I’ve commented before on “reading serendipity” – how things one happens to read consecutively bring together disparate ideas one would not have associated otherwise. In this case it started with a C S Lewis essay to which I was pointed by reading a quotation in an article. The essay in question is Bluspels and Flalansferes, which like the excellent book Studies in Words arises from Lewis’s professional life as a philologist.
The basic case is that the criticism, by certain positivist types in Lewis’s day, of those using “rhetorically metaphorical” (ie normal) language for scientific matters are blind guides. “It is impossible,” one of them had written, “thus to handle a scientific matter in metaphorical terms”. But Lewis points out that all language is irretrievably metaphorical. All that “rigorous” scientific language does is to replace one set of metaphors with another. He cites Owen Barfield:
On the contrary, [Barfield] maintained, “those who profess to eschew figurative expressions are really confining themselves to one very old kind of figure” — “they are absolutely rigid under the spell of those verbal ghosts of the physical sciences, which today make up practically the whole meaning-system of so many European minds”.
Lewis goes on to describe how metaphors arise, first in the primitive state of language, and then in explanations of new things. He shows, in fact, that it is often impossible to explain something to others, or even to ourselves, without constructing metaphors relating the new idea to something familiar.
He goes on to discuss what happens when people forget they are using metaphors, and in particular the situation in which people can think they are talking about something, when they are in fact just using an empty metaphor now drained of meaning, as if it meant something.
For example, to the primitive founders of language, to use the word “breath” for “spirit” (eg Hebrew “ruach” or Greek “pneuma” or even Latin “spiritus” – think of “spirit of turpentine”) may have been completely, or almost literal. We now use the word in a “supernatural” sense without even thinking of its derivation – but do we have any better understanding of it than they did? Perhaps we even have less, in that at least their concept was rooted deeply in real, physical life, whilst ours is a matter of nebulous speculation, or even disbelief.
In fact Lewis uses the word “soul” rather than “spirit” in the essay, and its Latin equivalent “anima” – which is another word for wind or breath anyway. And then he goes on to speak of how the wise and scientific have replaced such primitive ideas as “souls” with “literal truth”:
If we turn to those who are most anxious to tell us about the soul—I mean the psychologists—we shall find that the word anima has simply been replaced by complexes, repressions, censors, engrams, and the like. In other words the breath has been exchanged for tyings-up, shovings-back, Roman magistrates, and scratchings.
If we inquire what has replaced the metaphorical bright sky [the etymology of Latin “deus“] of primitive theology, we shall only get a perfect substance, that is, a completely made lying-under, or—which is very much better, but equally metaphorical—a universal Father, or perhaps (in English) a loafcarver, in Latin a householder, in Romance a person older than. The point need not be laboured. It is abundantly clear that the freedom from a given metaphor which we admittedly enjoy in some cases is often only a freedom to choose between that metaphor and others.
Lewis’s surprising conclusion – speaking as a self-confessed rationalist, as he explains – is that although reason is the arbiter of truth, the only way to approach meaning is through metaphor:
Those who have prided themselves on being literal, and who have endeavoured to speak plainly, with no mystical tomfoolery, about the highest abstractions, will be found to be among the least significant of writers: I doubt if we shall find more than a beggarly five per cent of meaning in the pages of some celebrated ‘tough-minded’ thinkers, and how the account of Kant or Spinoza stands, none knows but heaven. But open your Plato, and you will find yourself among the great creators of metaphor, and therefore among the masters of meaning. If we turn to Theology—or rather to the literature of religion—the result will be more surprising still; for unless our whole argument is wrong, we shall have to admit that a man who says heaven and thinks of the visible sky is pretty sure to mean more than a man who tells us that heaven is a state of mind. It may indeed be otherwise; the second man may be a mystic who is remembering and pointing to an actual and concrete experience of his own. But it is long, long odds. Bunyan and Dante stand where they did; the scale of Bishop Butler (and of better men than he) flies up and kicks the beam.
I find that fascinating – especially the idea that “sky” gives a better concept of heaven than something “deeper” – when one considers how much, 80 years after Lewis wrote, the tough-minded, no-nonsense “science is literal truth” approach is insisted upon even in science-faith discussion. One such example is contrasting the inappropriateness of such metaphorical concepts as divine design with “solid science”, such as the “fact of gravity”. Well, that leads to my next reading, which came through the letter box as I read Lewis’s essay, in the form of the Cambridge University Alumni magazine, CAM.
Some of the articles in this termly magazine are really interesting, like the one Stuart Conway Morris did a while ago on unexplained emergence in evolution – and of course the even better one one I co-authored on the University Folk Club. The one I turned to in this edition was by Peter Taylor Whiffen, on the implications of the discovery of gravitational waves this year. It’s a pretty good overview of the state of the science, and I think you can read it here by scrolling to page 38-39 and clicking “full-screen”.
But in fact the relevant quote for my purpose here is this, following on the bit about how the new discoveries may open the way to understanding gravity:
Although it was the first force to be described mathematically (by Isaac Newton in 1687), we still do not know how it really works – the best modern description is the general theory of relativity. We know what it does, but not what it is.
Well, that’s true. Thinking along Lewis’s line, the word “gravity” itself just means “heaviness”, which gets us no further than Aristotle’s “heaviness” (baros), except to translate it into Latin. Aristotle uses it as a quality of the natures of, well, heavy things, which directs them towards what is lower. Newtonian physics describes it as a “force”, which being interpreted is a “strength” – which is just to describe heaviness by a less precise word, except that one might look at a black hole and say, “The Force is strong with this one,” with about the same comprehension as when Daarth Vader says it about Luke Skywalker. Whereas “heaviness” was what Aristotle’s natures did naturally , gravity as a “force” is what they are forced to do by an invisible… something.
Well, in the nineteenth century, with Faraday’s terminology, gravity could become a “field” – perhaps one with waving corn forming ripples in the breeze – until the luminiferous ether in which such waves might travel was disproven, leaving it as an invisible, intangible, field in a vacuum, influencing us at a distance just as, in Newton’s time, the stars were superstitiously thought to do astrologically.
Now, of course, as the article says, we have general relativity, which tells us that gravity may be explained as a “deformation of the space-time continuum”. And, apart from an improved model for calculations, that is about as much superior to Aristotle’s “heaviness” for our understanding as “state of mind” is to “visible sky” as a description of heaven. Do you have any mental concept of a “continuum” (from Latin, a “hanging together”), or how space and time might hang together in such a way, or how such a hanging-together of whatever space and time are could actually be bent?
Now I don’t regard this proliferation of metaphors as a problem in itself, and certainly not as a failure of science. It is certainly a failure of science’s claim to look intently behind daily experience and find the literal truth about reality, if that were its claim. Replacing “heaviness” with “deformation of continuum” is just replacing an instinctive metaphor with an unimaginable one. But that’s not a criticism, because none of us knows what gravity is, in itself – any more than we know what “matter” or “energy” are – and we probably never will this side of glory, if then.
All science has described are less intuitive metaphors with predictive potential (especially when they are mathematical metaphors, for those differential equations are indeed metaphors). And that isn’t a problem either, until (as is, sadly, close to universal in our time) science is treated not as a way of making metaphors that model reality in a useful way, but as the definitive description of reality itself. And that description is absurdly believed to be hard and dependable, as opposed to all those vague things that can only be described in metaphorical terms, like souls, or heaven, or God, or design. Yet oddly, the only thing we know by experiencing it directly is “mind”. And that, according to the positivists, is an illusion.
But as Lewis showed back in the 1930s, not only may metaphors assist our hugely limited understanding: they are actually the only kind of understanding, through the power of human imagination, we will ever have even of the perishable world around us, quite apart from things of eternal import. It’s all similarly incomplete knowledge, but it’s all good, until you forget that it’s all also human imagery.
What do you know?