Of Metaphors, Models, and Malarkey
METAPHORS ARE INTENDED TO ELUCIDATE AND CLARIFY, BUT DO THEY ALWAYS?
Do not mistake obscurity for depth of thought ...
Not being understandable does translate into being profound. And frequently, what is incomprehensible is so simply because it is, in fact, meaningless.
Make no mistake, you can string words together into sentences that appear superficially to be saying something, but which are actually nonsensical.
Where difficult concepts and ideas are involved, metaphors and conceptual models can often be used to facilitate understanding. However, it is critical, I submit, not to confuse metaphors with conceptual models and, moreover, to always avoid being mesmerized by one's own metaphors, lest one's thoughts are led into the quagmire of obscurity.
A metaphor is a figure of speech often used to elucidate an idea, occurrence, process, or system when these are too abstract or complicated to be readily understood directly.
For example, one might talk about "the trapdoor of clinical depression" as a way of describing in familiar terms how people can "fall" into depression unexpectedly and have difficulty "climbing" back out to a normal life. One might even go on to talk about the dark thoughts of depressions being like rats scurrying about in a lightless cellar (of the mind). In which case the trap door, the dark cellar, and the rats become elements of a relatively elaborate metaphor for clinical depression.
However, it would be a mistake to think that, in this case, one can learn much if anything factual about clinical depression from the trapdoor/cellar metaphor. Moreover, if one insists on trying, the result is likely to be confusion, not elucidation, obscurity, not clarity — in a word, malarkey.
Because a metaphor is not a model ...
A model is also a device employed to elucidate an idea, occurrence, process, or system, when these are too abstract or complicated to be readily understood directly or when the phenomena being discussed are not directly observable.
There are different kinds of models, both physical and conceptual.
Some physical models are precisely that, miniatures of full-size physical objects, such as airplanes, automobiles, and ships. Often such physical models are deployed in purpose-created testing environments, such as wind tunnels and test tanks, for the purpose of investigating the likely behaviors of the full-size object(s) being studied.
A classic instance of physical modeling is the behavior of running water in pipes modeling the behavior of electricity running through wires.
You cannot directly observe electrical current being carried in through wires. (Note, you can observe the effects of such current, but that is not to observe the current itself.) You can, however, observe water running through pipes. And you can gain insight into the relationships between electrical voltage, amperage, and resistance by considering the relationships between pressure, flow volume, and cross-sectional constriction in the piping carrying the water.
Some conceptual models are actually mathematical formulae, in which the relative behaviors of multiple elements in an equation "mirror" those of elements in a physical system. Such mathematical models are common in Engineering, where elements of formulae represent properties of materials and structures in the physical world, and in which manipulation of such contained elements provides insight into, for instance, how to achieve the highest load-bearing capability in a given structure at the lowest unit weight.
Models can also be parsed as either descriptive or predictive, and as fully isomorphic or only partially so. But an important characteristic of conceptual models is that their internal elements bear a relationship to one another that "mirrors" the relationship between the internal elements of the subject system being modeled. Prime examples of this are the predictive (both statistical and dynamical) models on the basis of which a lot of hurricane forecasting is performed.
Once a sufficient level of isomorphism is established between a model and subject system it models, the model itself can be explored for insights into the workings of the subject system. And that is an important reason models are created and manipulated in a scientifically and logically rigorous manner.
Metaphors, similes, and analogies grease the wheels of Appreciation but they do not lubricate the drill of Insight ...
Metaphors, similes, analogies are literary stylistic devices. They are neither constructed nor probed for validity and confirmation in the way scientific and conceptual models are. We should, therefore, not look to such devices for factual or normative insights or conclusions.
More importantly, when such a conclusion is presented, we should not be hypnotized by the undulating fluidity of a metaphor or analogy offered up in its support. For when we do, we invite Malarkey and its cousin, Gibberish, to the conversation. — Phil Friedman
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Should you be curious about some of my previous musings along similar lines, you're invited to take a look at the following prior posts:
As to the origin of the quote from Chung King, see
About me, Phil Friedman: With some 30 years background in the marine industry, I've worn different hats — as a yacht designer, boat builder, marine operations and business manager, marine industry consultant, marine marketing and communications specialist, yachting magazine writer and editor, yacht surveyor, and marine industry educator. I'm also trained and experienced in interest-based negotiation and mediation.
In a previous life, I was formally trained as an academic philosopher and taught logic and philosophy at university.
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