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Memories of the 28th Century

Parallels In Meanings

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I thought that I had already written a neat little piece on metaphor, but I canít find it. Maybe I didnít actually write it but only thought about writing it, or maybe I donít have a copy of it. That was back in the days when I was reading everything by Umberto Eco (He has written more since then, so I will have to read some more.) Eco has a section in The Role of the Reader about metaphor, and I will have to reread that, or skim it at least. He wrote of circuitous paths from item A to the meaning of the metaphor that item A represents. That might be reasonable in some cases, but, one evening when I was drinking while writing, I pictured the database of my mind. Everything is in it, and it is catalogued by item and type as well as figurative meaning, and it includes not just words and phrases but things. The image I got that night was of an array of bottles of many types with the bottle from which I was drinking being in the center. The variations in shape and label spread from that single bottle. Thus the bottle I was drinking from was a representative of the array, and it could stand for any of the others. As my view showed me things farther away, I saw that ketchup bottles started showing up, because they have the same general shape as beer bottles. Even farther off there were other sorts of brown bottles and clear or green bottles with long necks. It isnít important that I was drinking ale that evening, but developing a concept of my memory as a database that sorted things by appearance was important. Metaphors are parallels in meanings, especially where there are related items that have similar relations with the object and the metaphoric item.

It is easy to use a PC as a metaphor for the human brain, because both do some of the same things. The components of a PC are clear and relatively simple compared to the components of a human brain, and metaphors are designed to show something in a simplified way. Thatís only one of the great many possible metaphors. Some of the possible metaphors are quite obscure, which is fine (if someone is interested in being obscure), but the best metaphors make comments or suggestion about what they refer to. Metaphors also help to jog the memory about whatever by setting up a set of related items. You may not be able to remember one term right off, but, if you remember one of the related terms, then you are more likely to recall the other related terms.

Reasoning is also done by metaphor; metaphors are just one variety of analogy. If two items are parallel in one way, then they may have similar relationships in other ways. If the stored data of a PC can be erased by reformatting the hard drive, then there may be a similar process for people. Sometimes reasoning by analogy can be funny, but it often is a useful tool.

Then thereís the matter of language. Words sometimes change in meaning, and the changes are often in response to popular figures of speech. For example, ďas sly as a fox has led to people being called foxes, then there are women who are called foxes; the meaning is different, but it is another metaphor. And ďfat as a pigĒ is frequently contracted into just ďpigĒ, and there are many, many more.

The parallels that I mentioned in my last post were largely metaphors or analogies that were used to make complicated concepts easy to understand. In earlier times poetic forms were sometimes used to describe things that do not lend themselves to detailed descriptions. The nature of the universe was such a thing, and it is still often discussed in terms that are not direct. For examples, Athena, the Goddess of wisdom, sprang fully formed from the head of Zeus. That tells us not only where thinking is done, but it also declares that wisdom is something that is derived from the chief God. Metaphors of that sort often eventually come to be said in ordinary words, rather than indirectly, but some become stories that are told so many times that people come to believe them; parts of the Bible are of this sort.

Some of the terms used by mages and other wise people through the ages are even worse. It isnít easy to develop a complete set of scientific nomenclature, and the first pieces of it are probably more difficult than later details. Just imagine yourself using a language as it existed twenty thousand years ago. The concepts of element, radio frequency, ultra-violet, relativity, the science of mechanics, and so on did not exist. At that time there werenít even any metals, but there was knowledge of the characteristics of various kinds of stone. Imagine how difficult it would have been to describe in detail a steel knife. The situation is similar with all words, because they are just signs of that to which they refer. Language (and I just mean spoken language now, because written language is a separate semiotic system) is an amazing thing. People make noises, and other people, hearing those noises, understand a concept or thing instead of mere noise, and the range of meaning is vast. Anything that canít be expressed in language is of questionable validity. Those peculiar noises that humans make are signs that represent something of a different nature; thus all language is metaphor or analogy for something. Some of the specific words that alchemists came up with while developing the science of chemistry are completely incomprehensible now.

Whether one is communicating about quantum mechanics or magic, the same language is used, and some of the details are very similar. I sometimes wonder whether such similarities might be tricks of language Ė There is no other way of saying something, so it sounds like something else that might be said in similar terms. But if two things are described as being similar, then they are similar in some way, or ways. The Kabbalistic concept of the Totality is similar to the concept of the Many Worlds Interpretation in Quantum Theory. I suppose that they may both be just hot air, but it might truly be that the disciplines are converging.

Similarly, what we perceive as something is also a stand-in for the thing. We only see light that reflected from something, not the thing. Thus our minds do not hold maps of our experiences; they hold maps of how we experienced that world. It makes me wonder what the world really is, but I have words that can be used to express that. I am (and I expect we all are) a step back in a world of metaphors and parallels.

There is a lot more to be said about this, so Iíll get back to it.