“The role of analogy is to aid understanding rather than to provide justification.”
An analogy is the establishment of a relationship between two things given that they have certain characteristics in common. In this essay, I argue that an analogy’s role isn’t only limited to aiding understanding, but its role can extend to providing justification. I do this by exploring and evaluating the role of analogies in different areas of knowledge (Mathematics, Indigenous Knowledge Systems and History). Furthermore, I consider the exceptions to the statement that analogies aid understanding in the first place.
Analogies are ways of representing knowledge in our everyday lives. Yuen Foon Khong in his book “Analogies at war” argues that humans have “limited computational capacities”. “Consequently, human beings have to rely on some sort of simplifying mechanism to cope with and process the massive amount of information they encounter in their daily lives. Analogies serve as cognitive shortcuts to help people make sense of complex issues” (Zheng Wang, 2014). For instance, political elites use historical analogies to influence opinions. Abe, the Japanese prime minister, provided a historical “argument from analogy” at the World Economic Forum in January 2014, to argue that modern China is as dangerous as Germany in 1914. His argument mainly focused on the similarity between the Germany-Britain situation in 1914 and the China-Japan in 2014 in terms of tensions due to strategic rivalry. In this case, the role of analogy in reason as a way of knowing can be seen in our construction of an inductive argument which is dominated by logic or “cause and effect” relationship. “Argument from analogy” is a type of inductive argument where perceived similarities are used as a basis to infer some further similarity that has yet to be observed; thus, aiding our understanding of our real world through logical chains of reasoning that support and provide justification for the conclusion of the argument.
Nevertheless, the use of analogical reasoning to draw inferences based on past experiences can be detrimental as it might limit our understanding. The extent to which the analogy aids our understanding depends on the strength of the analogy which is influenced by a combination of numerous factors. For instance, the relevance of the known similarities, the number of shared characteristics among the things being compared are all factors that determine the strength of an analogy. In the historical argument, the 2014 China and Japan indeed shared some similarities with the 1914 Britain and Germany, such as close economic ties and security rivalries. “However, the size, amount and level of economic ties between the two groups of states during the two periods of time have significant differences. Furthermore, the basic structure of the world has changed from imperialism to globalization” (Zheng Wang, 2014). Therefore, the analogy in this case limits our understanding of the situation due to the weakness and the simplicity of the used analogy.
Despite the dangerous side of simple analogies, it can be argued that it is their simplicity that enhances our minds’ “computational capacities” by offering reasoning shortcuts (heuristics) to overcome obstacles hindering comprehension. The reasoning shortcuts created by analogies skip the logical chains of reasoning; thus, they don’t necessarily provide justification to avoid confusion. For instance, due to the abstract nature of Mathematics, teachers help their students understand abstract concepts using analogies. In primary school, a lot of students struggled with the introduction of the negative integers concept. The teacher advised us to visualize the concept of positive and negative integers as a person going upstairs and downstairs from the ground floor in a building. In this case, the analogy is used without providing justification for the sake of simplicity to aid my understanding of the concept, since the introduction of such a new mathematical horizon might be daunting for students. For the sake of simplicity in such cases, analogies don’t provide logical chains of reasoning via which the comprehension of a concept can be achieved. Thus, analogies can exclude the process of providing justification in order to aid understanding.
Nevertheless, it can be argued that the use of an analogy in itself is a process of providing justification implicitly due to the assumption that the analogy receivers already have background knowledge about the concept for them to understand the analogy in the first place. Hence, an analogy in this case will incorporate the processes of aiding understanding and providing justification simultaneously. Using the negative integers example, it could be argued that the use of the analogy in itself is a process of providing justification implicitly due to the assumption that the students already know what negative integers are; hence, the students should be able to identify that the correspondence between the mathematical concepts: (zero, positive integers and negative integers) and the physical concepts: (ground level, upstairs and downstairs) respectively. Therefore, the role of an analogy isn’t only limited to aiding understanding, but it can incorporate the process of providing justification simultaneously.
Nonetheless, the Scottish philosopher, David Hume, critiques the use of analogies stating that our establishing of relations between the objects of the world and ourselves is driven by our own necessities and not necessities in the objects themselves (De Pierris, Graciela and Friedman, 2018). Hume radically separates the mind within which ideas occur, from the body which receives impressions through sense perception as a way of knowing. The analogies that are made, according to Hume, are in the constructions of the mind and imagination, and their relation to the body is only based on whether or not they provide pleasure or pain. There is no justification for our beliefs in the analogies that we have made between the world and ourselves because there is no correspondence; it is our necessities and not the necessities of nature which inhere in our judgements about things. “know how” in something or what we regard as our “understanding”, comes to dominate since our “know how” is how we grasp the things that are and this grasping “works” for us by helping us to achieve our ends and what we desire.
For instance, considering the different cultural perspective which deviates from my own perspective that is affected by my personal knowledge, the shared knowledge of Indigenous Systems utilizes analogies to have a better understanding of nature, without providing justification, since nature provides no ground for judgement in such cases. Indigenous knowledge is very different to the forms of knowledge discussed before, since it doesn’t follow the “cause and effect” logic as Mathematics and historical arguments, it is often inexpressible and held in the attitudes and practices of life. On the Nicobar Islands, stories of the battles between the Goddesses of the Sea and the Earth informed the villagers that the Sea Goddess would return with rage and vengeance, so they went to higher ground and were saved from the tsunami in December 2004 (Arnold, 2017). Given the profound relationship that indigenous peoples have with the natural world, analogies in tribal myths may aid our understanding of nature. Such analogies changed how scientists act towards the shared indigenous knowledge. In the past, these stories were fodder for anthropologists and social scientists, but geologists have begun to pay more attention to how indigenous peoples understood, and prepared for disasters. This could ultimately help scientists prepare for cataclysms to come (Arnold, 2017).
Responding to Hume’s criticism, the German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, proposed the concept of transcendental idealism in his book “critique of pure reason” (Kant, 2011). Kant argues that the conscious subject cognizes objects including real world phenomena not as they are in themselves which means objects as they are independent of observation and perception, but only the way they appear to us under the conditions of our sensibility. Thus, Kant’s doctrine restricts the scope of our cognition to appearances given to our sensibility and denies that we can possess cognition of things as they are in themselves. Moreover, he argues that space, time and causality which are the necessary ways in which phenomena are related to one another, do not have an existence ‘outside’ of us, separate from phenomena (Stang, 2016). Rather, like the phenomena, these forms of interrelatedness are mind-dependent meaning that they originate in our mental faculties. Therefore, Kant’s argument disproves Hume’s main point of criticism, which allows for reasoning and thus justification to exist within the process of using an analogy rather than only aiding understanding.
In conclusion, the use of an analogy is accompanied by the provision of justification in most cases. Therefore, the role of an analogy isn’t limited to aiding our understanding, but it extends to provide justification or it can perform the opposite by providing justification even though it may not aid understanding. Despite the dangerous side of simple analogies that could limit our understanding, my argument stands still due to the prominent role of analogies in various disciplines, where humans always tend to use simplifying mechanisms to process knowledge. Winston Churchill states that “Apt analogies are among the most formidable weapons of the rhetorician” (The International Churchill Society, 2016). This is proven by the powerful impact of Carl Sagan’s analogy, in which he described the foreign policy between the US and the Soviet Union as two enemies inside a room awash in gasoline, on Ronald Reagan’s decision to pursue the INF Treaty with the Soviet Union (McNulty, 2018). Thus, it’s implied that the way that knowledge is communicated affects our actions and understanding of the world. The presentation of knowledge using analogies can enhance our understanding; thus, analogies serve as tools to enhance our research and development by bridging between different areas of knowledge which could open the path for discoveries. This could further encourage us to look for more tools that are even better than analogies in aiding our understanding of our world or even develop our use of analogies in the future.
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