The Poetics of Thought

Matter, Metaphor and Mind

Posted in Uncategorized by Fred McVittie on September 14, 2009

David Hubel,  in ‘Eye, Brain and Vision’  (1995), remarks that the brain is a machine ‘that does tasks in a way that is consonant with the laws of physics, an object that we can understand in the same way that we understand a printing press’.  Hubel is clearly making a plea for an approach to brain science which corresponds to physical naturalism and for the avoidance of any metaphysical or supernatural interpretations.   Whilst I completely support this ambition it is likely that the functioning of the brain involves processes which require forms of understanding that are radically different from those we use to understand the mechanical objects of the material world.  A printing press is, as Dawkins might put it, a ‘middle sized object moving at middle speed’; its workings are entirely explicable in terms of Newtonian physics and basic mechanics (those workings which are significant to its major function at any rate). A brain on the other hand utilises electrochemical and biochemical, and possibly also quantum mechanical processes, which are completely beyond the reach of Newtonian physics and which can only be approached using very different mathematical and scientific models. This distinction is significant because, as middle sized objects ourselves, we can apparently think and talk about processes which operate on the Newtonian scale literally and directly, but when we think and talk about processes which lie outside of that scale we enter a world outside direct experience which we can only address metaphorically, including the ultimately metaphorical constructions of mathematics.  (The case for mathematics as essentially metaphorical has been argued robustly by Nunez [1999, 2004] and Lakoff and Nunez [2000]). This means that, whilst we might one day fully ‘understand’ the brain, we will never understand it in the same way that we understand the printing press.
This is something that brain science has in common with quantum physics.  As I mentioned at the beginning of this blog, the mathematician JBS Haldane famously observed that ‘the universe may not only be queerer than we suppose but queerer than we can suppose’ (1927: p.286). He intended this observation to apply specifically to the more esoteric aspects of the universe encountered mainly by astronomers and particle physicists, whose equations do indeed describe a world which is inconceivable in any literal sense, and which makes no intuitive appeal to the senses of even the most highly trained. (As Richard Feynman is reputed to have said, ‘if you think you understand quantum mechanics, then you don’t understand quantum mechanics’).  This observation could just as easily be applied to the mechanism and matter of the brain.
To return to Hubel’s comment about the brain and the printing press,  it could be argued that since we have the minds of middle sized objects, built out of the need to solve the problems facing middle sized objects, those minds are themselves, in a sense, middle sized. Joseph McIntyre and others at the European Laboratory for the Neurosciences of Action have shown that minds intuitively understand something approximating Newtonian physics (McIntyre, 2001). There is therefore a grain of truth in what Hubel says although it is more appropriately aimed at the mind and the processes of understanding and conceptualisation, not the physical brain.

An understanding of a complex entity like the human brain, the working of which is fundamentally abstract, can only be achieved through the use of analogy, metaphor, and symbol (including mathematical symbols), and what goes for the conceptualisation of the brain is also the case with most other empirical scientific data and theories.  Like all abstract objects of knowledge these empirical facts; falsifiable, robust, and independently arrived at, are ultimately poetic tropes.

In the book ‘Man a Machine’ (1928) Joseph Needham wrote that ‘Mechanism and materialism lie at the foundation of scientific thought’, (Needham, in Capra,1984). It is usually assumed that by this he meant that all science is ultimately mechanical and grossly materialistic, an archaic and vaguely quaint notion. However, it is possible that what he meant was, that whilst the phenomena of the universe may be wildly exotic and far beyond the reach of the human senses and of any mechanistic or materialist explanation constructed only from the evidence of those senses, there is nevertheless a place for this kind of thinking in even the most esoteric and counter-intuitive of scientific theories. A more positive reading of Needham’s comment may point us toward the recognition that all of our theorisation and conceptualisation is ultimately grounded in thinking which is human scale, and locked into the wonders of the mechanism and of matter.

Does this necessarily mean therefore, that the world of human being is divided into two regions, the concrete and objective world of the senses and this other abstract world that is forever beyond the reach of hand and eye?  Do we experience, along with our primate ancestors, some parts of the world neat and unmediated, the solidly factual trees and rocks, and then, as modern humans, have this other layer of reality that is equally factual but materially unavailable without the extra-sensory metaphors of modern physics?  Is there really a fault line in the universe separating that which appears on the radar of human senses and is expressible in plain language, from that which makes no sensory contact and can only be communicated through the poetry of maths?  I would say obviously not.


Capra, F. (1982). The turning point : science, society, and the rising culture. London, Wildwood House.

Haldane, J. B. S. (1927). Possible Worlds: And Other Essays. London, Chatto and Windus.

Hubel, D. H. (1995). Eye, brain, and vision. New York, Scientific American Library ; Oxford : W.H. Freeman [distributor]. Online at

McIntyre, J., M. Zago, et al. (2001). “Does the brain model Newton’s laws?” Nature Neuroscience(4): 693-694.

Nunez, R., F. Iida, et al. (2004). Do Real Numbers Really Move? Language, Thought, and Gesture: The Embodied Cognitive Foundations of Mathematics. Embodied Artificial Intelligence. Berlin:, Springer-Verlag: 54.

Nunez, R. E., L. D. Edwards, et al. (1999). “Embodied Cognition As Grounding For Situatedness And Context In Mathematics Education.” Educational Studies in Mathematics 39(1-3): 45-65.


One Response

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  1. aiych said, on September 16, 2009 at 12:52 am

    I was told that computers were alien technology. I was told that computers were literally writing code based off of our own interaction with “them/him/her/it”. I was told that many files that are created with an unknown factor, that I myself have created. Unless I work on math diligently, I do not understand the equations, but I do know that EVERYTHING has a mathmatical equation, and if I am “told” something, I should be able to prove it with a mathmatical thoery. This is the theory that I believe is proof of what I was “told”. I also looked further and found out that C++0x is now in beta testing including Axioms. Without proper verification, my first inclination is that this all fits…..but I am a novice.

    (edited for length)

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