Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Cartesian dualism assumed; proximate metaphor discouraged

In his Thought for the Day this morning Akhandadhi Das commits the linguistic infelicity I've noticed far too often recently (noticed presumably because we're getting so much Olympic coverage at the moment), that of using a metaphor from sport to describe something in ... sport. The "level playing-field" is its most prevalent form, and to me it shows laziness. It's inappropriate because it's confusing. If you use a metaphor from sport (such as "a level playing-field") to describe something else in sport (such as methods of ensuring sporting contests are fair), how are we to know that it's a metaphor, and that you're not talking about the actual — rather than metaphorical — thing?

If you refer to a "level playing-field" when talking about ensuring fairness in sporting contests, the fairness aspect of a level playing-field is likely to get lost in concerns about whether the sport in question actually takes place on a playing-field. If it does, and the slope of the field isn't what you're talking about, your meaning will diffuse into uncertainty. If the sport doesn't take place on a playing-field, people will — for at least a moment or two — wonder what on earth you're talking about.

In summary, if you want to be understood clearly and quickly, don't use metaphors that are too close to the actual subject you're explicating. But that's not why I'm writing about Thought for the Day (again).

Akhandadhi Das refers to research done at Bristol University on "innate fairness" in young children. This is fine — I'm all for looking at the science when considering such questions — but Das immediately takes an unjustified leap to talk about "psychological traits which arise from the physical embodiment of the soul." He bases this on nothing more than religious dogma, going on to make more bald assertions about how the soul is affected by which particular body it's embodied in. Somehow he connects this to scientific explanations of thoughts and motivations, but claims that science cannot explain altruism, sacrifice, love or fairness. If he did a bit more research he'd find that science has quite a lot to say about all four. (Indeed he's already mentioned a scientific study of fairness.)

Das refers to the Hindu belief that "ultimate fairness" is a "spiritual insight", and then goes off into uncharted woo-woo land, talking about "the soul's remembrance of its own spiritual origin", and "the dual nature of our existence".

Never mind the level playing-field — Akhandadhi Das isn't even in the same ball-park.

Podcast of Thought for the Day available here:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/thought

Direct link to mp3 audio available here:
http://downloads.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/radio4/thought/thought_20120905-1038a.mp3
(available for 30 days)
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