What do the expressions ‘iron horse’, ‘floating mountains’ and ‘flying saucers’ have in common?
Answer: They are responses to something seen for the first time – an attempt to explain something unfamiliar and unknown and never experienced before.
The ‘iron horse’ was, allegedly, how a Native North American Indian described the first train that was seen moving across the North American plains. A ‘floating mountain’ (p. 17 of the pdf document; section: 'The versions of the vanquished') was, supposedly, how the native South American Indian spies described the oncoming ships of the Spanish invaders. And, ‘flying saucer’, as everyone may know, is how the Western media first publicised the phenomenon of UFOs. Now, imagine how each of these assertions were received by the general population: with understanding nods of approval and general acceptance? With undoubting certitude and unquestioning acknowledgement? Nope. Most probably with a lot of hilarity and not merely a pinch of condescending irony.
Now this is a slightly different take on the above title – some sceptics reject a belief, not simply on the grounds that it was asserted ‘without evidence’, but because the evidence presented is framed in highly metaphoric terms and is thereby somehow diluted as far as justification of a belief is concerned. The language of evidence, it appears, is crucial.
Consider the language of the Bible, for example. When justifying statements in the Bible, believers often argue that we shouldn’t take the words of the Bible too literally – it detracts from the essential message or teaching; whereas atheists sometimes argue that after you’ve stripped the metaphor away from the language, there’s nothing of substance left in the message.
And what do you notice about each of the above expressions? They are deeply metaphoric. Metaphor, it seems, is crucial to our ability to make sense of the world, especially our experiences of it. Metaphor fills the gaps, so to speak, in our more literal attempts to grasp order and meaning in what we see in our universe. The North American Indian, seeing a giant, metallic object, racing towards him, breathing smoke and screaming violently, can only grasp what he’s sensing by comparing this unbelievably strange experience in terms of something more familiar to him. Metaphor helps to suspend our incredulity about the world and reach for knowledge and understanding that slips through our more literal (rational?) approaches.
Which begs the knowledge issue: to what extent is imagination an integral part of making assertions? Or the more ethical KI: should evidence, grasped imaginatively and presented in metaphorical terms, be rejected with a corresponding rejection of the belief?
If the South American Indians had collectively accepted the ‘floating horses’ hypothesis, might they have taken more seriously the threat of the invading Spanish ships?
A what if question, the answer to which we’ll never be able to know...