[Humanist] 29.609 revealing analogies?

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Sun Jan 10 11:59:01 CET 2016

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 29, No. 609.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Sun, 10 Jan 2016 10:20:13 +0000
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: revealing analogies?

At the moment I am puzzling over the use of analogies by experts in 
technical fields to help explain the nature of these fields to students 
and the general public. I am particularly interested in analogies which 
deliberately or inadvertently reveal how the field is or once was 
conceived by its practitioners. I want to be able to argue that even 
analogies which are discarded after they have done their work in 
research or those that could be regarded as merely playful or as 
concessions to the uninitiated are worth our attention.

Here's an example. In his Lectures on Physics (1963), in the course of 
explaining the fundamental ideas of his discipline to undergraduates at 
Caltech, Richard Feynman used the following analogy:

> What do we mean by "understanding" something? We can imagine that
> this complicated array of moving things which constitutes "the world"
> is something like a great chess game being played by the gods, and we
> are observers of the game. We do not know what the rules of the game
> are; all we are allowed to do is to watch the playing. Of course, if
> we watch long enough, we may eventually catch on to a few of the
> rules. The rules of the game are what we mean by fundamental physics.
> Even if we knew every rule, however, we might not be able to
> understand why a particular move is made in the game, merely because
> it is too complicated and our minds are limited. If you play chess
> you must know that it is easy to learn all the rules, and yet it is
> often very hard to select the best move or to understand why a player
> moves as he does. So it is in nature, only much more so; but we may
> be able at least to find all the rules. Actually, we do not have all
> the rules now. (Every once in a while something like castling is
> going on that we still do not understand.) Aside from not knowing all
> of the rules, what we really can explain in terms of those rules is
> very limited, because almost all situations are so enormously
> complicated that we cannot follow the plays of the game using the
> rules, much less tell what is going to happen next. We must,
> therefore, limit ourselves to the more basic question of the rules of
> the game. If we know the rules, we consider that we "understand" the
> world. (p. 2-1)

Many thanks for any suggestions. I'd be especially grateful for 
examples in other fields, such as chemistry and biology. As an example 
of the former, Friedrich August Kekulé's famous dream of the ourobos 
(snake with its tail in its mouth), which supposedly inspired his discovery 
of the structure of benzene, raises the question of the relation of 
alchemy to chemistry in the 19th Century. 

Comments? Other examples?

Willard McCarty (www.mccarty.org.uk/), Professor, Department of Digital
Humanities, King's College London, and Digital Humanities Research
Group, Western Sydney University

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