Magazine article Skeptic (Altadena, CA)

What's It like? the Science of Scientific Analogies: A Review of Surfaces and Essences: Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking by Douglas Hofstadter and Emmanuel Sander

Magazine article Skeptic (Altadena, CA)

What's It like? the Science of Scientific Analogies: A Review of Surfaces and Essences: Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking by Douglas Hofstadter and Emmanuel Sander

Article excerpt

Basic Books, 2013. 592 pps. $35.00 ISBN-13: 978-0465018475

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

To FULLY UNDERSTAND THE SIGNIFICANCE of the argument made by Douglas Hofstadter and Emmanuel Sander in their new book Surfaces and Essences: Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking, one must first be familiar with the fence (not a wall) separating mathematics and science from the humanities. Physicists, for example, are trained to see mathematics as the only "real" way of understanding scientific phenomena. Many great physicists explain their concepts to lay audiences using metaphors and analogies, but often regard this process as sharing Platonic shadows with those who could not comprehend the ideal. As a brief aside into the history of analogical thinking in philosophy will show, a good many serious thinkers have been widening the gaps in this fence for a while now. However, not only do Hofstadter and Sander want to tear the fence down--they seek to have the humanities annex mathematics entirely. Central to their argument is that even Einstein's insights came to him primarily in the form of analogy. While the authors answer no significant philosophical or theoretical questions, their argument does open new pathways for approaching these questions. (1)

As is often the case in philosophy, the analogical approach has intellectual ancestors. Perhaps the first statement about the concept can be attributed to the Enlightenment philosopher Joshua Reynolds, who in 1776 wrote:

   This search and study of the history of
   the mind ought not to be confined to
   one art only. It is by the analogy that
   one art bears to another, that many
   things are ascertained, which either
   were but faintly seen, or, perhaps,
   would not have been discovered at all,
   if the inventor had not received the
   first hints from the practices of a sister
   art on a similar occasion. (2)

The counterintuitive idea here is that if a thinker wants to advance in an academic field, then she should study widely outside that field in search of analogies that can then be superimposed on problems from the original field. Here Reynolds is identifying the centrality of analogical thinking for the sciences.

Although Ludwig Wittgenstein's famously impenetrable 1921 Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus continues to spark controversy--largely because of its vagueness--modern forays into epistemology rescue the core of Wittgenstein's philosophy. He wrote, for example: (3)

2.063 The total reality is the world.

2.1 We make to ourselves pictures of facts.

2.11 The picture presents the facts in logical space, the existence and nonexistence of atomic facts.

2.12 The picture is a model of reality.

2.13 To the objects correspond in the picture the elements of the picture.

2.131 The elements of the picture stand, in the picture, for the objects.

2.14 The picture is a fact.

2.15 That the elements of the picture are combined with one another in a definite way, represents that the things are so combined with one another. This connexion of the elements of the picture is called its structure, and the possibility of this structure is called the form of representation of the picture.

2.151 The form of representation is the possibility that the things are combined with one another as are the elements of the picture.

2.1211 The picture is linked with reality; it reaches up to it.

2.1512 It is like a scale applied to reality.

Here Wittgenstein presages Leonard Mlodinow and Stephen Hawking's theoretical position of Model-Dependent Realism (MDR) by noting that the mind makes models based upon "atomic facts." (4) Wittgenstein does not deign to explain his concepts and phrases, but by putting his words into a philosophical context, we may infer that "atomic facts" refers to the way that objects are before they are perceived by human senses. …

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