Ep. 34 - Awakening from the Meaning Crisis - Sacredness: Horror, Music, and the Symbol
(Sectioning and transcripts made by MeaningCrisis.co)
A Kind Donation
Welcome back to awakening from the meaning crisis. So last time I tried to develop with you the right side of the plausibility argument I'm making, and tried to give an account of central features of human spirituality and to try not [to] use that term, therefore, in a vague, indefinite way. And then I made an argument for how Relevance Realization can explain many of the facets that are found within the normal attribution of human spirituality. And I proposed a term, “Religio”, to cover all of those aspects of spirituality that can be explained by the machinery of relevance realization. There was, of course, an important lacuna; there was something that was still missing from that account and this was the account of the Sacred. And then I propose to you, in order to avoid confusion especially post-Schleiermacher, that we should make a distinction between the metaphysical proposal of the ground or the cause of the experience of sacredness, where Schleiermacher is emphasising the experience. And then for reasons of the way my argument has unfolded, since I'm talking about the psycho-existential machinery of sacredness as opposed to the metaphysical proposal, at least initially that is where I should begin.
So I'm talking now, we began to speak about, a way of using the theoretical machinery we have developed here in order to talk about Sacredness, and we began by going to the work that we'd already talked about, about Domicide, back to the work of Giertz. We talked about [how in] Sacredness, one of the ways it functions, one of the ways we can experience it is that it functions is a meta-meaning system that affords a worldview attunement and thereby homes us against horror. But then I noted that, of course, in the Hellenistic Domicide there was not only the machinery that attempted to re-home us like the syncretic religions and, one could probably argue, also Stoicism as I've already argued. But there was also an alternative response which was the transgressive response of the Gnostics, ultimately.
And I then said that gives us an opening into another aspect of Sacredness, and this is the work of Otto and his book that, as I mentioned, was typically entitled The Idea Of The Holy, and I said a better translation would perhaps be The Experience Of The Numinous. And what Otto was proposing is that before we had a moral interpretation of holiness, there was a pre-moral view of what I'm calling sacredness, [-] or at least an aspect of the sacred of sacredness, I should say. And what Otto was pointing to was the experience of the Numinous, which is closely related to the adjective that is most applied to God, for example, in the Old Testament, which is Glorious; God is shining and overwhelming and powerful, but Glory does not carry with it any moral sense. In fact, one way of interpreting what's going on in the book of Jobe is a contrast between some of Jobe’s moral arguments about his suffering and God's response is to present his glory and how numinous he is. And so you're seeing sort of a conflict between these different aspects of holiness in Jobe. Of course, that's not all that's happening in the book of Jobe, and perhaps when I speak of Jung we'll get back to that.
But right now what I want to pick up on is this insight by Otto that a part of sacredness seems to be the experience of the numinous (writes the numinous on the board). And the numinous seems to be transgressive in important ways. In fact, it seems to be taking us into the heart of the very thing that the Giertzian model of sacredness was supposed to home us against, which is experiences that border on horror. Now Otto describes this experience of the numinous as having three central aspects to it. It is a mystery (writes mystery off of the numinous) very much in the way I argued last time; the sense that we got from Marcel of something that brings about sensibility transcendence, that sort of trajectory of transframing. And then it has two opposing poles in it which make a lot of sense, I think, given what we've built together. One is that it is deeply fascinating (writes fascinating off of mystery), it compels. So a good way [-], I think a very plausible way, of understanding this is [that this is] super-salient to you (labels fascinating with super-salient). It is really grabbing your attention, involving you, you can't pull away. So it's super-salient. And then the other is, he said, it's terrifying! It's horrifying! There's an aspect of horror to this (writes horror off of mystery).
Now I’ve got to stop for a minute. I don't want to use the word terror! It goes back to his original term, but the problem with terror is, of course, it has become deeply enmeshed with us with notions of terrorism. And I want to put that aside. I'm gonna use the word horror because it doesn't have that kind of association, but I have to now distance how I want to use this word from how it's become typically used by us.
So I [once] mentioned to you that most mystery novels and mystery movies aren't mysterious at all, that they don't have you confront mystery! They give you just a difficult problem to solve. And in that sense, they're instances of a kind of important modal confusion that is pervasive in our culture. Same thing with many horror movies! Many horror movies do not actually expose you to horror. Many horror movies actually expose you to being deeply startled with fear. So deeply startled with fear! So much of what passes for horror movies are movies that prey on our sort of ancestral fear of predation [-] where there is some monster that - although the monster points towards something and I'll come back to that, and this is [-] good work done by Jonathan Pageot on how we should think about monsters; we’ll come back to that (writes monster off horror) - and the monster is basically hidden in some way or unknown and it's preying upon people… And most of what's called horror is the surprising way in which the monster will suddenly appear and pray upon its victims, and then they get ripped apart! So you were startled: “Oh no, no. Ah…” right? And most of that is not horror! I mean, I imagine it has…/ I find those movies boring, actually!!! I understand why some people - this is just a statement of taste - I don't find them very interesting. The sort of “startle and puncture” movies don't appeal to me! And they're often enmeshed also with sort of crypto-messages about sexuality and things like that that need to be challenged!! Putting all of that aside, when I say horror, you have to…/ There's a few movies that capture it! Because horror has to do with what we talked about with respect to Giertz. Horror is when your sense of contact with reality is being challenged, undermined, where you feel you have a grasp on things and then it's slipping away. So horror, therefore, is often prototypically not associated with fear or directly with fear, it's associated with insanity or madness. And of course there is the primordial fear of becoming insane (writes madness off of horror).
Horror Out Of The Inter-Categorical
Now, the monster points to something very, very interesting. And this goes back to the work of Mary Douglas: that we often find creatures that are inter-categorical for us monstrous (writes inter-categorical off of monsters), because that's on a continuum with another important feature of things being inter-categorical. So what is meant by inter-categorical? Inter-categorical are things that don't fall into our ready-made categories and therefore we typically regard them as ‘weird’. [Douglas] talks about how they're ‘unclean’. She does an interesting discussion about [how], in the Bible, the book of Leviticus, all the animals that are unclean, they're very weird! It's a very weird collection! If you tried to find some sort of essence, like why Owls are unclean and Crocodiles are unclean and whatever, and certain birds are unclean… It doesn't make any sense! And then she goes in and argues, “Well, no, what happens is, is [-] there's ways in which people have categorized things and those categories have a certain pattern. And when that pattern is being broken then these things challenge our grip on the world!”
They challenge our grip on the world. For example, there's an idea, Douglas argues, that you should have an interconnection between a creature’s shape - it’s morphology - it’s means of locomotion and it's location, like where it lives (writes shape, locomotion and location in a triangle). So if it lives in the sea, it should swim and therefore it should have a fish shape. So you have things that are in the sea that don't seem to be swimming, like the “Crawlius” (?) Shellfish, and therefore they're kind of weird and they turn out to be unclean. Right? And then you also have this same, she argues, this same schema is applied (indicating the above triangle). Now we think, “Ooooh, those archaic ancient people…!” No, but remember, don't do that because we talked about how we also have purity codes.
We find things unclean that thwart our system of categorisation. Remember, if I take this (picks up his water bottle) and spit into it repeatedly and then swirl it around and drink it back, you're grossed out! That's unclean to you because I have this whole structural functional organization, a way of categorizing myself and my self's relationship to my body and how that's other than the environment. And then there's important boundaries that shouldn't be crossed. And when the spirit comes out of me, it becomes inter-categorical. It's me, but it's not me because it's not inside me, it's outside of me, but somehow it was produced… and ahhhhh! It's inter-categorical, it's yucky and get rid of it! So this is not a feature of ancient thought. This is a way in which we respond to things that violate our core categorical ways of making sense of the world.
Now, some of those things we just regard as yucky or gross or unclean. But if the inner-categorical thing is inter-categorical between really, really central categories, and it is represented as threatening to us, then it [-] originally invoked horror for us. So if you take a look at many horror creatures, they're prototypically inter-categorical. The Wolf man is inter-categorical between the beastial and the personal. The ghost is into categorical between the living and the dead. The vampire is also inter-categorical between the living and the dead and also between being alive in the sense of consuming and being alive in the sense of being able to be generative. Because of course the vampires consume and do not produce. And of course there's the work that Christopher Mastropietro and Filip Miscevic and I did, and Jonathan Pageau [-] independently did work on the zombie and how the zombie is an inter-categorical monster to represent our current situation, the Meaning Crisis, and you're going to see a video of Chris MasterPietro and I talking about all of that, so I won't get that into detail. So the fact that the monster is inter-categorical points [to] - and that inner-categoricalness can be on a spectrum from just “eww, yucky!” to, “AHHHHH!”, losing a grip on reality, and intelligibility, because of the deep connectedness between realness and intelligibility - this points, again, to the connection to madness and all of this points to losing a grip, losing that contact, that comprehensive grip, losing that optimal grip on reality.
An Example Of Horror From Fiction
So you can create pretty significant horror without having to do the startle and puncture moment! I want to relate one to you where I've had the most, for me, the most prototypical and salient example of an experience of horror that had nothing to do with the prototypical ‘something jumping out the shadow with sharp, pointy bits!’ I was watching Kubrick's The Shining. Many of you have probably seen it. If you haven't seen it, of course, there's been 10,000 memes about it and it's pervasive throughout popular media. And I guess my own intellectual arrogance contributed to the aesthetics of the horror. I was watching this movie - and spoilers here, but this movie has been around for a long time, so I think it's fair game - as I was watching this movie, I'm watching this character and he seems to be going mad, that Jack Nicholson character, and that in and of itself is very interesting; it’s of course evocative of all of this (board). And then I'm getting, “Oh, right… Stephen King has some deep criticisms of alcoholism! And so this is a very extended metaphor for the descent through alcoholism into madness!” and then I was patting myself on my back, I get this movie, this movie is just a symbolic way of talking about alcoholism and everything. And he's hearing voices in his head and that's a clear sense of madness. And I had it all well-structured; well in-hand, as we say, and then there's a scene where [-] his wife actually traps Jack Nicholson inside some sort of pantry and locks it from the outside. And then I remember coming to a full stop and I said, “Well, what's going to happen now? She’s trapped him! He's locked in. That's it!” Then the voices are talking to him in his head and I'm sort of dismissing that because “yeah, yeah, he's mad. He's going to talk to the voices! But so what?” and the voices in his head or sort of chiding him and, you know, “what are you doing? How'd you let it get to this…” and I'm going, “Yeah, yeah, you’re mad and you're going to spiral into insanity. Great, great and everything!” And then the voice would say, “Okay, it's time to go!” And then the voice to say, “Now we're going to let you out!” And then they open the door from the outside, the voices in his head!! And a chill went down my spine because I realized, “Oh, I'm in a much different world than I thought I was in!!” I thought I had this completely down. And no, no, these voices have an independent reality and there is something else going on here. Now, nothing startling was happening. All they were doing was opening the door so he could get out, but it was an absolute chill of horror going through me [-].
And that's the most profound experience of horror I've ever had in a movie precisely because what had happened there was I went from being out here, looking at all of this to, “I don't know what's going on!” And I was suddenly participating in his madness because I didn't know what was going on. And I was losing a grip on this situation and there were forces at work here that I didn't understand! That’s horror. Okay. That's horror. And, I think there's situations that bring people into genuine horror, but I think it's much rarer than we realize. All right, so given that (inter-categorical discussion), and like I said, we will return to talk about this (monster) later… Given the sense of horror as being the polar extreme of this continuum of the weirdness, the eeriness, the yuckiness of the inter-categorical; the spaces in our grip on reality, through which things can slip. We can return to this (horror).
An Example Of Horror From Every Day Life
So the numinous is super salient. There's almost something like a flow state in that we're being drawn into it. But it also has with it, aspects of horror. It shakes at the structure of our worldview. Now you say, “Wow!! Like, what's an example of this?” Okay. So here's an example of where I think people brush up against the numinous, and it's fairly widespread so many of you will have encountered it. It's one that I find, I guess, annoying because I find it dangerous!
So this happens, you're driving home and there's been an accident on the highway. And people are slowing down. It's very dangerous to slow down. Everybody knows you shouldn't slow down like that because it's dangerous to slow down because the chances are you're going to cause another accident, which does in fact frequently happen! But nevertheless, people feel compelled to slow down. They are fascinated by this because they hope to see something horrifying! Not just disgusting; they're hoping that they will see death! That they'll somehow get a confrontation with this. And that of course is horrifying because death has the capacity to… the confrontation with the threat of death, the presence of death, has the possibility to completely sever your grip on reality. Literally, in fact! But they can't look away! But if they see something, they have the potential of being very unpleasantly horrified! But of course, there's something also missing in this because they can't actually see death! Right? They can see the fact of death, in the sense of the result of something or someone dying. But that won't actually put them into something we've already discussed; that won't actually give them what they want: a grip on the mystery of death, the phenomenological mystery of death. And that tells you something! Wonder and awe have us open up to mystery. But if the mystery becomes overwhelming, if it is causes us to lose any potential sense, any sense of our potential ability to get an insight or an understanding that typically comes with wonder… Awe is sort of liminal, but with horror, it's like, “ahhhh” (gasping) and it's expanding so fast and “ahhhhh!” (gasping again), I'm getting overwhelmed so fast, I'm being forced to accommodate so fast, this is like the absolute worst culture shock, and I'm experiencing horror!
Horror From a Fascination-Like Flow State
We can think of horror [as] when…/ notice what you've got here (indicates fascination/super-salient), you've got all the indications of flow, right? Or something like flow, at least the beginning of it, where you're getting drawn in [to] this accelerating loop. Something like it at least. It's super salient to you, but it's super salient - and this is why I'm hesitating to just call it straight out flow - it’s super salient, but not in the fact that you're deeply coupled; it's super salient in the way that you're seeking to be deeply coupled. And your machinery is going faster and faster, but it's not actually getting a purchase. Because what's happening is you're getting horrified by mystery. Now it's like, “Wow! That’s… that's an experience of the numinous?” And if you read parts of the Bible - or like, or you can read other literature too, but the Bible of course is prototypical for a lot of these people, these researchers like Otto - like there's passages in the Old Testament in which God is like this! Right? …it’s just weird and strange and horrifying aspects of God! Fascinating, super-salient and you're drawn in and it's like - like I said, I don't want to call it anti-flow because anti-flow is depression - but it's like the shadow of flow, you're trying to (GASPS), and you're getting drawn in and all the machinery of coupling is speeding up to try and get what it can get, which is a stable relationship. And so wonder… you don't get wonder… you might not even get awe! If it's too much, it can pass into horror.
Awe, Bordering On Horror And Our Ultimate Insignificance
So it's plausible that this is one of the ways of interpreting certain, even, commands in the Bible. [-] It's often translated as you're supposed to fear God. This doesn't make any sense for a lot of reasons because God is prototypically not the object that you can run away from or fight. Like, your fear would be absurd! It doesn't make any sense. But I think a better account of this is [that] you're supposed to have Awe for God. And notice how [awe] is the basis of this word Awesome. But it's also the basis of this word, awful, right? Because it borders - awe borders on horror! So there's a sense of the experience of sacredness that is supposed to take us to the very horizon of our intelligibility. The very, very precipice of our ability to make sense and make meaning of the world. It’s supposed to take us, I would say, it's supposed to draw us in and the hope is not to just throw us into horror, but to take us towards horror until we experience that boundary between awe and horror, where we are forced into a situation of confrontation with a demand to change. A demand to change who and what we are. And in that sense, this will overlap with the higher States of consciousness in that this carries with it a sense of being terrifically real - and I mean that, ‘terrifically real’ - and that it is putting a demand on us to accommodate, to expand our capacity for framing that it is pushing us to our very, very limits. And the aspect of horror is the sense - a stronger word is needed here! - the realization that we are indeed finally, ultimately, limited. That no matter how much we grow, we can't grow enough to encompass the mysteries that we are confronting. So the point of the horror, I think, is to get us not only to grow, but to remember that our growth will always be the growth of a mortal, limited being. A being that is always caught up in relevance realization.
So, notice how I've been pushing how much this is taking you to the deepest powerful accommodation, the deepest opening up, right? Forcing tremendous change on you. Varying who you are. This is also an aspect of the sacred. Now think about how you can relate [to] this on the continuum that we've been talking about. This is the ultimate frame breaking! But this isn't just breaking any frame. This is trans-frame breaking! This is breaking your capacity for framing, or at least taking it to the very, as I said, the very limits where you are forced into a trajectory of trans-framing that is also acknowledging that you are ultimately insufficient. It's supposed to, in this - and I'm using this in a technical sense - it is supposed to humiliate you. The problem for us is that we can only hear this negatively! But of course, humility - a deep, deep appreciation of one's inescapable limitations - is part of, I've argued, the function of horror. It is to bring you to that state of accommodation, maximal accommodation, while also deeply reminding you - sati - that you can never become anything beyond a finite meaning. It is to prevent inflation. It is to prevent you ever assuming that you are more than you can ultimately be. So it's a deep kind of reminding that's put at the heart of this p[-?]…/ Look, if I could just sort of accommodate in wonder and awe, there's a temptation that I would inflate and think “I am…” (gestures with opening arms). (Wipes board clean)
The High Order Opponent Processing Of Sacredness
Now, [the numinous therefore] puts you into contact, confrontation with something that is much greater than yourself, and also that has an existence, by definition, independent of you precisely because of the way that it can threaten you. So notice what we've got here. We've got over here… (Making a mistake between Sacred/Sacredness Vervaeke says: “Sorry, I keep slipping on that - it’s just the way language drives you, eh? ‘I feel we're not getting rid of God because we still believe in grammar’!”) Okay, so sacredness (writes Sacredness at the top of the board). Over here (down to the left, off of Sacredness) we have Worldview Attunement, and it's very clear why that would be regarded as sacred - this homes us against horror (writes this below Worldview Attunement). But we've got this other notion of sacredness, which is the numinous (writes this below and to the right of Sacredness), which is designed to do the opposite! It's designed to expose us, to fascinate us with horror (writes these below Numinous). So over here (on the left) we have, basically, what I'm going to argue is meta-assimilation (writes this below the list on the left). We had that meta-meaning that is designed to get everything to fit together, to belong together. The agent and the arena fit together. But then you have the opponent process (draws a double ended arrow between the left and the right), the opponent process. And this is, as I've already argued, this is meta-accommodation (writes this below the list on the right).
Sacredness is doing a very powerful at - not at the level even of your individual projects or problems - this is doing it at the level of your existential being in the world. It is doing higher order relevance realization. It is pushing the machinery of relevance realization, again, down through all of the levels of your knowing into your existential modes, into the depths, the primordial depths of the agent-arena relationship, and then it's blowing it apart, setting it in motion with opponent processing, that's doing powerful, powerful, higher order relevance realization. Sacredness, I think, is a deep way in which we are seriously playing with - and now the seriousness is at the level of awe and horror and also home, which is also deeply serious to you - we are seriously playing with the machinery of relevance realization and pushing it towards a greater and greater development of optimising it, improving it, enhancing it.
So if that's right, if sacredness is the experience of this machinery (gestures full diagram on the board), as opposed to either one of its poles (left side or right), [then] that tells us again about a deep functionality that what we're doing in sacredness is we're playing with the machinery of relevance realization in order to try and create states of mind, states of body, states of interaction with the world that optimise - in a comprehensive and profound manner - the machinery of relevance realization, our connectedness to the world, to ourselves and to each other.
This would, for example, explain why music is so deeply associated with sacredness. I mean, music isn't about anything, not in a conceptual referential sense! Nevertheless, as Nietzsche said, “Life would be a mistake without music” because in music we are playing just with the machinery of salience landscaping, just with all of this machinery in a powerful way, for no other reason than for its own sake! We try to get into a flow state in which we are - just for its own sake - seriously playing with this machinery. And that's why music is such a pivotal way in which we try to convey and represent The Sacred, and why music strikes us so perspectively, in such a participatory way. We don't just think about music [-] it insinuates its way into our perspective of salience landscape and we embody it, the rhythms and what's happening in the music becomes sewn into our processes of co-identification; the way the world as an arena is disclosed to me, and the way my agency is being structured are being deeply transformed by music. One of the great difficulties with our culture, of course - and I suppose we need to do work on this, how it contributes to the meaning crisis - is the degree to which we have trivialised music and the degree to which we have severed it from, at least explicitly and consciously, from it's connection to The Sacred. I think why many people still are so deeply dependent on music, especially when they're going through any transformative period in their life, is precisely because of the way it puts them back in touch and helps them remember, at least intuitively, some of this machinery of seriously playing with the higher order relevance realization machinery of sacredness.
Now that opens up something that we need to talk about because I'm now invoking how we can use something that's - and we're gonna have to do work on this - something that's symbolic, like music, in order to like play, in order to activate, accentuate and play with this machinery in a powerfully transformative manner. And of course Religions, which have these aspects to them, also are rich with the symbolic machinery that is designed to activate and seriously play with this. So I want to talk about the relationship or the role that symbols have in our experience of sacredness. (Cleans the board)
So the important thing is how we're going to use this word, and ‘symbol’, originally means to put two things together (writes Symbol - Sign on the board). And I want to distinguished this - and the talk that I did with Chris that you'll see on one of the talks also distinguishes - between a symbol and a sign. So I'm not going into great detail here; this is sort of central and semiotic. Because we use this term (symbol) in multiple ways, like we talk about abstract symbolic thought, but then we talk about the cross as an important religious symbol and we can get very quickly confused! And so a sign refers (writes refers off of Sign)… So, by looking at it, we can look through it to look at something else. So I can use this (draws a heart) as a sign for love, because when you see this, it helps you to think of love. But this doesn't actually exemplify! Symbols refer (writes refer off of symbol), but more importantly, they exemplify (adds exemplify to refer under symbol) in a particular way: they exemplify by getting you to participate in that to which they refer (adds participation off of refer/exemplify). They're going to invoke, of course, participatory knowing because they have to do, ultimately, with getting down to the machinery of the agent arena, participatory relationship.
So compare this (the heart) as a sign for love, and this (symbol side) is something - as I said that Chris and I did - [a-likened] to kissing someone, because kissing someone doesn't just make you think of love that actually gets you to participate. It activates and gets the machinery…/ kissing is, and I mean this, carefully, is a serious play with the machinery of the agent arena relationship so that we can participate in a reciprocal relationship with another human being, where [-] there's reciprocal realization occurring between us; we can together remember the being mode, et cetera. So there's a difference there.
Bringing Metaphor Back In
I want to try and unpack this a little bit more. Symbols do this sort of double job (indicating refer/exemplify [by] participation). And they do this by having at their core, a metaphor (writes metaphor off of participation). Now, we’ve got to slow down here because this is also something that needs to be understand a little bit more carefully. And we've talked about this before! About [how] the word metaphor is itself a metaphor! It means ‘to carry over’ or ‘carry across’. What I'm doing in a metaphor is I have two different domains (draws a circle and a square) and I want to see this domain (the square) differently. So I basically look through - this was, at least, the theory of Black - I look through this thing (circle) to look at this (square). So I'm saying that ‘Sam is a pig’! Here’s Sam (the square), here's a pig (the circle), I put on sort of ‘pig glasses’ - sorry for that - and then I look at Sam differently (draws an arrow through the circle to the square) and the salience topography of Sam is altered - Ortony talks about this in salience imbalance - and that reconfiguration of what I find salient in Sam allows me to see Sam differently. I get an insight into Sam. And of course I'm not actually claiming that Sam is a pig and I'm not just comparing and saying, Sam was like a pig. I'm doing this act of looking through and seeing this and thereby getting an insight into it in an important way. That's fine. Okay, now we have to understand, first of all, how pervasive and profound metaphor is (writes these off of metaphor) because we have a tendency to think of it, again, as largely ornamental! Our culture is so beset, comprehensively, by patterns of trivialisation! Again, and again, again, you hear me say, we have trivialised this, we have trivialised that!
Okay, we've talked about this, but I want to bring it back and develop it a little bit, how much of our thinking - and this goes to the work of Lakoff and Johnson, but I'll criticise it in a minute, and also somebody who I'm going to talk about later, Barfield - that we don’t realize how much of our cognition, our ways of thinking and interacting with the world, are being structured by metaphor. So to use an example “I’m halfway through this lecture” as if I was moving through a space, but I hope you get my point (holds up a bottle (half full?)). Or at least see what I'm saying (points to his eyes). But you might not be able to, because some of this stuff I'm saying is really hard (presses down firmly on the desktop), it's really hard! It's really hard to get my point (picks up a pen and taps the pointy end), but I hope you ‘understand’ me! It used to be unterstand, by the way, stand within, but we changed it to understand, stand under. It's interesting. Even words that you don't realize are metaphorical, have a metaphorical origin like interest! Remember this? ‘Inter esse’, to be within something? So there were often…/ see we're much more naturally poetic than we realize! We are constantly trying to do this! Use one thing, look through one thing at another.
Now I have some criticisms of Lakoff and Johnson because they argue that what it is, is [that] I have some embodied practice, and then that just gets projected up into abstract thought (details this on the board: ‘embodied’ UP via ‘projected’ to ‘abstract thought’). And so one of their prototypical examples is [that] we'll say things like “he attacked my argument!” And that's supposed to be from the hallmark of abstract thought that's from argumentation where we're at our most rational, but we're actually using this word ‘attacked’ which goes back [down] to physical assault (has now detailed attacked DOWN to physical assault). And the idea is we take what we have [DOWN] here and we project it [UP] onto here (physical assault up to attacked). I think this notion of projection is too simplistic. But this is the basic idea: I know what this is because it's embodied physical interaction (does lots of moving with his arms); it's participatory, right? I know what it is to attack somebody (throws some punches) and then I use that, I sort of just project that onto the abstract conceptual domain. And that's how I get “he attacked my argument”! This reminds me of a point in Barfield. Barfield says you read in the old texts, and they'll use words like pneuma - which stands either for wind or spirit - and we can only hear it one way or the other and that's why we break it into two words. I sort of get what Barfield is saying here, but the point is [that] we use this word (attack) and we move between these without realising it: “we attacked the castle” [and] “he attacked my argument”, and those aren't the same, but we may actually not notice that we're using them differently.
Now why do I say that? Well, this is work that I published - a couple articles with John Kennedy - where we said this simple model of just projecting (up) doesn't seem quite right! Because this (attacked), for example, carries with it, I can say “I attack the castle” or “I assaulted the castle!” Right? But if I say “I assaulted his argument”, it's like, what?? What does that mean? That's weird!! The near synonym doesn't transfer! And notice the reverse [starting with] abstract thought and instead of saying, “I attacked his argument”, I can say “I criticised his argument”. But if I say, “ah, let's criticise the castle”, you don’t… what? WHAT? That sounds like a weird Monte Python routine!!
See, what I'm trying to show you is [that] there isn't a simple sort of identity relation, we didn't just project this (indicates relation between attacked and physical assault)! And it's not that we're just sort of trapped between two meanings. We seem to clearly have a sense of this (attacked) that points downward towards the physical assault and then points upwards - if you'll allow me these metaphors! - towards the conceptual. Notice also something else. Notice the [four] things I used earlier: I used “Did you see my point?”, “Do you grasp what I'm saying?”, “Do you understand it?”, “Do you get it?” Okay? (Writes these four things out together) These are very different interactions! These are very different things! There’s seeing, there's understanding, there's getting and there's grasping (physically demonstrates these four different things). And yet all of those independently converge towards making something intelligible, right? (Draws four converging lines up from these different things to a common circle) The act of making something intelligible - what selected these four very different things and drew them up to their common converged meaning (the circle)? See, what I'm trying to show you is [that] it's not simply that this (physical assault) gets projected up. There's also something up here (draws a similar circle beside attacked) that's constraining and acting downward, helping us select which of all of our embodied existence we are going to use for our more abstract, conceptual topics. So why is that important? Because I think that points towards a different way of understanding what the metaphor is doing. There, of course, is an element of projecting - if projecting means to throw - but I think there's something much more complicated and interesting going on in a metaphor that isn't simply projection, which is of course itself a metaphor.
So I think that symbols are going to tap into these deeper kinds of metaphors, not just the metaphors that are the ornamentations of language. These are the metaphors - these more profound metaphors - that are structuring our cognition and I'm trying to point out to you that they have not only a bottom up emergence; they have a top down emanation going on in them [too]. There's a sense in which both sides are interacting in a powerful way. We need a much more dynamic account of what's at work in metaphor. So let's build towards that dynamic account and we've already gained something that symbols are going to be making use of these profound metaphors - the metaphors that are not just metaphors of speech, but are structuring the way we are making sense, making meaning of the world.
Holding In Mind
Now, one important point of these kinds of metaphors that triggers on the participation gets into the profundity, but is doing something with it is one of the jobs of these metaphors is to hold in mind. So let me give you an example of this. We care about justice. We really do! It's important to us. Our culture in fact is really wrestling with what “does justice mean” and “how do we best serve it? How do we best realize?” But that means you need to be able to reflect on justice. You need to be able to contemplate it, to think about it. If you're going to think about it - and not just emote or assert about it - if you're going to think about it, you need to hold it in mind! But how do you hold it in mind? If I were to ask you, without repeating the word justice, hold justice in mind. Do it! Hold it! What are you doing? You might be holding sort of a prototypical instance. But when I do this, and I do this repeatedly with my class, what people tell me is, well, when they want to contemplate justice so [that] they can reflect on it and get clear about what it means to them, they often invoke a symbol. They invoke the symbol of the woman, blindfolded, holding a sword, [-] holding the scales. So one of the things you notice is that this of course is a profound metaphor. We use the notions of balance all throughout our talk about justice. We also use the sword as deciding, cutting, right? But let's stick with the balance. This allows us to hold justice in mind. That's like stop! Pause. If that's all a symbol was doing that in and of itself is such a valuable thing! We need to pause and appreciate! If I can't relate to justice in a participatory fashion where I can engage in it and I'm trying to internalise it and I'm trying to get clearer about it, I can't do any of that unless I can activate it and hold it in mind. And I need a symbol to do that. Well, the symbol is metaphorical! Justice isn't literally a scale, a balance!
What's going on here and how does it plug into where I'm trying to argue? There's something more than just projection going on. And this gets me to a notion that I've mentioned to you before: Exaptation. [There’s] really, really important work - you gotta read his book - by Michael Anderson (“After Phrenology” - Neural Reuse and the Interactive Brain) on this. This is the idea that your brain is a self-exaptation machine, not only across species evolutionarily, but more recently in his work within a brain and its own development. So to remember the example, my tongue has been exapted for speech. It has a structural functional organization for doing a particular set of tasks, but of course it has - remember, the robot and the battery? - it has all kinds of side effects. And those side effects are an ongoing reservoir of sets of capacities that I can tap into and make a new structural, functional organization to do a new thing, which is what I'm doing right now. I'm speaking. So the tongue has been exapted for speech. And what he's arguing is that a lot of what we see in our cognition is what he calls circuit reuse. Circuits that have been used for one thing get reused, can get exapted in the way I've just described by reconfiguring their structural functional organization so that side effects become central effects. And what you do is you get a new machine, a new capacity created that way.
So let's try and think about this. We've got a clear example in the cerebellum. The cerebellum originally evolved for helping you to keep your physical balance. And what it does is it takes information from many different sense modalities and is constantly looking for how to find patterns of contingency, patterns of relationship between what's happening in my vision, what's happening in my body. And it's really helping to do all this sophisticated coordination and smoothing out so that they start to coordinate together much better. That's your cerebellum. It's centrally involved in your balance. But you know what you've done? The cerebellum has been exapted to… It's [-] used not only for finding balance between my seeing and my moving, it’s been exapted to find deeper coordination between any different areas of domain in your brain. The cerebellum also allows you to integrate your vision with your working memory so that you can do visual imagery. Now let's put this together carefully. You've got this machinery of exaptation, you've got balance, and now what you're doing when you call up the balance idea, is you're actually - notice your cerebellum has been exapted up to helping to manage massively complex contingencies between variables - you know what you have to do to be a just person? You have to know how to balance. You have to optimise the relationship between, you have to pick up on and coordinate and smooth out the complex interaction between multiple variables.
That's justice. You know what you can do if you invoke balance and don't just talk about it, but try and participate in it? You can actually do the reverse of this. You can go back through balance and trigger, activate… You can go from justice through balance back to activating the machinery of the cerebellum (writes, top down, Justice => balance => activating the machinery of the cerebellum).
Normally I am looking through all of that machinery at something. But what I can do with the symbol is “No, no! I want to actually, sort of retrace, reactivate, go back through exaptation and activate the machinery of balance so that I can then use that machinery in order to get an optimal grip on this other domain, which is justice!” See this isn't just simple projection. There is not only a projecting up, there is an emanating back down. You're also reversing and going down and trying to reactivate this machinery in important ways. There's a top down guidance that is intersecting with the bottom up projection. And so the symbol is, in that sense, deeply participatory.
You are trying to participate in this activation of the very cognitive machinery that is used both in participating in balance - you don't just look at balance, you have to be balanced perspectively [and] participatory - and then taking that machinery into being just, having your perspectival and participatory machinery aligned in a certain way. That's what the symbol is doing for you. It is deeply participatory. It allows you to hold in mind and then look back through to activate, and then bring that back up to have insight - participatory and perspectival insight - into something like justice. We're going to talk more next time about The Symbol and how it relates to our experience of Sacredness.
Thank you very much for your time and attention.
Episode 34 - Notes
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The Idea of the Holy
"Otto and his book that, as I mentioned, was typically entitled The Idea Of The Holy"
“The Idea of the Holy”: An Inquiry into the Non-Rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and its Relation to the Rational is a book by the German theologian and philosopher Rudolf Otto, published in 1917. It argues that the defining element of the holy is the experience of a phenomenon which Otto calls the numinous.
Book mentioned: The Idea of Holy - Buy Here
"The monster points to something very, very interesting. And this goes back to the work of Mary Douglas"
Dame Mary Douglas, DBE FBA was a British anthropologist, known for her writings on human culture and symbolism, whose area of speciality was social anthropology. Douglas was considered a follower of Émile Durkheim and a proponent of structuralist analysis, with a strong interest in comparative religion.
"Metaphor - this was, at least, the theory of Black"
Max Black was a British-American philosopher, who was a leading figure in analytic philosophy in the years after World War II. He made contributions to the philosophy of language, the philosophy of mathematics and science, and the philosophy of art, also publishing studies of the work of philosophers such as Frege.
Ortony talks about this in salience imbalance
Andrew Ortony - Google Scholar
Lakoff and Johnson
“Metaphors We Live By” is a book by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson published in 1980. The book suggests metaphor is a tool that enables people to use what they know about their direct physical and social experiences to understand more abstract things like work, time, mental activity and feelings.
Book Mentioned: Metaphors We Live By - Buy Here
Arthur Owen Barfield (9 November 1898 – 14 December 1997) was a British philosopher, author, poet, critic, and member of the Inklings.
"Well, this is work that I published - a couple articles with John Kennedy"
Kennedy, J. M. and Vervaeke, J. (2008) How does body ground mind?
Michael Anderson “After Phrenology” - Neural Reuse and the Interactive Brain
A proposal for a fully post-phrenological neuroscience that details the evolutionary roots of functional diversity in brain regions and networks.The computer analogy of the mind has been as widely adopted in contemporary cognitive neuroscience as was the analogy of the brain as a collection of organs in phrenology.
Book Mentioned: After Phrenology: Neural Reuse and the Interactive Brain - Buy Here
Other helpful resources about this episode:
Notes on Bevry
Additional Notes on Bevry