The Basic Idea
Complex phenomena can be difficult to grasp. We often refer to simpler concepts to make this complexity intelligible. For example, try to imagine an atom’s structure — it’s impossible because of its microscopic size! And it’s difficult to comprehend something we can’t imagine because we lack a reference point. To picture an atom, you might compare it to the solar system. The nucleus is the sun and the orbiting planets the electrons and neutrons.1 In this instance, we used the solar system as a source in an analogy with our target, atomic structure, to enhance our understanding.
Comparing two objects, two phenomena, or two words to one another as part of an argument or an explanation is known as an analogy. We use analogical reasoning as an aid to understand or discover things that cannot be easily mapped out or imagined. The concept that is being used analogously is called the source and the thing that is trying to explain the target. By transferring our understanding of a simple concept to a complex one, we more easily understand the target phenomena .2 It is a popular strategy in science, as scientists are working with complicated structures that are invisible to the naked eye. In behavioral science, analogies are used to make decisions when there is a lot of uncertainty. Analogies are heuristics — mental shortcuts — that allow us to make quicker decisions.
We commonly use analogies in three domains: linguistics, science, and philosophy.
Analogies help us to linguistically help us to understand our world and have been studied since the mid-20th century. We have a strong tendency to describe our world through words that have a natural connection to what it refers to. One of the common theories of linguistic analogies is the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, also known as linguistic relativity. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis was developed by linguist Edward Sapir and his graduate student Benjamin Whorf in the 1920’s.4 Sapir was documenting and recording the language of Native American tribes which were unfortunately starting to disappear, and he believed that in order to really understand Native American culture, he had to learn their languages. Sapir and Whorf hypothesized that language influences how its speakers think about the world, how they behave, and therefore affect the entire culture. Analogies are therefore culture specific and can give greater insight into the way that individual people and cultures see the world. For example, the English language separates time through past, present and future tense. These distinctions reflect English-speaking cultures’ view of time: that it occurs in discrete stages. Conversely, Hopi, a Native American language, makes no such distinctions. Indeed, Hopi-speaking cultures do not structure their world through the lens of time.4
Linguistically, analogies come in the forms of idioms, metaphors and similes. Idioms are expressions that mean something different than their literal meaning. For example, “It’s raining cats and dogs” does not mean that it is literally raining cats or dogs; it is an analogy that lets people know it’s heavily raining.5 Metaphors compare two things through a figure of speech, like saying “love is a battlefield” compares the experience of love with being on a battlefield, although it does not explicitly state that it is a comparison. Similes also compare two things but explicitly state the comparison using words such as ‘like’ and ‘as’.
In science, analogies have been used to make hypotheses on the structure of atoms since the technology did not exist to be able to see inside it. In 1897, English scientist J.J Thomson made a contribution to atomic theory by suggesting that there was some matter that was even smaller than the atom: the electron. His theory was called the “Plum Pudding model”, using an analogy to map his prediction. He used plum pudding as a source to describe the target, the structure of the atom. Electrons are like the raisins in the desert, which is the atom. This theory was later disproved by physicist Ernest Rutherford who found that atoms have positively charged centers, and described his understanding of the atom as a cherry, where the nucleus was like the pit. Danish scientist Niels Bohr in 1913 then used the solar system analogy to show people that there were also electrons orbiting around the nucleus. In the 20th century, a number of scientists showed that actually, electrons do not orbit the nucleus in neat orbits like the solar system, but instead move around like particles in a cloud. Despite the fact that some analogies have not stood the test of the time, they were useful tools to help the public understand scientific theories and make sense of complex phenomena.6
Two of the most famous philosophers, Plato and Aristotle, both commonly used analogies to make sense of the world. They both believed that the objects or phenomena used to make an analogy did not have to share an obvious relation, but could express a shared idea, pattern, or overarching philosophy. They used analogies to try and emphasize part of an argument that would normally be overseen.
One of Plato’s most well-known analogies is describing ‘Good’ as the sun. ‘Goodness’ is an abstract idea that is difficult to explain, but in The Republic, Plato’s character Socrates suggests that just as the sun allows people to see, goodness allows people to see the truth.7 One of Aristotle’s most well-known analogies was used for him to describe his theory on the soul. To describe the fact that he thought a soul was a person’s essence, he stated the following analogy: “suppose that the eye was an animal — sight would have been its soul, for sight is the substance or essence of the eye which correspects to the formula, the eye being merely the matter of seeing; when seeing is removed the eye is no longer an eye, except in name.” 8
Analogies continue to be popular tools for philosophers: Bertrand Russell used a teapot analogy to show that people should not accept that things are true without proof, not just if there is proof that it is false. He asked people to imagine that someone told them that in outer space, a Chinese teapot is revolving around the sun. The person would never be able to see it, so they could not disprove its existence. Yet any reasonable person would not blindly believe there is a teapot revolving in space. Similarly, just because God’s existence is unfalsifiable — we can’t prove he doesn’t exist — doesn’t mean he therefore must exist.9
A famous saying is that “one good analogy is worth three hours of discussion.” 10 Analogies help break complex phenomena into simpler components, making them more familiar and easier to digest. This makes analogies a useful strategy to convey new topics. They also help individuals picture phenomena, which is useful for visual learners. For example, we could visualize health as an iceberg: our physical appearance is the visible tip, but our overall health runs much deeper. Analogies can also help us look at an issue from a different perspective because it describes phenomena in a new light. They can therefore help us come up with fresh ideas and solutions.
Analogies function through inductive argumentation — moving from the specific to the general— and can help to form syllogisms. For example, we know that life exists on Earth in part because we have oxygen in our atmosphere. If we are able to find a planet similar to Earth, and we create an analogy between the two, then it might be reasonable to form the argument that life could exist on another planet. Here is an idea of how the analogy would work in a syllogism:
- Oxygen in the atmosphere is required for life on Earth.
- Like Earth, Europa (Jupiter’s Moon) has oxygen in its atmosphere.
- Therefore, there might be life on Europa.11
This is a more complex analogy that starts from the specific and familiar — Earth — in order to make assumptions about the unknown — Europa. Since scientific inquiry is usually about discovering the unknown, analogies are wonderful tools to make the exploration a little less daunting.
Analogies can be particularly useful for children. Research has shown that children can use them to learn new vocabulary. That is because analogies allow them to form connections between different pieces of information more seamlessly, and according to the levels of processing effect, when we link new pieces of information with existing knowledge we encode them more deeply, making them easier to remember. Thus, analogies can speed children’s’ reading comprehension and increase their ability to store information in their memory.10
Analogies are not fool-proof. There are various ways that analogies can be rebutted during argumentation.
Since analogies compare two different things, an easy way to demonstrate flaws in someone’s argument is by pointing out the differences between the two phenomena. Pointing out the differences between the source and the domain of an analogy is known as a disanalogy.12 For example, in the analogy we used above to compare Earth and Europa, someone might deconstruct the argument by pointing to all the differences between Earth and Europa.
One example of a disanalogy is Hume’s criticism of William Paley’s watch analogy. Paley, a 19th century philosopher, compared the world to a watch to prove that there existed a higher power — God — that designed the universe. A watch has been designed, with different pieces framed and put together for a particular purpose, which means that it must have a designer. The universe with its various moving parts and compilation of natural objects, is a design, and must too be the product of a designer: God.13 However, Scottish philosopher David Hume, in his book an Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, criticized the watchmaker analogy. He said that the universe and a watch simply did not have enough similarities, nor did the relationship between a watchmaker and a watch and God and the universe. He stated that “if experience and observation and analogy be, indeed, the only guides which we can reasonably follow in inference of this nature; both the effect and cause must bear a similarity and resemblance to other effects and causes.” 14
Related TDL Content
Just like scientific theories, behavioral science phenomena can be difficult to understand, so analogies are used to make the process of understanding easier. Biases cloud our judgment, which is why behavioral scientists are trying to remove bias from our decision-making processes. There are two main strategies that are used: debiasing or rebiasing. In this article, our writer Nick Enright uses an analogy to describe the difference between the two strategies and discusses how they can be applied to various common biases.
All humans are victims to cognitive biases that sway us from making the most optimal decisions. Yet, judges are supposed to be unbiased and able to make rational decisions without letting their own ideas or emotions influence their decisions. Is it therefore possible for them to make impartial decisions? In this article, our writer Tom Spiegler examines whether judges are influenced by loss aversion and reiterates a now-famous analogy to describe a judge’s role.
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- Bertrand Russell. (2021, February 23). The Decision Lab. https://thedecisionlab.com/thinkers/philosophy/bertrand-russel/
- Lombardi, L. (2018, August 27). How analogies challenge and benefit the gifted learner. National Association for Gifted Children. https://www.nagc.org/blog/how-analogies-challenge-and-benefit-gifted-learner
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