Black cat analogy

Black cat analogy
A 2012 viral image of the philosophy, metaphysics, theology, science spin on the “black cat analogy”.
In analogies, black cat analogy is an putting-the-issue in perspective thought model, originated as an old East European joke recast into philosophical argument by William James (1911), which compares different things, e.g. philosophy, theology, atheism, Marxism, metaphysics, ethics, among others, to that of a person (without light, blind, or blindfolded), theory, or occupation that looks for a black cat—of various sizes (or a non-existent cat)—in a dark room; some, e.g. Marxism (a quasi-religion) or theology (a religion), claiming to have found the cat.

In 1549, the saying “when all candles be out, all cats be grey; all things are then one color” was classified as proverb. In Hungarian, the proverb translates as “at night all cows are black.” [7]

In 1807, Georg Hegel, in the preface to Phenomenology of Mind, criticized those philosophers, such as Friedrich Schelling and Aristotle, who dissolve philosophy into immeasurables; as follows: [8]

“To consider any specific fact as it is in the absolute, consists here in nothing else than saying about it that, while it is now doubtless spoken of as something specific, yet in the absolute, in the abstract identity A = A, there is no such thing at all, for everything is there all one. To pit this single assertion, that ‘in the absolute all is one’, against the organized whole of determinate and complete knowledge, or of knowledge which at least aims at and demands complete development—to given out its absolute as the night in which, as we say, all cows [cats] are black—that is the very naïveté of vacuous knowledge [emptiness of knowledge].”


James | Philosophy
The black cat analogy, in respect to philosophy, seems to have been a thought product of American psychologist William James; or something told to him by a theological colleague:

“With his obscure and uncertain speculations as to the intimate nature and causes of things, the philosopher is liken a ‘blind man in a dark room looking for a black cat that is not there.’ His occupation is described as the art of ‘endlessly disputing without coming to any conclusions’.”
William James (1911), Some Problems of Philosophy [1]

William James was being teased by a theological colleague who said to him: ‘A philosopher is like a blind man in a dark cellar, looking for a black cat that isn’t there.’ ‘Yes’, said James, ‘and the difference between philosophy and theology is that theology finds the cat’.”
Alfred Ayer (c.1970), on William James and the "black cat analogy" [2]


Allen | Leap of Faith
In circa 1971, Irish comedian Dave Allen, a Catholic-raised individual turned self-defined “practicing atheist”, in his BBC show Dave Allen at Large (1971-1979), did his famous Pope vs atheist spin on the “black cat analogy”, via his so-called “The Leap of Faith” joke, which goes as follows: [3]

“The Pope is discussing the existence of god with an out-and-out atheist. The discussion starts off very correctly, but as the hours go by it gets more and more heated, and eventually the Pope turns to the man and says: ‘You are like a man who is totally blindfolded, in a dark room, looking for a black cat that is not there!’ The fella says: ‘With all respect, your holiness, I think there’s great similarity between us both.’ The Pope says, ‘whaddya mean, “similarity”?’ The fella says: ‘well, as far as I’m concerned, you are like a man who is totally blindfolded in a totally dark room looking for a cat that isn’t there. The only difference is that you found it.”

(add discussion)

Gellner | Marxism
In circa 1985, British-Czech philosopher Ernest Gellner applied the black cat analogy to Marxism; as follows: [6]

“There is an old East European joke concerning the differences between science, philosophy, and Marxism. What is science? It is trying to catch a very small black cat in a very large, entirely dark room. What is philosophy? It is trying to catch a very small cat in a very large, entirely dark room, when it is not there. What is Marxism? It is trying to catch a very small black cat in a very large, entirely dark room when it is not there, and pretending that one has caught it and knows about it.”

Amoral Nurse
Australian nursing professor and bioethicist Megan-Jane Johnstone argues (1989) that there might exist hypothetical “amoral nurses” (or health care professionals), in hospitals, who, being an extreme atheists in belief state, could, possibly, think that since god does not exist, then “morals” to not exist, and therein have no sort of ethical foundation, according to which a supervisor would have to appeal to “non-moral censuring mechanisms” to discipline such a health care professional; per the logic that the nurse would argue that looking for or arguing about morality is like looking for a non-existent black cat in a dark room. [4]

Black cat | Bioethics
In 1989, Australian nursing professor and bioethicist Megan-Jane Johnstone (Ѻ), in her Bioethics: a Nursing Perspective, employed the black cat analogy in respect to the question ethics and an supposed “amoral health professional”, i.e. the existence of morality and rights from the point of view of a hypothetical extreme atheist nurse, who, not believing in god, might not, hypothetically, believe in morality or patient’s rights: [4]

“The amoral nurse might reject that he or she has a moral duty to uphold a patient’s rights. The amoral nurse would also probably claim that it does not make any sense even to speak of things like a patient’s ‘rights’ since moral language itself has no meaning. The amoralist’s position in this respect is analogous to the atheist’s rejection of certain religious terms. The extreme atheist, for example, would argue against uttering the word 'god', since it refers to nothing and therefore has no meaning. Such an atheist might also claim that there is no point in engaging in a religious debate on the existence of god, since there is just nothing there to debate. To try and debate the existence of god would be like trying to debate the existence of a ‘black cat in a darkened room when there isn’t one’. The amoralist may argue in a similar way in relation to the issue of morality.”

Johnstone concludes that in the case of a non-religious nurse, without an foundational ethical sense of right or wrong, in respect to patient’s rights:

“The only recourse in dealing with the amoral [atheist] health care professional would be to appeal to non-moral censuring mechanisms such as legal and or professional disciplinary measures.”

Here, this would seem to be a Zeno of Citium slave stealing anecdote type of disciplinary method.

In 2011, Vincent Barry, in his Bioethics in a Cultural Context: Philosophy, Religion, History, Politics, employed the philosopher vs theologian version of black cat analogy in respect to the 1974 National Research Act, an act passed by Congress charging the Health and Human Services to appoint a commission to “identify the basic ethical principles” that the federal government should use to protect human subjects of medical experiments. Barry concluded with the statement, to the effect that, it is difficult to “articulate a coherent position when the primary authors—theologians and philosophers—don’t share the same belief system?” [5]

1. James, William. (1911). Some Problems of Philosophy: a Beginning of an Introduction to Philosophy (§1: Philosophy and its Critics, pg. 9) (Ѻ). Publisher.
2. Davidson, Peter. (2004). Turbulence: an Introduction for Scientists and Engineers (pg. 449). Oxford University Press, 2015.
3. (a) Allen, Dave. (c.1971). “The Leap of Faith” (Ѻ)(Ѻ), Dave Allen at Large. BBC.
(b) Allen, Dave. (2014). The Essential Dave Allen (editor: Graham McCaan) (§:The Leap of Faith, pg. #). Hodder & Stoughton.
(c) Dave Allen (comedian) – Wikipedia.
4. Johnstone, Megan-Jane. (1989). Bioethics: a Nursing Perspective (pg. 103). Elsevier Health Sciences, 2011.
5. Barry, Vincent. (2011). Cengage Advantage Books: Bioethics in a Cultural Context: Philosophy, Religion, History, Politics (black cat, pg. 65). Cengage Learning.
6. (a) Gellner, Ernest. (1985). The Psychoanalytic Movement: the Cunning of Unreason. Publisher
(b) Doniger, Wendy. (2011). The Implied Spider: Politics and Theology in Myth (black cat, pgs. 32-33). Publisher.
7. Speake, Jennifer. (2008). A Dictionary of Proverbs (§:All CATS are grey in the dark, pg. #). Oxford University Press.
8. Hegel, George. (1807). The Phenomenology of Mind, Volume 1 (black, 4+ pgs; quote in preface, pg. 79). Publisher.

External links
Black cat analogy – Wikipedia.

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