Metaphorical Tools

Dennis Overbye writes in the NYTimes about the unfortunately nick-named God Particle, and the metaphor from which this name derives.

It's not often that the science pages tackle the difficulties of metaphor, so this definitely caught my eye. As a person who studied science until tempted away by the greater challenge of literature, I've long felt like I have one toe in two ponds... and I like it. But I like it even better when those two ponds overflow their banks and come together as one.

Metaphors are useful, but the name the "God Particle," is derived from a metaphor lost on most. Definition of "most"? It annoys both the religious and the irreligious, and that's just about everybody. As Overbye explains, he takes flak from both theists and non-theists for:

...using religion to sell science. Or was it using science to sell religion?

Last year, I described the onset five billion years ago of dark energy, the mysterious force that seems to be accelerating the expansion of the cosmos, with the words “as if God had turned on an antigravity machine.”

More people than I had expected wrote in wanting to know why I had ruined a perfectly good article by dragging mythical deities into it.

Uh, yeah, sorry 'bout that, bro. That was me. And a lot of other people who aren't so much trying to scrub all science reporting of any mention of a deity (after all, some areas of scientific inquiry take that as their focus), but to eliminate the mystical simplifications that are an impediment to understanding.

In other words, some magical dude outstretching a finger to flip a switch and connect an electrical circuit on an anti-gravity "machine" (are you serious?) is a really inaccurate way of describing what dark energy is suspected of doing.

So who is pleased by such descriptions? I would propose a very confused minority of scientists who just dig the raw power of the whole God metaphor so much they can't help but apply it to the truly-felt joys of their vocation. But that's just me guessing.

Overbye goes on to defend his use of the metaphor by invoking Einstein and Einstein's use of the God metaphor. This is ironic because the invoking of a "great man" whose proclamations are beyond reproach is a very religion-y idea. Question not, you mere nobody! If Einstein said it, it must be cool!

At least he has the good taste not to pretend Einstein was a theist. No, while religious people do take some glee in also quoting Einstein's references to "God" Einstein made it quite clear that he was using that word to describe Nature and its workings, and specifically the idea that nature is not random, but mathematical. That the physical events of the universe are not chance, but inevitable.

And therefore comprehensible to human beings, through science. As opposed to shrouded in unpredictable mystery by some "God."

So when Einstein was speaking of "God," I would argue, he was actually, more accurately, describing a reality which will eventually make our mythologies lose their literal descriptive power over the physical universe.

Or as Inigo Montoya would say, "you keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

Finally, I want to use this space to grumble once again about the frequency with which science reporters especially at the New York Times casually throw words like "designed," and "meant," and "purpose" into descriptions of evolution and evolutionary traits. I will keep writing my letters until you stop you crazy fools! (Fist Shaking Here!) Evolution is a result, not a plan. Evolution is an inevitability, not a design. That's beyond the wrong metaphor -- that's just an error. And if you don't understand that, please just ask, and I'll explain it to you again.

That said, keep up the great reporting!



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