08 May 2010

Slow Degradation in a Metaphorical Fire

Analogies are powerful tools. We use them a lot, really we do. We use them anytime we are trying to describe a complex topic when all other metaphors fail. Analogies are in fact a form of metaphor that we use to describe something in parallel to something else. When we use a metaphor we use other items to describe the subject at hand; with an analogy we compare the subject at hand to another topic and thus infer using “if, then” statements how one works based on the other.

Analogies simply enough; you pick a complex topic, say ‘life’, then you pick a less complex thing to compare it to, ‘skydiving’: life is like skydiving. This statement is of course true, to a point. When you go skydiving you instructions from an expert while you’re on the ground, then you load up in a plane, take off and jump. When you jump you get to prove how well you listened to the instructions. Once you’ve landed safely a little car comes and picks you up and takes you back to base. You get a little piece of paper congratulating you on a successful dive (and if you paid enough money you get pictures and a video too). Now you are a skydiving expert. So it is in life that you start out for about 18 years getting instructions from an ‘expert, before you load up into a plane called “school”, take off and then jump into your own life. When you jump you get to prove how well you listened to the instructions. Once you’ve landed safely you get in your little car and drive back to your home. You get a little piece of paper saying “you’re married” (and if you paid enough money you get pictures and a video too). Now you are an expert on life and can raise a family.

Only it’s not really like that at all. Life isn’t so clearly divided into instruction and action. While skydiving even once gives you some experience, having been a child does little to teach effective parenting skills. Particularly considering how little of our earliest years we remember. Skydiving allows for little feedback in new experiences: that is you can’t keep making small tweaks the entire dive. On the other hand, life allows, and in many ways demands, that you make constant modifications in order to land safely.

The metaphor works on the beginning levels – when talking about the stages of skydiving compared to the stage of life – but breaks down as it gets more analogous – when we continue the metaphor into having been a child allows one to be a good parent.

Degradation should be expected as the analogy gets deeper. If there was something that was a perfect analogy of something else you would find that they are in fact the same thing, at least morally and philosophically. They have to be.

But the point of an analogy is to help others understand something by relating it to something they already know or can at least imagine. In the skydiving example, most people can at least picture described process of preparing and jumping in a way they might not be able to imagine preparing and jumping into life. This parallelism is what makes analogies so rich and important in our daily communications: they are designed to expand understanding in a new field.

It is important when participating in metaphors and analogies, or expanding our knowledge in any other way, to be able to separate the tools of expansion, that is the metaphor and the analogy, from the actual expansion itself: a deeper understanding of preparing for, and jumping into, life. Coupled with this ability to separate is the ability to identify when a given metaphor has grown into an analogy through complexity and later what the analogy has outgrown our knowledge, breaking down and falling apart, and thus is no longer able to sustain our newly gained understanding. This process is similar to the expansion of truth, rather our perception of truth, through time as we grow our understanding and expand our knowledge.

As metaphors and analogies break down it may be necessary to develop a new analogy, but caution should be exercised before doing so. Remembering that the entire purpose of the metaphor or analogy was to help us understand something we couldn’t otherwise grasp we should ask: “has understanding expanded enough to allow us to learn the actual thing instead of something that is like the thing?” We should always strive to get along without any metaphor or analogy as they can hinder a more real understanding. Plus, not using the crutch of an analogy removes the problem of degradation altogether.

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