BELIEF, TRUTH & METAPHOR

Iain McGilchrist

A consensus is emerging from the literature that religious experience tends to be associated with the right hemisphere. This conclusion is supported by a book- length study of spirituality and the brain, by the comprehensive review of Devinsky and Lai (2008), and by McNamara (2009). McNamara largely implicates right fronto- temporal networks, a view supported by Trimble and Freeman (2006) and by Devinsky and Lai (2008), the latter of whom distinguish what they call the ‘religion of the everyday man’, with its characteristic ongoing belief pattern and set of convictions, predominantly localised to the frontal region, from ecstatic religious experience, more localised to the temporal region, both in the right hemisphere. Continue reading “BELIEF, TRUTH & METAPHOR”

PHILOSOPHICAL IMPLICATIONS OF COGNITIVE LINGUISTICS

We experience objects as colored in themselves, even though it is now known that they are not. The neural system responsible for the internal structure of our color categories also creates for us the experience of color.

We experience space as structured by image schemas (as having bounded regions, paths, centers and peripheries, objects with fronts and backs, regions above, below, and beside things). Yet we now know that space in itself has no such structure. The topographic maps of the visual field, the orientation-sensitive cells, and other highly structured neural systems in our brains not only create image-schematic concepts for us but also create the experience of space as structured according those image schemas.

We experience time in terms of motion and resources, even though neither of those is inherent in time itself. Our metaphors for conceptualizing time in terms of motion not only create a way to comprehend and reason about time in terms of motion but also lead us to experience time as flowing by, or ourselves as moving with respect to time.

We experience the imbalance of an unrighted wrong. Yet the notion of justice as Balance is not part of an objective universe. The Moral Accounting metaphor not only provides us a way to conceptualize justice in terms of balance but permits us to experience unrighted wrongs as imbalance and the righting of wrongs as recovery of balance.

Our experience of the world is not separate from our conceptualization of the world. Indeed, in many cases (by no means all!), the same hidden mechanisms that characterize our unconscious system of concepts also play a central role in creating our experience. This does not mean that all experience is conceptual (far from it!); nor does it mean that all concepts are created by hidden mechanisms that shape experience. However, there is an extensive and important overlap between those mechanisms that shape our concepts and those that shape our experience.

There is an extremely important consequence of this. For the most part, it is our hidden conceptual mechanisms, including image schemas, metaphors, and other embodied imaginative structures, that make it possible for us to experience things the way we do. In other words, our cognitive unconscious plays a central role not only in conceptualization but in creating our world as we experience it. It was an important empirical discovery that this is true, and it is an equally important area for future research to discover just how extensive this phenomenon is.

We have evolved so that the hidden mechanisms of meaning produce a global experience for us that allows us to function well in the world. Our preponderance of commonplace basic experiences-with basic-level objects, basic spatial relations, basic colors, and basic actions leads us to the commonsense theory of meaning and truth, that the world really, objectively is as we experience it and conceptualize it to be. As we have seen, the commonsense theory works very well in ordinary simple cases precisely because of the nature of our embodiment and our imaginative capacities. It fails in cases where there are conflicting conceptualizations or worldviews, and such cases are quite common.

Because the mechanisms of conceptualization are hidden from us, those mechanisms are not included in our commonplace understanding of truth. But truth for a language user, in fact, is relative to our hidden mechanisms of embodied understanding.

A person takes a sentence as “true” of a situation if what he or she understands the sentence as expressing accords with what he or she understands the situation to be.

What the classical correspondence theory of truth misses is the role of human beings in producing the human notion of truth. Truth doesn’t exist without (1) beings with minds who conceptualize situations and (2) a language conventionally used by those beings to express conceptualizations of situations. Those conceptualizations required to produce the very notion of truth are themselves produced by the hidden mechanisms of mind. To understand truth for a language user, one must make those mechanisms of conceptualization visible. That is one of the central enterprises of cognitive science and cognitive linguistics.

This becomes especially clear in the case of metaphorical thought. The embodied correspondence theory of truth for language users allows us to understand what we ordinarily mean by truth in cases where metaphorical thought or a particular framing is used to conceptualize a situation. As we saw, when we conceptualize time as a resource-and live by this metaphor-then we experience time as limited resource that can be wasted or saved or squandered or used wisely. If we conceptualize a situation in terms of Time As A Resource, then it might be true that I wasted a lot of your time or that you squander your time, even though time independent of the metaphor is not in itself a resource.

George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Philosophy in the flesh : the embodied mind and its challenge to Western thought.

THE DIVINITY OF INTEREST

Image result for jordan peterson

When pre-experimental man conceived of the unknown as an ambivalent mother, he was not indulging in childish fantasy. He was applying what he knew to what was unfamiliar, but could not be ignored. Man’s first attempts to describe the unknown cannot be faulted because they lacked empirical validity. Man was not originally an empirical thinker. This does not mean he was self-deluded, a liar. Likewise, when the individual worships the hero, he is not necessarily hiding from reality. It may also be that he is ready and willing to face the unknown, as an individual; that he is prepared to adopt the pattern of heroic endeavour in his own life, and to further creation in that manner.

The great myths of Christianity – the great myths of the past, in general – no longer speak to the majority of westerners, who regard themselves as educated. The mythic view of history cannot be credited with reality, from the material, empirical point of view. It is nonetheless the case that all of western ethics, including those explicitly formalized in western law, are predicated upon a mythological world-view, which specifically attributes divine status to the individual. The modern individual is therefore in a unique position: he no longer believes that the principles upon which all his behaviors are predicated are valid. This might be considered a second fall, in that the destruction of the western mythological barrier has re-exposed the essential tragedy of individual existence to view.

It is not the pursuit of empirical truth, however, that has wreaked havoc upon the Christian worldview: it is confusion of empirical fact with moral truth, to the great detriment of the latter. This confusion has produced what might be described as a secondary gain, which has played an important role in maintaining the confusion. That gain is abdication of the absolute personal responsibility imposed in consequence of recognition of the divine in man. This responsibility means acceptance of the trials and tribulations associated with expression of unique individuality, as well as respect for such expression in others. Such acceptance, expression and respect requires courage in the absence of certainty, and discipline in the smallest matters.

Rejection of moral truth allows for rationalization of cowardly, destructive, degenerate self-indulgence. This is one of the most potent attractions of such rejection, and constitutes primary motivation for the lie. The lie, above all else, threatens the individual – and the interpersonal. The lie is predicated upon the presupposition that the tragedy of individuality is unbearable – that human experience itself is evil. The individual lies because he is afraid – and it is not the lies he tells another that present the clearest danger, but the lies he tells himself. The root of social and individual psychopathology, the “denial,” the “repression” – is the lie. The most dangerous lie of all is devoted towards denial of individual responsibility – towards denial of individual divinity.

The idea of the divine individual took thousands of years to fully develop, and is still constantly threatened by direct attack and insidious counter-movement. It is based upon realization that the individual is the locus of experience. All that we can know about reality we know through experience. It is therefore simplest to assume that all there is of reality is experience, in being and progressive unfolding. Furthermore, it is the subjective aspect of individuality – of experience – that is divine, not the objective. Man is an animal, from the objective viewpoint, worthy of no more consideration than the opinion and opportunities of the moment dictate. From the mythic viewpoint, however, every individual is unique – is a new set of experiences, a new universe; has been granted the ability to bring something new into being; is capable of participating in the act of creation itself. It is the expression of this capacity for creative action that makes the tragic conditions of life tolerable, bearable – remarkable, miraculous.

The paradise of childhood is absolute meaningful immersion. That immersion is a genuine manifestation of subjective interest. Interest accompanies the honest pursuit of the unknown, in a direction and at a rate subjectively determined. The unknown, in its beneficial guise, is the ground of interest, the source of what matters. Culture, in its supportive role, extends the power with which the unknown can be met, by disciplining the individual and expanding his range of ability. In childhood, the parent serves as cultural surrogate, and the child explores under the umbrella of protection provided by his parents. The parental mechanism has its limits, however, and must be superseded by the internalization of culture – by the intrapsychic incorporation of belief, security, and goal. Adoption of this secondary protective structure dramatically extends and shapes individual capability.

The dragon limits the pursuit of individual interest. The struggle with the dragon – against the forces that devour will and hope – constitutes the heroic battle, in the mythological world. Faithful adherence to the reality of personal experience ensures contact with the dragon – and it is during such contact that the great force of the individual spirit makes itself manifest, if it is allowed to. The hero voluntarily places himself in opposition to the dragon. The liar pretends that the great danger does not exist, to his peril and to that of others, or abdicates his relationship with his essential interest, and abandons all chance at further development.

Interest is meaning. Meaning is manifestation of the divine individual adaptive path. The lie is abandonment of individual interest – hence meaning, hence divinity – for safety and security; is sacrifice of the individual to appease the Great Mother and Great Father.

Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief

TRUTH AND CONSEQUENCES

Humanists believe that if we know the truth we will be free.  In affirming this they imagine they are wiser than thinkers of earlier times.  In fact they are in the grip of a forgotten religion.

The modern faith in truth is a relic of an ancient creed.  Socrates founded European thought on the faith that truth makes us free.  He never doubted that knowledge and the good life go together.  He passed on this faith to Plato, and so to Christianity.  The result is modern Humanism.

Socrates was able to believe that the examined life is best because he thought the true and the good were one and the same:  there is a changeless reality beyond the visible world, and it is perfect.  When humans live the unexamined life they run after illusions.  They spend their lives searching for pleasure or fleeing pain, both of which are bound to pass away.  True fulfilment lies in changeless things.  An examined life is best because it leads us into eternity.

We need not doubt the reality of truth to reject this Socratic faith.  Human knowledge is one thing, human well-being another.  There is no predetermined harmony between the two.  The examined life may not be worth living.

The faith of Socrates in the examined life may well have been a trace of an archaic religion:  he ‘habitually heard and obeyed an inner voice which knew more than he did … he called it, quite simply, “the voice of God”’.  Socrates was guided by a daimon, an inner oracle, whose counsels he followed without question, even when they led him to his death.  In admitting that he was guided by an inner voice, he showed the lingering power of shamanic practices, in which humans have immemorially sought communion with spirits.

If Socratic philosophy originates in shamanism, European rationalism was born in a mystical experience.  Modern humanism differs from Socratic philosophy chiefly in failing to recognise its irrational origins – and in the hubris of its ambitions.

The bequest of Socrates was to tether the pursuit of truth to a mystical idea of the good.  Yet neither Socrates nor any other ancient thinker imagined that truth could make mankind free.  They took for granted that freedom would always remain the privilege of a few; there was no hope for the species.  By contrast, among contemporary humanists, the Greek faith that truth makes us free has been fused with one of Christianity’s most dubious legacies – the belief that the hope of freedom belongs to everyone.

Modern humanism is the faith that through science humankind can know the truth – and so be free.  But if Darwin’s theory of natural selection is true this is impossible.  The human mind serves evolutionary success, not truth.  To think otherwise is to resurrect the pre-Darwinian error that humans are different from all other animals.

An example is the theory of memes.  Memes are clusters of ideas and beliefs, which are supposed to compete with one another in much the same way that genes do.  In the life of the mind, as in biological evolution, there is a kind of natural selection of memes, whereby the fittest memes survive.  Unfortunately, memes are not genes.  There is no mechanism of selection in the history of ideas akin to that of the natural selection of genetic mutations in evolution.

In any case, only someone miraculously innocent op history could believe that competition among ideas could result in the triumph of truth.  Certainly ideas compete with none another, but the winners are normally those with power and human folly on their side.  When the medieval Church exterminated the Cathars, did Catholic memes prevail over the memes of the heretics?  If the Final Solution had been carried to a conclusion, would that have demonstrated the inferiority of Hebrew memes?

Darwinian theory tells us that an interest in truth is not needed for survival or reproduction.  More often it is a disadvantage.  Deception is common among primates and birds.  As Heinrich observes, ravens pretend to hide a cache of food, while secreting it somewhere else.  Evolutionary psychologists have shown that deceit is pervasive in animal communication.  Among humans the best deceivers are those who deceive themselves: ‘we deceive ourselves in order to deceive others better’, says Wright.  A lover who promises eternal fidelity is more likely to be believed if he believes the promise himself; he is no more likely to keep the promise.  In a competition for mates, a well-developed capacity for self-deception is an advantage.  The same is true in politics, and many other contexts.

If this is so, the view that clusters of false beliefs – inferior memes – will tend to be winnowed out by natural selection must be mistaken.  Truth has no systemic evolutionary advantage over error.  Quite to the contrary, evolution will ‘select for a degree of self-deception, rendering some facts and motives unconscious so as not to betray – by the subtle signs of self-knowledge – the deception being practiced’.  As Trivers points out, evolution favours useful error: ‘the conventional view that natural selection favours nervous systems which produce more accurate images of the world must be a very naive view of mental evolution’.

In the struggle for life, a taste for truth is a luxury – or else a disability:

only
tormented persons want truth.
Man is like other animals, wants food and success and women,
not truth.  Only if the mind
Tortured by some interior tension has despaired of happiness:
then it hates
its life-cage and seeks further.

Science will never be used chiefly to pursue truth, or to improve human life.  The uses of knowledge will always be shifting and crooked as humans are themselves.  Humans use what they know to meet their most urgent needs – even if the result is ruin.  History is not made in the struggle for self-preservation, as Hobbes imagines or wished to believe.  In their everyday lives humans struggle to reckon profit and loss.  When times are desperate they act to protect their offspring, to revenge themselves on enemies, or simply to give vent to their feelings.

These are not flaws that can be remedied.  Science cannot be used to reshape humankind in a more rational mould.  Any new-model humanity will only reproduce the familiar deformities of its designers.  It is a strange fancy to suppose that science can bring reason to an irrational world, when all it can ever do is give another twist to the normal madness.  These are not just inferences from history.  The upshot of scientific inquiry is that humans cannot be other than irrational.  Curiously, this is a conclusion few rationalists have been ready to accept.

Tertullian, a theologian who lived in Carthage sometime around AD 200, wrote of Christianity: Certum est, quia impossible (it is certain because it is impossible).  Humanists are less clear-minded, but their faith is just as irrational.  They do not deny that history is a catalogue of unreason, but their remedy is simple: humankind must – and will – be reasonable.  Without this absurd, Tertullian-like faith, the Enlightenment is a gospel of despair.

John Gray, Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals.

 

THE TRUTH OF FACT, THE TRUTH OF FEELING

We don’t normally think of it as such, but writing is a technology, which means that a literate person is someone whose thought processes are technologically mediated. We became cognitive cyborgs as soon as we became fluent readers, and the consequences of that were profound.

Before a culture adopts the use of writing, when its knowledge is transmitted exclusively through oral means, it can very easily revise its history. It’s not intentional, but it is inevitable; throughout the world, bards and griots have adapted their material to their audiences, and thus gradually adjusted the past to suit the needs of the present. The idea that accounts of the past shouldn’t change is a product of literate cultures’ reverence for the written word. Anthropologists will tell you that oral cultures understand the past differently; for them, their histories don’t need to be accurate so much as they need to validate the community’s understanding of itself. So it wouldn’t be correct to say that their histories are unreliable; their histories do what they need to do.

Right now each of us is a private oral culture. We rewrite our pasts to suit our needs and support the story we tell about ourselves. With our memories we are all guilty of a Whig interpretation of our personal histories, seeing our former selves as steps toward our glorious present selves.

[But] all of us have been wrong on various occasions, engaged in cruelty and hypocrisy, and we’ve forgotten most of those occasions. And that means we don’t really know ourselves. How much personal insight can I claim if I can’t trust my memory? How much can you?

Digital memory will not stop us from telling stories about ourselves. As I said earlier, we are made of stories, and nothing can change that. What digital memory will do is change those stories from fabulations that emphasize our best acts and elide our worst, into ones that—I hope—acknowledge our fallibility and make us less judgmental about the fallibility of others.

Ted Chiang, The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling.