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Theological Ethics and Neuroscience: On Morality and the Embodied Mind

Research project This study focuses on the possible implications of recent results from neuroscience might have for theological ethics. Specifically, we want to investigate influential theory developed by the linguist George Lakoff and the philosopher Mark Johnson.

The mind is embodied and the nature of this embodiment shapes, Lakoff & Johnson claim, how humans reason. Our thinking is, for example, irreducibly metaphorical. If their account is true the dominant modern theories in philosophical and theological ethics are, they say, untenable. We want to investigate how, if at all, results from neuroscience and cognitive science can be used for understanding the nature of ethics and rationality; the possible implications of their theory for theological ethics; and the implication for our understanding of human freedom, rationality, and dignity.

Project overview

Project period:

2005-07-01 2009-12-31

Participating departments and units at Umeå University

Department of Historical, Philosophical and Religious studies

Project description

The human being as the ”image of God” is a central metaphor in the Christian tradition that implies that the human being is created as a free and therefore morally responsible being. In the Greek tradition – another large tradition that has formed Western society – there is similar emphasis on human rationality that connotes moral responsibility.

It has often been argued in twentieth century biblical scholarship that both Hebrew and early Christian thinking were basically non-dualistic. A dualistic body-soul position in Christianity became dominant only through the strong influence of Platonic and Neoplatonic thought, though this was always in tension with and modified by the Christian doctrine of resurrection. Thomas Aquinas assumed instead Aristotle’s idea of soul as the form of the body and coupled this to a general hylomorphic metaphysics, i.e., humans are composed of corporeal and spiritual matter. These positions were replaced by Descartes by a radical substance dualism that then, misleadingly, often is read back into Plato. When the Christian hope of resurrection was questioned during the Enlightenment, the idea of immortality of the soul gained a new centrality in Christian thought.

In recent decades neuroscience has created an acute challenge to the traditional views in Western societies (e.g. Gazzaniga 1999, 2000; Libet 2000). Although this new body of knowledge does not necessarily lead to reductionism (e.g., Freeeman 1995, 2001), claims like the following by Francis Crick are not uncommon: “You are nothing but a pack of neurones” and “you are … no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules” (Crick 1993).
The main reason for defending some form of body-mind dualism is that it seems necessary for human rationality, freedom and morality. The issues raised by recent claims in the fields of neuroscience and cognitive science are therefore acute not only for religion and theology but also for philosophy, in particular in the areas of epistemology and ethics. Most philosophers even from before Plato have assumed that our thinking transcends the body, that we can understand how thinking functions separately from understanding the function of the body. This is abundantly clear in modern philosophy from Descartes to recent analytical philosophy. Furthermore, a dogma in modern ethics has been the strict distinction between the empirical and the normative formulated by Hume as the impossibility of deriving the “ought” from the “is” and reinforced by More as the “naturalist fallacy”. Much recent cognitive science has questioned both this distinction and the disembodied nature of reason that lies behind it.

In this study we want to investigate the possible implications of recent results in neuro­science for theological ethics. Our starting point will be an influential theory claimed to be based on modern neuroscience and developed by the linguist George Lakoff and the philosopher Mark Johnson. Lakoff & Johnson are interesting for several reasons: (1) they are influential and controversial, (2) their theory is non-reductionistic and incorporates social, cultural, and historical factors, (3) they deal extensively with philosophy and ethics, and also to some extent with religion and Christian theology, (4) their theories can be applied to other areas than philosophy and ethics (e.g., politics, see Lakoff 1996, and mathematics, see Lakoff & Núñes 2000), and (5) their claim that our thinking to a large extent is metaphorical makes their theory especially interesting for theology and theological ethics.

Lakoff & Johnson begin their book Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenges to Western Thought (1999) with following three statements:

* The mind is inherently embodied.
* Thought is mostly unconscious.
* Abstract concepts are largely metaphorical

That the ‘mind is in the body’ means that our way of thinking, our conceptual structures, is dependent on our basic sensory and motor systems. Moreover, most of our thought-operations operate below cognitive awareness. To understand even a simple statement our brain has to perform many and extremely complex processes. These processes are to a large extent not accessible for conscious awareness and control. A crucial instance of this is that our thought to a large extent is metaphorical, which has to do with the projection in our brains of “activation patterns from sensorimotor areas to higher cortical areas.” (Lakoff & Johnson 1999:77) What they call “primary metaphors” have their sources in sensorimotor domains such as vision, size, bodily orientation, space, motion, exertion of force, object manipulation, touch, and so on. These metaphors are instantiated in early childhood via neural connections and, once formed, are used for forming complex metaphors and metaphor systems. Hence, human thought is inescapably and irreducibly metaphorical and at most a small part is literal and propositional. “Those metaphors are realized in our brains physically and are mostly beyond our control. They are consequences of the nature of our brains, our bodies, and the world we inhabit.” (Lakoff & Johnson 1999:59)

Lakoff & Johnson portray a radical conflict between the knowledge acquired within the fields of neuroscience and the stance of modern philosophy, e.g. Cartesianism, Kan­tia­nism, utilitarianism and recent Rational Choice Theory, phenomenology, and analytical philosophy. These types of modern philosophies all tend to assume that one can study thought separately from the body, and that this is necessary for defending rationality. Lakoff & Johnson do not only contradict this claim, they also assert that these philosophies in themselves indeed are metaphorical. Likewise, Lakoff & Johnson are critical of poststructuralism and various relativistic theories since they assume the same view of rationality and then just deny its existence.

According to Lakoff & Johnson, modern ethical theory has not only accepted the idea of the “naturalist fallacy”, the dominant theories have at least until recently been either Kantian (or post-Kantian) or utilitarian and are thus inadequate. In contrast to these theories Lakoff & Johnson try to show that our moral concepts are metaphorically structured, that the basic metaphors that shape our moral reasoning are rather few, and that they “are grounded in the nature of our bodies and social interactions” (Lakoff & Johnson 1999:291). Moral concepts are thus not arbitrary, but built on “elementary aspects of human well-being – health, wealth, strength, balance, protection, nurturance, and so on.” (Lakoff & Johnson 1999:292). The concept of justice depends, for instance, on the understanding of well-being as wealth and moral accounting (i.e., justice as ‘balanced moral books’), and the “ethics of care” has to do with nurturance. On a more speculative note they discuss what binds these metaphors together in a moral system and propose that different moralities build on different family models (Lakoff 1996). Importantly, because these moral metaphors are based in elementary moral experience they have certain universality across culture and time. However, how they are developed can vary significantly. This theory thus can incorporate historical contingency and cultural difference, without ending up in relativism. From the metaphorical structure of thought follows that moral deliberation cannot be seen primarily as a question of applying general principles to specific situations. It is more a question of “exploring possible metaphorical and metonymic extensions from prototypical cases to nonprototypical cases.” (Johnson 1998:695.) Moral principles are in such a view the “idealized strategies” of a tradition deve­loped over time. Accordingly, how a tradition has organized its metaphorical structure deter­mi­nes how moral issues are framed and thus how these are reasoned about.

Lakoff & Johnson also claim that the ideal of dispassionate reasoning is unrealistic. It assumes a view of reason as a faculty separate from both emotion and will that is untenable. Our reasoning is always also affective. Referring to the studies of how brain damage impacts people’s reasoning by Damasio (1994), they claim that that what we describe as emotion is a necessary part of a rational moral deliberation: “Real human reason is embodied, mostly imaginative and metaphorical, largely unconscious and emotionally engaged.” (Lakoff & Johnson 1999:536.)


Specific Objectives of the Study

The above short exposition of the theory developed by Lakoff & Johnson does not even begin to do it justice. We clearly recognize, however, that the issues brought forth by Lakoff & Johnson have potential implications for a variety of fields fundamental to our understanding of the human nature and our views on rationality, freedom and morality. As such it deserves considerations from a multitude of starting points. We will address several of these but focus our attention to the issues listed below. Moreover, we intend to report our results in suitable international refereed journals.

§ How, if at all, can results from neuroscience and cognitive science be used for understanding the nature of ethics?
Lakoff & Johnson extensively draw support from data gathered within fields outside their own immediate fields of expertise, i.e., from neuroscience and cognitive science. Moreover, data used to support their claims were in many cases compiled and analyzed in a context quite different from the perspective of the nature of rationality, freedom, ethics, etc. Many philosophers would argue that these empirical results have little relevance for how to understand these philosophical issues (e.g. Swinburne 1997 and Held 1996). In short, there are good reasons to analyse both the neuroscientific basis of their theory and the validity of claiming that empirical data amassed within the natural sciences provide support for ethical theories and concrete ethical positions. Moreover, even a cursory reading of Lakoff & Johnson makes it evident that their reasoning is sometimes astonishingly simplistic when they discuss concrete ethical issues.

§ What are the implications of neuroscience for our views on theological ethics?
It is clear that the results of modern neuroscience and cognitive science – as interpreted by Lakoff & Johnson – make some ethical theories untenable. The many theological ethical programs that closely identify with those theories obviously have the same problems. But importantly, most modern moral theories are viewed by Lakoff & Johnson as just secular versions of the Judeo-Christian Moral Law Theory (which is most easily seen in Kantianism). As a general statement this is misleading and depends on the reading of the Judeo-Christian traditions in the light of modern and especially Kantian conceptions of ethics. Moreover, there are alternative views in modern moral philosophy and theological ethics that have some affinity with how Lakoff & Johnson describe ethics. Lakoff & Johnson themselves use, e.g., the Thomism of Alasdair MacIntyre (1981, 1999). The ethical perspectives of a number of influential Christian ethicists like Stanley Hauerwas (2001), James Wm. McClendon (2002), Charles Pinches (2002) and others in certain respects come remarkably close to Lakoff & Johnson. They stress, for example, the embodied and social nature of moral (and all) thinking, its metaphorical and narrative nature, as well as the fact that our reasoning and our affections never can be radically separated. They describe ethical reasoning in terms of analogical reasoning from prototypical to nonprototypical cases and moral principles as abstractions of culturally and socially specific moral practices. They also claim that more important for ethics than (also important) principles are the way situations are viewed and described, which in its turn is dependent on the narratives and metaphors a tradition has historically formed. One may also ask about the possible connections between the theory Lakoff & Johnson and virtue ethics, which the mentioned ethicists also defend. It is obvious that there are some striking affinities between this type of theological ethics and Lakoff & Johnson. Why is this? On the other hand, how should one understand the relationship between specifically Christian metaphors and narratives and the more general theory of the formation of metaphors that Lakoff & Johnson propose? Although there is no necessary conflict here, the relationship has to be worked out. In a similar way, one may ask which types of natural law theory are possible given the results Lakoff & Johnson describe. Many forms are directly incompatible, but not all. MacIntyre’s Thomism may, for instance, be described as one compatible type (see further Porter 1999 and Cromartie 1997.) One may also ask whether it is possible to formulate “Divine Command Ethics” in a way that makes it less vulnerable to the criticism of Lakoff & Johnson (cf., for instance, the sophisticated theory developed in Mouw 1990).

§ If one accepts the idea of an ‘embodied mind’, what are the implications for our understanding of rationality, moral truth, human dignity, and freedom?
It may seem obvious that a proper view on the workings of the brain and the thought processes should influence our view on rationality, moral truth, human dignity, and freedom. But how? As we have seen, many philosophers deny the relevance or think that a defence of human freedom and rationality requires some form of body-mind dualism. However, if one accepts the relevance, how should one then talk about human dignity, rationality, and freedom? Can one still talk about moral truth? We think so, so does Lakoff & Johnson. These issues will be interwoven with the other two.