Metaphors and many-sidedness
"Physics is not about how the world is, it is about what we can say about the world."
As noted previously, we can characterise the same underlying actuality by various metaphors—e.g., the wave-particle duality of light. Similarly, one might describe love as: madness, magic, magnetism, etc. Which of these is love? None, of course—all are merely metaphors. This is the point from Blumenberg on which the last piece ended:
Man's deficiency in specific dispositions for reactive behavior vis-a-vis reality—that is, his poverty of instincts—is the starting point for the central anthropological question as to how this creature is able to exist in spite of his lack of fixed biological dispositions. The answer can be reduced to the formula: by not dealing with this reality directly. The human relation to reality is indirect, circumstantial, delayed, selective, and above all “metaphorical.”
What the first part of this quote emphasises is that this indirect or metaphorical relationship between language and actuality allows for a degree of creative freedom. Of course, this freedom is never absolute.
The root of metaphor is to ‘carry across,’ hence metaphors carry our understanding from one domain to another. Typically this entails a movement from concrete to abstract—e.g., from ‘magnetism’ to ‘love,’ from ‘building’ to ‘argument.’ Everywhere we find that meaning ultimately refers back to concrete and embodied understandings. Few are the words whose etymologies are not grounded in something concrete—if you can point me to any examples at all I would be most interested to hear. The point I’m gesturing towards here is that the symbolic content of concrete experience provides the basis of all abstract understanding; with the root of abstract, of course, meaning ‘to draw from’—it is this from which all is drawn. This suggests a possible limit on our understanding, though also some interesting possibilities with technology, virtual reality, dreams, and hallucinogenic drugs.
Even the word ‘literal,’ for instance, comes from ‘to do with letters.’ We might imagine that written letters, due to their highly asynchronous communication, required a writing style that minimised ambiguity as much as possible. This seems to have meant a style which emphasised the concrete and avoided more open metaphors. Yet it is precisely in this ambiguity, which ‘literal’ language seeks to avoid, that we find the creative possibilities of language.
Taking the example of a letter, we might explore further the notion of ‘truth’ in respect to language. If we ask the truth of a metaphor where there is some ambiguity, the truth is that meaning which the speaker intended—we might call this the truth of their ideality. Yet suppose they are making some claim, then there is a further truth; this we might call the truth in reality. And beyond each of these there is the truth with which the prior article was concerned, that of actuality. For each of these three, we might say that they are increasingly uncertain: the first we can ask about, the second is more or less relative, and the third is inexpressible. We are in this article concerned with the second of these, that of truth in reality—it is this with which language is concerned, or rather, which language constitutes.
Here we may remember the problem of wave-particle duality, as referenced in the previous article. As a solution to this, albeit also of more general applicability, Bohr proposed the principle of complementarity:
The apparently incompatible sorts of information about the behavior of the object under examination which we get by different experimental arrangements can clearly not be brought into connection with each other in the usual way, but may, as equally essential for an exhaustive account of all experience, be regarded as ‘complementary’ to each other.
This principle seems reasonable enough; and moreover, to be required by the circumstances at hand in physical science. To some that these words came from the mouth of so respected a scientist, or that my argument seems grounded in the natural sciences, may make all this more or convincing. As for myself, these are not scientific facts but metaphors that gesture towards a hidden figure. Hence while the science here provides examples suited to a materialistic age, as well as demonstrating the conformity of even the ‘hardest’ of fields, in no way does the underlying truth rest upon these specific instances.
This is most obvious in the fact that far prior Jain philosophers had already put forward a perspective of reality entirely in agreement with that outlined thus far—and more, with ‘postmodernism’! Here I will sketch only an outline, while in an upcoming article I will delve further into it and the logic which follows from it—as well as contrasting this with that which is dominant in the Western tradition.
The central principle in Jain epistemology is anekantavada (non-one-sidedness, many-sidedness). We can see this as a radical extension of the principle of complementarity which Bohr tentatively posited. Yet where this is an addendum to our worldview, for Jain philosophy it is a central tenet. If you are familiar with the tale of the ‘blind man and the elephant’ then, whether you realise it or not, you have been exposed to a parable of anekantavada. The moral of which John Godfrey Saxe put thus:
So oft in theologic wars,
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!
A short series on fundamentals, metaphors and many-sidedness: