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Wrong metaphors

Published on 15 July 2013
Updated on 12 April 2024

Alasdair Macintyre is a well-known philosopher. He begins his book, After Virtue, with a metaphor:

Imagine that the natural sciences were to suffer the effects of a catastrophe. […] A Know-Nothing political movement takes power and abolishes science. […] Later, in a reaction […], people seek to revive science, although they have largely forgotten what it was. But all they possess are fragments: […] not always fully legible because they are torn and charred. Nonetheless, all these fragments are re-embodied in a set of practices that go under the revived name of physics. Adults argue with each other about the respective merits of relativity theory, evolutionary theory, and phlogiston theory. […] Nobody, or almost nobody, realizes that what they do or say is not natural science in any proper sense at all. For everything they do and say conforms to certain canons of consistency and coherence, and those contexts which would be needed to make sense of what they are doing have been lost, perhaps irretrievably […] Subjectivist theories of science would appear and would be criticized by those who held that the notion of truth embodied in what they took to be science was incompatible with subjectivity.

– Alasdair Macintyre, After Virtue

The book, which is a study in moral theory, is considered a classic. I’ve started reading it but have encountered ‘heavy weather’ with his metaphors – in fact, on the very first page. They may sink his argument (or at least my interest). Let me explain.

Well, that ‘context’ has made science a vogue since Thomas S. Kuhn (see The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas S. Kuhn). In Macintyre’s extreme formulation, it is humbug. Take the elements of the periodic table. The table has been a brute fact ever since shortly after the Big Bang and will continue to be so until the world ends. No ‘social context’ can change this fact. If knowledge about this brute fact is destroyed, a few years or centuries of the scientific method will bring back the original knowledge, no more, no less, no different.

The process of discovery of brute facts moves from inklings and fragments to an understanding of the whole. We may never reach the full ‘truth’, but we’ll arrive at ever more reliable approximations. As we assemble the pieces of knowledge into a theory, the ‘context’ may hold us back, making us sceptical at first of the emerging evidence. We may go through a ‘Ptolemaic’ stage, followed by a ‘Copernican’ stage, but the end is fixed and determined by brute fact. No ‘context’ can bring back Ptolemy. The brute fact is the cliff against which all ‘context’ waves break and divide.

Science is not mere contingent history. Winding up the tape of science history and playing it out again will certainly yield a different path to knowledge, but not an altered outcome. In no way will the new periodic table of elements show a periodicity of 10 instead of 8. That’s why we talk about discoveries and not inventions or social realities.

Having established this (dubious) metaphor, Macintyre sets out to assert the following:

In the actual world which we inhabit, the language of morality is in the same state of grave disorder as the language of natural science in the imaginary world which I described. What we possess, if this view is true, are the fragments of a conceptual scheme, parts of which now lack those contexts from which their significance is derived. We possess indeed simulacra of morality; we continue to use many of the key expressions. But we have – very largely, if not entirely – lost our comprehension, both theoretical and practical, of morality. […] A prerequisite for understanding the present disordered state of the imaginary world was to understand its history.

The problem with this metaphor is the implicitly granular view of ‘morality’. It is the idea that morality was created by, say, Socrates and passed on through the ages like a self-contained ball of knowledge. In an ideal world, such a ‘ball of knowledge’ would reach us unchanged. History has been cruel to morality, and we only have crumbs, while most of its content has been lost. Reconstruct history, and – pronto – we’ll have morality again in its full form.

Again, in this extreme formulation, it is humbug. Let’s assume that Socrates developed a full, coherent and self-contained conceptual scheme of ‘morality’. He taught it to Plato. What Socrates was able to transmit in words, deeds, and gestures is a fraction of his original intent. (I’m assuming that Socrates is ‘fully rational’ – in fact, we are quite opaque to ourselves, so Socrates may not have fully understood the logic of his own message.) Chan Buddhism is wary of words and favours gestures. In fact, it denies the role of teaching and favours immediate experience.

Plato listened to Socrates, and what he understood may not have much to do with Socrates’ original thought. It is the curse of reception. But let’s assume that the reception was faithful. Enter experience. We live by experience, and anything we think is permanently stained by it. Socrates’ death transformed Plato, just to make an example. After Socrates’s death, Plato saw the world differently. An analogy from biology: I retain the sense of identity despite the fact that by now, all my cells have been replaced, not once, but several times. The same applies to concepts and conceptual schemes. I may retain their memory, but experience has irretrievably covered up the original meaning. Add to this our situational stance. We change our minds in response to the social context. We do so without noticing this. What Plato taught his students was not Socrates’ thought. And so down the ages: what we have today are indeed faint shadows of Plato’s ideas.

Ideas are not particulate: we cannot establish a series of beats and trace the lineage faithfully down the ages, as we do with horses. Where does this weird view come from? I reckon it is a byproduct of evolutionary thinking. Dawkins has introduced the concept of ‘meme’ – in analogy to ‘gene’, and he even speaks of ‘selfish meme’ as a mirror phenomenon of his ‘selfish gene’ (see Cultural Evolution: How Darwinian Theory Can Explain Human Culture and Synthesize the Social Sciences by Alex Mesoudi and The Theory of Cultural and Social Selection by W. G. Runciman).

In evolution, indeed, genetic knowledge is ‘particulate’ – it is encoded in DNA. But for the odd mutation, DNA is indeed transmitted down the ages, and we share part of the DNA with bacteria, sponges, and fish.

Ideas are not particulate at all – they are ‘floaters’ in the social reality, changeable, more akin to clouds (hence the Chinese fascination with clouds). ‘Morality’ is a social convention – the emergent result of an ethical project, or if you wish, a contingent outcome of a long-standing effort at self-domestication (see The Ethical Project by Philip Kitcher). There are limits to the possible diversity, of course. Societies can implode under the weight of dysfunctional culture (see Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond). Material conditions do inform cultures.1

The irony is that Dawkins & Co. are making the symmetric error that Darwin did at the beginning of his theory of evolution. Darwin understood heredity but had no idea of how it worked. Darwin thought of heredity as a ‘blending’: the parents’ traits merging in the child like paints that are mixed. He got into hot trouble with this view, for blending would destroy diversity, which is the basis for his modifications (see Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein – Colossal Mistakes by Great Scientists That Changed Our Understanding of Life and the Universe by Mario Livio). Mendel proved that heredity was particulate and saved the day. Now, cultural evolutionists see culture as particulate; alas, culture is indeed an ever-evolving blend.

The lesson? Before using metaphors, check the ‘points of similitude’ – the superficial commonality of traits may hide fundamental differences. The power of analogy is so strong, unfortunately, that once established, it rules the thinking – unthinkingly. A lot of useful time is wasted in picking the unspoken assumptions apart.

The post was first published on DeepDip.



1. The Thompson River people of Northwest America have a myth about hunting goats: ‘When you kill goats, treat their bodies respectfully. Do not shoot the female goats, for they are your wives and will bear your children. Do not kill kids, for they may be your offspring. Only shoot your brothers-in-law, the male goats’ (see The Western Illusion of Human Nature by Marshall Sahlins). The functional character of the myth is evident to any hunter.

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