Friday, June 19, 2009

Metaphor and Deeper Meaning(tm)

I want to address one of the main defenses of the Intellifundie: the treatment of evidence as metaphor or as a clue for 'deeper meaning'. See The Intellifundie Cookbook.

The truth is, if we accept that difficulties in any text should be resolved as a 'metaphor' or as 'deeper meaning', then really there is no text.

Any text loses its message once we allow to read it metaphorically or with a search for deeper meaning. The intent of the author be damned -- If there is something that is contradictory, or doesn't strike my fancy, my worldview or my assumptions, I can claim that it's a metaphor or a hint for us to understand the 'deeper message' within. For example, modern readers can look at what the Torah says about gays and respond "of course the Torah wouldn't really care about our sexual life" or "of course the Torah doesn't really mean what it says when it says we should kill them, especially because this is a trait gays were born with". The section is interpreted as a metaphor, or perhaps alluding to some hidden 'deeper meaning' and the problem is thus resolved.

In general, we always have to be extremely extremely careful when saying that a text should be understood as metaphor. Humans are very good at making connections -- whether they were meant by the author or not. When you have a text that's not fully understood or has any difficulty, the human mind starts to run wild with connections and metaphors. This can be seen especially clearly in the fantasy genre. Since stories about fantastic lands seem alien to us, we tend to find connections to many things in the real world as a way of 'making sense' of the fantasy. For example, once Henry Littlefield published his paper about Frank L. Baum's Wizard of Oz, the book was suddenly seen as a political treatise referring to 1890s American politics and the gold standard. Suddenly, all sorts of 'connections' and 'allusions' were found in the story, making it seem like it was all one big metaphor. Later scholars found that the connections were questionable at best, and that the 'metaphors' could be shuffled around to mean completely different things! See for more details.

The Torah, more than any other text, has this issue, because it has a ridiculous number of contradictions, gaps, repetitions and mistakes. If each contradiction is left up for 'metaphor' or 'deeper meaning', then any reader can read it any which way she chooses!

A final point to be made is that nowhere do we find anyone finding 'deeper meaning' in a textual contradiction, outside of the religious world. Does anyone who finds a book with numerous contradictions within the text itself think 'oh, this is a metaphor, or a sign of a deeper layer of meaning?' Highly doubtful. Instead, what that person would think, is that either the writer was very sloppy, or the text was edited/written by many authors, with different versions etc. Only in the religious world, where the reader's belief is at stake, is he compelled to say that the contradictions, rather than being signs of discord, are signs of 'greater harmony' or a 'deeper message'.

In conclusion, we cannot responsibly use 'deeper meaning' and 'metaphors' to explain why contradictions, or any other issues, are found in particular texts, including the Torah. Contradictions and problems in texts are evidence (for any particular theory), and must be treated as such. Switching to the realm of 'metaphor' can only be done extremely carefully and minimally, while collecting sufficient supporting evidence.