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’.

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Allegory, Controlling Narratives and the Bible

This is the first post in a kind-of series on the Bible, narratives, reading the Bible and being formed by the Scriptures. The next two posts are here and here, and some related posts can be found here and here.

Allegory has been a long-accepted method for reading Scripture – seeing the meaning of various stories, events and characters not in themselves so much as in a more general principle, idea or doctrine which they represent. Origen is arguably the guy who started this as a systematic theological enterprise, though it seems obvious that, at the very least, a lot of Jesus’ teachings were allegorical in one way or another.

This invites a question: when do we allegorize? Texts don’t come with handy little tags that say ‘WARNING: ALLEGORY AHEAD’. Jesus doesn’t really say, ‘This parable is an allegory for X’.

Generally speaking, allegory doesn’t happen if the text isn’t a narrative of some kind – Lewis’s ‘Narnia’ stories invite allegory in  a way that ‘An Introduction to Organic Chemistry’ does not. So far as I can tell, allegory happens when one is confronted with a story or narrative, and forms the belief that the ‘real’ meaning of the text lies deeper than than the the text at face-value. The process for forming this belief usually goes one of to ways: it seems obvious that the real meaning must lie deeper, or the reader thinks that the real meaning must lie deeper. The latter seems to be round about how a lot of the early Fathers interpreted Scripture, especially the Old Testament.

There are other factors, though. In isolation, a text may be demanded to be read allegorically – think of the story of Jephthah. If you were handed a piece of paper with just this story written on it, you’d probably try to come up with some kind of meaning for it, simply because that’s a pretty wild story, and there has to be some kind of deeper meaning. This is a totally natural and correct thing to do. However, the story as we have in Scripture isn’t a random tale, but part of an over-arching narrative – the book of Judges (probably the darkest part of the Scriptures). I’m not going to go into a sustained exegesis of the Jephthah story, but when it’s read as part of a larger story, a larger controlling story, then it seems that allegorization isn’t as much of an option.

The controlling narrative restricts the degree to which we can interpret a story within that narrative. N.T. Wright points out in ‘Scripture and the Authority of God’, that a habit of early church interpretation was to find moral or spiritual significance to especially brutal Old Testament stories – something that didn’t need to be done because the stories were, in fact, part of a larger controlling narrative. Their meaning isn’t had on their own in isolation (like, say Aesop’s Fables or any number of folk tales, which do a fine job of imparting moral wisdom in bite-sized parables free from any real controlling narrative) but in the framework of a larger story within which they make sense without allegorization.

This is obviously not to suggest that a given story in the Bible has one and only one meaning. Christians throughout history have had certain stories speak to them in certain ways that are no doubt far from the authors original intent. God is free to speak to us however He wishes from whatever story He wishes. In responsible biblical interpretation, however, the factor of the controlling narrative must be accounted for. We are not free to give any meaning to any story in Scripture – the controlling narrative is more than a literary device because in a very deep sense, the controlling narrative also lays claim to us. We are subject to Scripture – not the other way around. When the sense of controlling narrative is lost (both in its literary form and its theological/authoritative form) Scripture becomes a screen upon which we can project any and everything with equal validity.