Metaphors can blind our understanding

In my country, The Netherlands, a discussion between creationism and evolutionism has been rekindled. In this blog I want to share with you a few observations. I think this event is of interest to anyone involved in requirements engineering because it shows that we can become blind in our understanding if we are not aware of the metaphors that colour our vision.

Curious enough the discussion was prompted by a private initiative to distribute door-to-door a folder that attempts to discuss the theory of evolution. The folder attempts to show weaknesses in the theory, and wants to place at least some question marks to the “absolute belief” in the theory. The folder does not explicitly attempt to “convert” the reader to creationism and is set in a relatively reasonable tone.

The curious thing was not the folder itself, but the intensity of the response. This was out of proportion: the person behind the initiative has been threatened, hours have been spent discussing whether the distribution of the folder was “appropriate”. In short: the folder struck a nerve!

Let’s begin with the title of the folder: “Evolution or Creation, what do you believe?”

The title is quite typical for people approaching the discussion from the creationist side. The key is in the term “believe”. They observed that many people “believed” in evolution. That is, they saw that people were not aware of the theory behind it, did not or hardly make an effort to fit the theory into their conceptual world view, and more or less dumb followed popular view. They correctly observed that many people “believed” in evolution.

There is an interesting scene in the movie “Contact”, based on the novel by Carl Sagan. Now, Carl Sagan was a person I would like to call a scientist, and I greatly respected the man as a scientist. At the end of the movie the protagonist, Eleanor “Ellie” Arroway (played by Jodie Foster), discusses with a group of children the subject of extraterrestrial life (if anything, a subject of “belief” even more than evolution…!). She asks one of the children whether she “believes in extraterrestrial intelligence”. The child answers: “I do not know.”

Now my guess is that this answer is one a “creationist” cannot understand at all. For people approaching life from this side the mental attitude behind such an answer is alien (excuse the pun). Their mental make-up is such that questions of life are approached from a “belief” system. In short: for them everything is a belief!

Again, I may be wrong. It is hard for me to understand their position because their approach reciprocally is “alien” to me. I certainly want to emphasise that in no way I intend to derogate their approach, or to question their “intelligence”. I merely try to illustrate the influence of metaphors in our understanding. In that respect I am as much a “victim” of my metaphors as they are.

Is there a way out of the impasse? And believe me: I strongly believe we need a “way out” because the intensity of the discussion shows a dangerous propensity to escalate. This is directly related to my views on fundamentalist thinking (privately published, only available if you register on this site).

For this we need to start to make a better attempt in explaining what science is. Science is not a belief system, or maybe I should say it should not be. Science is nothing more than the art of asking questions, and not place any “meaning” in whatever answer we may come up with. It is not about the answers. It is not about cuddling ourselves in a secure and stable world view. A scientist, or better the scientific mindset, does not “believe” in evolution, and we should try to explain that to creationists. There is no discussion about whether the one or the other is right. Both approaches are based on totally diverging metaphors, which make any discussion fruitless. Any discussion will only add to the fire that might spread further than we may want. This fire is fed from very deep religious and spiritual and archetypal psychological forces which make it very delicate to deal with.

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