Archive for October 25th, 2010

October 25, 2010

On machine-information metaphors

by Neil Rickert

A recent post by David Tyler at Uncommon Descent has drawn my attention to a recent paper by Pigliucci and Boudry, “Why Machine-Information Metaphors are Bad for Science and Science Education“.  I am posting this as a form of participation in the discussion of such use of metaphors.

We often use metaphors as part of our communication.  And they often work very well as communication devices.  I don’t have a problem with that.  But there is a problem when people take them as truth, rather than as mere metaphors.  Pigliucci and Boudry are particularly concerned with the use of metaphors in biology, such as the idea of DNA as a blueprint for the organism and the idea of the cell as a factory.

The machine metaphor has always seemed misleading to me.  My own experience in the world tells me that we humans are not machines.  Indeed, I see biological creatures as very different from designed things.  Perhaps the worst of the machine metaphors is the one that sees the brain as a computer.  That has always seemed doubtful to me, so I find it no surprise that AI (artificial intelligence) has made so little progress in the 60 years since Turing’s famous paper.  That we make heavy use of metaphors should already be evidence against such mechanistic theories of brain function.

In Linguistics, the mechanistic thinking from Chomsky has dominated the field for some time.  Yet it is surely mistaken.  The Wittgenstein view of language as a form of life seems to present a rather more realistic view of natural language.  In philosophy we see what seems to be an excessive reliance of logic with its mechanistic rules of inference.  Typically, within epistemology, knowledge is defined as justified true belief (or something similar), and that seems rather too mechanistic.  And then the all too frequent arguments that deny free will are based on an overly mechanistic view of the world.

David Tyler does not understand Hume’s way of thinking:

It has always surprised me that David Hume’s arguments are considered weighty. The preceding generations of scholars did have a rationale for thinking that there is a relationship between the Creator’s design and human design.

And yet surely Hume is simply pointing out what should be obvious to the observer of nature.  It should be obvious that the world is not the product of design.  For sure, I can look at Kepler’s laws of planetary motion, and see intelligent design in those laws.  But the intelligent designer was none other than Johannes Kepler himself.  If Kepler’s laws were part of the design of a mechanistic world, we would expect them to be followed exactly.  Yet they are only an approximation.  It took great skill and knowledge for Kepler to come up with a mathematically simple approximation that worked so well.  But it is not evidence of an intelligently designed world.

So, yes, I do see the overuse of such metaphors as bad for science, bad for philosophy, bad for theology.