July 12, 2014

The Ultimate Analogy

Do you know how you understand things?  Do you know what your brain is doing, to take a concept and really get it?

Partly, the answer is rote memorization -- there's plenty of that.  But to the extent that you can intuitively grasp a concept, the answer is simple:  Your brain makes comparisons.

It's like this.  It's like that.  It's like a ball.  It's like a rope.  It's like running alongside a moving train.

Put simply:  You make analogies.

What the heck is an analogy, anyway?  
Most people think that an analogy is just a colorful example of some phenomenon or dynamic.  It's just a more vivid picture.  And indeed, it is that, without a doubt.  But it's more than that, too.  Or, at least, the process of finding an analogy is more than that.

Finding an analogy requires grasping the nature of something, and then seeking out something else with a similar nature.  Matching patterns.

It's actually the process of understanding something, laid bare.  You first observe, and then you "try on" (i.e., apply) various analogies:  You hold them up to the light, look them both from a variety of perspectives, and assess how faithfully they match.  Quite often, you discard a potential comparison, because there's a flaw:  the analogy does not sufficiently hold.

Oh here's another tidbit about analogies:  They cannot be perfect.  The only perfect analogy would be to compare something to itself, which wouldn't technically be an analogy -- it would be something known as a "tautology."

Nevertheless, some analogies hold up only from very limited perspectives, and other analogies go deep -- where even under varied circumstances the patterns continue to match.  I'm always delighted when I find a particularly deep analogy -- it happens so rarely, though, that I can't even think of a good example. 

I'm The Analogy "Type"
I'm a fan of the Meyers-Briggs psychology tests, and am an ENTP.  That means:
  • Extroverted (vs. Introverted)
  • iNtuitive (vs. Sensing)
  • Thinker (vs. Feeler)
  • Perceiver (vs. Judger)
See that "iNtuitive" up there?  Yeah, those're the people who use analogies.  Sensers (the other type) don't.  While Intuitives seek hidden patterns, Sensers are concrete observers.  They live in the clarity of the now, and pay close attention.

Indeed, Sherlock Holmes is the quintessential Senser: he had a preternatural ability to observe the world around him, at all times, to the finest detail.  Albert Einstein would be the quintessential Intuitive -- grasping the hidden laws of the universe, while no doubt forgetting where he parked his car.

Worst.  Analogy.  Ever. 
I once worked with an extreme Senser.  Hyper-literal and concrete, he was very precise, but often hard to fully understand.  Speaking to him was like reading the 2004 Acura TSX Drivers Manual, or reviewing a summary of your federal taxes:  Factually correct yet any comprehension comes only with much concentration.

Anyway, someone suggested that this person try to use more analogies like me.  He asked me if he could try some out.  I said sure, I was delighted to help!

So he says, "Okay, let me try one:  The reporting system is like a car."  Then looks at me, eyebrows raised for feedback, and there's a pained silence.

So I said, "Um, you have to say how it's like a car."  Oh!   He hadn't know that.  Good to know.

Needless to say, his analogies greatly improved, even if I usually winced at even the best of them.

Seeking the Ultimate Analogy
Anyway, I mentally compare a lot of stuff.  Especially when it comes to the Very Big (e.g., galaxies), the Very Small (e.g., quantum physics), and the Very Profound (e.g., meaning of life).

So consider this question:  What state of matter is life?  What is life "like"? 

I mean, if you had to draw an analogy to another state of matter, what would it be?  Granted, it's a part-solid, part-liquid mishmash, but neither solid nor liquid really captures its essence.  First and foremost, those states don't die and discorporate like we do.   You might be skeptical that there's any state of matter that dies.

But there is:  Fire.

Life is a very slow burn.  This fire can be transferred to new life (e..g, having children), but once it's out, it can't be lit again.  So if we have to compare ourselves to anything else that's out there in the universe, I think that Fire is our closest relative.

I'm not sure what this tells us.  Does it mean that perhaps stars are alive?  I don't think so.  I think they are unfocused burning.  But perhaps other forms of burning could also be considered life.  I do think that any form of life must involve some sort of burning -- life requires a flame.

I think this must be what those kids meant back in high school, when they called me a flamer.   I had no idea how right they were.

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