Black cat analogy

Since it seems to be a day of pictures and videos.

About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.

  • Azkyroth, Former Growing Toaster Oven

    Dunno. I’m pretty sure Science is the only one that’s really comparable to *going into the room and looking* as opposed to “sitting in an armchair in the living room describing in great detail the current position and activity of a black cat in the dark room upstairs.”

    • Anonymous

      I am guessing you are familiar with the “Black Cat Analogy” and if not here it is.
      When my 12 year old daughter brought this to my attention I felt compelled to expand on it.
      The Black Cat Analogy:
      Philosophy is like being in a dark room and looking for a black cat.
      Metaphysics is like being in a dark room and looking for a black cat that isn’t there.
      Theology is like being in a dark room looking for a black cat that isn’t there and shouting “I found it!”
      Science is like being in a dark room looking for a black cat using a flashlight.

      I have issues with the accuracy of this analogy.
      I feel the philosophy and metaphysics references are redundant so I combined and rewritten them.

      Philosophy is like searching for a black cat in a dark room. Perhaps the cat was there but someone else has found it and took it away yet we continue to look for the cat that is no longer there, how can we know it? If we found a cat, how can we know the cat was actually the cat we are in search of? How can we know that the animal we have found is truly a cat except for what we perceive through our senses and how can we know our senses are trustworthy? Perhaps our parents, teachers, clergy and even local government has lied to us about the existence of cats and the animal we are holding is really a dog, what logical measuring stick can we use to determine the truth? Furthermore, are we looking for the cat in a way that is in support of our moral values? Is there beauty in looking for and/or finding the cat?

      Theology is like being in a dark room looking for a black cat that isn’t there but you choose believe it is there because everyone you have ever known says it is there. You have no reason to believe they would lie to you even though sometimes you question that the cat exists. But the idea of the cat not existing is too painful to contemplate so you continue to search for the cat ignoring all evidence the cat does not exist.

      In regards to the science issue, the cat should be easy to spot since the cat is holding a flashlight. Grammar people, grammar!

      Science is like using a flashlight to investigate a dark room for a cat that you suspect is there yet you are open to finding things other than a cat. Then bringing your discovery to other people who regularly search dark rooms who then evaluate the validity of whatever it is you have discovered.
      As usual, I either completely ignore a topic or become totally wrapped up in it and which point I feel compelled to explore every possibility until either I or the topic is thoroughly exhausted.

  • Azkyroth, Former Growing Toaster Oven


    Teapartyism is being in a dark room looking for a cat, and being terrified that it might be a black one.

    • Celticlight

      Being a progressive is like being in the dark room with a life jacket on saying you turned off the lights to prevent catastrophic global warming, but are ready in case the seas rise in a 100 years.

  • ik

    .. I’d prefer you didn’t quite knock philosophy like that. After all, it kind of lead to science. But yeah. Soooo much.

    • Jasper of Maine

      I think it could be a definitions issue.

      Whenever I think about philosophy/philosophers, I think about people sitting around and thinking about stuff, without any actual investigation.

      The scientific method and standards didn’t emerge from that, exactly. There’s some philosophical polishing, but most of it is/was determined by what produced tangible results, as opposed to abstract concepts.

      Is there such a thing as “practical philosophy” versus “abstract philosophy”?

      • Al West

        Yes, there is such a thing as “practical philosophy”. It’s called “science”, I think. Nowadays, philosophy is an armchair thing – that’s how we use that word. It’s about definitions and conceptual problems, not empirical ones. Until recently, there was no distinction between science and philosophy, though.

        I think the analogy above is reasonably accurate, and not necessarily philosophy-bashing. Philosophy in this analogy is like looking for a black cat in a dark room; science is one method to achieve this (the only generally productive one), but the whole thing of finding and dismissing alternatives and solving conceptual problems of how to find the cat – the necessary, boring, armchair work that built up to science – is what philosophy is.

        I wouldn’t say that metaphysics is about cats that aren’t there. Most of us are interested in metaphysical problems. One of the biggest is about a cat that isn’t there – “god” – but many others are just conceptual problems about the universe. Many problems in biology and other sciences are conceptual problems that require some sort of metaphysical backing, even if we don’t usually discuss them in those terms. For an example, see the dismissals of group selection. Is a “fleet herd of deer” just a “herd of fleet deer”? It seems so, and this is a metaphysical (or ontological) claim about how the properties of things reduce to other things (the herd has no more properties than the properties of the deer that constitute it). Reductionism as a whole is a metaphysical claim, and seemingly the only realistic one.

        So philosophy these days is an armchair activity because science, an old branch of philosophy, has been so wonderfully successful at solving empirical problems. Philosophy is still a productive thing, too – philosophy of mind is definitely worthwhile, even if much of it is (inevitably) bunk. Only science, empirical philosophy, can resolve the questions raised by armchair philosophers, and it is slowly achieving this partly under the guidance of philosophers (like Dennett).

        Now, this is a different issue to whether philosophy departments in universities are particularly worthwhile or not, but I’d say that they are.

        • Azkyroth, Former Growing Toaster Oven

          For an example, see the dismissals of group selection. Is a “fleet herd of deer” just a “herd of fleet deer”? It seems so, and this is a metaphysical (or ontological) claim about how the properties of things reduce to other things (the herd has no more properties than the properties of the deer that constitute it).

          Err, in your example the dismissal of group selection is due to the lack of a plausible mechanism for evolving and sustaining a fleet herd of deer as something other than a herd of fleet deer, and the sufficiency of the herd comprising fleet deer to explain the herd being fleet, not an a priori commitment.

          • Al West

            I didn’t claim that it was an a priori claim, only that it is a metaphysical one. Metaphysics does engage with empirical data about the universe, in fact. Group selection fails on empirical grounds; we should also expect it to fail on the basis of all of the other data we have about the world, which suggests that holism is a wrong view of things like life.

    • gadfly

      Plus philosophy quickly gets bored and stops looking for the black cat.

      And metaphysicians are looking for anything in the room, not just black cats.

      Science must work in the realm of adjacent possibilities, which can have its limitations.

    • Azkyroth, Former Growing Toaster Oven

      Well, yes. Science has a flashlight.

  • Mark

    I am standing in a dark room, holding a black cat. I see the beam of your flashlight; it’s pointed in the wrong direction.

    • JT Eberhard

      And then we say “show us the cat” and you can’t. Or you say “you can’t prove I don’t have the cat!”

      And we laugh at you because you look ridiculous and go back to looking.

    • Zinc Avenger (Sarcasm Tags 3.0 Compliant)

      One of the fabulous things about flashlights is that you can keep moving them around until you find what you’re looking for.

      • Azkyroth, Former Growing Toaster Oven

        Unfortunately, flashlights have the limitation of materiality. Thus, if your head is up your ass, they don’t help any unless you can fit them in around it.

    • Drakk

      We flick the flashlight around to check.

      Put the squirrel down, Mark.

      • baal

        I thought Mark was actually holding the Easter Bunny (or was it a plate of pasta? Hard to get agreement on it in any event).

  • Pierce R. Butler

    The best way to find a black cat in a dark room involves a bowl of (preferably very smelly) cat food.

    How to apply this to the analogy at hand I leave to your imaginations.

  • Icaarus

    Experimental Scientist:

    Dark room, black cat, dim flashlight, and a laser pointer.

    Smart Experimental Scientist:

    Same as above, but wearing thick canvas and a face mask.

    • Azkyroth, Former Growing Toaster Oven

      Theoretical scientist: curiously looks into the laser, stumbles out of the room, gets medical care, goes back to somewhere with a blackboard.

      • baal

        I normally dislike your posts Azkyroth but today you have me laughing in my cube.

  • Trebuchet

    Science, unlike religion, is also capable of going into the dark room with a flashlight looking for a black cat, discovering it is actually a white dog, and announcing that fact.