Metaphor, Mystery and Paradox, Part 2

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This is the second entry in a series taken from Mark Sprinkle's essay “Metaphor, Mystery, and Paradox at the Confluence of Science and Faith”, which can be found here.

The Art in Science

In the first installment of this series, I suggested that much of the “debate” over the interface of science and faith presumes that the two fields are at odds, while the adherents of both sides often act as though the same sort of narrow objectivism is the universal hallmark of truth. Meanwhile, I started to lay out the case that “objective” science is actually shot through with imagery and metaphor. In this installment, I’ll begin with some examples and explore their ramifications.

The atom is the perfect example of both of these features of scientific symbolism I described last week: their persistence beyond their original context, and their use as guides primary research, rather than descriptions of its results. Greek philosopher Democritus first posited the term (and image) for a basic structure of the material world in roughly 400 BC, and though it was argued and speculated about for centuries, it was only experimentally “discovered” in the 19th and 20th centuries, with each new revelation about atomic behavior requiring a reassessment of the model used to describe it.

Though we still speak casually of the atom as the Greeks did—as the singular, fundamental object or building block of the material world—technically we have come to understand it as a cluster of related, even-smaller (more fundamental) particles, held together and organized by forces and relationships that continue to be the object of study and speculation: first protons, electrons and neutrons, then all the varieties of quarks and exotic particles proposed as carriers of electromagnetic and even gravitational force (in the case of the hypothetical graviton). Yet while the atom itself, as a unit of the material world, no longer holds its place as the ultimate, most basic feature of matter, what has persisted and continues to organize both research and dispositions towards reality is the more far-reaching idea that there must be something that is “most basic,” and that by disassembling matter into its tiniest component parts we will somehow reach a better understanding of the whole—the truth about the universe, or how it “really” is. The atom as originally conceived of has been dethroned, but philosophical belief in a “new atom” continues to drive many in physics forward.

Similarly, the idea that living organisms and systems can be described in terms of machinery came into vogue when technological progress made clockwork devices familiar (though still remarkable and almost “miraculous”) to a wide segment of the population, rather than only the elite few. The image is still with us, of course: not only do we still debate the validity of Paley’s “watchmaker” analogy and regularly use mechanistic descriptions of how parts of cells behave and interact, we have updated the “clockwork” trope to reflect more contemporary technological marvels, even describing the human brain as a “computer.”

Midgley’s caveat is particularly important to remember in conversations about the “design inference” and related ideas, when we perhaps uncritically refer to such structures as the bacterial flagellum as “machines” that must have been designed. And while referring of DNA as “information” or a kind of “code” similarly affirms an agency by whom it was written, those images also carry with them the subtle implications that—on the one hand—it ishidden information to be revealed to only the few, or—on the other hand, when considering that such things as mutations are a key element of genomes as we find them—that the code-writer was sloppy and technically inefficient. It is not that the use of such metaphors is not in some ways appropriate, but we need to use them with extreme caution.1

Despite the danger of misapplying or applying these central images too broadly —forgetting that they are still only approximations and analogies for what we observe—such pictures of reality are vital, and we must not leap to any sort of general condemnation of such “creative license” on account of its quality of subjectivity, assuming it to be antithetical to “true science.” For if Midgley makes the case that scientific discourse is pervaded by symbolic language, chemist and philosopher Michael Polanyi argued that such imaginative structures are not just imported from outside science (a bastardization of some pure mathematical rationality necessary to simplify complex theory for public consumption), but that personal engagement and creative subjectivity is actually integral and indispensable to scientific inquiry at the most basic level, and even more so in those instances where great leaps of understanding are achieved.

Indeed, though he set out to better understand how scientific progress and discovery happens, he eventually broadened his investigation to include the highly subjective, even non- or pre-rational qualities that underpin allsorts of complex forms of human understanding, faith not least among them. Polanyi’s insight was to give full weight to the importance of insight, itself—literally, what we perceive from within—even (perhaps especially) when such flashes are not readily available to our rational, verbal minds. His catch-phrase “we know more than we can say,” points not only to the idea of interpretive resources that lie outside our formulating selves, but also to the idea that many of the most significant discoveries and perceptions remain beyond our ability to describe in simple, straightforward ways, and are unachievable by a “strictly formulized procedure.” In this sense, surety and clarity are not the only hallmarks of the most profound science, but are often accompanied by beauty and surprise.2

My point here is that the common idea that science is defined above all else by its commitment to a detached rational analysis of the material “evidence” is not actually true. Nor is such a commitment to strict objective analysis beneficial. To recognize that science is an art, so to speak, is not a critique of the field, but a praise—despite arguments to the contrary from some within the scientific community itself. And to push the point just a bit further, drawing on Polanyi’s investigation of the inescapably (gloriously) subjective nature of scientific inquiry we may go with him so far as to say that the hierarchy of knowledge we so often accept as given can not and should not be sustained; for if “personal participation and imagination are essentially involved in science as well as in the humanities, meanings created in the sciences stand in no more favored relation to reality than do meanings created in the arts, in moral judgments, and in religion.”3

So to be clear: I am not arguing that what we usually think of when we say “scientific methods” are un-trustworthy, but that their trustworthiness depends on their integration with all other truly human modes of understanding, modes which must also be integrated with scientific research on the basis of their shared subjectivity and openness to moments of insight and revelation. Using complex, provisional, and aesthetic methods may make it easier for scientists, themselves, to be reminded of and then communicate to a popular audience the interpretive imprecision that is inherent to science as a whole, and hence the need to collaborate with non-scientists when answering the question of “What does it all mean?” Again, it’s not that objective attention to material facts is not or should not be the primary focus of scientific practice, but that science is not and cannot be exclusively composed of “de-personalized” knowledge.4

In his next post, Mark will look at the idea of complementary approaches.


1. Mary Midgley, The Myths We Live By: New York: Routledge, 2004. p. 19.

2. Polanyi describes the limits of “arithmetical computation” in genuine scientific discovery, remarking that the “logical gap” that must be crossed in order to accomplish new insights even into the most elemental of physical sciences comes in a moment: “’Illumination’ is then the leap by which the logical gap is crossed. It is the plunge by which we gain a foothold at another shore of reality. Of such plunges the scientist has to stake bit by bit his entire professional life.” Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-critical Knowledge. Chicago: U. Chicago Press, 1958. p. 123.

3. The citation concludes: “At least they stand in no more favored relation to reality on a basis of the supposed presence or absence of personal participation and imagination on the one rather than the other. To have, or to refer to, reality—in some sense—may then be a possibility for both sorts of meanings.” Michael Polanyi and Harry Prosch, Meaning. Chicago: U. Chicago Press, 1975. pp. 64-65.

4. Here again, Midgley is prescient when she notes that “historical methods are complex and are quite unlike those usually quoted as being essential to physical science [yet] are needed within science itself whenever a unique process is described—for instance in cosmology and in the study of evolution. . . Much of the time, we are exploring unknown or partially known matters, and we use whatever forms of thought turn out to be needed for them. Often it is our powers of perception that are central to the work, rather than the consecutive reasoning that can be easily tested. And in any human situation we must call on special powers of social perception and imagination that are not really formulable at all.” Mary Midgley, The Myths We Live By, p. 26.




Editorial Team, BioLogos. "Metaphor, Mystery and Paradox, Part 2" N.p., 22 Nov. 2010. Web. 17 February 2019.


Editorial Team, B. (2010, November 22). Metaphor, Mystery and Paradox, Part 2
Retrieved February 17, 2019, from /blogs/archive/metaphor-mystery-and-paradox-part-2

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