scientist looks to see what happens to the speed of the cars as they approach the city, slowing down or speeding up as the traffic reaches various bottlenecks and then makes the analogy with the particles in the flow, suggesting that these will also slow down or speed up as the flow encounters similar 'bottlenecks' or constricting gullies on the sea floor.

Why do scientists prefer to call these comparisons analogies rather than metaphors? It is because, as made clear here, metaphor is a rather wide term which:

is not always used for practical description and understanding; sometimes it is used for purely aesthetic reasons.

Scientists evade association with aesthetic considerations at all costs. It harms their integrity. That is not to say that they eschew creativity. Creativity is important. But creativity is not necessarily to do with aesthetics. Amardeep continues as follows:

If we grant that science depends on metaphors, it might also be possible to think of poems as doing something complementary to science: it might be possible to say from a linguistics point of view that a certain kind of poetry might perform conceptual tests on our understanding of what objects are in and through language.

I think he means that poetry might be able to behave (1) like science and (2) work along side it (if I understand his use of 'complementary' correctly) in order to understand 'what objects are'.

I think 'understanding what objects are' is an unusual way of describing the role of poetry and one which I don't really share. Scientists 'understand what objects are', artists use objects to speak for them, to express their feelings. A piece of stone that looks like a tear drop, whether written about in a poem or created by a sculptor is what art is about. A piece of rock with a tear drop form is what the scientist will note, drawing a conclusion about process from this as he or she feels necessary, but never imagining for a moment that the stone is expressing sadness. Those scientists watching the amoeba split were not reacting as scientists at that moment, rather they were behaving as a cinema audience watching a drama or as someone who sits enthralled by a lion chasing a gnu on a nature programme.

In fact, I think in the case of the poem by Caillois, it is the science which is complimentary to the poem rather than the other way around. Poetry will never be complimentary to science. Science rejects poetry with all it's heart and soul (to apply a metaphor!). But poetry can use scientific insights to help it build metaphors. The problems with using science in poetry are only those of degree. They reside in the ability of the audience to keep up, and for the poet not to get bogged down in technicalities. In general, scientific terms quickly lose readers of poetry. Even those who understand the terminology may find it 'clinical', to use Amardeep's own description.


Lesley said...

Of course there's a large body of work, notably in discourse analysis, which studies the use of metaphor in formal scientific writing and tends to the conclusion that science actually depends very heavily on metaphor and metonym. Think, for example, of the name and perhaps even the very concept of "stem cells".

Jonathan said...

Thanks. I find it strange that that they (whoever 'they' are) refer to the making of analogies as 'metaphor'. I think that metaphor is too broad a term, and in my scientific life, I've never come across this word being used before. I'll have to look at this discourse analysis in more detail.

The concept of stem cells (after a very quick research on my part) is that there are cells in the body which have unattributed function and which can turn into other types of cell. How is this a metaphor?

Jonathan said...

Jon said... the metaphor that stem in stem cells derives from would seem to be the stem in plant, ie. the part of the plant which does not obviously illustrate the identity of the species but from which the identifiable parts originate. For example we say "this course of events stemmed from this" (initial happening).

Jonathan said...

Okay, I see. Yes, that's an interesting example because the stem of a plant and a stem cell are not really alike except in a conceptual, metaphorical way. This, I admit, is something I hadn't really thought of. Good point.

I'm going to have to try and think of some geological example of this...