The Universe Is Like an Analogy

I love this New Scientist video and article by Douglas Hofstadter and Emmanuel Sander on the centrality of analogy to human consciousness (you can register for free to read it, although you have to subscribe to see it for longer than two weeks). Quote:

Analogy is the motor driving the build-up of concepts throughout our lives. Concepts, rather than being neat boxes into which all entities can be precisely, objectively and mechanically sorted, are fluid mental structures that, through many successive analogies, evolve continually. For example, 1-year-old Timmy’s first word is “mommy”, and he uses it to designate his own mother. However, his mother is not a static thing, but a constantly varying pattern of things, at whose core Timmy has identified something stable and invariant. Already we are dealing with abstraction and analogy-making, but Timmy’s initial concept “mommy” is merely the foundation of a future skyscraper.

Soon he will realise that other children, too, have mommies. Then he will enrich his category “mommy” by adding the mothers of cats and monkeys. However, he has not yet realised that his own parents also have mommies. A year later, he will laugh when told he once resisted this idea. At this point, “mommy” has given birth to the more abstract category “mother”, which is reaching out tentacles of abstraction to embrace mythological mothers, motherlands, motherboards and even the maternity celebrated in “Idleness is the mother of philosophy”.

And the conclusion in the penultimate paragraph:

Is analogy the core of cognition? Yes. Is analogy irrational, subjective and concrete? Yes indeed, but it is also the underpinning of rationality, objectivity and abstraction. Analogy is not a rare luxury of thought or an exotic, remote corner of cognition. Analogy is the entire transport system of thought, including motorways, roads and trails; it pervades thinking, from throwaway remarks to deep scientific and artistic insights. All along the spectrum, analogy lets us see the new in terms of the familiar. It guides us in learning new concepts, solving mathematical problems, dealing with interpersonal conflicts and making political decisions.

This reality – that we cannot think apart from analogy – is in many ways at the heart of religion, particularly monotheistic religion. How can we possibly understand, much less come into relationship with, an infinite, omnipotent, omniscient Being, from our vantage point as finite humans? We have to speak from analogies – there is no other way to even begin.

All religions tacitly acknowledge this; Swedenborgians tend to confess it more explicitly. And in New Church thought, it is not only human thought that is grounded in analogy – it is reality itself. So, for example, physical water, with all its physical properties, comes into existence because of a higher analogous reality, that of truth. God has created the physical world as He has so that we can climb up the ladder of analogy – as described in the New Scientist article – and grasp spiritual concepts despite the physicality of our thinking and our minds.

There’s a passage that I love from Arcana Coelestia that illustrates the impossibility (in this world of time and space) of thinking apart from analogy:

With a person who is in space, interior things appear as higher things, and exterior things as lower ones; but when the idea of space is put off, as is the case in heaven and also in the interior thought of man, there is then put off the idea of what is high and what is low; for height and depth come from the idea of space.

Did you catch that? When a person becomes more spiritual, he realizes that heaven isn’t really higher – it’s simply more internal. BUT… of course, more internal is a spatial term as well! The passage continues:

Nay, in the interior heaven there is no idea of things interior and exterior, because something of space adheres to this idea also; but there is the idea of more perfect or more imperfect state; for interior things are in a more perfect state than exterior ones, because interior things are nearer the Divine, and exterior things are more remote from it. This is the reason why what is uppermost signifies what is inmost. (AC 4156)

Even here, the language can’t escape analogy – we’re “closer to” or “further from” the Divine, spatial terminology. We simply come to understand better what those analogies are driving at as we experience them more. It calls to mind the Taoist saying, “The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao.” We can come into more and more perfect images / analogies / appearances, but we always need to acknowledge that when we’re talking of the Infinite, we’re never going to be seeing it as it is in itself.

And this idea is at the heart of the New Church concept of God. We believe that God came into the world as Jesus Christ to show Himself in a perfect image – the “image of the invisible God,” as it’s put in Colossians 1:15. And again, New Church theology teaches that these analogies are real – it’s not that Jesus was just a painting of God, but He was and is God Himself in human form. And because Jesus has come as the visible God, we can come into relationship with the otherwise invisible, unknowable God of the universe, “the Father,” who is as the soul within the body , which is “the Son” (yes – another analogy). Here’s how it’s put in True Christian Religion:

This New Church … is to worship one visible God in whom is the invisible like the soul in the body. Thus, and not otherwise, is a conjunction of God with man possible because man is natural, and therefore thinks naturally, and conjunction must exist in his thought, and thus in his love’s affection, and this is the case when he thinks of God as a Man. Conjunction with an invisible God is like a conjunction of the eye’s vision with the expanse of the universe, the limits of which are invisible; it is also like vision in mid-ocean, which reaches out into the air and upon the sea, and is lost. Conjunction with a visible God, on the other hand, is like beholding a man in the air or on the sea spreading forth his hands and inviting to his arms. For all conjunction of God with man must be also a reciprocal conjunction of man with God; and no such reciprocation is possible except with a visible God. (TCR 787)


About Coleman Glenn

Rev. Coleman Glenn is a minister in the General Church of the New Jerusalem, a Swedenborgian denomination. He lives in Bryn Athyn, PA, with his wife and two young kids. He blogs on various issues from a New Church (i.e. Swedenborgian) perspective.