Metaphorical Truths

The world we live in is extremely complex and very hard to fully comprehend. We can spend years and years just investigating a tiny part of it to try to shed some light and gain some understanding. At an individual level, I would argue that it is impossible to have a complete view of how the universe works at all times or, even, what are the most likely causes of the things we are experiencing according to the most up-to-date human knowledge (and what would be the most optimal reaction).

As individuals, not only we do not have instant access to all the human knowledge, we also do not have an unlimited amount of cognitive resources. We cannot analyze every situation to its full extension to understand what is the most reasonable explanation of what happened, and what is the best decision or action to increase the chances of a future outcome that maximizes some pre-established motivation or goal (e.g., maximizing happiness). Hence, our brain seems to have evolved to frequently rely on heuristics, mental shortcuts that helps us to make quick judgments or decisions.

Heuristics are useful if they work most of the time, or even if they just work on a few occasions but in those occasions the risk of choosing wrongly could be catastrophic. Heuristics are everywhere, and often we fail to recognize them as so. In this sense, I recently came across the concept of metaphorical truths. A metaphorical truth is a belief that may not be factually true, but believing it in practice turns out to be beneficial due to the behaviors it results in.

If I believe that “things happen for a reason”, even if it is not factually true, this belief may help me cope with events that are happening in my life by embracing them and trying to make the most out of it. This metaphorical truth can simplify the world for somebody, and helps that person deal with the situation. Of course, it is not free from problem (as with any other simplification or heuristic), since it may release that subject from the need to understand why something is happening to them, which at times it can be due to their own past responsibility, and it limits their capacity to change and improve to avoid the same outcome in the future.

Now, I find interesting to see religions through these lenses, since some of the stories they told could be through of as metaphorical truths. Narratives with characters that interact and struggle are easier to remember, empathize and understand than going through physical, biological, psychological and sociological theories. Religious narratives are also usually accompanied/represented by art, music, architecture, which touches more than one of our senses and our emotions. Ancient religions are also heavily present in history, full with people assigning an enormous value to its ideas and literally sacrificing their lives fighting for it, potentially affecting our current perception of the value these religions carry (similarly to the difference in value between a random guitar or a guitar played by Elvis Presley). And some of these religious narratives, independently of being factually true, can make people act sometimes in ways that are beneficial for them and/or society at certain times. Some of these religious narratives fit the metaphorical truths definition.

Looking at the secular world, maybe the most powerful and extended non-religious metaphorical truth is that a piece of paper/metal (or a number stored in a certain computers) issued by certain institutions has value. Of course, I am talking about money. Most of us work for money, and get products and services in exchange for the money we earned. This only works in a society where everybody (or, at least, the vast majority) shares the belief that that piece of paper has value. And we have plenty of secular narratives that show us the power of money such as humble individuals becoming billionaires thanks to their hard-work, which can be used as fuel to keep motivation up and not despair in hard times (although this can be accompanied with other negative side effects such as keep running on a mouse wheel chasing an unreachable prize).

One of the problems with these metaphorical truths is that their value does not come from being true (since they are not necessarily true) but from being useful. And things are not necessarily useful all the time, in all situations, for all people. A narrative that saved lives in medieval times, it may be condemning people in modern times. There is a need to periodically review them and move away from dogmatism. At the same time, to be able to review them based on how useful they are, then we need to decide how to measure “usefulness”. It is ironic to see how complex it is to try to understand and evaluate the simplifications that we created to navigate our complex world.

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