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Saturday, January 15, 2005

Ivory Towers and Ivory Basements

Long ago, in the kingdom of Mystonia, there was an ivory tower. It rose above an ivory castle which was planted in turn above a suitably ivory basement. In the tower lived the supreme intellects of the land, who shielded from the unwelcome bustle of everyday life, thought of perfect forms algebraic and crystalline. Meanwhile, down in the basement below, the accounting firm of Watson and Skinner inventoried all the facts of Mystonia in a perpetual and beautiful audit. This was reality, true science even, and it was all a reflection of ethereal ideas and inventoried facts.

If only, the Ivorians philosophers and accountants thought, the children would understand. Romping in the fields or shepherding livestock, the children dreamed, like dreamers always do of fantastical images which expanded and contracted reality in wholly new ways. Roaming the hills, young Albert thought of descending in an elevator at infinite speed, while little Isaac sat under a tree and wondered how a falling apple was like a falling moon. Meanwhile, young shepherd boys Kent and Jaak wondered that if animals could speak, what would they say?

The Ivorians called to task their dreaming youngsters, and in an intellectual scold, told them that reality was not in a child’s imagination of time and space and affective states but in abstract and disembodied facts. To them, metaphor was alien to the pursuit of scientific truth, and the sooner they abandoned anthropomorphizing the world the better. But the children protested. They had performed their homework, and had done the math. And indeed, the metaphorical mind experiments of youth could be translated into the finer metaphor of mathematics, and be used to give meaning as well as measure to the world.

But the Ivorians remained unconvinced, and with a huff shuttled back to their dim abodes. Meanwhile, the children went back to play, and when they grew up as Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton, Kent Berridge and Jaak Panksepp, reinvented the world.

When we think of science we think of its settled results, ideas that are refined and distilled into abstract language of mathematics, the genome, and rates of behavior. But the history of science and scientific thinking tells us otherwise. As any physicist will tell you, the mathematics on a chalkboard reflects the imprint of metaphor, as the ideas that spin in their minds reflect fantastic notions of the big and the small, of time and space. It’s only when you write it down that it seems so incomprehensible. Like music, intellectual symphonies start in the mind not as notes, but as sounds. And so it is for all the sciences, from physics to biology. Lately, this same Ivorian argument, long a non issue in the physical sciences, has riven psychology. As neuroscience reveals that the mind is moved by its pleasures and pains as much as a body is moved by gravity and inertia, the Ivorians rustle again, and reassert mental life is no more than a dull collection of behavioral or neural objects or disembodied mentalistic entities like will or desire. But they will shuffle off as before, while the children will reinvent the world.

What the Ivorians did not understand, and do not understand to this day, is that reality does not wink at you from a mosaic of facts, and neither is it apprehended solely as a mathematical abstraction. It is one thing that comes from a binding of things, the metaphors of mundane experience with the abstract metaphors of language. Metaphors are the ties that bind reality to our world and our abstract projection of our world. To see this dual edged coin is at once to romp in the field, think thoughts with color, sound, and fury, and distilled into an inescapable logic, to reinvent the world

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