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Post No.: 0864metaphors


Furrywisepuppy says:


Explicit cognition concerns what we say we believe in or do. This concerns our deliberate conscious thoughts. Meanwhile, implicit cognition concerns what we actually think and do. This will have been influenced by various unconscious processes.


When it comes to religious texts, what’s written or contained in them may express the explicit cognition of their authors or disciples – but we really need to read between the lines.


Human cognition shapes language (cognitive linguistics). And metaphors aren’t just rhetorical devices. People’s thoughts and concepts are built out of basic metaphors derived from living in human bodies (conceptual metaphor theory) – people essentially think in metaphors and use them all of the time without necessarily consciously knowing it (like the metaphors of travelling down paths, carrying a weight of burden, sowing a seed, flowing like water, casting a light, meeting a fork in the road). People draw upon the sensed physical world they interact with to make inferences and reason about the abstract world.


If we cannot get a direct grip of something, we often use a metaphor to try to better understand it. Metaphors are more natural to us than pure symbolic logic. And lots of religious texts talk about metaphors and so it’s strongly arguably erroneous to translate them literally.


This can make them subjective to interpret though, and our own interpretive starting points (personal preconceptions, assumptions and biases) often determine where we end up and what conclusions we take away, particularly when something is ambiguous, for which religious texts frequently are. It perhaps doesn’t help that many religious texts are highly ambiguous or even contradictory because different religious sects can use their biases to fashion interpretations that suit their own agendas.


But even words that aren’t actually ambiguous can be twisted to mean whatever suits our own agenda (e.g. ‘love thy neighbour’, whereby a ‘neighbour’ is absolutely anybody who’s physically around us – but this word can be reinterpreted to mean ‘only whoever is on our side’, which means that killing people within our physical but not spiritual community could be regarded as acceptable).


Metaphors and image schemas help us to think in a certain way, and many metaphors that arise from our shared and embodied experiences are pre-linguistic and universal (e.g. metaphors about journeys, eating, suffering, waking, sleeping) and so provide a common basis that can help them relate across different times and cultures and in turn help us to translate them today. These common metaphors can also help us to understand the cross-cultural commonalities and variations we see.


We might assume that texts from other cultures are fundamentally radically different because their culture and language appears radically different – but there are basic universal human cognition mechanisms that people all share that shape how they think, read and write because extant people are all genetically Homo sapiens embodied in similar bodies, plus people interact with a very similar physical world (an embodied commonality). People face reasonably common pains and pleasures for instance. (This is why the current approach in robotics when aiming to build robots that learn and develop like humans is to give them physical bodies and limbs similar to humans so that they can interact with the world in similar ways that humans do (embodied cognition). The motivations, desire for self-preservation, the physical and mental limitations, and so forth, of humans are what make humans think and behave like humans.)


Our brains and bodies co-evolved after all (e.g. we’d have a very different set of problems and a very different sense of the world if we were 1-inch tall versus 100-feet tall).


Cultures can and do still shape human cognition in significant ways and not all cultures are identical, yet it’s faulty to assume that what’s innate and common to all humans can be completely overridden by culture. Both our genetic instincts and our environmental influences shape us hence it’s generally incorrect to over-weight one or the other, in this context at least.


Psychoactive drugs can also lead to hallucinations that are sometimes interpreted as religious or spiritual experiences. But of course it’s just the drugs and psychosis causing these visions and sounds inside our own heads. Yet even in such cases, the contents of those hallucinations will have a grounding in or relation to very common and shared human cognitive machinery and experiences.


The basic words within a language can be a reasonable way to track cultural family trees or cultural lineages because these are often inherited and don’t readily change or change much over time (like the words for ‘water’, ‘yes’ or ‘no’).


The religious tenets that followers believe in depend as much on psychology as on theology, hence why there’s frequently a gap or dissonance between what a scripture says and what its followers actually practise. Buddha isn’t supposed to be worshipped as a deity yet many Buddhists do. There’s the faith that ‘God is everywhere’ yet placing too much importance on claiming Jerusalem. Or the parable of the camel and the eye of the needle yet many Christians coveting and chasing riches (unless they’ve found a loophole and invented a massive needle with a 10ft eye(!)), not welcoming strangers, not feeding the hungry, not sheltering the homeless and misusing the concept of forgiveness when telling victims of sexual abuse in churches to keep these incidents quiet (which all act as credibility undermining displays too). There are beliefs in a supreme being who has predetermined everything already yet praying for outcomes as if they could be changed. Or beliefs in an omnipresent god yet behaviours that suggest that one doesn’t truly believe this god is everywhere at once and watching one’s every single move. Examples can be found in all religions or religious-type beliefs and practices, as well as amongst atheists (e.g. atheists can still plead as if to a deity sometimes because, as humans, their ‘system one’ still intuitively seeks and expects agency and teleological explanations).


So the point is that we mustn’t mistake doctrine with everyday cognition, or explicit claims with assumptions. Knowing something isn’t the same thing as doing/following that something because it’s difficult to override our cognitive tendencies – just like I know I shouldn’t have too many tasty rawhide bones but I still find the urge to keep chewing them irresistible. Woof!


Our thoughts and feelings will always naturally tend towards our cognitive defaults, like believing in highly anthropomorphic conceptions of supernatural beings. Our cognitive tendencies override the theology. Thus to truly study religion, we cannot (just) examine the texts but look at the people and places of worship – religion is more of a psychological cognitive machinery matter than a theological one.


Therefore to analyse religious beliefs, we don’t so much examine the theological claims like the miracles that supposedly happened or the angels that apparently visited particular individuals – but analyse the minds of those who conjured up or believe in that kind of stuff. Similarly, to analyse the minds of fictional or real-but-dramatised characters or events in novels, videogames or movies, we must actually analyse the minds of their authors/writers – their understanding of psychology (or naïve understanding of it), as well as their time, budgetary (when trying to portray them on screen), cultural (e.g. to avoid being cancelled) and other situational pressures; as well as their honest mistakes (like writing inconsistencies or contradictions) for being human.


…Unless our psychology fundamentally and dramatically changes – religious beliefs aren’t going to disappear. And like other intuitive cognitive tendencies – just because one has learnt about them, it doesn’t necessarily mean we can unshackle ourselves from these psychological inclinations. Even if we train ourselves to not think in terms of purpose and intentionality – even trained scientists will revert back to these tendencies when their guards are down (e.g. when under stress) because they are so instinctive.


Our over-firing pattern detection instincts and desire to make sense of everything lead us to believe in all sorts. And whatever the main concerns are of the contemporary period prime us when it comes to how we interpret ambiguous things (e.g. UFOs as angels and demons in the past, and as extraterrestrials more recently).


People also often feel dissatisfied if explanations don’t include a ‘why’ answer, even though we know we cannot scientifically objectively answer these kinds of questions. Humans cannot stop being human. We can know something to be false yet feel it as being true, or vice-versa. For instance, we can understand that supernatural beings or afterlives don’t empirically exist yet still feel there must be something there. Or we may scientifically understand that free will doesn’t empirically exist yet still feel as if we possess it. We can’t help it – it’s as if we’re like robots that have been built (or evolved) to believe that we’re not robots living in a deterministic world! After all, life doesn’t evolve to become gradually better and better at figuring out truths – it evolves according to what survives and reproduces. And if believing in falsehoods, like in mind-body dualism, helps life to do so then life will evolve with an inclination to believe in those falsehoods.


So it’s not really an accident of evolution – if we didn’t hold these adaptive beliefs then what would motivate us to see life as having autonomy and purpose? What would motivate organisms to fight for survival and have offspring for a future if we were so nihilistic? Hence it’s hard to shake these feelings and beliefs off, and arguably we shouldn’t – evolution wouldn’t have done a decent job otherwise. Those who figure out how the universe really works and really follow its existential nihilistic conclusions instead of feel and live as if these conclusions are mistaken (or at least can park this knowledge aside when needed) will more likely take their genes, and thus particular genetic instincts, out of the gene pool. Moral nihilism could also result in a failure to cohesively coexist as a social species, and so groups with such beliefs would more likely fail to persist. We need to believe that human rights, free will and ‘ought’ responsibilities are real concrete constructs even though we know they aren’t, otherwise civilisation may crumble.


Thus to succeed evolutionarily, we must be deluded to a degree that we, for instance, have free choice and that everything ultimately matters. We need to somehow simultaneously hold both the naturalist and metaphysical perspectives in mind, or at least be able to switch between them and employ each in their appropriate contexts, and only in their appropriate contexts, to live healthily.


It’s not always easy but we can ‘bracket’ beliefs. So, continuing with our main example, we know, according to neuroscience, that free will is an illusion, and this scientific conclusion allows us to grapple, say, mental health issues instead of blame people for their ‘choices’, hence in such contexts, we need to accept this conclusion. But accepting this conclusion isn’t a nice way for one to live day-to-day, hence in these contexts, to acknowledge something yet ignore it can be beneficial and psychologically healthy.


Science can answer the ‘how’ and ‘is’ questions about life and the universe, but sometimes these answers aren’t what we want to hear. There are cold, hard, proven scientific facts – but some beliefs and faiths evolved as tendencies via our genetic instincts because they are adaptive. It doesn’t make these beliefs and faiths true but they make those who believe in them feel happier and safer (even though, on occasion, our faiths come at the expense of other people’s happiness and safety – but hey, it’s mainly about our survival and reproduction).


Woof. The cognitive science of religion is a field that’s relatively young though and many theories are still being debated. Therefore, like in all sciences at all times really – don’t zealously hold onto any belief like a dogma because new theories might one day successfully challenge existing ones. You can precisely use the Twitter comment button below to present your challenges if you have any!


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