Friday, December 23, 2005

Embodied Knowledge - Part 2. Metaphorical Knowledge

In Part 1 we saw that all knowledge originates with our senses. This section describes how we use sensory experience to construct knowledge when we cannot directly experience something.

For complex things that are hard to understand, or for things we can't sense directly (maybe, unlike with bicycles, we don’t have direct access to the parts), we understand them through metaphors that draw from things we have sensed directly. Metaphors draw from things we already understand to help us understand things that are more complex or less easy to directly sense. All "higher" knowledge is created like this, constructed with metaphors based on the foundation of sensory experience.

Metaphors in the last sentence are indicated with italics:

  • Higher knowledge is
  • constructed with metaphors,
  • based on the foundation of sensory experience.

What this means for learning is that knowledge makes “sense” by linking to real world observations - by connecting with things we understand through sights, sounds, tastes, textures, smells, measures, weights, numbers counted...

And THIS MEANS that questions are best answered by exploring the world - either:

  1. directly exploring it (as discussed in Part 1), or
  2. by studying the direct explorations of other people, related to us with metaphors.

Metaphors that work, that help us understand things, are those that ground something abstract to something we are already familiar with. They build on knowledge we already understand very well, rooted in our sensory experience.


  1. "You need to take care of your health as a priority, even if you want to care for others. It's like the oxygen mask on the plane - you have to affix your own oxygen mask first or you might pass out and be useless to everyone else... So, to be of help to others, you need to be careful to take care of your basic needs."

Metaphors that don't work, that do not help us actually understand things in useful ways, are those that fail to ground the new understanding in things we already understand. They are either too abstract (too far removed from our experience) or fail to sensibly connect to the experience they're evoking - so they don't help us use the metaphor in our lives.

  1. "Its just energetic, man. You need to feel the vibrations, and you'll just know what you need to do."
  2. "Using these physics equations is like learning to ride a bike. You just need to practice, and once you get them, you just get them."
In example number one, the listener may feel reasurred or even encouraged by the metaphor. However, it is unlikely that the difficult decision of which cancer treatment your child should undergo will be made easier with intangible vibrations. The metaphor is ungrounded.

In example number two, the struggling student is unlikely to suddenly "get" the physics problem by writing it out over and over again. The metaphor doesn't translate well to the real situation.

If you are trying to understand cancer treatments, you may benefit from speaking to people who already understand them, and can answer your questions in ways that help nurture your understanding. If you want to learn how to solve physics problems, you may benefit from a patient and imaginative teacher who can suggest different ways of seeing the situation, until one of them works for you. So when you are trying to understand something that you can't explore all by yourself, you might try to find people who already understand it and will describe what they have seen or learned in a way that relate, metaphorically, to things you already know through your life experience.

Different kinds of metaphors:

If no one has invented the tools or techniques yet for directly exploring a particular subject, the next best thing is to use current knowledge (from direct experience of whatever we can study) to make educated guesses (using our best metaphors) about what we would find if we could explore the unexplorable system. And for this to be realistic, the guesswork has to somehow tie-in to things that are directly observable. This is called modelling, in the sense of making a model of something (a useful metaphor, no?). By relating to things that are directly observable, models can be used to make predictions - which can then be tested. By testing the predictions made by different models, researchers can choose the one that works the best. However, even the best models are still just models. The observations that inspire them are good solid real-world knowledge, but the models are just guesses, imaginary sketches of what something would look like if we could really see it.


When we learn about the phenomenon we call gravity, we are taught that things fall to the earth because they are "pulled" by the "force" of gravity. Pushing and pulling are things we understand with our real world experience. We talk about the effort expended when we push or pull on something as the amount of "force" we apply.

By calling gravity a "force", Isaac Newton (who first described gravity) was able to metaphorically explain something invisible in terms of things we all understand. He created mathematical equations that accurately predicted the accelaration of falling objects, and suggested that objects fall because they are being pulled by a force, which he called gravity.

Scientists have been following his lead for centuries, inventing creative metaphors to describe things that are difficult to understand. There was a time when they talked about heat as if it was an invisible weightless fluid called "caloric" that "flowed" from hot objects to cooler objects. Some physicists prefer to use the metaphor of tiny invisible "strings" instead of the metaphor of tiny invisible "particles" to describe the fundamental "building blocks" of the universe. String theory advocates explain what we observe in terms of the "vibrations" of the tiny invisible strings. Quantum physicists explain the world in terms of tiny particle like "packets" of energy that are waves or particles depending on how you look at them...

The point with all these different ways of understanding the world around us is that they are METAPHORS. You can't see a sub-atomic wave-particle, and you can't see a sub-atomic vibrating string.

When someone comes up with a new model that allows them to use an established branch of mathematics to make new predictions, which are tested and come true, people tend to get really excited as though they've made a new "discovery" (a metaphor which suggests that you have uncovered something and can now see it). This is not accurate. Nothing was uncovered.

What they have done is come up with a new, and statistically useful, model. It may help make predictions. It may even help us work with invisible wave-particles... But it doesn't uncover anything. Instead, it organizes our observations according to an imaginary framework that is new and exciting for us.

In summary, so far:
  1. The origin of all knowledge is sensory experience.
  2. Things that cannot be directly experience are conceptualized in terms of things that can be (with metaphors).
  3. Special metaphors called models are used to make predictions about things that can be experienced, and when they work the models are used AS IF they represent knowledge of real things.
The next section will deal with how to use this understanding to answer the questions we ask about life, the universe, and everything...


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