Expand your horizons with powerful analogies
A glance into
the history of innovations reveals its driving potential: curiosity or
inquisitiveness, which expands the horizons of our knowledge and knowhow. Humans
endeavour to transcend limitations encountered in our thoughts, words and
deeds. Efforts to surmount the difficulties to fully comprehend the whole
reality gave birth to various sciences, philosophies and religions. Literature
and arts were born out of the attempts to overcome limitations in
self-expression. Engineering and Technology emerged out of exertions to surpass
the limitations encountered in human activities. It complimented, substituted
or optimized effects of human deeds. All these spheres were fertile ground for
human creativeness to sprout, continually extending human reach and
The power of analogy
The single most powerful tool used by creative minds in this effort is analogy. The power of analogy triggered creativeness. The word analogy derives from the Greek root analogia. It stands for a cognitive process of transferring information or meaning from a particular subject (called analogue or the source) to another particular subject (called the target). A source usually remains in the purview of observation and experience, whereas the target is beyond human comprehension, expression or activity. A useful analogy reveals the deep commonalities beneath superficial differences between the source and target. Analogies are usually created by elaborating the similarities and the differences between the source and the target. In using an analogy, we take what we know of the source and transfer some of it to the target. According to Dedre Genter, a psychologist from Northwestern University, this process is like “bootstrapping the mind”– elevating ourselves into the realm of new knowledge, using the knowledge we already possess to pull ourselves upward (Cognitive Science, 2010, Vol. 34, pp. 752-775). Thus analogy allows a transition from what is known to what are yet-to-be-known, thereby expanding horizons of human existence. Let us, for example, take an epoch-making invention of the atom model by Rutherford (his complete name is: Ernest Rutherford, 1st Baron Rutherford of Nelson). To explain total reflection of positively charged alpha particles by a thin gold foil, (the famous Gold Foil Experiment) Rutherford proposed a novel model for atom opposing all existing theories of matter of the time. He depicted atom to be made of a very small positively charged nucleus containing much of the atomic mass orbited by electrons, low-mass negatively charged particles. In postulating such a model for atom, Rutherford drew a powerful analogy from the well-known solar system, where the heavier sun remained at the centre, lighter planets orbiting it. Later on, Niels Bohr adapted Rutherford model to the Plank’s quantum theory finally to develop the modern understanding of the atom, the fundamental building block of matter, validated millions of time through various experiments in the course of time. We observe here an example for a simple bootstrapping of the mind powered by a suitable analogy. It triggered a direct transition from the known to the unknown, pushing the horizons of knowledge to a realm which is beyond direct experience, to the very heart of the matter. A beautiful example showing how analogies expand the horizons of human exploration into the reality!
Sun is a powerful analogy in many religions too, representing God, the transcendent or immanent reality, the be-all and end-all of everything else. In Greek mythological religions, Apollo is the name for sun god. Similarly, Mithras was the Iranian/Persian sun god. Surya, the sun god of Hinduism rides the sky in a horse-drawn chariot across the horizons. The sun was also depicted as goddesses in other religions. For example, Amaterasu was the sun goddess of Japan, Sol (Sunna) was the sun goddess of the Norse, who again rides in a horse-drawn solar chariot. In Christianity too sun is a powerful analogy for Christ, the Saviour. For example, that Jesus is believed to come again as the Sun of Justice from the Eastern horizon to judge the living and the dead. Anticipating the second-coming of the Christ, the Christian churches are generally built looking east. All these God concepts consist of an analogous movement from what is known about the sun from the human experience to the unknown supernatural reality, God. To posit new concepts, philosophies also resort to analogies. For example, consider the definition of Goodness given by Socrates in “The Republic” (VI, 507b–509) of Plato. Responding to the request of Glaucon to define Goodness, Socrates rather resorts to an analogy of Goodness with the Sun. Goodness is analogous to the sun. It is Goodness that gives order to things that are known and the power of human reason to know them. It is analogous to how the sun gives life to everything on earth and the light for us to see them. Goodness is the divine cause of the nature and the purpose of all things in the universe. Human knowledge about Goodness is inadequate. The dignity and power of Goodness is ineffable. Just as the sun bequeaths its light and illumines the reality around us enabling us to see them, so Goodness illumines the intelligible with the good. Analogies also drive technologies as evidenced by the development of aeroplanes by the Wright brothers (Orville and Wilbur Wright) in 1903. While other engineers worked to improve the power of engines, Wright brothers focussed on simulating birds and on efficiently designing and building wings and propellers. Their efforts gave them success and as the US patent suggests, invented “a system of aerodynamic control that manipulated a flying machine’s surfaces”. The quest to express deep emotions of adoration and love humans often resort to analogies. So did Romeo of Shakespeare to describe the entry of Juliet (Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”): “But soft! What light through yonder window breaks? It is the East, and Juliet is the sun! Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon, Who is already sick and pale with grief.”
In short, analogy gives path-breaking insights into the heart of the matter, into the mystery of religion and into the heart of morals. It allows engineers to pursue their innovations; provides lovers ways to express their love. It allows mortals to extrapolate the known into the realms of the unknown. It enables them to answer to the difficult ‘why’ and ‘how’ questions. It extends their horizons. Analogy is the way humans manage the mysteries of life and of the world around them. As David Hume once wrote, “All our reasoning concerning matters of fact are founded on a species of analogy”.
Analogy as a pedagogical tool
Analogy is also an excellent pedagogical tool. Carefully drawn analogies are used by masters to bring home to students difficult concepts. Analogies are used by great masters like, Jesus, Buddha, Gandhi, etc. They are regularly invented and utilized by passionate teachers world-over. Let me cite an example of analogy from my own chemistry teacher while teaching covalent bonds. According to him, covalent bond has much to do with school lunch:Those who share their lunch with others constitute a non-polar covalent bond; an unequal sharing of lunch is a polar covalent bond; stealing some one’s lunch is a coordinate covalent bond. Similarly, the fractions could be better taught to a child by allowing him/her to visualize a pizza or pie with some of the slices removed. Or, the propagation of radio waves in air could be taught by comparing it to the ripples on water when you drop in a stone. Or, you may teach electricity by drawing analogy with water flowing through pipes. As Dudley Field Malone has suggested, “One good analogy is worth three hours discussion.”
Analogy in business development
Drawing analogies with other successful business has triggered innovations in business strategies of many a companies. For example, the company Ford developed the concept of production based on assembly lines, from the successful butcheries. Butcher houses of the time used ‘T-lines’, where animal carcasses moved by on overhead trolleys, while a series of butchers performed specialized tasks in sequence as carcasses advanced. Drawing inspiration from butcher houses, Ford introduced “Model T” production at Ford, which doubled its car market share. Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple Inc. had a natural obsession with user-friendly design. He drew a powerful analogy with a desk in every study, with retrievable files to develop his first Macintosh desktop computers. It is however extremely important to draw useful analogies and to avoid superficial ones to stay in business. The collapse of Enron is often attributed to their ‘bad business analogy’ which led to a frenzy diversification. Unjustifiable analogies across business sector usually end in business tragedies!
Crisis of analogy at schools
Children are fond of the ‘why’ and ‘how’ questions. Clinging to the fingers of their parents, they ask really deep questions, which grown-ups often find hard to cope with. Children are born-philosophers! They are born-scientists! They are bornpoets and artists! They are also curious to know the ‘how’ of things. They want to learn new tricks to outwit their playmates. They build their own designs and artefacts. They are born-engineers too! However, as they grow up their ‘why’ questions often dry up. They become more comfortable with exploratory questions like, ‘what’, ‘when’, ‘where’, etc. Those asking ‘why’ or ‘how’ questions are often branded ‘childish’, ‘inexperienced’ or ‘immature’. Creativity is looked down upon at schools today. Students shy away from asking the path breaking questions. They shun drawing powerful analogies that bridge the ‘known’ with the ‘unknown’. It is high-time to reclaim the child-like innocence of students, that promotes the ‘why’ and ‘how’ questions at schools. It is high time to revert to the child-like creative thinking. It is high time to reengage with analogies, the key tool in the creation of new knowledge.