10 October 2008

God as Cognitive Metaphor

The following post started off as an e-mail then begged to become a blog post, so I relented and here it is:

Greetings Professor Haidt,

I have read several articles about your approach to Moral Psychology and really appreciate your broadening the scope of my understanding. I am also a fan of George Lakoff, Mark Johnson, and Owen Flanagan in the area of understanding morality.

I found your article for the Edge by way of Michael Shermer's response on Skeptic.org. In that piece you reserve judgment on the existence of God with a parenthetical expression of doubt.

I would like to propose an atheist friendly way of honestly professing a belief in God. What I mean by "atheist friendly" is that this profession of belief does not require any supernatural explanations nor literalist interpretations of texts. It is, in fact, based on empirically testable assertions about God. ( I realize I am popping into your reality without any relational context, so I understand if you don't have time or the inclination to read through this, but I hope I have tantalized you to read further, nonetheless.)

There are two key steps in this argument. First, understanding the relationship between man's symbols and the reality in which man exists. Then coming to an appropriate understanding of how the concept of God is used in human cognition.

We humans live in a complex reality. We are the descendants of 3-4 billions years of evolutionary history. In the course of that history, life evolved into many varied forms, including forms such as us, who are far more complex than our ancient ancestors. In the course of our increasing complexity we made several major transitions that have consequences for how we view the world. The important transitions for my purpose right now are first our becoming individuals with a drive for self preservation, second our becoming social animals with a sense of the Other, and third becoming human animals with the ability to create abstract concepts that can be applied independent of the concrete experiential content from which they were originally derived.

These three events must have occurred in that order, although for my point it is only crucial that the third event occurred after the previous two. Thus our sense of self and Other preceded our ability to manipulate symbols. The point being that we had both a mind and a functional theory of mind before we had the ability to apply symbolic thought to minds.

According to Lakoff and Johnson in their book Philosophy in the Flesh (chapter 12) the concept of mind has a literal core with a number of metaphoric extensions. The literal core of the concept is so utterly skeletal that any useful thinking and reasoning about mind requires the use of metaphoric conceptions and some of those metaphoric extensions are mutually exclusive from each other in their logical implications. The literal core of the concept of mind is that which "thinks, perceives, believes, reasons, imagines and wills."

Now consider the situation of the timing of our emergence as a symbol manipulating species. We start off with minds and theories of the minds of others that enable us to better attain well-being for ourselves and our kin. This includes all the moral sensibilities that you have brought to our attention. So we are living in clans or tribes of bands, then our species reaches some threshold of complexity and viola we start doing the symbol manipulation bit. In particular we are now driven to use those symbols to understand the past and predict the future. We suddenly have a new tool that requires us to balance the requirements of the present moment with amazing abilities to reconstruct the past and project into the future.

So the key ingredients, so far, are self-aware social minds and an ability to symbolize. So one of the things we have to suddenly deal with, that we have never even conceived of before, is the parts of reality that we do not know about nor have any understanding of. Specifically, in the mode of manipulating symbols that are abstracted from concrete literal content a man can cognitively arrive at a sense of what's coming logically, but not have the ability to put meaningful content back into the concepts that enabled him to see that possible future. He's got a hunch, but can't explain it. In nature red in tooth and claw the prize of survival is most likely to go to the man who has good hunches and has built up a loyal and committed following (perhaps via moral concepts) who trusts his hunches as much as he does, without waiting for explanations.

This leader is glad to survive but also wants to offer his people more than just his hunches. If he can come up with good stories to explain his hunches then he strengthens his peoples bonds of trust in him and can mange their own insecurities and doubts during hard times by recalling the stories he has told them about why his hunches keep turning out for the good.

Now the leader has a problem. He has direct experience of many things and he knows many things. But in a complex reality like the one we humans have always lived in, there are always things that we do not know. As a storyteller he has to make the story work, so in order to account for the things he does not know about he considers the most familiar experiences he has. He considers how he makes things, how he has seen his people live their lives by providing for each other, and how something beyond them all seems to play a significant part in the whole process, too. He cannot explain it, but he knows that something beyond all the people and the animals and everything must be thinking, perceiving, believing, reasoning, imagining and willing in their favor, at least sometimes. So he decides that their is a mind beyond all minds that must be responsible for everything in exactly the same way that I am responsible for my own actions.

In another clan in someplace far away from that leader is another leader facing the same problem of how to tell a good story to explain the world and how things work out but she sees that the things in the world are al utterly different than her. She decides that everything must have a unique kind of mind that is not like hers at all, although when someone relates to them very intimately they can sometimes learn to have qualities like them. So she solves the same problem in a slightly different way.

In yet another clan in a place far from both of the other two there is someone else with the same problem of dealing with the gap in their knowledge and understanding. He observes that the world of our direct waking senses has certain qualities, but under some particular circumstances he gains access to insights that seems to be entirely different from the everyday waking world. He resolves his storytelling challenge by referring to that mysterious realm that seems to be hidden under normal circumstances. There is a mind at work but it is mysteriously removed from the normal world and exists in a different hidden or parallel world.

Finally, there is one more leader with the same challenge. Only he seems to come along much later in the history of humankind, after the development of Western reductionist scientific traditions. This leader resolves the challenge of the gap in his knowledge by making two assertions. First, everything is potentially knowable, even if not known right now, therefore the Mystery is just a mystery until we solve it. Thus, projecting human qualities or positing a hidden realm to deal with the mystery is just foolishness. Second, there simply is no other mind (and even our own mind is probably an illusion to begin with.) Or even if there is another mind it has no human qualities and does not act in any observable way in our universe, so it's just foolish to posit the existence of something that is beyond proof of it's own existence.

So how I understand the human situation: we are social storytellers. We live in a reality that is beyond our understanding, yet we are built to try to understand it, so, we have turned our symbol manipulation tool to the task of understanding, even when we don't understand. The symbols are our creation, they are our best attempts at recounting the past and projecting into the future. I have taken the position that all our concepts are entirely derived from some literal core experiences although some concepts are stripped of their literal, concrete experiential content to become abstractions. One of the abstractions we need in order to have a complete understanding of our world must include a concept of that which is unknown or unknowable. That is what I propose is the skeletal core of the concept of God.

The atheist/humanist position is that the qualities of the unknown and unknowable are best dealt with as temporary inconveniences that should not be assigned any human qualities nor given any special status as if they represent a hidden spiritual realm.

But, of course, like the concept of mind, the core of the concept of God is so paltry and inadequate to the cognitive tasks required of the concept that we have to include metaphorical extensions of the concept in order to enable people to do real cognitive work. The different choices of metaphor as I have described them here fall into four categories from choosing whether or not the unknown and unknowable forces that affect our lives either have human qualities or occur in our everyday world. When we choose to think about the unknown and unknowable forces that affect our lives in terms of human qualities that occur in our everyday lives, then we are using a Theistic metaphoric conception. When we choose to think about those forces in terms of non-human qualities that occur in our everyday lives we are using a Naturalistic metaphoric conception. When we choose to think about those forces in terms of human qualities that occur outside our everyday lives we are using a Mystical metaphoric conception. Finally, when we think about those forces as non-human and outside of our everyday lives, then we are using a Humanistic metaphoric conception. The truth is that we have to deal with the unknown and unknowable and in order to do that effectively we have to choose what qualities to assign. The category is inherently abstract (like time, see Philosophy in the Flesh chapter 10) and no matter what we do we have to choose to assign some qualities in order to even think about it. I would argue that there are basic cognitive functions that are perfectly well served by every one of the four different choices that are now commonly made. The Atheist/Humanist position is just one of four valid sets of characteristics that can be assigned in the process of dealing with that particular category of experience.

The significance of the timing of our development of symbol manipulation behaviors (and literacy, more specifically) is significant because humans had to create explanations out of ambiguous experiential data. We did that in spades and when literacy developed the only references we had to work with were oral traditions that could only interpret the experience of a few generations of people. Thus, what got written down is a sense of our coming into existence within a small number of generations of the development of writing. In our recent history we have suddenly developed a method of examining the evidence of the past in ways that transcend the written accounts that we have inherited from our ancestors. The explanations of our origins and how the world works used concepts of God as an unconscious placeholder for the unknown and unknowable powers in the world that affect our lives. The diversity of stories is attributable to the basic variety of characteristics that can be assigned to those powers and to the variety of local conditions in which those stories arose.

So I hope that I have made my case in, as promised, an atheist friendly way that can be empirically validated and does not require any supernatural beliefs. Of course, I have pre-supposed an atheist who is using, as you describe in your article, a scientific perspective rather than an everyday moralistic perspective.

I believe in God. I also believe that in order to deal effectively with the core meaning of God, as the unknown and unknowable aspects of the world that affect our lives, that the atheist view is equally valid and valuable. In fact, I believe in all four views of God and mix and match them at will (though most often completely unconsciously according to the situation in which that concept arises. And I also suspect that everyone does the same, though taking a position to the exclusion of others is better for selling books and getting attention.) Further, I believe that God is an indisputable fact of human existence and that the extreme Objectivist position, that all things are knowable and that the existence of some unknowns is only a temporary situation, is false. The reality in which we exist is far too complex to ever fully comprehend and our symbol systems, even scientific symbol systems, will forever be inadequate to achieve total understanding because they are entirely derived from our limited human experiences.

Thank you for your time, I welcome your thoughts and reactions.
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