Everything is Metaphor
“The Word is not the Thing,
The Word is not the Thing,
Hi-ho the derry-o — the Word is not the Thing!”
- Alan Watts
This article, these words you are reading — are metaphors. Fumbling attempts to grasp at a concept that is difficult to express and understand because the tools to try and understand it are themselves the blockages to understanding.
A metaphor is not something untrue — but something that reveals truth obliquely, within something that is not the truth itself.
Everything — every concept, every word, is but an analogue for actual Reality. (The ultimate truth behind what we consider to be ordinary reality). Concepts and language are our brain’s interpretation and communication of Reality through our limited senses, and through recognition of patterns.
We think of concepts as Reality — because without them we would have no way to understand Reality at all. But at the same time Reality is not the concept.
Take for example my above statement: “Reality is not the concept of reality”. You understand that, grasp it, sense there is a meaning behind the word “reality”. And yet, how to grasp it behind the veil of concepts and words?
So we use metaphor, poetry, story, archetypes, art. None of these things are “the true thing” either, but each are pin pricks through which the light of Reality can glimmer through in a diffuse, nebulous way, until we start to see a vague shape take form. (See what I did there? I had to use a metaphor because I couldn’t find any other way to explain what I meant).
Language is a metaphor (which is an ironic statement given that the word metaphor is a part of language). The words are associations between experiences across time, communicated in predictable ways. They are not the experience themselves. And yet 99.9% of the time we live our lives as if language and what language describes is the same thing. This is called reification: “when an abstraction (abstract belief or hypothetical construct) is treated as if it were a concrete real event or physical entity”.
Science is also a metaphor. This may seem shocking at first because we are used to thinking of science as “finding the truth about the universe”. But actually science is about making useful predictions about the universe by identifying repeating patterns and drawing relationships between things that are observed to occur. The statistician George Box famously said in 1974: “Essentially, all models are wrong, but some are useful”. What he meant was that statistical models and formulae are far more simplistic than real world. This is true for statistics, but it’s also true for things like physics and chemistry. The models used in classical physics describe “particles” (often depicted as a ball with orbiting electrons), and simple cause-effect relationships between them (such as Newton’s Laws).
But Newton’s Laws of Physics are metaphors for the workings of the universe, which are more complex and mysterious than can be described in a few formulae. That is not to say that Newton did not notice a pattern in Reality and describe it in a very useful predictable model — but the so-called Laws are constructed in such a way that are inherently metaphorical.
For example the First Law states that “an object at rest will stay at rest, and an object in motion will stay in motion unless acted on by a net external force”. This statement describes an extremely widespread and predictable pattern at the scale of human observation to the point that laypeople (and many scientists) often consider it a universal truth of reality.
But “the Law is not the Thing” either.
Newton’s equations are simplistic and condensed — describing a reality where the movement of objects is reducible to numbers, linear cause-and-effect. The idea that a single particle can be acted upon by a single other particle. Useful, elegant, but a metaphor nonetheless.
So if everything is a metaphor — what now?
The point of this article is not to denigrate the usefulness of scientific models or of language and concepts, but rather to remind you when we engage in reification we limit our ability to further understand Reality.
Use the models — use the metaphors — but never forget that there is always an underlying larger meaning behind them. and always strive to find better and more creative metaphors for it is only through them that we can ever discover truth.
“We all know that art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth, at least the truth that is given us to understand. The artist must know the manner whereby to convince others of the truthfulness of his lies.” — Pablo Picasso