Reality versus Metaphor

You may be feeling that Carson's essay on bats is NOT using a metaphor or model for understanding bats but rather is describing bats as they really are. Do bats fly AS IF they had radar, or do they actually have radar? You want to say, perhaps, that they ACTUALLY HAVE IT.

There is a lot at stake in the question of whether radar in bats is metaphor or reality, isn't there?

Philosopher Richard Rorty has said that "all reality is reality under description." Humanity through the ages uses whatever language and whatever models it has at hand to understand and describe reality. Cuvier tried to understand the reality of bats by using print technology as a metaphor for what happens to them as they fly. Carson is attempting to understand bats by using radar as a model. But if you dissect a bat, you will not find a radar machine or anything like it.

Do you want to say that we have made progress, that we understand bats better than Cuvier did in 1827? Well, that's true. Scientists constantly seek for better explanations of things. Notice that using radar, and especially sonar, as a model for whatever bats do to navigate explains more features of their behavior: it explains why they run into things if you plug up their ears or tape shut their mouths.

But let me ask you this: does the radar/sonar metaphor or model explain EVERYTHING? In his experiments, Cuvier noticed that some bat species run into glass: he hypothesized that bats in that particular species didn't have as sensitive a membrane on their faces -- in other words, he's imagining that the "paper" on the faces of some bats was too hard for some kinds of air currents to make an imprint upon it. Cuvier's model explains exceptions to the rule that bats don't run into things when they fly. Maybe some aspects of Cuvier's model explains bat behavior BETTER THAN does the model of bats having radar or sonar -- after all, submarines don't run into something if it is made out of glass, do they?

All metaphors highlight and hide features of whatever it is that they explain. That's why the history of science can be so enlightening. All history can help us understand the limits of our own thinking. We need to read texts written in the past, looking at the words used and studying the history of economics, politics, events, technology, the arts, in order to determine what metaphors and models are associated with those words. Doing so will give us alternative models of reality to our own. THE MORE MODELS WE HAVE, THE BETTER WE CAN UNDERSTAND THE WORLD!!

Maybe in the year 3000 we will have invented a machine that people can wear on their faces, a piece of plastic, that senses where we are at any given moment and transmits this information to our brains. Maybe this machine will determine where we are, using the Global Positioning System, by sending out sounds, tracing the echoes back -- but, instead of hitting objects, as radar does, this supersonic sound will be specifically designed to measure the shape of globules of air, air currents. This machine is called: Impressonar. Now Carson's great great granddaughter, having inherited a love of zoology, will write an article in which she says, "Bats have Impressonar." Will we now REALLY know how bats navigate? Maybe. But maybe, in the year 4000, someone will invent something called Radospit, and Carson's great great great great grandaughter . . . .

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