Just submitted a paper to the British Journal of Aesthetics discussing Walton’s quasi-emotions in the context of my childhood hiding behind the sofa to escape from Daleks. It’s a lovely piece, but I have no idea whether they will take it! I suppose it is too much to hope that they will both accept it and publish it in time for the Doctor Who golden anniversary in November. Well, dreaming is free, right?
Last week, the metaphor of “selection” led to questions about what “fitness” is supposed to mean. And now, the conclusion.
The “confusion about fitness”, as Ariew and Lewontin call it, comes from ignoring a rather obvious problem. Contemporary science is in love with its numbers – empirically-minded people adore the precision of physics – but this infatuation with mathematics isn’t always appropriate. Indeed, British philosopher Mary Midgley observes that our use of the terms “hard science” and “soft science” embed a kind of hierarchical judgment – the more mathematical a science appears to be, the “harder” it is assumed to be, and “hard” beats “soft” much as rock-beats-scissors. But Darwin’s idea of fitness to environment doesn’t lend itself to a simple numeric measure – it’s a complicated, multi-faceted fiction, one that enables us to think differently about the nature of life, but only “softly”. For most kinds of life on our planet, there is no way to make fitness into a neat number, much less one with predictive value – there may be no way at all to talk about one animal being ‘more fit’ than another outside of the fiction the metaphors provide.
Attempts to provide fitness with a robust, mathematical meaning tend to fall prey of an assumed equivalence between reproductive rates and Darwin’s fitness to environment, as if ‘fitness’ was nothing more than a measure of the number of offspring a creature can produce. Ariew and Lewontin savage the assumptions behind this approach, demonstrating that it just won’t do to treat ‘reproductive fitness’ as a substitute for fitness to environment, and this for a number of reasons, including the fact that a great many organisms have overlapping generations, meaning that reproductive rates are not that simple to calculate. When problems such as these have been recognized, alternative solutions have been offered – but the only secure way of mounting the concept involves measuring actual changes in the abundance of particular species, at which point any kind of explanatory or predictive power has been abandoned.
Furthermore, the attempt to use rates of reproduction as a measure of fitness run into insurmountable problems concerning what it means to count individuals at all. If the idea is that an animal which has a thousand offspring is fitter than an animal that has ten offspring (and perhaps even that the former is a hundred times fitter!) we have to be aware that there are many forms of life for which this kind of simplified view doesn’t really make any sense. Many flowers, for instance, have offspring by seeds, but they also grow vegetatively by putting out underground runners that produce new flowers asexually (pictured above). These new flowers are essentially clones of the original plant – should they be counted as new individuals, or not? If they are individuals, what does this mean for trees, which consist of a vast knot of flowering stems woven together into branches and a trunk? If the flowers are all individuals, the tree can’t be counted as one single individual, but must be treated as many different individuals, despite our strong intuitions to the contrary.
The same problem occurs with colonial organisms, such as the coral polyps that make spectacular coastal reefs. Coral polyps sometimes reproduce sexually, but more commonly they reproduce asexually via a process known as ‘budding’. If fitness is to be measured by counts of offspring, is a polyp that produces a hundred sexually-produced polyps to be considered fitter than a polyp that manages to occupy an entire reef through budding? As Ariew and Lewontin put it, “the problem of fitness and relative evolutionary success demands a solution to the problem of defining an individual.” They trace these issues back to the influence of Thomas Malthus on evolutionary theory and conclude that the genetic notion of ‘reproductive fitness’ just doesn’t fit to Darwin’s fitness to environment.
Ariew has pursued the same issue of what fitness is supposed to mean with the philosopher Zachary Ernst, and identifying severe problems with every attempt thus made to mount ‘fitness’ onto a secure mathematical footing. They are all in favor “reconstructing” the concept of fitness “so that it can play its traditional role in evolutionary explanation.” They just do not believe anyone has actually solved this problem, nor indeed are they convinced that it can be solved. The hope is to secure a meaning for ‘fitness’ that will serve as an explanation for why a particular trait succeeds while others fail, and hence why animals with that trait prosper. But they are doubtful that this is possible.
Particularly at task is a widespread account of fitness we can call fitness as propensity or the propensity interpretation. The basic idea is much as we have already seen in reproductive fitness – the fitness of a particular animal is related to its expected number of offspring. To avoid all the pitfalls of this simplistic approach, however, a more advanced solution is needed which takes into account a ‘family’ of propensities, rather than just reproductive rates. Either way, the fitness of any given animal is taken to be a property of the animal itself, that is, of its natural propensities (hence, ‘fitness as propensity’).
For instance, John Beatty and Susan Finsen offer a solution to the fitness problem in terms of a family of propensities that jointly affect population growth. If all the relevant propensities are included correctly in the model, this should presumably allow fitness as propensity to function as intended – relating fitness to number of offspring by correctly modelling population growth as a consequence of multiple factors. The trouble is, under this approach, different propensities will be needed to consider fitness in any given instance, which means in order to meaningfully talk of ‘fitness’ we must already understand all the relevant factors that contribute to the success of particular traits.
Ariew and Ernst contend that “nature is too variegated. Different biological situations call for different algorithms to explain changes in trait frequencies.” They do not see much hope of salvaging a propensity interpretation that has any predictive value. Part of the problem is that the intrinsic properties of individual animals aren’t really enough to understand why particular animals thrive and others fail. For most creatures, the reasons why any given trait becomes more or less common just aren’t causally determined. In the absence of a general model, it is still possible to pursue a historical investigation into the circumstances that lead to a particular species, but any hope that all such histories might be collapsible into explanatory theories of fitness must be set aside.
In fact, ‘fitness’ is applied most successfully in evolutionary theories when Darwin’s fitness to environment is essentially ignored. Genetic models of evolution that use fitness as a mathematical term (denoted by the letter ‘w’) have prospered, treating fitness purely in terms of changes in gene ratios. These population genetic approaches to fitness work very well in terms of their formulation and application to specific problems in the laboratory. They can be made to fit to artificial selection experiments quite easily, since ‘selection’ in the lab has the literal meaning of a decision (one made by the experimental protocol). But at this point, we’re no longer explaining the nature of life in the same terms that Darwin was using.
What could be called genetic fitness in these kinds of theories doesn’t assess how well a trait or a creature fits to their environment at all, and as such these theories don’t provide any explanation for the changes in the relative abundances of real animals or their genes. This presents a rather significant problem that tends to be ignored: if the successful use of ‘selection’ and ‘fitness’ in population genetic models has no role for the causes of selection, we seem to have inadvertently thrown away Darwin’s theory in its entirety. These genetic models are acausal – they don’t deal in causation at all, whereas Darwin’s natural selection was presented precisely as an explanatory cause. As philosophers of biology Alexander Rosenberg and Frederic Bouchard put it: “In jettisoning fitness, acausal approaches seem to have jettisoned natural selection altogether.”
We are left with Sober’s “two faces” of fitness: a mathematical model, gainfully deployed by population geneticists, and the imaginative concept of fitness to environment that originates in Darwin’s theory. But these are not two faces of the same beast – they are entirely different animals, the later dealing with causes, and the former modelling probabilistic reproduction rates with no reference to causes. As Sober notes, “fitness began its career in biology long before evolutionary theory was mathematized” – in the interim, the term has not maintained a constant meaning at all.
Of course, as Sober later notes with biologist David Sloan Wilson, while mathematics has proved important in evolutionary studies “it isn’t true that only mathematics is important, nor is it true that mathematics is always important.” The imaginative aspect of selection and fitness may have little (or even nothing) to do with successful population genetic models, but it is still key to what Darwin’s theory is claimed to say.
If, as nearly everyone involved in studying evolution would attest, differential survivorship in response to diverse environments is an important part of the history of life, then we admit that Darwin’s imaginative imagery of selection, and the fictional account of fitness, are still important, despite having vanished entirely from the hard algebraic accounts of population genetics. Despite the supposed claims of “hard science” over “soft science”, the mythology in this case somehow offers more than the mathematics.
Extracted from the draft manuscript of Myths of Evolution, due from Zero Books in 2012.
In the first of two posts discussing the role of scientific metaphor in evolutionary theory, we look at what is meant by “selection”.
The trouble with trying to ferret out what Stephen Jay Gould called “canonical imagery” in science, and especially in evolutionary studies, is that science is thoroughly dependent upon metaphor – and even more so when scientists try to explain theories to a wider audience. Gould stated that he knows “no other subject so distorted by canonical icons: the image we see reflects social preferences and psychological hopes,” rather than data or theory.
But this critique doesn’t go far enough, since the theories themselves are equally packed full of metaphors with just as much power to distort thinking if not considered carefully. Gould notes: “If icons are central to our thought, nor peripheral frills, then the issue of alternative representation becomes fundamental to the history of changing ideas in science”. It is this issue of “alternative representation” that we need to address in considering the myths of evolution – because even if we believe that the facts don’t change, the way we present those facts does change, and different metaphors guide thinking in radically different ways.
Two of the central metaphors in contemporary evolutionary theories have been with the field more or less since its inception with Darwin: the metaphors of selection and of fitness. It is almost impossible to have a discussion of the subject without using these words, yet the terms are as much “canonical icons” as the Ladder of Progress (satirically pictured above) that Gould justifiably challenged. ‘Selection’ was only ever a metaphor, and in so much as the ‘fitness’ implied by Darwin’s theory can be rendered meaningful, it must be understood as a useful fiction. There is just as much risk of being misled by the imagery these terms conjure to mind as anything else in science, and yet it seems nearly impossible to excise them from the evolutionary lexicon.
Darwin was acutely aware of the fact that his use of ‘selection’ in Origin of Species was a metaphor. He received letters from Alfred Russel Wallace, the naturalist who was postulating a very similar theory at the same time as Darwin, expressing concern that the term ‘natural selection’ was too anthropomorphic, leading to a personification of nature as “selecting” or “preferring”. Philosopher Michael Ruse notes in this regard:
In his heart, Darwin seems never to have wavered, and he responded to those who criticized the term “selection” by pointing out that it was a metaphor, and who can do science without being metaphorical? “No one objects to chemists speaking of ‘elective affinity,’ and certainly an acid has no more choice in combining with a base, than the conditions of life have in determining whether or not a new form be selected or preserved.”
John F. Haught suggests that Darwin might have been more flexible in this regard, noting that the later Darwin writings sometimes seems to offer “natural preservation” as more suitable than “natural selection”, but whatever Darwin’s feelings the term selection has certainly stuck. Darwin publicly dismissed any problems with the metaphorical aspect of the term on the grounds that science was effectively impossible without metaphorical thinking, but this does not mean Darwin was blind to the kind of constraints on thought that specific images convey. He avoided using the word ‘evolution’ precisely because he didn’t want to take upon the baggage the term had already acquired in terms of conveying a sense of progress and destiny. He seems to have believed, rightly or wrongly, that the term ‘selection’ could sidestep this kind of implication.
In order to fully understand contemporary evolutionary theories, it is necessary to separate – in as much as this is possible – the metaphors from the facts, the myths from the models. A conscientious audit of metaphorical terms like ‘selection’ and ‘fitness’ has much to show us about both evolution and about science in general, but this kind of critique is usually avoided, perhaps for fear of adding fuel to the fire being tended by opponents to evolution. This concern is not warranted. People are perfectly entitled to reject a particular scientific theory for whatever reason they choose, and they are especially free to object to those theories that they suspect have been ideologically contaminated. Frankly, there is little doubt that the presentation of evolution in public has been distorted in this way, and this by people on both sides of the fence. A defence of evolutionary studies should rest on an honest understanding of the issues, and this necessitates an acceptance of the role of imagination in its operation.
When I call ‘selection’ imaginary, or suggest that ‘fitness’ is a fiction, I do not mean that all evolutionary theories are mere figments, but rather that these terms cannot be understood without reference to imagination. Metaphor is an imaginative activity – the process of thinking about one thing by comparison to another. Science, as Darwin recognized, thrives on this kind of analogical thinking, because science – in common with the arts – is fundamentally an imaginative activity. True, much of a research scientist’s time is absorbed in experiments, observation and data, none of which is enormously creative. But the experiments being conducted, and even more so the concepts that motivate those experiments, all began life as imaginative fictions. Every theory inevitably implies a story.
The fiction in which the term selection gets its meaning is that whereby it is as if something has made a decision that selects some animals and not others to survive (for natural selection) or to reproduce (for sexual selection). Because selection is intended as a scientific metaphor, it is generally considered poor form to indulge in speculations as to the obvious consequences of the fiction e.g. if we say that Mother Nature does the selecting, we’ve brought in a mythic figure (‘Mother Nature’) into what was supposed to be a sober, scientific term. This was precisely Wallace’s objection to Darwin’s use of ‘selection’ – these kinds of extrapolations follow all too easily. Darwin’s counter was that it is useful to think in terms of selection, the story does some valuable work for us in terms of focusing our attention onto what is happening.
This brings us to the other important part of Darwin’s fictional representation of how creatures change over time: fitness. Darwin didn’t actually use the term, but did make reference to individual animals being “fitter” or being more or less “fit” than others; it is from this informal discussion of a comparative scale of “fitter” animals that the modern concept of fitness develops. Philosopher André Ariew and geneticist Richard Lewontin are very clear on the role of metaphor in this part of Darwin’s ideas:
Different individual members of a species, then, ‘fit’ into the environment to different degrees as a consequence of their variant natural properties, and those that made the best ‘fit’ would survive and reproduce their kind better than those whose ‘fit’ was poorer. The word ‘fit’ (‘fittest’, ‘fitness’) is a metaphorical extension of its everyday English meaning as the degree to which an object (the organism) matches a pattern that is pre-existent and independently determined (the environment). This metaphorical lock-and-key fitting of the organism into the environment is reflected in the modern concept in ecology of the environmental or ecological ‘niche’ that species are said to ‘occupy’.
We can see here the fiction that Darwin was using in his original conception in Origin of Species: some animals ‘fit’ better into their environment, and these are ‘selected’ to survive. It is as if the world is a partially completed jigsaw, with a certain number of gaps for extra pieces. Those pieces that fit into the jigsaw persist, while those that don’t fit are discarded. The heuristic value of thinking this way is comparatively clear, and the benefits can be conveyed irrespective of whatever imaginative gloss we add to the core metaphor – the jigsaw image I just proposed, for instance, or Ariew and Lewontin’s lock-and-key image.
However, in the decades since Darwin, the term fitness has expanded to take onto its metaphorical shoulders far more than Darwin ever intended. In the words of philosopher of biology, Elliott Sober, fitness has “two faces”. It not only describes the relationship between an animal and its environment, as described above, but leads a double life as a mathematical term used in formulating predictions. In Sober’s words: “Fitness is both an ecological descriptor and a mathematical predictor.” Trouble is, this double life threatens to wear fitness rather thin; the strain of pretending that the mathematical face is still a fit to Darwin’s original use might just be too much for it to bear.
Extracted from the draft manuscript of Myths of Evolution, due from Zero Books in 2012.
Next week: Fitness
If orthodox science fiction is dictated by current beliefs among scientists, what of the wider appeal to science fiction in contemporary stories? Perhaps, in parallel to the use of the phrase ‘folk tales’, we can call this ‘folk science fiction’.
In classical mythology, gods and magic lift the hero out of the ordinary world. In contemporary mythologies, it is more often science and technology playing this role. But except when the tales conform to orthodox science fiction, the distinction between technology and magic is merely cosmetic – and not just because of Arthur C. Clarke’s famous adage that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
Superhero stories are perhaps the closest contemporary analogue to the classical tradition of recounting legends: they are told by many different storytellers, the details often change with each telling, and in the form of comics the episodic narrative is close to the ancient fireside oral tradition, where tales unfold night after night. While DC Comics established the genre – and in Superman and Batman have its most famous examples – it is Marvel Comics that currently occupies the larger spotlight.
Marvel threw itself with gusto into folk science fiction tales inspired by the Big Science of the sixties: nuclear power. Hence, boy bitten by radioactive spider (Spider-man, 1962); scientist transformed by lethal dose of gamma rays (Hulk, 1962); and mutant “children of the atom” (X-men, 1963). Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko developed a whole new “Atomic Age” spin on superheroics, before then chiefly comprised of patriotic fantasies and wild spin-offs from detective comics, a legacy felt most acutely in the case of Batman (1939) whose comic of origin was literally called Detective Comics.
With the rise of genetics in research communities, genetic engineering began to appear in orthodox science fiction, and this may have helped the X-men to grow in popularity outside of comic fanboys. Other Marvel characters have steadily drifted closer to orthodoxy over the years: recent Spider-man movies, for instance, favour a mutant spider bite as a justification for Peter Parker's powers (no more plausible than the original, but closer to orthodoxy than 'radioactive spider'). The 2000 Bryan Singer-directed X-men movie (pictured above) rocketed Marvel into the big league by quadrupling it's multi-million dollar budget in revenue, although the adaptation of Marvel character Blade two years earlier had been a stepping stone in terms of hooking Marvel up with better contacts in the movie community, and Warner Bros. successful adaptations of DC Comics’ Superman (1978) and Batman (1989) had already paved the way for this kind of blockbuster superhero movie.
Cinemas are the cathedrals in which these new mythological stories are told. Today, comics are a lesser part of Marvel’s folk science fiction industry, largely a proving ground for movie concept, a business model gainfully employed by numerous old and new media companies today. Other folk science fiction myth cycles – Star Trek, James Bond – have long thrived in the temple of the silver screen, and some, like Star Wars, began there. Folk stories have always been popular media, while orthodox mythology has been the pursuit of the hierophant and the hermit. For science fiction, the scientist and the nerd fulfil these roles with varying degrees of fervour.
Identifying a storytelling tradition that can be termed ‘folk science fiction’ is not to belittle its value, but to place certain stories into a specific relationship with scientific research. This perspective raises many questions. Does the early science fiction of Jules Verne or H.G. Wells count as folk or orthodox science fiction? We do not need to decide, and looking back it can be hard to judge since what constitutes orthodox science changes with astonishing regularity, but Wells’ attitude towards science certainly leaned towards the ideological.
The important point to recognize is that authorized stories (i.e. facts) always acquire a mythology, and this is the case in any sphere where authority might be claimed: science, history, politics, religion – even art. For the “inner circle” of experts in each case, the myths must attain to some kind of ideological orthodoxy, since it is this upon which authority rests. But for the world at large, folk mythology is the shadow cast by that authority. Folk science fiction reveals the silhouetted shape of mythic symbols that are rooted in scientific research and theory, and thus expose the influence of science in contemporary culture – and perhaps also the vagueness of the general public’s grasp of empirical stories.
Myths are the stories by which we orient ourselves in the world, and we can no more live without stories than we can live without drawing breath. Facts too are a kind of story – an authorized story – and just as fictions often told become embellished into legends, so facts often stated become the basis for their own mythic tales. These stories, however, have the added burden of authority: those that invest their belief in authorized stories can seldom see the narrative they have written for themselves.
The story that animated post-modernism was that all myths had been laid bare. Swept clean of legendary tales, we are supposed to find ourselves in a mythic void. Like the vacuum of space, however, this void is never truly empty. Beyond the traces of matter and energy, space or space-time itself is always present wherever one might look. So too the mythic void is not empty of stories but is itself a story – one that causes us to look at other stories in a different light, perhaps, but not one capable of moving us to a place beyond mythology.
The mythic void is not an end point, a final state, or an ultimate consequence at all – it is a stage, a perspective, a waiting room on the path to… well, who can say? Those who will not enter the void remain wedded to their mythology – whether ancient or modern. Those who enter the void may find themselves stuck there, casting off all other myths and accepting only the legend of the void itself. But those of us who pass through the void, and return to mythology, we bring back from this place-that-is-no-place a subtle change of mind. It is not so much illumination, more delumination.
Those who abandon mythology for facts are doomed to let their facts become their mythology. Those who escape mythology for the void are doomed to let the void become their mythology. What of those who return from the void – what will we benighted travellers take to be our strange and wonderful mythologies?
The opening image is a NASA Chandra X-ray photograph showing Cassiopeia A, the youngest supernova remnant in our galaxy.
I have the final text and cover (left) and a publication date for Imaginary Games now: it will be out 25th November 2011. If you don’t know what this book is about, click the link in this post (or the picture in the sidebar) to read the blurb.
I was very conflicted over the new cover, as I rather liked my mock-up (although it used a colour scheme already being used by another Zero Books title). However, a friend with better art-design instincts than me has reassured me that the book will look both distinctive and appealing in this scheme. Anyway, it’s all in progress now so it’s too late to change it.
Reviewers Wanted! If you write book reviews for a magazine or on your blog, you are welcome to write to me (follow the contact details on ihobo.com) for a PDF of the final text for review. If you intend a blog review, I request that you also submit your review to Amazon.
Thanks to everyone whose supported this book project! I’m very proud to have my first book of philosophy coming into print this year.
Also: check out these awesome endorsements!
In this well-researched book Chris Bateman explores the ambiguous territory between the fictional and the real, and slays some dragons hiding therein. Highly recommended.
Founder of the International Game Developers' Association
A wonderfully refreshing and inventive look at games of many kinds, but especially digital games. It is seriously philosophical, but Bateman, a professional game designer, draws on a huge variety of resources far beyond the writings of academic philosophers - fascinating and fun!
Charles Stevenson Collegiate Professor of Philosophy and
Professor of Art and Design at the University of Michigan
Chris Bateman’s Imaginary Games may just do for videogames what Noël Carroll’s The Philosophy of Horror did for scary books and movies.... not only philosophically compelling and interesting; it is also a great read. Bateman’s fluency in the relevant philosophical debates and history of thinking about games is both enviable and a pleasure to behold.
Director of Philosophy, LSU Department of Philosophy and
Two years ago, I explored the metaphorical elements of evolutionary theories in the Myths of Evolution serial, and I’m pleased to say that I recently got approval from my publisher to write a book on this theme (also called Myths of Evolution). As preparation for writing the manuscript of this new philosophy book, I have been reading a diverse collection of books and I want to synthesise some of the ideas here on Only a Game so I can discuss my thoughts with the players here before moving it forward into print. (This will put back the Souls in Science Fiction serial to Autumn or Winter, but I still hope to run this before the end of the year).
Over the course of the next few weeks we’ll be considering the relationship between religion and science, as well as looking at the most recent work by molecular biologists and contemplating the implications for evolutionary mythology. Throughout, my interest is not so much the science (although I will cover this) but the fictions implied by the science – the mythology of evolution. Despite the way this topic is usually handled, evolutionary science is never purely research alone; it is always inevitably a creation myth as well, and the way this story is told has significant implications.
I shall also be defending a highly unpopular position, namely that Intelligent Design isn’t much of a “threat” to science. If ID is taken to be religious in motivation, it fails on theological grounds and can’t be taken seriously by anyone. If it not taken in a religious context, it’s scientific content fails in perfectly normal ways that pose no more of a problem for science than any other failed hypothesis.
Furthermore, if anything in the context of evolution is a “threat” to science, it can scarcely be traditional mythology trying to muscle itself back in, but rather the metaphysical stories offered by certain evolutionists that are passed off as “science” but are anything of the kind. If metaphysical excesses like ID are contended to “threaten” science, our real concern shouldn’t be the old design paradigm trying to keep its foot in the door, but those wild and wacky beliefs already inside the house falsely claiming to have scientific authority.
The Summer of Evolutionary Mythology begins shortly!
Right, I really needed that break from blogging… Frankly, I was feeling incredibly weighed down by the weight of academic papers that I had to write, and needed to focus on them. Here’s a list of all the papers, book chapters and presentations I’ve written or worked upon in the last month and a half:
- “Player Typology in Theory and Practice” (with Rebecca Lowenhaupt and Lennart Nacke)
- “BrainHex: Preliminary Results from a Neurobiological Gamer Typology Survey” (with Lennart Nacke and Regan Mandryk)
- “Neurobiological Foundations for Player Satisfaction Modeling” (with Lennart Nacke) in Game Telemetry and Metrics (eds. Mady Seif El-Nasr and Anders Drachen)
- “Chaotic Good in the Balance” in Dungeons & Dragons and Philosophy (eds. Jon Cogburn and Mark Silcox)
- “Dungeons & Dragons & Dice &… Prop Theory for Role-Play”
in Dungeons & Dragons and Philosophy (eds. Jon Cogburn and Mark Silcox)
- “Prop Theory for Game Aesthetics”
- “Orthodox Science Fiction and Fictional Worlds”
- “Fictional Worlds in Films and Games”
That’s a lot of papers for someone who doesn’t work as an academic! Anyway, I now have this workload under better control, so with luck I should be able to get back into the blogging.
Blogging resumes again next week - hope to see you in the comments!
Cross-posted from ihobo.
The philosopher of linguistics and mathematics Stephen Yablo kindly granted me an interview earlier this year. Yablo’s work on fictionalism has been a huge inspiration to me in my recent work, and I greatly enjoyed the chance to question him about it.
Chris Bateman: You first gained attention for your short paper, Paradox without Self-Reference (published in 1993) which describes a version of the famous Liars Paradox (“This sentence is false”). You called your version the omega-liar, but it’s come to be called Yablo’s paradox. How does it feel to have a paradox named after you, and what do you think about this paper in retrospect?
Stephen Yablo: Right, it’s a variant of the Liar paradox that is not supposed to involve any circularity or self-reference. Instead of one sentence describing itself as false (which is what the Liar does), my paradox involves an infinite series of sentences each describing all its successors as false. I have a bit of an idiot savant feeling about that paradox, actually. I thought of it, all right, but it didn’t seem like a big deal to me. It took other people, mainly Saul Kripke and Thomas Forster, to explain its real significance to me.
Chris: I’m rather fond of Kripke’s philosophy. What’s his connection to your work?
Stephen: Funny story about that: the paradox originally appeared in a 1985 paper called “Truth and Reflection.” I was still in graduate school at UC Berkeley then. One day Kripke called from the east coast about it. I wasn’t home, however, so he got into a conversation with my housemate Kayley. I would’ve given anything to talk to the guy. But by the time I got home, he and Kayley were deep into the metaphysics of time zones and he’d forgotten all about me. I never did find out what he’d been wanting to say to me.
Chris: You make considerable use of Professor Walton’s make-believe theory of representation (also known as pretence theory, or prop theory) in your later work. When did you first come across Walton’s prop theory of representation, and what attracted you to his approach?
Stephen: I came across the theory in the late 80s or early 90s, which I think may been when he was working it out. We were colleagues at Michigan along with David Hills, now at Stanford, and we all spent a fair bit of time talking about “serious” uses of make-believe. I remember one camping trip in particular where he explained the way pretense could help us make sense of sentences like “Hamlet doesn’t really exist.” But I wasn’t all that interested in metaphor and the arts, which is what he was mostly trying to explicate with his stuff on prop-oriented make believe. I asked Ken one day whether he’d thought about applying his theory outside of aesthetics, to issues in heavy-duty metaphysics. He said, “No, why don’t you do it?” So with his permission, that’s what I did.
Chris: In 1998, you published a paper entitled “Does Ontology Rest on a Mistake”? that explores the classic debate between W.V. Quine and Rudolf Carnap over ontology – the question of what can be said to exist. Using prop theory, you conclude that the kind of ontology Quine hoped for – whereby we can know what kind of things exist by trusting in our most reliable models – was unworkable because of the sheer extent to which metaphor pervades our models. You wrote this paper as if you started out on Quine’s side, but then veered over into Carnap’s. How did this happen?
Stephen: I was on Quine’s side to the extent that I thought he had the best way of making ontology rigorous. I think I ended with something like this: “It is not out of any dislike for Quine’s method – on the contrary, it’s because I revere it as ontology’s last, best hope – that I conclude that philosophical existence-questions are moot. If they had answers, Quine’s method would turn them up. It doesn’t, so they don’t.” Quine lost the debate, in my mind, because he trusted science to drive out the metaphors, leaving behind the literal truth. I didn’t see why metaphorical entities couldn’t earn a permanent place in our theories.
Chris: Speaking of metaphorical entities, you mention in a footnote in the 1998 paper that mathematical entities lack “naturalistic connections” that “prevent reference relations and epistemic access”, and then add “I take it that mathematical objects exhibit these features to a higher degree than, say, God, or theoretical entities in physics.” What motivated you to include this aside?
Stephen: I think of some existence questions as sillier than others. Whether numbers are “really there,” for instance, is a sillier question than whether God exists, or electrons do. But it is not so easy to keep these issues apart. Numbers aren’t directly experienced. But it’s not as though we directly experience electrons, either. Both of them, one might think, are theoretical postulates of some sort. I was trying to find a way of being unserious about theoretical entities in math that didn’t force me to take a similar view of theoretical entities in physics.
Chris: Since the 1998 paper, you’ve expanded your ideas into a robust form of “hermeneutic fictionalism” – a term used pejoratively by Jason Stanley, but that you have taken over as your own. How would you summarise hermeneutic fictionalism in layman’s terms?
Stephen: John Burgess introduced a distinction between “revolutionary” nominalism, which says we should stop believing in mathematical objects, and “hermeneutic” nominalism, which says we never did believe in them, appearances to the contrary owing to a over-literalistic take on mathematical language. Stanley’s distinction is meant to be a generalization of that. The hermeneutic fictionalist is someone who thinks we tie ourselves in unnecessary knots by insisting that ordinary ways of talking are always to be taken literally. So, to use an old example of Wittgenstein’s, if someone says they “married money,” we do ourselves no favours by hunting around for the money they married. Likewise there’s no point in trying to make room in your world-view for the “hurdles they put in my path.” Wittgenstein thought a lot of philosophical problems were based in a kind of semantic over-scrupulosity, and he encouraged us to just get over it. The hermeneutic fictionalist takes in many cases a similar view.
Chris: You propose that numbers can be best understood in terms of Walton’s concept of prop-oriented make-believe, saying: “Rather as ‘smarts’ are conjured up as metaphorical carriers of intelligence, ‘numbers’ are conjured up as metaphorical measures of cardinality”. The idea of numbers as metaphors isn’t entirely new, but putting it in terms of prop-theory is an inspired twist, and one that pulls the rug out from under Platonic objects entirely. Since quite a few philosophers are rather attached to Plato’s version of realism, has your stance generated a lot of vocal opposition?
Stephen: Platonic realists say, “abstract objects are special and sublime; the bar is high, but they clear it.” Deflationary realists say, “the bar is so low that it would be hard for them not to clear it. If you doubt the number of planets exists, that just shows you have an exaggerated idea of what its existence would involve. Worrying that there are planets, but no such thing as ‘their number’, is like worrying that people are married, but that doesn’t make them a ‘married couple.’ What more could the existence of couples possibly involve?” I get more flak from deflationary realists than Platonic ones; the Platonic ones mostly ignore me. I like it that way, to be honest, because I feel some attraction to the deflationary view myself. The reason I’m not a deflationist is that I don’t see where to get off the train. If couples exist, why not lines of argument? If there are lines of argument, why not things I never got around to doing? If they exist, why not nonexistent planets like Vulcan? Now we’ve gone too far, though; if something is by hypothesis nonexistent, then I think we are entitled to assume it doesn’t exist.
Metaphors are interesting examples of games of make-believe, ones that we seldom notice we are playing. Yet our languages are saturated with metaphorical content – we can barely communicate at all without recourse to them. Why should this be?
Our usual make-believe games are concerned with the content of the fictional worlds, with what happens to the fictional things within those worlds. Walton calls these kinds of imaginary games content oriented. Novels, films, paintings and digital games are all by their nature content oriented. Against this, Walton recognizes an alternative kind of make-believe he calls prop oriented, and as an example he describes a way of learning to tie a particular knot:
A small fiction can help one learn how to tie a bowline. First, you make a loop. Then you say to yourself, "The rabbit comes out of the hole, goes under the log, and back into the hole," as you manipulate the rope accordingly. This is hardly a gripping story. I certainly wasn't caught up in it when I was taught how to tie the knot, as a child might be caught up in the story of Peter Rabbit... I wasn't interested in the fictional scamperings of a rabbit. I just wanted to know how to tie the knot correctly.
Here’s another way of getting at Walton’s distinction between content-oriented and prop-oriented make-believe. Consider a costume that a child wears to play in with an adult's fancy dress costume. If a child dresses as a member of The X-Men it is likely they imagine they are a mutant superhero – a content oriented game. However, if an adult goes to a fancy dress party dressed as a member of the X-men it’s rather less likely that they are going to play an imaginary game like the child’s. Their interest is in the way the costume functions as a prop prescribing that other guests imagine they are adopting an alternative identity – a prop oriented game. In this latter case, the costume itself is of greater importance than any game of make-believe being played: the fictional world the costume implies is not important in the fancy dress party, but it is central to the child’s imaginary game.
This distinction between content and prop-oriented make-believe helps explain how we use metaphors in language. Metaphors can be understood as props intended for use in prop oriented games of make-believe, ones in which the implied fictional world is not our principal interest. Walton notes that the use of metaphor allows for extensions to the associated game in quite natural ways that do not have to be explained or made explicit. Thus the make-believe implied by the remark that “we are all in the same boat” leads naturally to the suggestion that “since we are all in the same boat, it behooves us to row in the same direction.”
We often fail to notice just how deeply embedded into our language metaphor is – in many instances, it is difficult or even impossible to communicate without recourse to metaphor. Stephen Yablo, drawing from Walton’s work amongst other things, has explored the philosophical implications of our use of metaphor, and has noted that “the boundaries of the literal are about as blurry as they could be…” Far from being clear cut where metaphor begins and literal utterance ends, we constantly make use of metaphorical language that cannot easily be resolved into literal alternatives.
Yablo notes that when we talk about average entities, it’s exceptionally difficult to understand what we are referring to literally. If we say “the average star has 2.4 planets” we are not really describing a rather weird object “the average star” which has – bizarrely – a fractional number of planets. Frankly, 0.4 planets is not something plausible to imagine in any context other than “an average star”. We can paraphrase to something like “the number of planets divided by the number of stars is 2.4” but this is still effectively a metaphor – and a clumsy one, too. The “average star” gets at the relevant idea more directly, and suggests natural extensions (e.g. “how many moons does the average planet have?”) Yablo suggests metaphors such as these are representatively essential; we can’t communicate the same idea effectively without a little make-believe.
Furthermore, metaphors such as these “pack a cognitive punch no literal paraphrase can match.” Yablo notes our dependence upon scientific metaphors like ‘feedback loop’, ‘underground economy’, and ‘unit of selection’ – there is almost no field of science which can operate comfortably without recourse to metaphors in order to communicate key concepts. Even our most literally-minded endeavours depend upon metaphor for their usual operation.
Oddly, metaphors seem to have a life cycle. They come into being with an artistic flair, and gradually, through repetition and use, they lose the explicit make-believe element and become dead metaphors. When we talk about the hand of a watch, or saving time, these are phrases that once had metaphorical force (the mechanical arrows on a clock face are not literally ‘hands’; time is not ‘saved’) but now lack any real imaginative element. Phrases such as ‘hopping mad’, ‘frozen with fear’, ‘dark secrets’ or ‘sour notes’ are similarly reduced to dead metaphors.
David Hill suggests that our overriding principle in respect of metaphors is “make the most of it” – that is, construe any metaphorical utterance in terms of the make-believe games that fit to it in the most plausible or instructive ways. The kind of games that offer the best fit in any given case may not be clear and unequivocal; they may be forever ambiguous. Even the literal meaning of the metaphor may be a legitimate interpretation of its meaning in some cases – despite our intuitions, some metaphors are literally true (‘no man is an island’, for instance). When we make a metaphorical utterance precisely what it means is always open to interpretation.
As a consequence, we can’t ferret out the literal aspects of language, because there are no end of cases that defy this kind of resolution. Yablo observes:
Is ‘calm’ literal in connection with people and metaphorical as applied to bodies of water, or the other way around – or literal in connection with these and metaphorical when applied to historical eras? What about the ‘backs’ and ‘fronts’ of animals, houses, pieces of paper, and parades? Questions like these seem unanswerable, and not because one doesn't understand ‘calm’ and ‘front’.
We communicate with metaphor in language, but why is this? While there are many possible answers to this question, one approach that is amenable to make-believe interpretations of metaphorical language use can be found in the German idealist philosophy of Ernst Cassirer. In Language and Myth, published in 1925, Cassirer observes that – despite the difference in content – myth and language use the same kinds of mental conception, namely metaphorical thinking. Verbal and mythical worlds have a strange kind of unity, despite their obvious differences.
Cassirer traces an anthropological history of the way words seem to have come into being by examining primitive languages and concludes (following Usener) that words originated as “momentary gods” – unique events that distinguish themselves as against the background of experience. The flash of lightning comes from nowhere and is interpreted as a spirit, a god,which comes to have a name. Spirits and words are one and the same in many tribal languages, and similar roots can be found in our modern languages.
On this account, language and myth are significantly coextensive, and since mythology is quintessentially metaphorical, this makes it far less surprising that language is suffused with metaphor. If the origin of words is essentially rooted in a mythical perspective of nature, it is less surprising that modern language is suffused with metaphor – words themselves relate to experiences as prop oriented games of make-believe. Words are always already metaphorical.
Herder, Schelling and the Romantics saw in language “a faded mythology”, one which preserves in its abstract distinctions what mythology considers concrete, living distinctions. Conversely, the comparative mythology of the late nineteenth century, epitomized by Max Müller, took the opposite perspective, seeing mythology as a faded language. Either way, this connection between mythology and language is the relationship between Walton’s content and prop oriented make-believe: mythology is the content oriented game and language the prop oriented game.
Words are props that we use to communicate; sometimes our interest is in the props themselves and sometimes our interest is in the content of the fictional world they imply. But those fictional worlds are always there to be referred to, whether or not we play any imaginary game within them. There is no escaping the influence of metaphor – as George Lakoff and Mark Johnson have observed, the very foundations of our thought is metaphorical in nature. No wonder metaphor is so central to language! Never mind Wittgenstein’s language games, where language-use is to be understand on the model of a game, language is itself fundamentally a game, a game of make-believe, where metaphors are the inescapable condition of play.
The opening image is Glimpse by Vitor, which can be found on his website, The Fractal Forest. It is used with implict permission of the author, who retains all rights to this image.