In the market for metaphor: Bacon’s idol

Francis Bacon

Francis Bacon - the sciency one. Not the painter.

The Elizabethan English statesman and father of modern science, Sir Francis Bacon 1st Viscount of St. Alban, had a rather interesting system for describing how human nature and scientific thinking were somewhat incompatible. Described as ‘idols’ – which loosely translates in this context as a simulacrum or illusion – these four categories covered various conflicts between the tribal nature of homo sapien and its quest to employ a range of philosophical tools to better understand nature.

The one I find most interesting would be ‘idola fori’, the so-called ‘idol of the marketplace’. This tendency of human behaviour concerns the limitations of language in describing, sharing and critically evaluating our ideas. At its core, it is about the limitations imposed by our attempts to describe what we see in words and symbols and about the incongruity between raw sensation and the process of converting stimuli into thoughts so we can manipulate our view of the world within our imagination.

The impact symbolic thinking has on how we think is well documented, even if its full extent continues to be debated. We use words to carve up the universe into categories and impose meaning onto it. Yet given the fundamental nature of how language operates, this process is easily contaminated by unintended connotations.

Terms I frequently come across in articles describing evolution are best described as Lamarckian in nature, for example. Adaptation is oddly expressed as the will of an organism rather than a feature of universal laws. An example can be found in this Wired article;

Prehistoric oxygen levels extrapolated from ancient mineral sediments suggest aquatic life went into overdrive after plants boosted atmospheric oxygen levels. Oceans became so fiercely competitive that some fish sought safe haven outside them.

I doubt the author of the piece truly imagined the event as evolution directed by the express wishes of a fish, where a species of aquatic animal collectively gave due thought to where they should go and flip-flopped out of harm’s way. The influence such language has on how other might understand evolution, however, lends it a teleological attribute that is rarely intended by the communicator. It is often done for want of brevity and simplicity rather than an attempt to impose supernatural whim onto an impersonal process. Yet as Sir Bacon knew all too well back in the 17th century, language can be a bitch to master to perfection and the innocent use of some terms can make it easier for misunderstanding to develop where least expected. As a writer, I often struggle to find that balance of clear meaning and accuracy while connecting with the audience’s interest and cultural understanding.

CancerMetaphors are at once both a danger and an inescapable reality of communication. Many words start off purely analogical and evolve with time. Consider ‘cancer’, the Greek word for ‘crab’. It had been adopted during ancient times to describe the branching appearance of a tumour, with its bolstered blood vessels resembling the crooked limbs of an arthropod. Few people would drop pots off in an estuary while claiming they’re going hunting for cancer today, demonstrating the evolution of the word from metaphor to denotation over the centuries.

British science writer and psychologist Susan Blackmore recently recanted her previous belief that religion was a virus, on considering data that showed it held biological benefits. I found it a rather confusing change of heart; not so much that she now saw the relationship between religion and health in a different light, but that she found the metaphorical language to no longer be useful. Obviously religion isn’t a protein-parcel of invasive RNA, meaning the term was used for its qualities of replication within a host environment. Yet Blackmore added one more quality to her use of the term – viruses were necessarily detrimental. If a behaviour that replicated itself through a population did good things, she felt it could no longer be viewed as a virus. She states;

But unless we twist the concept of a “virus” to include something helpful and adaptive to its host as well as something harmful, it simply does not apply.

The fact that we disagree is neither here nor there. The word ‘virus’ itself was originally metaphorical in nature, borrowed from a word that meant slimy poison or noxious sap to refer to a noxious particle smaller than a bacterium yet was still capable of replicating within a host. While the term retains a thin vestige of its poisonous connotation, we now understand that viruses need not necessarily be damaging to be categorised as such. And yet for Blackmore, it its pathogenic nature that founded her initial borrowing of the word.

There have been calls in the past by various individuals to abandon our use of metaphor in specific situations. Most notably was Susan Sontag, who wrote ‘Illness as Metaphor‘ following her treatment for breast cancer. Unfortunately, while it was written with best intentions, it naively believes metaphor is a simple linguistic construct that can be removed from language, much like a tumour itself.

Not only can it not be excised from our box of communication tools, metaphor lies at the very foundation of how we see the world. Every new thing is compared with what we already know. New knowledge cannot be created ex nihilo; it has to germinate in a much of old words and pre-existing beliefs until it is strong enough to stand independently. While the Idol of the Marketplace needs to be viewed as a potential impediment to science, science fundamentally relies upon the analogous nature of symbolic thought to make sense of observations. Just as evolution cannot suddenly produce a bird from a fish within a generation, ideas also evolve from origins of metaphors, analogies and similes.

There’s no doubt we have to take care with how we select our words to communicate only what we desire, no more and no less. Birds never wanted to fly in search of food, disease doesn’t seek out to destroy its host and metaphors always have their limits. Bacon encouraged an approach to science that avoided the troublesome idols. Rather than avoid metaphor, we need to better understand its role in language, given it’s such a solid part of not just how we communicate but how we think about nature.

Published in: on September 30, 2010 at 2:45 pm  Comments (1)  

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  1. Thanks for a good post. This reminds me of a lecture I attended with Douglas Hofstadter in which he spoke of how we use analogies all the time when we think (in the form of associations perhaps), as different from what cognitive scientists used to think.

    My mental model of this is attractor points, where the center of the attractor is a well-known concept. The closer to the center, the more similar the concept. Often when a new concept appears (in peoples minds) it seems it’s drawn into their closest center concepts, although it’s not *exactly* that. It only forms a center of its own if the concept is repeated often enough (or perhaps if the differences are repeated often enough).

    There’s probably some built-in function in our minds to reduce as much new information as possible to previous knowledge (or discard it if it’s too hard to learn or incorporate).

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