Cognitive Science and Contextualization

(Christy Hemphill) #1

(Feel free to suggest a more clickable thread title)

This is a very interesting article by Jackson Wu on Patheos.

It has a nice discussion of some of the points brought out in the book I can hope our linguistic library gets but that is too expensive for me to buy myself, Theology in the Flesh: How Embodiment and Culture Shape the Way We Think about Truth, Morality, and God, by the ever-provocative John Sanders.

The Wu summary explains the idea that a big part of our understanding is shaped by the frames that are activated in a situation and the controlling metaphors that we bring to our analysis. Much of this can be unconscious, as the studies he describes demonstrate.

The discussion relates to faith/science discussions in two ways:

  1. Clearly, we have to understand the cultural frames that were activated by the Genesis text for the ancient near east audience. John Walton does a good job describing some of these frames (he doesn’t use that term, he calls them cultural streams and cognitive environments I think) in his Lost World books.

  2. Slightly, less obviously, the scientific community and the Evangelical community have their own subcultures and cognitive environments in many ways. Communication between the two groups is a kind of cross-culture experience. We probably need to understand better what frames and controlling metaphors are activated in the minds of YEC and anti-evolution conversation partners and what frames or controlling metaphors scientists have activated that they assume everyone else has to have also by default? Are their metaphors we could introduce into the discussion that could actually shape how people interpret and take away the facts presented?

The article takes this quote from Sanders’ book (p.144) about a study on how controlling metaphors shape interpretation:

So, for discussion, have you noticed any frames or metaphors that impede understanding in discussions with YEC conversation partners? And on the other hand, what assumed frames or metaphors should we be more aware of having to actively promote instead of thinking everyone else shares them?

(Christy Hemphill) #2

Here are some (unhelpful) metaphors I have noticed:

Life is like a machine, organ systems are like mechanical systems, structures are engineered. When this controlling metaphor is activated, the ID arguments seem more intuitive.

Evolution is a stairway from simple to complex. This inhibits people from understanding that bacteria have evolved a lot over millions of years, even though they are still bacteria. It leads to the question “If monkeys turned into humans, why are there still monkeys today?”

Words are containers that hold meaning. You can “unlock” them with the right tools. Or words are like ore that you “mine” for truth. The deeper you “dig” into the text (make connections and assumptions the original audience would never have made), the more meaning you get. This leads to a decontextualized and anachronistic approach to Scripture texts where people put undue emphasis on “literal meaning” and/or “hidden meaning” of certain phrases and words instead of trying to understand what the whole text in its ancient context actually communicated to its ancient audience.

(Jay Johnson) #3

Get Ken Ham in there if you want clicks. Ken Ham rejects Cognitive ScienceKen Ham stars in “The Wrong Context” … Something like that should do much better for you. Or you could try: Scientists & Evangelicals: Talking Past One Another That might get @Swamidass interested.

Yes, and unfortunately, this will probably remain the case as long as the Culture Wars persist, which is to say, for the foreseeable future.[quote=“Christy, post:1, topic:35768”]
have you noticed any frames or metaphors that impede understanding in discussions with YEC conversation partners?

Gosh, where to start? These are more “frames of reference” than metaphors, strictly speaking, but here are some that get my goat: “Science excludes God…” “Methodological Naturalism = Atheistic Science…” “Plain reading = Plain truth…” I’m sure others could multiply examples, but these seem like the biggies to me. Maybe the second most-misused metaphor that I see is the “Slippery Slope”.[quote=“Christy, post:2, topic:35768”]
Here are some (unhelpful) metaphors I have noticed:
Adding to your list, DNA as a language (sorry, Dr. Collins). The metaphor reveals something true about DNA, and so it is useful to a certain extent, but it is also easily misused. DNA and language have more differences than similarities. The thing about metaphors is that they are useful for making complex subjects more understandable and for revealing important or overlooked aspects of a thing, but there is never perfect one-to-one correspondence between the metaphor and the reality being described. Most of the errors that I see occur when people fail to recognize these limits.

(George Brooks) #4


Absolutely! I love to see the sparks fly out of a person’s forehead when someone tells him/her that bacteria are just as evolved as humans!

A metaphor I sometimes use is that Evolution is like an ocean wave… carrying various populations of life forms forward …

After the wave passes, the creatures the wave leaves behind don’t just die. They dig in and prosper as best they can. Some match-ups between the environmental niche and the creature deposited there is so perfect … the species might not look like it’s change a bit in millions of years (gators and crocodiles for example).

But locked within their DNA is still millions of years of tiny changes … the ones that don’t interfere with the perfect match between creature and it’s cave of perfect Victorian furnishings! < That’s a figure of speech too… except for today, I doubt I will ever use it again! :smiley:


I think you are right to touch on linguistic issues in particular. Examination not only of the particular metaphors in a frame, but metaphor itself as a tool of understanding is important.

One of the unfortunate features of modern science is that, through specialization and abstraction, become largely inaccessible to the “common” person. Simile and metaphor becomes the only ways to communicate complicated ideas: gravity is caused by mass bending spacetime like a bowling ball bends a trampoline, DNA is software for a cell, etc. Because humans are so accustomed to using metaphor as means to gain understanding, the temptation is strong to then attempt to reason on the basis of metaphorical understanding rather than true understanding. This danger extends beyond any particular metaphor, and is aggravated by a belief that humans are inherently rational, rather than rationality being a peak attained only through training and constant struggle.

As far as particulars go, the notion of “information” in a cell or DNA is a common one in YEC and ID communities. Arguments using this “information” carry a veneer of sophistication, not least because it seems to draw legitimacy from the mathematical discipline of information theory. But information in these contexts is never given a rigorous definition, nor is any objectively usable means of detection presented.

Another trope that shows up frequently is that “science is always changing,” which is then used to dismiss scientific theories in apparent opposition to the Bible as simply “man’s word” versus “God’s Word.” While it is true that science adapts and changes, this is an overly simplistic characterization of the changes that occur.

(Christy Hemphill) #6

Some cognitive linguists now argue that metaphor is one of the conceptual foundations of human thinking. (See this short Wiki article for a summary. The book cited in the OP is building on Lakoff and Johnson’s work and subsequent research in that vein, and applying it to theology) They would argue that true understanding is at its basic level necessarily metaphorical. What I have read on the subject makes a pretty good case.

Yes, I see that a lot. And the image is “changing” as in morphing into something totally different, or being replaced. As opposed to the counter-metaphors of “changing” as being refined, tailored,or weeded.

(Christy Hemphill) #7

This topic was automatically closed 6 days after the last reply. New replies are no longer allowed.