Ann Taves' Visit

We had the pleasure of hosting Ann Taves' in our Mellon Seminar this morning.  We had an inspiring discussion about the naturalness of extraordinary experiences and how they become religious experiences.  She encouraged us to think of experiences as "events" that have shared evolved cognitive processes, cultural contexts (set and setting), and appraisals (interpretations we give the event).  We discussed my concept of cognitive ratcheting and how this supports her idea that we share cultural schema that have become automatic for us.  In other words, these culturally loaded frames are unconscious enough that they already structure the revelatory event while it is happening, and likely precondition the event too. 

She shared her idea that we as humans have the capacities to make things seem real, and that some humans are able to cross over from the imaginary to the real with very little trouble.  In her view, states like dissociation and hypnotic states have an innate component which can be trained and legitimated via its cultural value.  She thinks of cognitive states that are dissociative or unitive to represent a more primal level of consciousness that usually in our daily activities is suppressed by the higher order of consciousness with its executive functions.  We share this more dissociative state of the self with other animals.  She believes that more work needs to be done thinking about the brain's default mode network, which is the operations of our brain when we are not doing a task, when we are not involved with the executive functions of the self.

Ann Taves-Poster.jpg

Book Note: Cognitive Science and the New Testament (István Czachesz)

Finally we have a introductory "textbook" that covers the main tenets of the cognitive science of religion as they are applied to the field of New Testament and early Christianity.  Czachesz argues that the human component with its mental and cultural constraints is essential to augment traditional biblical exegesis or even to change the conventional focus of biblical exegesis. 

Whenever I have spoken about this, I have talked about the missing link in biblical studies: the human factor.  That is, biblical exegesis has traditionally forfeited understanding the ways in which humans process information and make sense of the world through their bodies, their brains, their memories, and their emotions.  All of these impact the shape and character of the texts people write, and thus our understanding of these texts as historians. 

Czachesz further suggests that we are dinosaurs if we think that we can continue to operate as scholars by ignoring science and the scientific method.  He thinks that cognitive approaches help us to integrate scientific thinking (experimental research; computer modeling; naturalistic explanations) with our study of early Christianity.  He applauds the payoff, suggesting that the naturalistic explanations and materialistic mechanisms, some experimentally based, provide a securer foundation for our historical analyses than traditional methods have allowed.

István’s approach is to divide his subject (religion in the New Testament) into cognitive areas, after first giving a three chapter overview of the standard theories in the cognitive study of religion and the anatomy of the brain. 

He begins by asking what studies on memory and transmission of ideas and practices can do for us as biblical scholars.  After covering the standard analyses of memory and emotion, and how minds process and structure information, he argues that early Christian literature reflects these processes, here referring to studies of the passion narratives and martyrdom stories in the canonical and apocryphal gospels and acts, the sermon on the mount, and the synoptic problem. 

Second he covers ritual, with a nod toward some psychological models on compulsive behavior.  He discusses in this chapter baptism, communal meals, and prayer, in terms of cost benefits, modes of religiosity, efficacy and magical agency. 

Third, he takes on the intersection of magic and miracle in the Jesus stories, arguing that cognitive approaches can help us see these as two subjects that are interrelated phenomena.  He does so by applying studies on superstitious conditioning, mental intuitions about the mechanisms and effects of magic in terms of agency and contagion, and the attractiveness of miracle stories as counterintuitive.  He applies these cognitive insights to Paul’s magical practices in Ephesus according to the Book of Acts. 

Fourth, he covers what cognitive neuroscience and philosophy of mind have been saying about religious experience and altered states of consciousness, everything from subjectivity to cultural contexts, from the lobes of the brain theory, to extreme religious experience.  He applies these studies to the phenomena of speaking in tongues at Corinth, and the tour of heaven in the Ascension of Isaiah. 

Fifth, he looks at studies of morality and its origins in the domains of neurobiology, social cognition, group behavior, and moral emotions.  He argues that biblical morality is not an artifact created by theologians and philosophers, but rather it is an aspect of human cognition and behavior.  The application in this chapter is more broadly conceived in terms of religion, and less in terms of specific test cases within the New Testament. 

Sixth, he turns to social networks and computer models to explain the spread of early Christianity.

István’s book is the one that I wish I had a few years ago when I taught a course I designed on Cognitive Science of Religion and biblical studies called The Bible and the Brain.  I set up the course with similar thematic sections and then biblical applications.  So I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to familiarize themselves with Cognitive Science and Religion and biblical studies, or who wants to create a course on it.  It is a perfect learning and teaching tool.

Cognitive Round Up: Why God Won't Go Away

As I have written before, as a historian I have become disenchanted with traditional approaches which perceive history to be what happened due to particular linear causes and effects, almost entirely social in nature.  So I have begun rewiring my historical approach so that it views history as something made to explain the present.  History emerges within a cognitive and cultural network, and therefore is reflective of local cultural affairs as well as universal ways of thinking.  I call this approach, Cognitive Historicism.

I have begun to read seriously materials written about the cognitive end of things.  So every so often I will be posting a book note featuring these cognitive readings.  Hopefully they will inspire you to start reading in this direction.

Today I start with Andrew Newberg, Eugene D'Aquili, and Vince Rause, Why God Won't Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief (Ballantine Books: New York 2002).  The authors are brain researchers who have conducted now-famous experiments using SPECT camera photography to map brain changes in meditating Tibetan Buddhist monks and Franciscan nuns who engage in repetitive rituals and meditation to achieve self-transcendent and unitary experiences.  These authors argue that religious experience, especially the transcendent state of Absolute Unitary Being, is not a hallucination or a delusion.  It is the result of the normal operations of the brain when sensory information to the operation association area is interrupted and the area becomes deafferented, when it is forced to operate on little or no information.  This results in the softening of the boundaries of the self and opens the door of the mind to unitary states of consciousness.

These authors do not understand their observations to lead to reductionism: that religious experience is only imagined because God is a figment of the firing of our neurons.  Instead they argue that all of our experiences, whether it is the experience of eating a piece of pie or encountering God, are all in our minds.   And this doesn’t mean that they aren’t real.  Tracing spiritual experience to neurological behavior does not disprove its realness.  There simply is no other way for us to experience anything except through the brain’s neural pathways (36-37). They write, “If God does indeed exist, the only place he can manifest his existence would in the tangled neural pathways and physiological structures of the brain” (53).

Do the mystics experience something real that is outside material existence?  Science and common sense has always said no.  But the inquiry of these authors has led them to conclude that the mystics may be on to something, that the mind’s machinery of transcendence may in fact be a window through which we can glimpse the realness of something divine (140-140).  They draw this conclusion based on how they understand the brain’s ability to differentiate between things that are real and not real (143) and the reality of both our external objective world and our inner subjective sense what is real (144).  While they began their research with the assumption that all that is really real is material, they found that all perceptions exist in our minds, whether physical or otherwise (146).  If we are to dismiss spiritual experience as mere neurological activities, we must also distrust all of our own brain’s conceptions of the material world.  If we trust our perceptions of the physical world, we have no rational reason to declare that spiritual experience is a fiction that is only in the mind (146-147).

Is Heaven for real?

Is Heaven for real?  A blue-eyed Jesus riding a horse.  Serenading angels.  A bunch of dead relatives hugging.  That is the real heaven according to the four-year old boy Colton in the book and movie, Heaven is for Real. Critic Bruce Handy in Vanity Fair makes the following observation: "What baffled secular me is why the film’s vision of heaven, which seemed almost boringly conventional—the handful of scenes illustrating Colton’s experiences look like the kinds of celestial imagery you’d see in a child’s Bible or on the walls at Mormon visitor’s center—is troubling to Todd and the members of his church."

My reaction.  What else would you expect from the mind of a four-year old whose father is a Christian minister?  As for troubling, when isn't a near death experience troubling, especially when it is reported back in images familiar to a four-year old? 

Does the fact that Colton's report reflects the mind of a four-year old mean that he made this all up?  It is more complicated than a yes or no answer.  Why?  Because this is a classic example of what cognitive linguists refer to as cognitive frames. 

No, I am not talking about some new google glasses that augment our thoughts like borg hardware.  I am talking about an organic process that is already in place in our brains.  Our brains create thoughts, create our noetic reality, based on a mental operation that cognitive linguists call framing.  That is, there are certain clusters of ideas that are activated when we experience certain things. 

Think about a hamburger.  What do you see?  Smell?  Taste?  We all know what hamburger means.  It is a cluster of things, and items in the cluster can be changed out, yet still we identify it as a hamburger.  It is a meat patty, usually beef, sandwiched in a bun.  Now is it a hamburger if I add cheese?  Bacon?  Mushrooms?  What about bison instead of beef?  Turkey? Sausage? Tofu?  When does it stop becoming a hamburger and start becoming something new?  An innovation?  A cognitive blend, when the conventional hamburger frame has shifted to such an extreme that a new idea, a new culinary delight, emerges?

Now we can apply this to religious studies and biblical studies in many fruitful directions.  Scholars are already seeing the app here.  I will probably return to this idea in the future on this blog and discuss some of these new directions in scholarship, where cognitive studies is meeting the bible.  But today I just want to comment on its implications for religious experiences like Colton had.

Cognitive frames are what makes the difference for religious experience.  Why do some people report encounters with Jesus and an afterlife that matches Christian conventions that a four-year old knows like we see in the Heaven's for Real?  Why do other people report encountering other types of gods and realms in their religious experiences?  Because everything we experience we experience through our bodies and brains, and our brains are wired in very specific ways.  We all, no matter who we are or where we live, experience the world through mental frames.  Some of these frames are universal, like our experience of verticality or containers.  Others are defined more culturally, like a blue-eyed Jesus sitting in heaven. 

My point is that we experience our world as our brains and bodies allow us.  They define and limit whatever that raw experience actually may have been.  It is not a matter of after-the-fact interpretation that we lay on the raw experience.  It is a matter of experiencing the raw as what we already know (albeit with occasional innovation when our frames shift).  We can't do otherwise. 

So is heaven for real?  Yes, for Colton it was.  But his heaven may not be real for everyone.

The Humanities and Science

This semester I am teaching a course on cognitive science and religion.  It is called

The Bible and the Brain

, and I am writing a book under the same title.  The course is exploring ways that religion can be better understood when we take into consideration the cognitive abilities and limitations of human beings.  More on these ideas as the semester progresses.

As I am teaching this course, I am aware that there continues to be an uproar about whether the humanities should be in dialogue with the sciences and if so to what degree.  Steven Pinker has written for the New Republic an impassioned plea for humanities' scholars to get with it and engage the sciences


. He articulates in this piece a call for humanities scholars to show more interest in science, especially in the downward spiral that is strangling us in the wake of post-modern critique.  There have been many responses, most like Leon Wieseltier, also published by New Republic,


. The title of his piece summarizes pages of his own impassioned plea which he calls "Crimes Against Humanities: How Science Wants to Invade the Liberal Arts. Don't let it happen."

There was a time in my life when I was very content to go along teaching and writing what I would call strictly humanities content.  I saw very little connect between anything scientists did and my own work and interests.  That is until I married a physicist.  I realized three things very quickly.

First, the scientific understanding of the world is our reality.  We live it everyday.  We have no choice but to engage it.

Second, scientists are studying the universe and human beings, the same subjects that I study as a humanist, and they have information that is essential to how we


understand ourselves and our world today.  This information is so essential that it will likely alter the way we have been perceiving our academic disciplines.  I see this particularly in terms of cognitive studies and embodiment which can help us reformulate the way we "do" history and understand religion.

Third, if we as humanists don't jump into the conversation that scientists are engaging in very public ways, we will be leaving the interpretation of knowledge about humans and the world to them.  Frankly I think we have been so slow on the uptake that this has already happened. In other words, scientists (and social scientists for that matter) are going to continue to run well-funded experiments on our subjects, subjects that we as humanists hold near and dear.  And then they are going to control its interpretation, when in fact, they know very little about the subjects we study, like religion, for instance.

A case in point.  I read a fascinating book this week by Drs. Andrew Newberg and Eugene D'Aquili, called

Why God Won't Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief

.  I couldn't put it down, riveted to the results of their SPECT scans on Tibetan monks and Catholic nuns during meditatively induced states of Unitary Being.  Since I study mysticism, their findings really caught my attention.  But what also caught my attention was the fact that their understanding of religion is under the weather so to speak.  They equated religion with a form of mysticism that is relatively recent in human history (derivative of Underhill and James) and tried to overlay that on Neanderthal burial and cult practices.  They argue that all religion originates from someone's mystical experience and that the purpose of religion is to perpetuate those experiences of unitary being.  So here we have scientists with really good experiments, but with little knowledge of the field of religious studies in which to make good sense of them.  But their views are popular and well-cited in the literature.

If we don't engage the sciences as humanists, we are not just doing ourselves a disfavor, but the public too.  We are leaving the interpretation and popularization of our field open to scientists like Richard Dawkins, rather than doing it ourselves and doing it better.

A warm welcome to Mark Turner


Mark Turner from Case Western Reserve

is with us today. Turner is a cognitive scientist who works on the problem of

how we think

. He argues that even though we are constrained by our biological evolution, our mind works in such a way that allows for new emergent structures to arise and culture to form. This can occur because humans have evolved in such a way that we are capable of double-scope blending, taking two known metaphoric structures and blending them in a new way.

It is a fascinating concept for someone like me who is interested in tracking the creation and recreation of t/Traditions that support cultures. I am looking forward to our seminar this morning and to Turner's lecture this noon:

How to Have an Afterlife

. If you are in town and would like to attend the lecture, it will be in HUMA 226 at noon.

Mellon Seminar Reflection 13: Embodiment and the Humanities

As we begin to prepare for the visit of Professor Mark Turner, a professor of Cognitive Science from Case Western Reserve, we have discussing the field of cognitive psychology. One book that particularly grabbed my attention this week is

Edward Slingerland (PHOTO from his webpage HERE)


What Science Offers the Humanities: Integrating Body and Culture


I can't imagine writing a more courageous book than this, especially as a professor of ancient Chinese religion which is where Slingerland's training is. I was taken by the book for many reasons (and I am still processing it), but what struck me immediately was fact that he sees some of the same problems with postmodern theory that I do, and responds in ways similar to my own responses, responses which I have been recording on this blog, as I go about trying to develop a new sort of historical approach to the study of my texts. What I have come to realize over the course of this year is that I refuse to-throw-the-baby-out-with-the-bath-water. What is happening in my mind and through my pen (yes I still write with a pen) is a major remodeling and rebuilding of Tradition Criticism, in light of its postmodern crucifixion. I am developing an approach I am calling Transtradition Criticism. I will post more about this development later.

To return to Slingerland. He argues that postmodern theory has swept through the Academy, leaving us suspicious of any truth-claim and with "a conviction that the distinguishing mark of sophisticated scholarship is an ability to engage with a prescribed pantheon of theorists" rather than serious study of primary texts. What was fun at first "has left us with an intellectual hangover" (2008, 1), luxuriating in language for language's sake.

I couldn't agree more. In my opinion, we are stranded in a place of nowhere, immobilized by disembodied discourses, authorless and textless, outside of history. With nothing empirical, with no sameness, we are lost in a jumble of difference. We are left to describe what we see as ours, with no power to interpret beyond this. Even these meager descriptions are left in an ethical vacuum to be siphoned off and co-opted to support nefarious purposes.

The Humanities are dying and we are the ones who are responsible to save them.

The big question is HOW? Slingerland offers a solid solution. He says that we need to get our act together and learn from scientists how human beings operate, particularly as embodied cognitive beings. He demonstrates how humanists operate within outdated models of anthropology, and need to come to terms with the fact that science has discovered fundamental things about the human being. That we need to take embodiment seriously or be doomed to spinning tales inside of tales.

In Slingerland's words: "The fact that these body-minds are, have always been, and will always continue to be part of the world of things effectively short-circuits the epistemological skepticism that permeates postmodern thinking. A nondualistic approach to the person promises no privileged access to eternal, objective truths, but is based upon the belief that commonalities of human embodiment in the world can result in a stable body of shared knowledge, verified (at least provisionally) by proofs based on common perceptual access. By breaching the mind-body divide - by bringing the human mind back into contact with a rich and meaningful world of things - this approach to the humanities starts from an embodied mind that is always in touch with the world, as well as a pragmatic mode of truth or verification that takes the body and the physical world seriously" (2008, 8).