Is abstract thought just piggybacking on the physical body?

Brain MindAccording 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?)

About Matt Cardin

Teeming Brain founder and editor Matt Cardin is the author of DARK AWAKENINGS, DIVINATIONS OF THE DEEP, A COURSE IN DEMONIC CREATIVITY: A WRITER'S GUIDE TO THE INNER GENIUS, and the forthcoming TO ROUSE LEVIATHAN. He is also the editor of BORN TO FEAR: INTERVIEWS WITH THOMAS LIGOTTI and the academic encyclopedias MUMMIES AROUND THE WORLD, GHOSTS, SPIRITS, AND PSYCHICS: THE PARANORMAL FROM ALCHEMY TO ZOMBIES, and HORROR LITERATURE THROUGH HISTORY.

Posted on September 30, 2009, in Psychology & Consciousness and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Hehe, this is just the tip of the iceberg as far as nueroscience’s impact on metaphysics goes. Here’s some links on cognitive science you might find interesting.

    http://www.cogsci.ucsd.edu/

    http://www.reddit.com/r/cogsci/

    • Many thanks for the links, Joshua. When the research into the connections between neuroscience and religion-spirituality-philosophy first started entering the cultural conversation a decade or so ago, I was instantly and hopelessly fascinated by it. And I still am. I’m sure I’ll find much of interest and value on the indicated sites.

  2. This post reminds me of the ideas of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. Lakoff, in particular, has been voicing his opinions about the power of metaphor in politics.

    The work of Lakoff and Johnson also relates to some others researching and speculating about the embodied mind. I know you’re familiar with Ken Wilber and integral theory. Have you seen any of the integral discussions about enactivism. Enactivism was influenced by both Buddhism and phenomenology, and was an attempt to discover scientific language to describe the embodied mind.

  3. You might find T.S. Eliot’s theory of the “objective correlative” interesting in this regard. Though strictly speaking, the theory belongs to another magisterium — art, not science, it could be argued that Eliot had intuited what science is beginning to corroborate.

    • Many thanks for the suggestion, S. I haven’t read Eliot in years, and I recall brushing past this theory in some long-ago context. I’ll have to read up on it. (A preliminary Google search and quick scan of the results has already shown that you’re quite correct: I will find this interesting.)

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