Cognitive Science Points to God
WCIU Journal: Cross-Cultural Communications Topic
September 10, 2018
by Jim Harries
Interpretation of use of the ladder symbol, then other examples, show how cognitive science aligns with theological analyses. Cognitive science and theology both claim a legitimate basis for approaching the material world through the human body and mind. Cognitive science, by following ‘correct’ understandings of God’s nature, undermines notions that objectivity formed the basis for the development of science. Western people’s extra-rational determination to hang-on to intellectually defunct Cartesian dualism explains much contemporary theological confusion. Global English use, and active countering of racism, undergird defunct philosophies in the West. Christian theology promotes human well-being. Image schemas designing user-interfaces demonstrate God’s obscurity.
Descartes pictured himself as able to abstractly contemplate the world around him as if the world was out-there and he could reflect on it. Hence Cartesian dualism between the real (material, physical) and the unreal (thoughts, spirits, etc.). Many western Christian believers have implicitly adopted such dualism. Hence many Western Christians understand their faith according to the dualistic parameters—God out there somewhere, me in and part of the mechanical world. Pushing God to the margins has left a world which can appear to function understandably, and predictably, in ways open to scientific analysis.
Cognitive science proposes a radically innovative interpretation of how we view the world. It turns much accepted wisdom on its head (George Lakoff and Mark Johnson 1999, back cover). If the human body, mind, and context are determinative of avenues of understanding, then human observation of the world cannot be disembodied and impartial. Instead the world, or at least human perception of it, is created as people engage, observe, and interact with it. When understanding is inherently rooted in the very nature of the brains, bodies, and contexts of which it is part, and mind isn’t distinct from body (Keith Frankish and William Ramsey 2012, 3) thought cannot engage objectively with what is “out there.”
The above speaks to theology. Some theologians have taken cognitive science as setting out to attack cherished beliefs. Ironically, CSR (Cognitive Science of Religion) has often obliged to fill this role. “The standard model in the cognitive science of religion defines religion as a by-product of cognitive adaptions that occurred during the evolution of the human species” (Slyke 2016, 5). Can that be right, this article asks?
Brain Structure Being Determinative Attests to God
Pegging one’s Christian faith on the latest fads, such as is cognitive science at the moment, is not always helpful. Yet the sheer proximity of cognitive science to theology is more than instructive. Reading cognitive science can be like reading theology. Examples given below illustrate this:
Olga Louchakova-Schwartz explores the ladder symbol in ancient Jewish thought. “On the cusp of the Pre-Christian and Common Era, various symbolic ladders were posited all over the Mediterranean” (Louchakova-Schwartz 2016, 59). (Jacob’s ladder is perhaps best known to us (Genesis 28:12).) “Ladder[s], each rung of which represents brighter illumination, [were] being constructed with a mystic-metaphysical … objective,” Erwin Goodenough and Jacob Neusner ell us (1988, 238). While interest in theology might be thought by some to be in decline, it is fascinating to note that attention to cognitive science of religion is growing exponentially (Geertz 2016, 100).
Louchakova-Schwartz then enlightens us that:
Novel approaches such as neural computing and human neuroscience … suggest that mental states can be correlated directly with brain states … The spatio-temporal organization of mental experience can be directly correlated with the patterns in spatio-temporal activity of the brain. The stratification of experience such as the ladder-like shifts can be linked to … measures of the nested fractal organization of non-linear brain patterns. Non-linear brain activation patterns have been linked to the dynamics of large-scale neuronal networks … such adaptations also have layered temporal profiles linked to hierarchical feedback … The metaphor of the ladders conveys the paradoxical images of horizontal discreteness and vertical linearity, which, … work very well toward visioning the functioning of the brain. The resolution of the ladder into a single line of endless perfection resonates with the ‘least effort’ agenda of the brain (Louchakova-Schwartz 2016, 69-70).
Hence ancient Jewish references to “ladders to heaven” can no longer be taken as arbitrary inventions of theologians edging their way towards insanity. Instead, they are predictable outcomes of now-known neural physiology. Theological conjecture, long written off by some as idle speculation, appears now to need re-evaluation. If symbolic ladders were no arbitrary speculation, but a perception of mind-reality, one is forced to wonder how much of theology that is condemned by “secular thinkers” is of this ilk? Has secular thinkers’ condemnation of theology been rooted in ignorance of the workings of the human mind? Luhrmann has done considerable research exploring the “theory of mind,” which in many ways seems to represent explorations into theology (Luhrman 2012, 381-84).
Sapolsky, tells us that “the visual [color] spectrum is a continuum of wavelengths from violet to red,” and “where boundaries are put for different color names [is arbitrary thus] … languages arbitrarily split up the visual spectrum at different points” to get “words for different colors” (2017, 6). Sapolsky is known to be critical of religion. To him, “biological reality” ought to determine human understanding. When the physical world can offer no categories, then the categories cannot be there in human thinking. On the contrary, however, early cognitive researchers Berlin and Kay found that human perception of the color spectrum is not arbitrary. Research, including that into diverse human ethnicities, has rather revealed a universal human ability at identifying prototype colors (cited by Frierich Ungerer 1913, 9ff). The human ability at identifying prototype colors indicates a means by which the human body and mind imposes a category onto the physical world around it.
Cognitive linguists have found increasing evidence that human minds organize the world around them according to prototypes. “Prototype theory refers to graded categorization where some members of a category are more central, or more perfect, than others” (http://psychologia.co/prototype-psychology/ ) Hence, while from a scientific point of view one color might merge seamlessly into another, human beings nevertheless identify specific colors, such as a “true red.” Prototypes do not originate in the physical world, but in people’s minds, from which they are mapped by people onto their understanding of the physical world: Prototypical “colors appear to possess a particular perceptual-cognitive salience, which … seems to reflect certain physiological aspects of man’s perceptive mechanisms” (Kay and McDaniel 1978, cited by Ungerer). This enables us to see, in this case just one instance, of how humans’ view of the world is created by their cognition of it.
By way of another example, the case of birds, we find that for many English speakers the robin is prototypical for the category “bird” (Ungerer 2013, 27). Hence, other birds are more-or-less birds according to their resemblance to a robin. This prototypical system of categorization is unlike biological classification systems. The latter consider the category “bird” to be defined by certain features, such as; lays eggs, has feathers, warm blooded, etc. Cognitive scientists dispute the previously implicitly held view that human thinking follows this latter kind of scientific classification. Human cognition identifies a certain prototype which, based on its features, forms the central example on the basis of which a category is defined. Other members of a category are considered more or less good adherents to the category depending on how much they have in common with the prototype. One notable outcome of this is that categories overlap.
Theologically speaking, cognitive scientists are telling us that human beings’ innate classification systems are not learned from their environment, so much as being imposed onto it. Neither any one color on a continuous spectrum, or the robin as a peculiarly typical bird, stand out scientifically. Classification comes from within people. It seems to be “God-ordained,” something given, which is a part of who people are, which people take to their environment. People impose classifications onto their environment, and not the other way around. (See Locke versus Berkeley below.) Hence the prototype system of categorization recognized by cognitive scientists.
Lakoff and Johnson’s earlier work found human thinking to be fundamentally metaphorical (1980). This was subsequently expanded by them into a fundamental challenge to Western philosophy (1999, 3-8). They found that people make much use of metaphors that originate in their bodies, and in how their bodies engage their environments. For example, we can consider the metaphor of a “journey.” In the literal sense, a journey is a bodily trip (i.e. movement of a human body) between locations. However, through human language, “journey” becomes a metaphor that is used for understanding other areas of life. A business is not literally a body that is on a journey. Yet in everyday language, people will say that their business is moving on well, or that it has arrived at a destination, like a certain level of achievement. They could even say that the course of their business has been rocky, or that progress has been slowed by difficulties along the way. As a result, non-journeying-things like businesses are considered to be on “journeys.” Another example given to us by Lakoff and Johnson is “up”: “Up” is generally associated with more. Lakoff and Johnson tell us that this is because containers that are full contain higher levels of things than ones that are not full, less full, or empty. Used metaphorically, people say things like that “life is on the up,” even when quantifiable materials are not in the picture at all. Another example; people might say “I see what you mean,” thus metaphorically transferring the ability of human eyes to see areas of theoretical comprehension of ideas that themselves take no visible form. (The astute reader will note that in each example given here, what is considered to be a literal use of the metaphor can also be identified as its prototype.)
Origins of Science
Alarm bells may be ringing in the heads of some Christian believers: Is this not a slippery slope towards biological determinism? If the nature of visions that we understand as coming from God can be explained by “fractal organization” (see above) of the brain, is this not another nail in the coffin of God’s existence? If our thinking is fundamentally rooted, as suggested above, in the dimensions of our physical existence (up, down, see, journey, a rocky course, etc.), does that not explain the whole of life without recourse to faith in God? Indeed, there are neurologists and biologists who by perceiving themselves as explaining more and more of human behavior on the basis of cognitive activity related to physical structures in the brain (as per our ladders example above) or the innate derivation of prototypes, see themselves as doing away with the need for God. Robert Sapolsky seems to be one of them: “Nineteenth century parsons sent into nature to collect butterflies, revel in the variety of wing colors, and marvel at what God had wrought. Twentieth century ethologists went into nature to collect behavior, revel in its variety, and marvel at what evolution had wrought,” he tells us (Sapolsky 2017, 83).
The above version of the story, however, conveniently ignores swathes of history: Theology is not the only thing that is threatened by discoveries of cognitive science. Other thinking, that which was once thought to be undermining theology, might itself also be threatened.
Hence in Harries (in-press) I make the case that cognitive science has undermined positivism, naturalism, and in effect, secularism, all of which are grounded in Cartesian dualism. Cartesian dualism presupposes “purity” of thinking, that the human mind can study the world from abstraction. Western philosophy is built on such presupposition, that cognitive science contradicts (Farzad Sharifian 2017, 65). If cognitive science has indeed “undermined” bodies of thought that have in recent centuries been chipping away at theology and the Christian faith, then this requires us to go back to re-explore our theological roots.
Cognitive science is telling us that the human body and mind are bound by, and human thinking is foundationally structured by, what it is to be human. If people get a pre-structured comprehension of their context, they cannot be a neutral objective observer of it. Prototypical categories guide thinking (Sharifian 2017, 52). We have a circularity; the world that we find ourselves in, ‘is also [the] structure that enables us to reflect upon’ it (Francisco Varela 1993, 3). “The world is not an object such that I have in my possession the law of its making; it is the natural setting of, and field for, all my thoughts and all my explicit perceptions” (Maurice Merleau-Ponty 1962, ixxiv). Removing Cartesian dualism undermines “opposition” to theology, by which means it opens space for belief in God.
I would like to go on to ask: if humans do not have pure context-less thinking, so their view is constantly subjective and bound to categories that appear from a scientific point of view to be arbitrary, how can they have originated the scientific and technological discoveries that are currently transforming our world? Circularity cannot birth objectivity. If our physical context is both what we are trying to understand, and is also integral to our thinking, then humans cannot comprehend it in an objective way. If humans cannot objectively describe or discover the physical world around them, then I ask, how can they have discovered science?
Building on the above, what has made science discoverable, cannot have been that people of their own accord realized an existence of objectivity. The origins of the discovery of science must be other than in a human grasp of objectivity. Instead, I suggest, science must have been communicated to people in some way that enabled them to grasp it despite their subjectivity. Anything literal or objective, must, to have overcome the metaphorical foundations of human existence, have found an extra-human way of enabling people to realize it. The other, that has enabled the discovery of science, is I suggest; faith in Christ, i.e. God himself. For science to be discovered by the human mind, required knowing the truth about God. More on this below.
People Are Made in the Image of God
Vishal Mangalwadi outlines historical events that resulted in intense interest in the Bible, resulting in a “mass awakening of the European mind” (Mangalwadi 2011, 86). In the UK, this followed publication of the English Bible by King Henry VIII: “Henry thought that reading the Bible would make Englishmen docile and obedient. He was furious when just the opposite happened” (2011, 87). “Ale houses became debating clubs as people interpreted and applied the Bible differently to the intellectual and social issues of the day … this was a bottom-up intellectual revolution. … Once English people began to use logic to interpret the Bible, they acquired a skill that propelled their nation to the forefront of world politics, economics, and thought” (Mangalwadi 2011, 87-88).
Dualistic thinkers have conceived of God as being on the non-material side of a dualism. As science’s understanding of the material world has advanced, God has seemed to be “in retreat.” To some, this process of “the retreat” of God continues. How, though, I here ask, has God come to be so defined as to render him victim to this kind of retreating? Why is it that everything, whether or not yet discovered, is assumed to have a foundation in science and the material world (positivism or naturalism), so that God who is said to be spirit (John 4:24), is disqualified, or appears irrelevant? I suggest that this has been achieved, quite simply, by ignoring the god-likeness of humankind. People who question the reality of God on the basis that he does not seem to have a material foundation to his existence, do not at the same time doubt their own reality. They question whether God exists, but not whether they exist. They render God “obsolete,” by putting themselves in the place of God (Ogunnaike 2016, 791). Yet, on the basis that both human consciousness and the nature of life itself are extra-material, the very critique of God that they use, strictly also disqualifies their own existence. Consciousness, scientifically, remains a mysterious enigma, as demonstrated by Stephen Pinker’s comments here. This is a double standard: why is God disqualified for something that is not considered to disqualify people?
To elaborate on this further, I suggest that contemporary Western people understand themselves through “mapping nature” (Tay 2015) (as they perceive it) onto themselves. This is “nature,” as perceived to operate on the basis of “laws of nature,” that does not require intervention by God, who is assumed to be supernatural. They assume that functioning of the mind will eventually be discovered through the laws of science (i.e. that there is no super-natural). That is; they assume, with scant evidence, the human mind to be natural. God, however, is considered to be in another, invented and inherently negated category; the supernatural, i.e. that which is not natural. If people assume that all that exists is perceived by the mind, and all that the mind perceives (including itself) is ‘natural’, and God to be other-than natural (i.e. super-natural), then they have removed the possibility of God from perception and relevance to humanity. This is like saying that dogs are animals, and cats are not animals, yet the only thing that exists is animals, therefore cats do not exist; an erroneous conclusion is reached by building on erroneous premises. Some people are convinced by their notion of not-God, because they have deceptively reasoned themselves into a corner, in which God’s existence has become illogical.
Who, I ask, has declared, and on what authority, that God is other-than-natural, i.e. super-natural? I see no mention of the term, or indeed the concept, of “supernatural” in the Bible. Why do even Western Christians nowadays pin their hope in God on his being “supernatural” (Harries 2017b:9-10)? It seems that they do so on the basis that they themselves are fully natural. But are they fully natural? The Cartesian dualism that discredits God is contradicted by people’s assumption that they themselves are not a dualism; i.e. that they are a monism on the side of nature. This is what David Nikkel refers to as “physicalist monism” (Nikkel 2015, 622). People’s faith in the notion of “supernatural” is based on their implicit faith in Cartesian dualism. As a result, Western Christians, who with others in the West have erroneously appropriated Cartesian dualism, pull the rug under their own feet. All that falls away when we consider humans to be “made in the image of God” (Genesis 1:27). Because cognitive science has undermined Cartesian dualism (see above), it opens a way to a post-modern or post-western perception of God.
In line with the above, ongoing scientific research is revealing, not further simplicity, but complexity. Quantum physics, by way of example, s demonstrating that close examination of “reality” complicates Newtonian science, rather than giving straightforward agreement with it. Research on the mind has yet to give us easy answers. To say that ‘God is in the mind’, is to declare a mystery. Scientists need here, it seems, a little humility. To declare a physical versus spiritual dualism, and then simply to put people on the side of physical and God on the side of the spiritual, as if human nature is entirely scientifically explicable, has been a nonsense.
Once we put aside Cartesian dualism, to say that the human mind dictates ways of understanding, points us in a significant way to the glory of the creator. Sapolsky, a scientist who apparently considers that neurological mechanisms “explain religion,” also realizes the dilemma with which he remains: His biological understanding having concluded that there is no free will, but only biological determinism, just does not match with either his personal experience of life, or his instinctive feelings regarding others. (For example, listen to an interview with Sapolsky, 46 minutes and 30 seconds into the interview.)> In other words, there is much he does not yet know, even about himself.
Reviewing some of the above, cognitive science tells us that human thinking about the world utilizes the physical relationships with the world, including human bodies, that people have. To some, this may be a reductionist concession. If people’s thinking can be explained by such worldly means, have we not lost touch with God? The above concern about reductioniam ignores, as I have mentioned above, our own “godlikeness.” In Christian circles, this has often been played down; contemporary Christians do not like to think of themselves as “god-like.” They prefer more humility. Yet, biblically speaking, human beings are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). Jesus himself refers to people as “gods” (John 10:34). If we, people, are made in the image of God, this suggests we have god-likeness in us. This should cause us to question the default way in which humankind has, in recent Western thinking, simply been categorized to be on the side of “nature,” while God has been considered on the side of “super-nature.” This issue can be reconsidered in terms of Locke’s famous dispute with Berkeley: If all knowledge is acquired, as Locke believed, as a result of experience, then a sheep raised in a human home should be as intelligent as a human being. Berkeley countered Locke’s emphasis on experience, by suggesting that (in a way that clearly points towards God being a mystery) we may not exist at all, beyond ways in which we are “perceived” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5C-s4JrymKM).
Philosophically speaking, “very few [Westerners] are prepared to give up … belief in the physical world,” i.e. by implication, in dualism. (Watch this video at 8 minutes and 36 seconds. This belief in the reality of the physical world is held by faith. In this sense, it is very misleading to consider “religions” to be faiths, as if people who are not religious but believe in physical reality, are not basing their beliefs on faith.) This is an extra-logical adherence to Locke. To question whether the physical worlds exists does not seem to be Lakoff and Johnson’s concern. They do note, however, that we cannot perceive it, except through it. Our perception of the physical world around us is mediated (especially through metaphor) by the very same physical world. This certainly suggests a lack of definite knowledge, and perhaps as suggested by Hoffman, that we are actually not at all evolved to perceive reality as it “really is.” (I have explored Hoffman’s TED talk in more detail in Harries [2017b, 30-46]).
Dualism – the Achilles Heel
Westerners, then, are not ready to give up their invented belief in the physical world. Here is an Achilles heel. (I assume the reluctance to give up such belief to be pragmatic – because belief in a material world has enabled much science. More on this below.) What then of non-Westerners? Surely non-Westerners do perceive “the physical world”? Many Westerners assume they do, as evidenced by ways in which Western educational systems, including elaborations of science, have become “globalized.” My first response—this impression by Westerners is facilitated and perpetuated by the dominance of European languages. Many non-Westerners these days make much use of European languages. Very few Europeans, on the other hand, have a close familiarity with non-European languages. Of those few, even fewer are taken seriously whenever they might threaten the dominant hegemony of powerful monolingual Western funded institutions and thinkers.
The author considers himself to be a member of this “tiny fraction.” He considers that translation should be from unknown to known (Harries 2017b, 136-44). This has enormous implications for inter-cultural communication. Failing to so translate results in what should be accepted generalizations, being condemned (Harries 2017a, 33-34) and in ongoing ignorance of the West (Harries and Pagarigan, seeking publication). Because translation into English purifies (see Lawrence Venuti 1998), non-Western discourse of any kind that might otherwise enable a clearer view of ways in which the physical world is not perceived by the non-West, is concealed. The dominant Western English-speaking academia is fooled.
The contemporarily very strong and widespread condemnation of racism side-lines non-Western views of reality. Anti-racism, with apparent humility, sincerity, and selfless interest in the other, is at the same time a refusal to take non-Western ways of thinking seriously or to accept their legitimacy. In the name of not being racist, Westerners refuse to accept that Africans (and other non-Westerners) may be “so stupid” as not to think the way that Westerners do, and might not agree with them. Efforts at understanding the “other” as they are, are hence outlawed, and this strictly enforced by law, including by powerful secular international bodies, such as the UN.
My second response is to say that in a basic sense, because one’s contemporary identity arises from one’s history, non-Western people who do not share Western people’s past simply cannot “believe in the physical world” as do Westerners. Native-English ways of understanding terms such as “believe,” “physical,” and “world,” are shared only by people who have the history that enables them to appropriate them.
Building on my discussion of Sapolsky above, clearly, we have a “gap.” Sapolsky concedes that his neurologically-based understanding, for all its sophistication, is of itself insufficient explanation for very-human decision making. Things that make perfect sense to him as a biologist, don’t make sense to him as a person. Something is missing. This is science too simplified. It cries out for an appeal to God. The West may be helped to get an understanding of what is missing by giving an attentive ear to the non-West, on their terms. (The author advocates for “vulnerable mission”—engaging non-Western people using their languages and resources.)
I want to give examples of how to discover God. Let us consider a human baby. Should a Martian find a human baby, marooned in a field, what can they deduce? They could, by careful thought and consideration, deduce the existence of a mother, and many characteristic features of that mother. They will find, for example, that the baby has a strong sucking instinct. They will see no other way for nutrients to enter the baby, except through the mouth. They will therefore surmise that the being “needed” by the baby (i.e. the mother, in our analogy, God) must have available suck-able nutrients. Because when the baby poos, if left unattended, the poo will leave it dirty, until it becomes covered in flies and thus vulnerable to disease, the same Martians will surmise that needed being for the baby, must be capable of cleaning it. The Martians could build a picture of the baby’s mother, without ever meeting such a mother. Another example may be of a sheep confined in a small pen. Because it is confined by a pen, it would seem such a sheep could die of hunger. Near the pen the Martian sees bales of hay, which the sheep cannot reach. A Martian will perceive that something must be responsible for removing hay from the location of those bales, to make it available to the sheep. By such simple reasoning regarding the baby and / or sheep, a Martian can make deductions regarding the nature of the “mother,” or of the “shepherd.”
The above, I suggest, is the essence of the practice of theology. Christian theologians, who engage in the above processes, consider God to be loving and concerned for his children. They draw on the insights of prior generations, especially as recorded in the Bible. Thus-preserved records of acts of God in previous generations help contemporary people.
The better the understanding of God, the clearer will be revelation of what is not-God. Herein are the origins of Western dualism. Incorrect understanding of sheep above, might have theologians believe that a sheep is capable of leaping out of its pen and dragging a bundle of hay back into it. Misunderstanding of sheep (people) will parallel misunderstanding of shepherd (God)—that he does not need to carry hay to the sheep. Because wrongly assuming a sheep to be capable of climbing out of its pen, fetching hay, and then to climbing back in again, will result in the sheep’s suffering—in this case from hunger, an accurate representation of God is needed to enable the sheep to prosper. Hence, I suggest that it is the accuracy of Christianity’s articulation of the nature of God that enabled the West to discover the physical world. Correct knowledge of God enabled realization of the physical world, resulting in the discovery of science, thus the origins of Western dualism. I go along with Weber, that “only in the West does science exist [i.e. originate] at a stage of development which we recognize today as valid” (Weber 1930, 13). By implication, such accurate articulation is needed again, to enable others to perceive the same, and so be enabled to benefit in a sustainable way from the products of Western dualism, i.e. to be able to engage in what is these days known as “sustainable development.” (The United Nations is currently trying to implement sustainable development goals.
I can give another example to illustrate my point, from a water treatment plant. Dirty water enters this plant. Someone only familiar with what comes in, will perceive that water is inherently dirty, or that dirt is inherently watery. Assuming that to be their only experience, they will perceive dirty-water simply as one thing. This is pre-theological, non-dualistic humankind. In this water treatment plant, a chemical added to the dirty water causes the dirt in the water to coalesce and to drop down. What remains at the top is “pure water.” Use of the chemical in this theoretical analogy, will enable our observer to realize, for the first time, that “dirty-water” actually is made up of two components, dirt and water. If the water represents God, the dirt “physical things,” and the chemical God’s Word, then it is God’s Word that has enabled Western people to, conceptually, separate God from the world, so as to enable them to perceive physical things as “real.”
The mother, the shepherd, the water, in our examples all represent God. In each case, accuracy of understanding has enabled a clear separation of identities. Hence study of the Scripture is what has in the West, enabled the discovery of science (Mangalwadi 2011, 220-45, see also above). The accuracy of the biblical view of God, resulted in the possibility of isolation of the physical from the spiritual. Locke, however, took this too far. Cognitive science, by pointing to ways in which intricate details found in the human mind set the parameters for human understanding, bring correction, and point to God.
Joern Hurtienne (2015) considers roles for image schemas (“abstract conceptual representation[s] that result[s] from our everyday interactions with the world” (Taylor and Littlemore 2015, 11)) in the design of user interfaces for modern technology. For example, one image schema considers “up” to be “more.” Another considers that things that are similar, are close to one another. Through metaphor, schemas map from one domain of human understanding to another. So, things are coming up, is a metaphorical use of the image schema “up” to indicate that things are getting better.
“Image schemas form a significant part of the structure of the mental model when thinking about abstract domains” (Hurtienne 2015, 307). Hence abstract domains can be traced by following people’s expression of image schemas. In an exercise described by Hurtienne, children’s body movements were mapped as they responded to music. Children were found to associate loud music with “up” and with “big” (2015, 209). Hurtienne intended “to inform the design of a learning system that can be used via whole body interaction or via manipulating tangible objects” (2015, 209). In other words, pertaining to this example, upward movements and those expressing large size would be expected to parallel loud sounds.
“Image schemas,” Hurtienne discovered, “can lead to novel and successful user interface solutions with robust advantages across different user populations” (Hurtienne 2015, 318). Typically, being metaphorically rooted, they help us to understand human cognition of aspects of our lives. I want to look at the example discussed by Hurtienne of central heating controllers in some detail. Because the implicit image schema of temperature is that “higher temperature is up” (Hurtienne 2015, 314), it is helpful to make this association in the design of a central heating controller. If the controls of central heating were designed to include a nob that is pushed down to raise the temperature of a room, such would make the controller more difficult to use.
I want to apply the above insights to theology. A characteristic of the modern era, is that scholars have endeavored to interpret recorded theological discourse (e.g. the Bible) “literally.” So, medical evidence has been sought to prove the “reality” of healings; archaeological evidence has been sought to prove or disprove historical events; heaven is thought to be “in the sky,” and so forth. A literal interpretation implies that negation can also be literal. Hence “healings” are evaluated bio-medically, and considered illegitimate if they fall short. The first Russian astronaut is said to have declared, when he got to space, that he could not see God as if thus indicating that God did not “exist.”
Hurtienne (2015, 303) illustrates how a user interface can be radically different from the implementation model of technology. A jagged shape* might be used to illustrate a technological reality. But a user’s mental model might resemble a circle. When a good user interface is considered more important than the details of the technological process concerned, that results in a fit with human comprehension. This process conceals the nature of the technology, to facilitate comprehension of what the technology is seeking to do in a way that is enabling to the user of the technology.
* See THIS LINK for a version of this article that includes a helpful diagram to illustrate this paragraph.
One wonders whether God may be concerned about his user interface?
Is God more concerned that we understand him in a helpful way, than that we know him as he is?
Are Scriptures a helpful user interface designed to assist us to understand God in a way that is of value to us, even if this relates more obscurely to his “objective reality”?
The mental model that reflects a user’s vision (God as we helpfully perceive him, based on a user-interface) may be much simplified by comparison with the actual “technology” (God as he is). Ways that Western people have tried to falsify or discredit God’s Word have often assumed that God as depicted in the Scripture should be true to his objective reality. If, though, God intends to speak to us through the Scriptures using “image schemas,” as would seem very possible if not likely, then trying to discount truth about God through critical interpretation of the Scripture is missing the point. Insights from cognitive science, identifying image schemas, are thus helping us to locate possible actual locations of theological truth, and reasons why theological truth may be other than our perceptions about God.
I want to close with a caution. For all the excitement of cutting edge expanding horizons in cognitive science, it is still in very rudimentary stages of discovery. Vast amounts are still unknown. Cognitive science can be a useful supplement to accumulated wisdom of the past. It should develop in humble respect to pre-existing theological wisdom, seeking to further enlighten and expand, and not to supplant the work of the church (Oviedo 2017, 301).
The parallels between cognitive science and theological method are sufficiently robust that cooperation between these disciplines is strongly advocated. The use of prototype categories can help to iron out many of the difficulties faced by theology in recent centuries. As cognitive science undermines notions by which science is said to have arisen from explorations of objectivity, the alternative source of science here posited, is a correct understanding of God. An ongoing irrational counter-intuitive and illogical yet determined adherence to aspects of Cartesian dualism on the side of Western people is isolated as responsible for a lot of confusion in academia internationally in today’s world. The above confusion is often propagated, and avenues that might have been available for its resolution concealed, by the use of English in academia, and by a very high-profile global-wide condemnation of racism. This article indicates how theological method, in its reading backwards from real-world scenarios, parallels the contextual foundation of cognitive science. Use of image schemas to design user friendly interfaces for contemporary technology is given as suggestive of reasons for misunderstandings of God’s role in human society in recent centuries, dominated by the West. Cognitive science’s close parallels to theological method require caution, given the rudimentary nature of discoveries currently being made by such science.
Abrahamsen, Adele, and William Bechtel. 2012. History and Core Themes. In The Cambridge Handbook of Cognitive Science, edited Keith Frankish and William M. Ramsey, 9-28. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Frankish, Keith, and William M. Ramsey. 2012. Introduction. In The Cambridge Handbook of Cognitive Science, edited Keith Frankish and William M Ramsey, 1-8. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Geertz, Armin, W. 2016. Cognitive Science. In The Oxford Handbook of the Study of Religion, edited Michael Stausberg and Steven Engler, 92-111. Oxford: Oxford University Press.