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Can You Analogize Anything?
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One response to the Edge Annual Question I found interesting was that of Piet Hut:

I used to pride myself on the fact that I could explain almost anything to anyone, on a simple enough level, using analogies. No matter how abstract an idea in physics may be, there always seems to be some way in which we can get at least some part of the idea across. If colleagues shrugged and said, oh, well, that idea is too complicated or too abstract to be explained in simple terms, I thought they were either lazy or not very skilled in thinking creatively around a problem. I could not imagine a form of knowledge that could not be communicated in some limited but valid approximation or other.

However, I've changed my mind, in what was for me a rather unexpected way. I still think I was right in thinking that any type of insight can be summarized to some degree, in what is clearly a correct first approximation when judged by someone who shares in the insight. For a long time my mistake was that I had not realized how totally wrong this first approximation can come across for someone who does not share the original insight.

As an example, he uses quantum mechanics, which he argues is not explainable through analogy, because we have no classical prior experience that is analogous to what goes on at the quantum level.

I've read some on quantum physics and its interpretations, and I still stick in the Einsteinian camp that "god" does not play dice, that is, the universe is causal and deterministic and that causality is local. However, supposedly many experiments validate the predictions of quantum mechanics and contradict Einstein's interpretations. I still don't understand the subject well enough to make ironclad arguments one way or the other, so until then I'll stick with Einstein.

But what about other fields, and other aspects of the universe? I've talked here a lot about the ability to understand evolutionary theory, and I think that analogizing helps immensely when trying to understand it. The analogies of crystal formation or sand sorting on beaches work well to introduce people to the idea of the emergence of order through natural, unguided processes. Though I do think hands-on experience with simulated evolution is probably going to go much further in helping someone understand evolution than all the explaining in the world. But that's true of anything, isn't it?

What about cognition? One of the criticisms of the computational analogy of mind, that the brain is basically a computer and the mind is the software running on it, is that analogies of mind have always tended to default to the most advanced technology of that era. Minds have historically been analogized to telephone systems, and before that hydraulic systems. But I don't buy the criticism. The analogy breaks down in many places, and the history of AI is a good example of why taking an analogy too literally is a bad idea. But even though the brain might process information in a qualitatively different way from the types of computers we're familiar with, there is little doubt that the brain is processing information. We take in vast amounts of information via our senses, and that information is processed, and we then exhibit behavior in real time. The exact nature of that cycle is the subject of intense study, but I think the computer-mind analogy is generally useful and has explanatory power.

So I guess I'd disagree with Hut. I don't think we're going to encounter phenomena in the universe that doesn't share some common attributes, or the opposite of those attributes, with phenomena we already understand. But then, I could be wrong, and my lack of understanding of quantum physics could be due to the lack of available analogy.

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