Conceptual Metaphors, Neuroscience and the Structure of Our Experience

I’ve been re-reading Lakoff and Johnson’s ‘Metaphors We Live By‘, and the following post is an attempt to synthesize the overall point of their book with modern neuroscience to show how our experience is structured.

Lakoff and Johnson’s main thrust is that our concepts are metaphorical and that this is how we make sense of our experience – that is, we characterize one experience in terms of another. In a sense, they’re somewhat similar to Kant’s categories in that they’re transcendental – they are the means by which we structure and make sense of our experience.

There’s roughly two kinds of conceptual metaphors: directly emergent and metonymic emergent. The former, obviously enough, emerge directly out of our experience as subjects – these would include concepts such as ‘we are containers’ – i.e. we experience ourselves and our bodies as bounded containers. The latter are the kinds of concepts that emerge out of interaction with two or more physical objects or things – Lakoff and Johnson identify ‘part for the whole’ concepts as arising out of this kind of experience. For example, when I say, ‘The Times is here’, I mean, the important reporter from the Times, not the entire newspaper. In a nutshell, then, we make sense of our experience via conceptual metaphors that arise out of our experience. It’s experience and metaphor all the way down.

A correlate to neuroscience may be found here by noting that repeated experience in a given environment will generate conceptual maps, as it were, that allow us to structure and contextualize our experience within that environment. ‘Experience’ is an important term here – what is meant by ‘experience’ is a raw, embodied ‘being-in-the-world’ kind of thing. The correlate to be drawn here becomes more clear when we consider, as a kind of case study, how emotions, feelings and concepts like ‘self-worth’, ‘respect for others’, ‘love’, which feed into the overall ‘moral faculty’ developed at the neurological level.

The amygdala is the ‘alarm system’ of the brain – fight, flight and other ‘raw emotions’ arise here out of the activity of the brain cells inhabiting the amygdala. This ‘raw data’ mediated by the cortex and is ‘rationally processed’ by the frontal cortex – though this shouldn’t be taken to be perpetuating a ‘left brain/right brain’ kind of dualism. The correlate is here: if these areas and the cells within them are not stimulated early in childhood, then it is highly likely that such a lack of stimulation will leave the subject in question effectively unable to experience emotional life. A famous and very sad study of a group of Romanian orphans makes the point powerfully: without these parts of the brain being stimulated, they don’t develop as they should, leading more often than not to socially, emotionally and in some cases morally dysfunctional lives (though thanks to the miracles of modern medicine and the tenacity of the human brain, many people with these developmental difficulties are able to overcome them).

The parallels here should make a general principle clear: that a lack of experience means that we don’t ‘grow’ in two important ways: biologically and conceptually. Biologically, a lack of experience means a lack of stimulation in the brain means that our brains don’t develop with the ability to give us the kinds of experience we need in the world, and conceptually, a lack of experience means that we cannot acquire the conceptual metaphors we need to make sense of our experience.

There are then two primary levels to experience as I’m considering it here: the ‘aesthetic’ (a broad term covering the use of metaphor and concepts) level and the biological/bodily level. As stated above, the less experience we have, the less we will be able to conceptualize our experience through the acquisition of metaphor – this is the aesthetic. The biological/bodily aspect is that, the less experience we have, the less experience we are able to have, and the less we are able to conceptualize. Perhaps we could say that the less we are ‘in’ the world, the more fragmented our ‘being-in-the-world’ is. The structure of our experience isn’t one that is simply given but is one which arises out of that experience – out of our ‘being-in-the-world’.


Note on Mind

William Hasker makes a good case for emergent dualism, against Cartesian and Thomistic dualism (hylomorphic dualism). The very basic idea is that the mind and consciousness are generated by the activity of the brain. Such a theory avoids dualisms, which I like (though Thomism isn’t as crude of a dualism as a lot of other kinds) and it seems to make sense of the biological/physiological data. It’s a theory I’m so far sympathetic with, but not entirely convinced by.

Note on Philosophy of Mind

I started reading William Hasker’s ‘The Emergent Self’ earlier this week – it’s basically philosophy of mind from an analytic point of view, which doesn’t really thrill me at all. To be honest, I hate the language and style of analytic philosophy (with the odd exception here and there). It causes me to spend way more time than necessary trying to figure out what is actually being said when I have to translate symbolic logic used in an argument for supervenience.

That aside, however, I found his criticisms of eliminative materialism pretty sound (not that EM is a really hard target) and the discussion on epiphenomenalism and mental causation quite interesting, along with the sections on mind/brain identity. Again, lots of the language is hard for me to work with but overall the arguments are interesting.

What still stands out to me is the extent to which a lot of these problems are trying to deal with a fairly naive Cartesian dualism – the interaction problem, mental causation, etc all really seem to be problems only if one accepts that either dualism of the Cartesian stripe is true or materialism/naturalism/physicalism is true. It’s odd to, more or less, ignore other conceptions of mind/matter, like Thomism, Buddhism, or any of the classical perspectives, Platonic, Stoic, etc. There’s lots out there.