Poetry, Myth & Metaphor and the Wonder of Science

Nov 6, 2012

Discussion by: Aguazul
I witnessed a handful of stones move some 300m up a mountain the other day. Actually it was me that carried them up. “So what?” you may say, but you must know that this is completely contrary to the nature of mountains, which are forever in a process of erosion. They sit there as evidence of the laws of thermodynamics, forever gradually moving towards their lowest energy level and least ordered state. So what a miracle that a handful of stones contradicted that tendency and went the other way! What was needed for that to happen?

In the short term, it required the sun to be burning, plants to be collecting that sunlight, those plants to enter the food chain, eventually ending up, directly or indirectly, on my plate. Powered by chemical energy, my body contradicted thermodynamic tendencies, paying off the debt of maintaining higher order within itself by reducing the order in the food. Looking at longer time-scales, we needed all of evolution to have happened, millions and millions of years of trial and error to reach an animal sufficiently complex to do something as unlikely as carry a bunch of stones up a mountain for no good reason. Despite having a (methane) precipitation cycle and mountains and rivers, there are no stones being carried uphill by weird animals on Titan (that we know of).

So what an incredible and unlikely thing I witnessed, up on that mountain, some stones moving uphill — what a wondrous thing. But without an understanding of Science I could never have been aware of a big enough picture to understand what had just happened. There would have been no Wonder in that moment without Science.

But wait a second, the curious child inside me has a question: Why is it that I only have thoughts like that when I am up a mountain? Uh-oh. Science can’t help us much here. Is it the lack of oxygen at altitude causing my brain to work in unexpected ways? Is it the sun burning on my head, or the partial dehydration, or the muscular exhaustion that I’m suffering? Could these cause big thoughts?

Let’s go through the magic window and see if we can make any more sense of it in the land of poetry, myth and metaphor. By climbing 900m up to the top of a mountain I moved to a higher energy more ordered state far away from daily life in the valley below. Let’s use this observation metaphorically. The lowest (conscious) human energy state is probably bored channel-surfing in front of a TV, barely one step up from a coma. A layer above that is the city-dweller’s “daily grind”: the office, the commute, the microwave dinner and sleep. We can suggest that big thoughts don’t happen in states of low-energy, and the further away you get up from it (which requires effort), the more likely they are to happen. This is a theory not in the land of Science but in the land of Metaphor, in the land of description of reality, not reality itself. But like the fine Science-inspired metaphor-users that we are, we can still see if it has any predictive value in real life. Hmmm, looks like it could — go for a walk in the park, meditate for an hour a day, go away on holiday — all these minor elevations from the lowest energy state are known to bring greater thoughts.

Reasoning in the land of Metaphor isn’t like reasoning about Scientific laws. “Absence makes the heart grow stronger” doesn’t contradict “Out of sight is out of mind” — they can happily coexist. Apparent statements of ‘fact’ are no such thing. “Is” isn’t a logical identity operator — rather it indicates a metaphorical comparison. For the metaphorically-unaware, perhaps we should rewrite the above sayings more precisely: “Absense, in some cases, can make feelings associated with the heart become stronger” and “Out of sight can, at times, also mean out of mind”. But if we’re reasoning in the land of Metaphor the extra words just seem redundant — we know that we’re not talking about absolutes and logical identities. Rather we’re defining and reorganizing abstractions and creating associations between them. There is truth and meaning to be found here, but it is a different kind of truth to scientific truth.

In fighting against religion’s lies, manipulation and corruption, I wonder if sometimes people here on the forum also think they’re fighting against poetry, myth and metaphor. I think we’d all be happy if everyone regarded the Bible as a collection of myths and metaphorical stories. So why at times am I reminded of that scene in the film “I, Robot” where the computer says “My logic is UNDENIABLE”, to which Will Smith replies “You SO have to die!”. Just because metaphorical thought isn’t like Scientific or Mathematical thought doesn’t mean it is wrong or useless.

And if you’re worried about me up at 4300m on a Peruvian mountain, flying higher than even kites do (possibly) due to the lack of oxygen, you have no need to. I have to keep my head screwed on tight, because if I break my leg up here, there is no helicopter coming to save me. There is nothing like an awareness of the proximity of imminent thermodynamic collapse to keep you focussed.

8 comments on “Poetry, Myth & Metaphor and the Wonder of Science

  • 1
    Alan4discussion says:

    Interestingly, I once encountered some gravel-beds where the stratification indicated the water was flowing rapidly and carrying the gravel up-hill.

    Quite strange, – until you work out that at the time the gravel was laid down, the water was flowing up-hill under pressure, in a “pipe” between the ground and the bottom of a huge ice-cap.  The 2 mile  high head of water was pushing gravel and rapidly flowing pressurised water, up the hill towards the edge of a long gone glacier. 
    Only the nearby glaciated rocks and the strange gravel beds recorded the geological history.

    There is some beautiful BBC video of temporary lakes on the surface of ice-caps with divers investigating them here:

    Operation Iceberg


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  • 2
    QuestioningKat says:

    I wonder if sometimes people here on the forum also think they’re fighting against poetry, myth and metaphor.

    I’m so happy that you posted this topic because I was considering on writing a topic about the misuse of metaphor in religion and various spiritual paths. You beat me to it!

    Personally I am not fighting against anything, but now that I am an atheist, I am highly aware in how metaphor, myth and poetry gets misused. (That’s a key word “misused” so remember this as you read.) I have created or have been involved in the arts my entire life, so believe it or not “metaphor, myth, and poetry” (MMP) come naturally to me. To create,we make connections with life, ideas, our imagination, etc with our vision, and way of expression. A designer may intentionally or subconsciously choose certain forms that express and idea or look. A square may be chosen to reflect stability, security, and being “grounded” A musician may select certain sounds to emphasize various emotions. Artists are storytellers weaving life and their vision together – metaphorically.

    Previous to my deconversion, I was involved in a metaphysical spiritual path (Unity Church.) I didn’t know it at the time, but I was a deist. Our entire lives and personal experiences were taken metaphysically. The Bible had equal importance to the “book of Mom.”  One sermon (in South Carolina which was way more Bible based than my northern state church) talked about the metaphysical meaning of it being easier for a camel to pass through an eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. It was mentioned that the eye of the needle referred to an architectural term that was a very narrow slot or passage. In order to pass through this slot, you need to dump all you stuff and enter through alone. Metaphysically, you need to drop your attitude, your psychological baggage, your troubles, your limiting beliefs,  forgive others, drop your past, or anything weighing you down- etc. in order to enter whole, complete and live a joyful “heavenly” life here and now. In this case, the Bible was not considered the inerrant truth, but metaphor for living. Occasionally, in a Unitarian Church  ( not Unity) a poem, song, dance, story, factual piece of information is expressed so that a person could gain meaning in their own unique way and interpretation.

    Frequently, when I find that I have difficulty making a decision, I try to come up with a metaphor for the situation. This helps stop the “monkey mind” and allows me to see the situation from an objective perspective. This is a Jungian technique that I find works really well with my ability to visualize. One time, a therapist asked me to visualize my current situation. “I’m in a forest..in an SUV…I’m stuck in the mud and my tires are spinning.” “Can you get out? asked my therapist. “No the door won’t open, the mud is too deep.” “Can you open the window, she asked?” Yes “Climb out, she instructed.”……. I find this to be very helpful (and I was thrilled to finally find a therapist that utilized this ability.)

    As an atheist, we create our own meaning in our lives. We can view a work of art and be personally moved and enlightened.  Without the burden of false views, rote meanings that come from someone outside of ourselves, we are free to pursue meaning at a level deeper than false promises and magical thinking. We strive to live in the here and now.

    While MMP can be positively used to enrich our lives, better understand
    ourselves and in turn understand others. It can also be misused. More of this in my next post.

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  • 3
    QuestioningKat says:

    So if MMP can be positively used to create, solve problems, and  gain personal meaning, how is it used improperly?

    Here is the nutshell version for people who do not want to read further:
    MMP is improperly used by:

    -filling in the gaps of understanding factual information that would ordinarily require research or further knowledge. Here the person incorrectly determines that personal opinion or story is a legitimate way to solve a problem outside of themselves. (uses internal dialogue and projects it onto the external)

    -Confusing the metaphor as reality (literal truth) in and of itself rather than using the metaphor as a tool — stepping stone —way to understand their own personal feelings or state of being. Here the metaphor actually exists or is truth. A hoarse voice reflect your own ability or inability  to voice your opinions, self, etc. and not just a physical virus.

    -Metaphors are provided by someone else whether or not the personal realizes it. In turn, the metaphors are used on someone else other than themselves.

    -The person has an overactive imagination.

    -The person does not fully understand themselves, sees themselves inaccurately, or have poor perceptual abilities  so the metaphor only reinforces incorrect views about themselves.

    I wrote this recently:

     I noticed that nearly all of this
    psychic stuff, metaphysical woo, etc.  is dependent upon something as a
    starter that allows them to build an analogy, metaphor, or stream of
    consciousness with their imagination, knowledge base, life experience,
    skills, etc.  (I noticed how this process is sometimes strangely similar
    to designing or creating art. ) I once read an artists statement that
    equated creativity with connections. Notice how one woman stated that
    she needed to hear a voice or have a connection with someone. Yes,
    because without it, she would have no “idea starter” to build upon and
    make up a story.

    If you give me various personal information, I can run an astrological chart on you and tell you what all the glyphs and information supposedly means. I can also read your Tarot cards too! Seriously, I can. No joke. I used to use these tools not for divination but methods to gain personal insight and see meaning into a situation for myself. They were mini metaphysical, psychological tool kits. Knowing this type of metaphysics from the inside, I can tell you specific problems that most skeptics do not know.

    Some time ago, I debated an astrologer online. I tried to show her how astrology fills in the gaps/bridges two different ideas. Astrology offers many options in how to read your chart, so if you can’t find something in one aspect, you can then look at different aspects,  the geometry, a different type of astrology, different planets or asteroids, charts progressed, or other areas of the chart. There are many many ways of connecting one idea to another. Ask a question about say — your work life and you could find maybe five or six different ways to look at the issue. One of the astrologer’s responses related to her view that astrology’s proper use was for personal insight and  psychological understanding. I agreed that astrology can work for this purpose, but it works on the same principle as a Rorschach test. There is no magical innate code in astrology. There are no true, exact meanings or ways to foresee the future in astrology. It is as effective as pulling a photo from a magazine and then relating that image to your personal life.

    Just a day or two ago, I was watching an old Utube video of Richard talking to Deepak Chopra. At one point in the video, Chopra mentioned what he was saying about Quantum Mechanics was a metaphor. I found this statement a bit disingenuous. Coming from a metaphysical background, I knew many people who took this metaphor as literal truth. “My Word is My Wand” (title of a book) was the common belief of this group. Your words could literally manifest reality. To a certain extent your attitude, habits, and spoken goals can manifest predictable realities but not to the elevated, magical reality that many believed.

    Having problems with your leg? Metaphysically you are having difficulty moving forward in life.

    The fifth chakra is the throat chakra. “Are you fully self-expressed? Speak up and sing out to unblock your fifth chakra. Align your energy for better communication and find true love!”

    Higher physical states equate higher states of Concsiousness – literally.
    (Emotions like anger, jealousy are judged as being lower states while joy, peace and love are judge and being higher states. Who decided to categorize this? Is anger always “bad” and lacking in usefulness? Is peace always “good.” Notice how some humans decided what higher “Consciousness” actually is?

    (Congratulations, You have earned twenty bonus points if you have even bothered reading these long tedious posts so far .)

    Keep in mind that I have been speaking about MMP used for a personalized spiritual path and have yet to touch on traditional (dictated) religion. This (above) is generally a journey that one takes on their own  – free from the constraints of traditional religious beliefs. Yet, no matter how hard they try to find meaning, it is still weighed down by metaphysical meanings that stem from various world religions and magical views of the universe that stem from something other than their own selves. They think that they are finding meaning on their own terms away from the dictates of their own cultural religions, but few can do this on their own. In the end, they end up adopting dictated metaphors and meanings from some other culture’s religion. Additionally, Someone told them that they have forgotten the true nature of who they are – spiritual beings having a human experience and they live from this idea of a realm that they have no contact with and doesn’t exist in reality.  I have yet to see someone legitimately walk on water or float unassisted in the air. Their claims are unattainable.

    Traditional religion certainly uses MMP, yet they seem confused about where to draw the line. I will touch on this briefly because everyone here knows traditional religions. Consider the symbolism of the crucifix, the host in Catholic communion, the entire Bible, the (dictated) meaning of Easter or Christmas… While these rituals or beliefs should be taken symbolically, authorities demand that they are literal or provide the metaphorical meaning – no thought needed. Transfiguration, Adam and Eve, God destroying entire cities…Children eventually grow up and learn that their is no Santa Claus, yet religious authorities demand  literal belief to keep people in line, like little dependent children. Yet some religions know it ain’t so, so they cherry pick. The use of some metaphor in order to stray from the literal truth then becomes acceptable to some. 

    So Aguazul, metaphor can be important- telling our life story can be deeply beneficial, but somehow this natural ability (which I’m sure has evolutionary roots – someone please comment on this) seems to have been warped into something that is at times farfetched, incorrect, and dependent upon views of others.  We  also make up stories. We want everything to make sense to the point that being uncomfortable is unbearable, so we connect the dots and finally exhale. Without religion or even some of the spirituality that many adopt, we are left to find our own meaning. Appreciation, joy, gratitude and other simple emotions and experiences become bogged down by the complexity of personal interpretation and story to  justify  the usefulness of the experience. Oh, the crazy webs (stories)  we spin.

    How can we find meaning in this world when so much of what we consider to be personal meaning is layered with metaphors that are unknowingly borrowed, adapted, dictated? We think we are following our own path to understanding, yet the way is paved with stereotypical views and symbols that we unconsciously
    adopted and agreed upon. Until we see the reality of this world and give up all magical meaning, we can never be free to even start to begin to think for ourselves.

    By the way, sorry about the long posts. I really was unable to properly proofread this stuff. So, (slap me for using that meme) I hope there are no significant errors.

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  • 4
    QuestioningKat says:

    My goodness, a day has passed and no more responses…I guess that’s good enough reason for me to move onto rant #3. 😀

    Science doesn’t explain everything.

    What does this really mean?

    It seems to be some rote “rhetorical” question/comment that theists and deists pull out of a deck of cards in order to one-up an atheist. It says, I have this little tid bit on my side. This little “what if” keeps the God/Higher Consciousness door open. It implies that this little tid bit is untouchable…therefore there is still a slim chance of “something else more to this life.” Is it really a legitimate perspective?

    I think this  perspective stems from people’s unwillingness or inability to make the distinction of when certain
    thought processes are more appropriate over other thought processes, opinions, and feelings. Let’s look at your comments Aguazul and see if other people here have something to add.

    But wait a second, the curious child inside me has a question: Why is it
    that I only have thoughts like that when I am up a mountain? Uh-oh.
    Science can’t help us much here. Is it the lack of oxygen at altitude…Could these cause big thoughts?

    This reminds me of Eckhart Tolle wondering who is the person that is the voice in his head. Is this what you are trying to say? If so, why is it so difficult to accept that our brain can think about thinking and then think about those thoughts – perhaps all at once? The amount of information that we process and sort is staggering. The brain power that I am using to write these words requires many processes going on in my brain in conjunction with each other possibly much more than our ability to think about thinking. Why is it that some people still fail to recognize the phenomenal complexity and expansiveness of our brain? We see, smell, feel, think, touch, sort, etc. all at lightning speed. We (I) may not understand the functions of our (my) brain, but is this really a good enough reason to jump to the conclusion that higher reasoning comes from something “extra” in the human brain/form? What becomes really frustrating is when someone quickly attributes a high level of skill, intelligence, or talent to a supernatural cause. When that ability falters it’s then attributed to not being in alignment with Source or not being properly tuned into some sort of supernatural “radio station.”

    We can suggest that big thoughts don’t happen in states of low-energy,
    and the further away you get up from it (which requires effort), the
    more likely they are to happen. This is a theory not in the land of
    Science but in the land of Metaphor, in the land of description of
    reality, not reality itself…

    What are you really saying here? I think you better clarify this last sentence. I think I’d like to focus more on this comment, but I’d like to be sure I’m not misunderstanding you.

    So why at times am I reminded of that scene in the film “I, Robot”
    where the computer says “My logic is UNDENIABLE”, to which Will Smith
    replies “You SO have to die!”. Just because metaphorical thought isn’t
    like Scientific or Mathematical thought doesn’t mean it is wrong or

    Wait! so the response to  something (someone) who is exacting, mechanical, and scientific is “You SO have to die!” There’s a lovely loving act of tolerance. (not) Isn’t this the actual problem? Theists and deists view atheists and scientists as hard, cold, unemotional, arrogant, and less than “human.”

    Sure we don’t need to have data to tell us whether or not a personal experience was worthwhile, yet I  find it shocking that some people refuse to listen to facts about the natural world around them. As I have commented in my other posts metaphor MMP can be used positively, yet it is as if we have this complex instrument – our brain and we haven’t yet figured out the best situation and ways to use our brain power. Our education system focuses on  external subjects like math, language, history, art, but not brain functions like divergent thinking, creative thinking, sequential thinking, abstract reasoning, interpersonal awareness, spatial reasoning, intrapersonal awareness, calculating, observing, reflecting, sorting, recognizing logical fallacies, recognizing our mental limitations. Perhaps this needs to be addressed as much as the subject being taught. There are situation in which opinion and personal experience  is called for, unfortunately, many if not most cannot clarify when personal opinion is irrelevant.

    Why must some people jump to the ghost in the machine? If we surgically mess with the machine, the ghost seemingly leaves…..

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  • 5
    This Is Not A Meme says:

    ‘Art is interesting, and if you don’t agree you can fuck off.’

    I do find the crowd here can fail at understanding others, miss the point of something and just draw unkind conclusions about it. I’ve always thought this might be because of different types of mind that gather here, not that they are jerks. From my experience, scientists and engineers are for mistaken for artless and clueless when it comes to literature. They just go about it differently. Often, their well developed brains are exceptional when it comes to art and its appreciation. They are a new kind of people, and often privy to even newer insights about the universe, and there will not be much art to appeal to that.

    Loren Eisley is a scientist who’s prose rivals the best in any field of writing. I recommend The Star Thrower, a collection of essays. I’d even say any thing that you can find online is going to demonstrate the richness science bring to art. This is a new thing our species has never encountered. In the entire history of culture, we stand at the beginning of a new drastically new source of inspiration. Poets today have no concept of a classical firmament, only unending space with countless words, best navigated with a hitchhiker’s guide.

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  • 6
    Alan4discussion says:

    This Is Not A Meme

    From my experience, scientists and engineers are for mistaken for artless and clueless when it comes to literature. They just go about it differently. Often, their well developed brains are exceptional when it comes to art and its appreciation.

    If you look at the images I linked on the first post here, the artistry of the photography is awesome!

    The science is awesome too!

    It’s just confusing and detrimental to mix up the different perceptions.

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  • 7
    maria melo says:


    I think Niels Bohr, liked to use analogy (analogy is a comparisson and a metaphor doesn´t make use of any comparative element).
    By the way, I ´ll read a chapiter about Niels Bohr use of analogy soon, inspired by the OP.
    Hummmm, I suppose that the difference between a scientist and a let´s say , a prophet, and the way they use analogy and metaphor is that, used by a scientist it serves as a model before he gets to know about the real psyisical world, while for religion, it is just a lie that becomes a dogmatic “truth”.
    (I have the issue of this interesting magazine not fully explored by me)

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  • 8
    Mark Ribbands says:

    What a lovely piece, which I’ve only just seen – I do find the new site difficult and slow to navigate. But perhaps that’s because it’s now designed for people with tablets and fast connections, not blokes like me who skulk in some tenebrous corner of the world with a little laptop and a lousy connection.
    On the previous incarnation of this site, such a well-written and thought-provoking piece would have generated a storm of interesting responses.

    What has happened to RD.net?  Where is everybody?

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