Modern scientists believe that analogical reasoning is at the core of human cognition. Hannah Smith finds parallels with divine guidance which explains everything from ethics to the unseen in this innate natural language
What do the dream of Prophet Joseph (a) about seven ears of grain and the phrase ‘life is like a box of chocolates’ have in common? Analogically speaking they are both examples of analogies.
Analogical reasoning is one cognitive process by which humans make connections between diverse objects and processes involving “any kind of relation of one thing to another”. Scientists believe that it is one of the most common methods of reasoning by which people make sense of the world although it does not necessarily involve any form of logic. Analogical reasoning involves what is called a mapping process whereby a similarity is drawn between two different situations or objects. Although all analogies involve recognising a commonality between two different situations, the nature of the similarity can take several forms. For example analogical mapping can involve a functional similarity, where a familiar function is recognised in an unfamiliar and new context, such as mapping the concept of mother from human to cat, or a relational similarity between two pairs of objects, such as builder to house and bee to bee hive, where the analogy is the relationship of construction between the object pairs.
Navigating everyday life
Some scientists believe that the importance of analogy for human cognition has been underestimated until recently; instead of being utilised sparingly, they believe it is the bread and butter of everyday thinking. Humans are constantly drawing upon analogies to understand how to interact, use or operate new examples of objects or machines that they have previously seen hundreds of examples of. Without analogies humans would not be able to carry out even the most basic everyday tasks due to the infinite multiplicity and uniqueness of every object and creature we encounter. No two objects are the same, and analogical reasoning allows us to recognise abstract functions and qualities retained in our memory within new objects and situations. For example in operating a tablet computer for the first time, a user would draw upon their previous experience of using a keypad or keyboard on a telephone or computer.
Analogy in the physical sciences
Analogical reasoning has been at the heart of some of the most influential scientific breakthroughs. It has been used to infer new hypotheses about physical processes – for example by using existing scientific models and ideas to explain new observations and phenomena. Nobel prize-winning physicist Albert Einstein utilised analogies on numerous occasions including in his discovery of the fundamental particle of light, the photon, in 1905. He was able to apply an analogy from one branch of physics – the behaviour of an ideal gas in which molecules are modelled bouncing around inside a container – to another area, the black body which he modelled as a vacuum-filled container in which light waves bounce around like ripples on a pond. The analogy allowed Einstein to construct almost identical equations for the black body as existed for the ideal gas from which he predicted the existence of the photon that was later confirmed by the experiments of Arthur Compton in 1923.
Analogies are also used frequently in teaching science to school pupils. Electrical circuits are often taught through water or railway models where for example water flowing through a pipe is used to represent electrons moving through a wire and a water pump is used to represent a cell or battery. Analogies can aid the learner by making abstract entities such as electrons and atoms concrete and therefore easier to visualise and remember.
Analogy in the Qur’an and metaphysics
The Qur’an and sayings of the Prophets and Imams are loaded with different kinds of analogies aimed at enriching the meanings of their teachings. One important type of analogy found in the Qur’an and narrations, as well as other religious scriptures such as the Bible is the parable (18:45):
“And strike for them a parable of the worldly life: it is like the water which we send down from the sky, and then the plants of the earth mingle with it. But then they become dry and broken and are scattered by the winds. And God is capable of all things.”
Parables are short stories that illustrate abstract ideas such as moral precepts using concrete characters and objects. In the verse above, many inferences can be drawn about the nature of the worldly life through the description of the water and its effects: that life provides sustenance for the human soul, is brief, will perish and is easily ruined.
Metaphysics, the science of the nature of being – that attempts to elucidate the reality of the world beyond the material and physical – relies on analogies to translate imperceptible realities into intelligible structures that can be understood by anyone. The Prophet Muhammad (s) relied heavily on analogies to describe the mysteries of the hidden unseen world that exists beyond our five senses and the nature of the afterlife and the immaterial realms of existence. The Qur’an, which by its own admission has different levels of meaning, can only be understood esoterically through its analogical description of hidden realities. One of the most famous verses in the Qur’an that is entirely metaphorical and analogical in composition is The Light Verse [24:35]:
“God is the Light of the heavens and the earth.
The parable of His Light is a niche wherein is a lamp –
the lamp is in a glass, the glass as it were a glittering star –
lit from a blessed olive tree,
neither eastern nor western,
whose oil almost lights up,
though fire should not touch it
.Light upon light.
Allah guides to His Light whomever He wishes.
Allah draws parables for mankind,
and Allah has knowledge of all things.”
The analogy of light is used frequently in Islamic literature as a representation of the relationship between God and His creation and the different levels of existence. The analogy of light has many roles in mapping and interpretation. One analogical similitude of light is made between the way God illuminates human beings spiritually such that they can see or know his existence and the manner in which material light illuminates the physical world by reflecting off non-luminous objects so that we can detect their physical contours. Another analogy involving light is the philosopher’s explanation of the degrees of existence and their relation-ship to their common source, God, the Absolute Being. He is compared to the most intense light, and the descending planes of existence which move further away from Him in their reality, emanate from Him and share His essence in the same manner as variable intensities of light that decrease in brightness. Fundamentally, analogy is the only way that the rational human can comprehend the ultimate reality, God, and his own reality as a dependent being that reflects the divine reality. God has revealed to us an understanding of His nature through analogies of proportion through the common attributes that He shares with the created world and its creatures such as strength, compassion and mercy that we possess in a relative sense and He possesses in an absolute manner.
In summary, contemporary scientists believe that analogical reasoning is at the core of human cognition from the most mundane of everyday tasks to the greatest scientific discoveries. Unsurprisingly divine guidance has been revealed in the language of analogy to teach mankind the fundamentals of the Islamic religion from the nature of the unseen world to ethics and morality through parables.
Written by Hannah Smith
This article was originally published in Islam Today magazine.