Photo by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash

This piece was in Aeon magazine a little while ago, The self is not singular but a fluid network of identities | Aeon Essays. It’s an interesting piece, well worth a read. It makes the case that the usual way regular people think of the self is mistaken. It is not simple, like a soul, nor is it a series of memories/experiences, nor the narrator of our story. Instead it is a network. Essentially the self is a web of relationships. I find this appealing for many reasons, but the big one is because I identify myself in terms of relationships. I’m a father and a brother and a son and a friend, among other things. This theory fits nicely with my natural disposition.

The essay is also an example of a common problem when people try to explain many phenomena. That problem is that we frequently use metaphors in our explanations and then pretend that the metaphors aren’t metaphors. Selves can’t literally be networks. If they were, it raises the question of what is being networked. (Maybe it’s a network of networks, but then it turns into turtles all the way down.) I also can’t help but wonder if there’s a potential uniqueness problem. If two individuals (identical twins, perhaps) have the same networks, are they the same self? Those questions are neither here nor there. I just want to point out that as a metaphor, the self as a network is enlightening. If it isn’t a metaphor, though, it’s closer to nonsense. So, why hide the fact that it’s a metaphor?

Like I said, it’s a very common problem. How many times have we heard that the brain is a computer? Or that the body is hardware and the mind is software? I remember reading once about how outfielders use algorithms to catch fly balls. Politics is a game. Religion is the opiate of the people. We are told that genes compete with each other, cancer is smart, and that the earth is suffering (technically these may be personification rather than metaphor, but, in my view, personification is just a specific type of metaphor). It shouldn’t take much reflection to realize that none of these things are literally true.

This matters for several reasons, although all the reasons are variations on a theme. All metaphors break down when pushed too far. When someone fails to acknowledge that they are talking metaphorically, they are misleading. And many people will take the metaphor literally. The first one is obvious. There are no two things with a completely identical set of properties. Everything that is, was, or will be is unique. Therefore, no comparison is perfect. Brains are brains and computers are computers. They have some similarities, but they are not the same thing.

Second, misleading people erodes trust. You don’t need to be an expert in the topic of the lie to know when you are being lied to. You don’t need to know much about brains or computers to know that brains are different than computers. When someone stands up and says, “The brain is just a computer,” and never admits the metaphor, many of the listeners will stop trusting the speaker no matter how valuable the insights.

Third, those who don’t feel like they are being lied to, are apt to miss the metaphor completely and take the statement as literal truth. Sometimes these misunderstandings are relatively harmless. Someone who believes that the brain is literally a computer might write some atrocious speculative fiction on the topic. But, there are real harms. That same person is much more likely to fall for quick-fix “psychology” and self-help scams. Reprogram your brain to lose weight, learn a language, or get dates.

Look at the discourse around genetics, evolution, and related subjects. By constantly talking about selfish genes, competition, success, suitability, etc. people are being mislead. As a result, we get science sceptics. It’s easy to arrive at “evolution is just a theory” when you suspect that the powers that be aren’t telling the truth. We also get weird teleologies. Almost all of the biology metaphors imply intention which isn’t really there. Intentions imply values and we wind up with bigotry. If women are supposed to have babies, if that’s their purpose, then women who have babies are good and successful while those who don’t are wicked or failures. Misunderstanding evolution may not cause sexism, but it is definitely used to support it.

The best way to fight back is through openness and honesty. When someone uses a metaphor, they need to make sure that it is clearly a metaphor (maybe using similes would be better). They need to acknowledge the limits of the metaphor and recognize the pitfalls of people misunderstanding. Most of the time, I believe the true experts know that they are talking metaphorically. But their knowledge doesn’t do much good if it isn’t communicated effectively. Metaphors are powerful, but risky. We need to take care when and how we use them.

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