Clumsy metaphors obstruct clear understanding

Of all human phenomena that are taken for granted as fixed points at the street level of our understanding, it is hard to beat language. Look no further than the deeply ignorant and ahistorical view of The Bible as purportedly representing the “literal word of God” when two millennia of conflict, translations, version control issues and the cynical manipulation of human credulity have interceded between whatever happened on the road to Damascus and our world today.

In the time since St Paul, has our understanding of the universe moved on much? The urge to explain one phenomenon in the language of another encouraged people to see Newtonian physics in terms of the coolest technology of that time, comparing God to a watchmaker. From this metaphor emerged the teleological argument by design: a watch is a product of design and thus requires a designer; the universe is clearly more complicated than a watch and so requires a super-intelligent designer, a deity. Prompting this retort: why a watch; not a kangaroo? There is more of an organic link between a universe and a kangaroo than between a universe and a watch. The problem of course is that, on The Kangaroo model of creation, the universe would have emerged as the progeny of two other universes.

Our clumsy attempts to explain living tissue phenomena in the language of the cool technologies of evolving time have seen us move from watches through motors and rockets to computers, and our challenge in understanding intelligence becomes over-complicated if we lean too much on terms like brain hardware and software, hard-wiring, and neural re-booting. There is no clarity in metaphorical blind alleys.

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