Is abstract thought just piggybacking on the physical body?
According to some new psychological research into the nature of metaphors, “much of what we think of as abstract reasoning is in fact a sometimes awkward piggybacking onto the mental tools we have developed to govern our body’s interactions with its physical environment. Put another way, metaphors reveal the extent to which we think with our bodies.”
This is according to journalist Drake Bennett in “Thinking literally,” The Boston Globe, September 27, 2009.
I find the whole idea fascinating, and can’t help wondering about its ramifications for religion and spirituality, since metaphors play an enormous part in religious thought and language, and even in religious experience.
C.S. Lewis, for instance, returned to the subject of metaphors time and again in his voluminous Christian writings, and was profoundly influenced by his friend Owen Barfield’s exploration of what metaphorical language might reveal about the way the human mind reasons, feels, and relates to and makes sense of the external world. Both men thought the truth about metaphors had not only linguistic but metaphysical implications (an aspect of Lewis’s work that has been the subject of at least one graduate thesis). Lewis put a great deal of thought and effort into arguing that the frequently metaphorical and symbolic character of scriptural and other religious language cannot and should not simply be discounted on the grounds that it is mythological, since metaphysical truths would necessarily take just such a form when translated into human language — which, as Lewis took pains to point out, is riddled with metaphor even in its everyday form. We simply cannot speak or think at all, he said, without resorting to metaphor.
Obviously, the last part corresponds closely to the conclusions of the new psychological research described in the Globe article, where Drake shows that he has done his homework by mentioning the recurrence of speculations about metaphor in the age-old philosophical debate over the mind-body problem.
If it’s true that — as the article summarizes the conclusions of two scholars whose work has been foundational for the current cognitive research — “Rather than so much clutter standing in the way of true understanding . . . metaphors are markers of the roots of thought itself,” and that “abstract thought would be meaningless without bodily experience,” then this effectively drops a boulder in the religious-spiritual-philosophical pond, sending tsunami-sized shockwaves rippling in all directions. What are the implications for any branch of spiritual or religious thought in the vein of classic second-century Gnosticism — of which there are a few — with its ontological positing of the supremacy and moral superiority of immaterial spirit over gross matter? To take one of the more mundane examples, this is a meme that plays directly into much traditional and contemporary folk Protestant thought (the “I’ll Fly Away” mentality). So what does it mean for such people and traditions if abstract thoughts, including words and ideas about “the soul,” are meaningless without bodily experience?
Being who I am, I also can’t help flashing on Lovecraft with his endless iterating of the classic 19th century scientistic premise that mind and consciousness are merely ephemeral epiphenomena of matter. The newly minted view of the role of metaphors doesn’t exactly offer direct support for claims of this variety, but it does present promising fodder to serve as supplementary evidence, and also just grist for the conversational mill.
In short, it’s a story with a host of wide-ranging philosophical implications stretching across more than one segment of the culture, and this means it’s exactly the type of story that I most love to stumble across. Now, you’ll have to excuse me, but I can’t continue writing this blog post since I’m finding it necessary to climb back to my feet and dust myself off — having just stumbled, you see. (Get it? Get it?)