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The Nature and Limits of Human Understanding 2001

Canon Brian Hebblethwaite [Rev.]

George Lakoff

Lynne Baker

Michael Ruse

Philip Johnson-Laird

Table of Contents

The 2001 Gifford Lectures commemorate the 550th anniversary of the founding of the University of Glasgow in 1451. In two lectures each, five scholars from various disciplines examine The Nature and Limits of Human Understanding. In Part I, cognitive psychologist Philip Johnson-Laird discusses the relationship between language and understanding. In Part II, linguist George Lakoff explores the mind-body relationship and the shaping influence of embodiment on thought, arguing for a new philosophy of ‘embodied realism’. In Part III, biologist and philosopher Michael Ruse discusses epistemology and ethics through the lens of Darwinian evolution. Philosopher Lynne Rudder Baker contrasts first-person knowledge and third-person understanding to scientific knowing in Part IV. In Part V, philosopher and theologian Brian Hebblethwaite approaches human understanding from the perspective of metaphysics and then theology, which he describes as ‘metaphysics plus revelation’. Psychologist Anthony Sanford of Glasgow University, who conceived this unique collaborative lecture series, edited the volume and composed the prefatory remarks.
KEY WORDS: Language and understanding, Embodiment and experience, Cognitive science, Evolutionary naturalism, Darwin, Epistemology, Ethics, First person knowledge, Third person knowledge, Metaphysics
• • • • •
Part I: The Psychology of Understanding
In his first lecture, “Illusions of Understanding”, psychologist Philip Johnson-Laird admits that not simply language itself (per Wittgenstein) but rather the failure to understand one’s own language represents one limit of human understanding and accounts for errors in human reasoning. He employs techniques of logical reasoning and ‘mental models’ to deconstruct the multiple possibilities of different sentence compositions, demonstrating the implied possibilities that exist within seemingly simple communicative events and revealing that much of the comprehension of meaning within linguistic communication is based on ‘illusions’, assumptions of meaning that exclude certain possibilities. While on one hand enabling understanding in the first instance, these illusions are the very source of potential misunderstanding, because language can be easily exploited for manipulative purposes.
Following his first lecture, in chapter 2, ‘Models, Causation and Explanation’, Johnson-Laird describes the mind’s limited ability to identify inconsistencies in language, suggesting that this tendency both enables and limits comprehension. He frames this discussion with the idea of ‘reasoning to consistency’, the process whereby the mind reasons through an inconsistency (a problem or surprise; i.e., the real conditions of the world do not conform to expectation) by creating imaginary mental models of possibilities until a causal explanation can be reached. We give causal explanations priority over conditions of possibility, and we are seemingly unable to analyse the linguistic mechanisms that underpin notions of causality; according to Johnson-Laird, the cognitive sciences aid our understanding of these limitations.
Part II: The Embodied Mind, and How to Live with One
Linguist George Lakoff examines the relationship between embodiment and experience in his two lectures. His argument is for a notion of ‘embodied realism’ that has implications for science, philosophy, morality and also for religion (or spirituality) as a ‘this-worldly’ phenomenon. In his first lecture, ‘How the Body Shapes Thought: Thinking with an All-Too-Human Brain’, Lakoff dismisses the notion of the disembodied mind as a philosophical creation and promotes a new model of the mind, embodied and contingent on metaphor. From a retrospective discussion of the major developments in neural theory emerges his premise that the new concept of mind must be accounted for with a new experiential, embodied philosophy.
In chapter 4, ‘How to Live With an Embodied Mind: When Causation, Mathematics, Morality, the Soul and God Are Essentially Metaphorical Ideas’, Lakoff further explores the themes set forth in his first lecture regarding ‘experientialism’ or embodied realism. His thesis becomes more explicit—cognitive science is key to understanding every aspect of life because we experience everything as embodied beings. He extends his discussion to the idea of the soul, mathematics, morality, religion and God, themes linked by, on the one hand, the idea of infinity, and on the other, an immanent vision of the universe. According to Lakoff, God is always understood via metaphor, but for him, the only adequate metaphor for God is ‘God As Immanent’, present in and as every aspect of the world. Ergo, to experience God is to experience the world as fully embodied creatures.
Part III: Evolutionary Naturalism
In chapter 5, ‘A Darwinian Understanding of Epistemology’, biologist and philosopher Michael Ruse gives a brief overview of the development of evolutionary theory. His aim is to ‘sketch a Humean philosophy brought up to date by the insights of Charles Darwin and his successors’ (111) and establish the importance of Darwinism to the philosophical problem of human understanding. This first lecture is concerned primarily with issues related to epistemology, or theory of knowledge. Ruse echoes Lakoff when he says that metaphor is a significant factor to be considered in scientific and epistemological theory.
In chapter 6, ‘A Darwinian Understanding of Ethics’, Ruse shifts the discussion from epistemology to ethics. Ruse contrasts his improved version of Darwinian evolutionary ethics with traditional Social Darwinism notion of evolutionary ethics, extracting from the traditional view the notion of progress usually associated with natural selection, from which the most dubious aspects of Social Darwinism derive. In a manner again consonant with Lakoff, he argues that morality is not universal or ‘hard-wired into humans’ (146), but arises from sociality; ‘humans cooperate for … their own biological ends’ (147). He asserts that Darwinism supports the notion that ethical action begins at an individual level and that humans should, and do, care first and foremost for those in their immediate proximity (family, friends, etc.), and thereby care for unknown others.
Part IV: Must Science Validate All Knowledge?
According to the view that all knowable reality is knowable by science, human understanding is limited only insofar as scientific understanding is limited. But philosopher Lynne Rudder Baker challenges this notion, which she calls ‘scientism’. For Baker, the scientific approach is reductionistic, so necessarily limited. She instead defends the value of our unique human access to existential or experiential ‘First-Person Knowledge’ (chap. 7), which she considers an irreducible characteristic of personhood and not scientifically knowable. Applying a grammatical principle to philosophy, ‘the first-person perspective is the ability to conceive of oneself as oneself’ (167). First-person perspective enables self-consciousness, which in turn renders possible first-person knowledge.
In chapter 8, her second lecture, she argues that ‘Third-Person Knowledge’ is not reductionistic; human understanding, unlike scientific understanding, is based on what she calls ‘commonsense conception’, which is prior to theory and the assumption of science. She argues that ‘reality’ is not simply what is knowable by science but requires something else, something extra, that is not scientifically determinable. In short, our experience does not always fit into easily identifiable scientific categories. According to this formulation, first-person knowledge and third-person understanding point to that which lies beyond the realm of scientific knowing.
Part V: Metaphysics and Theology
In his first lecture, ‘The Nature and Limits of Metaphysical Understanding’ (chap. 9), the Reverend Canon Brian Hebblethwaite attempts to redeem metaphysical thinking as a possible and even necessary contribution to human understanding. He defines metaphysics as ‘holistic thinking’, the human proclivity ‘to try to make sense of and relate to each other all the main aspects of our world and our experience’ (211). He outlines the limitations of scientific thinking and argues that scientific ‘theories of everything’ (e.g., A. Einstein, S. Hawking) cannot possibly account for everything.
In chapter 10, ‘The Nature and Limits of Theological Understanding’, his second lecture and the last of the series, Hebblethwaite posits that the inadequacies of positivism are best addressed by ‘rational theology’. He understands that theology, because of its revelatory nature, goes beyond metaphysics and is beneficial to human understanding because it is able to address, however partially and with a built-in awareness of its own limitations (i.e., ‘we see through a glass darkly’), those areas of experience before which science falls silent. Hebblethwaite admits that he is attempting to defend theology as the ‘queen of the sciences’ and believes that a ‘real theory of everything’ is more likely to emerge from theology (238).
Brannon Hancock
University of Glasgow
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