IBRI Research Report No. 48 (1999)
Hope, Language, & the Brain
David P. Hoover
Copyright © 1999 by David P. Hoover. All rights reserved.
|The worldviews of both eastern mysticism and western secular humanism deny the meaningfulness of cosmic (or eschatological) hope. The former does this by denying human individuality, and the latter by its attempt to fully "naturalize" human death. By contrast, Christianity fundamentally refuses the normality of death as extinguishing human existence. Death, it insists, is a curse. The purpose of this essay is to explain the character of a hope that addresses this curse. Along the way, linguistic competence (with its architectural embodiment in the brain) is discussed as the amazing and uniquely human ability to track personal historical meaning. Human brains are important both in facilitating and conserving rational hopefulness over time and in the midst of circumstances that seem far less than hopeful. In this regard, two lines of research are discussed: (1) the distribution of cognitive labor in the brain, and (2) the cognitive architecture (the kind of processing structure) that best fits the requirements of emotion-charged informational states like rational hopefulness. Fundamental to the entire essay is the premise that linguistic competence is essential to our constitution as historical beings-beings for whom the rational significance of past, present, and future is vital to their own identity. The rest of the animal world, on the other hand, lacks language and so lacks the means to track personal history-hence also lacks the ability to anticipate an ultimate personal fulfillment given that history.|
|Although the author is in agreement with the doctrinal statement of IBRI, it does not follow that all of the viewpoints espoused in this paper represent official positions of IBRI. Since one of the purposes of the IBRI report series is to serve as a preprint forum, it is possible that the author has revised some aspects of this work since it was first written.|
. . . and not only do we [rejoice in the hope of the glory of God], but we rejoice also in our sufferings, knowing that suffering brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and this hope will not finally disappoint us, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.
In matters of science and scientific method it is folly to run ahead
of the evidence. It is certainly folly to run far ahead of the evidence.
Practitioners who do this are quickly exposed by their scientific brethren
and a certain shame is soon fixed to both the practitioner and his hasty
hypothesis. There can be no "tabloid science," and to borrow an expression
from Jerry Fodor, in matters scientific we must be "as pessimistic as the
facts will allow."
In matters of living out our dreams and of living within our ultimate
hope, on the other hand, what is immediately evident is often not a reliable
guide to future action. Human life is a teleological whole, not
a stationary object or a mere material process for scientific scrutiny.
Teleo-logic, as we might call it, is not the logic of ordinary hypothesis
confirmation; it is the logic of telos fulfillment. For the Christian,
confidence in such fulfillment is anchored in God's promises, not in the
attempt rationally to construct what is reasonable about the future in
terms of what currently appears. Abraham, for one, ran far ahead of the
evidence; indeed, he ran contrary to the evidence, hoping against hope
(against what it was "scientifically" reasonable to hope), embracing
only the promises of God in the face of "empirical impossibility."
The importance of hope-cosmic hope, as I will later call it-is vastly
underestimated in secular writings, and for the most part, ignored. To
put such hope in its rightful place requires a concession to the human
condition that secularism, on its own deepest assumptions, cannot make.
To put the matter in a language that all can readily understand, secularism
radically parts company with Christianity in its interpretation of death-in
its interpretation of the ending of the human biological sojourn,
and so its interpretation of the very significance of human life itself.
Secularism has attempted to "naturalize" death. Human existence, it
insists, is but a curious slice of space-time sandwiched between two oblivions:
the oblivion predating birth and the oblivion following biological death.
On a secularist reckoning, therefore, talk of either eschatological hopefulness
or even of eschatological hopelessness is nonsense; for if in the very
of the case the human condition poses no problem for which a proffered
hope might count as a solution, neither the concept of hope nor the absence
of hope has any rational application
beyond the cycle of birth,
life, and death.
The intellectual scandal of historic Christianity is precisely
where it differs with secularism's "naturalization" of death. The fact
is, however (I speak here as a Christian), secularism has not naturalized
death. It has attempted, rather, to denature it. Christians have
always believed that death is unnatural to the human being's original
design; it is not (in a benignly biological sense) natural at all, and
its sting cannot be done away with by the attempt to make psychological
peace with fundamental biological limits.
The moral scandal of historic Christianity, on the other hand,
is really inseparable from its intellectual scandal: death is a curse
and an ever-present reminder of human fallenness and preference for sin
over obedience to God. The hope of the Gospel is thus foolishness to the
secular conscience because the Gospel seems to be outrageous in these two
fundamental ways: it offends against materialism on the finality of biological
death, and it calls men and women to acknowledge a fundamental condition
requiring a Savior from sin.
Although my commitment to the Gospel, thus understood, is the underlying
motivation for all that follows, my project is more general and abstract.
In the reflections to follow I have attempted to explore the
of cosmic human hope rather than to develop the specific content of that
hope. There is a vast Christian literature that admirably does the latter.
A thought that runs throughout Hope, Language, & the Brain,
though not extensively developed, is that humans are semantivores
(consumers of meaning). They are far more than "informavores" (to use the
current computer-inspired metaphor), for they require a sense of
historical meaning in order to flourish. Given the human condition,
I believe that such meaning is supplied only in the eschatological hope
Hope, Language, & the Brain
Much of what I have to say strikes me as common sense-not that everyone
knows it already, but that once that it is spelled out it will seem really
obvious. In fact, there is a certain awkwardness I feel in writing it all
down because surely no one wants to re-invent the wheel in public. But
then I think of such "common sense" dispensing media phenomena as TV's
Friends Hotline(1) and feel better.
PFH involves neither psychics nor friends in dispensing its guesses and
banalities; and its hotline is "hot" only in its tendency to burn the credulous
with monstrous phone bills. Thinking of the "Psychic Friends" makes me
feel better because the common sense I want to talk about is often lost
sight of in the stress of life and recovering it does not require
weird powers and huge phone bills. What I want to do is talk about the
interrelatedness of cosmic hope, contentment, and linguistic competence-and
eventually to speculate a bit about brain function in these regards.
Of all the animals, only humans seem capable of hope. What is more,
humans seem to require hope for any kind of life they consider worth
living. It's true that I can't speak definitively for dolphins, apes, elephants,
or one's household pet, so perhaps it should be allowed that some large
brain mammals in addition to humans also require hopeful existence.
If Mr. Spock of Star Trek fame were around, the question might be settled,
for he had that extraordinary mind-melding talent whereby he could lay
hands on an alien sentient creature and literally tap into its cognitive
and emotional states. Spock might determine whether Fido, for example,
possesses the general anticipation of a long doggy life, with one square
meal a day, amidst playful and kind masters. But alas, Vulcan "hands-on"
psychology is quite beyond our capabilities and so we are restricted to
observing behavior as our only guide to the animal psyche. But there is
a powerful inference we can draw about an animal's capacity for hope (dread,
remorse, compassion, etc.) from its lack of linguistic competence, and
we will return to this shortly.
Whether or Not to Board the Titanic
But what is hopeful existence in the way that humans experience it?
In the way that humans require it? Is a psychologically healthy person
capable of daily contentment without hope? Can one "enjoy the moment"
in the absence of hope? (Think here of those who say they want merely to
be.) Richard Keyes, addressing a slightly different issue, uses an
apt illustration for our purposes: Consider yourself as about to board
that state-of-the-art luxury ocean liner, the Titanic, in its first
trans-Atlantic voyage. Suppose also that you will be traveling first-class.
You will thus be enjoying the finest stateroom, food service, entertainment,
and activity schedule. Bliss!
Now suppose (and this takes some imagination) that just prior to embarking
you are informed by a bona fide time traveler that the "scientifically
unsinkable" Titanic will hit an iceberg two days out and two thirds
of the passengers will die. They will drown in the icy cold waters of the
It's a bit silly to wonder whether you would get on that boat given
that you have understood and believed the time traveler. Of course you
wouldn't. For there would be a strong probability that you would never
reach your destination. Even if you did somehow reach your destination
that mishap at sea would have put a dreadful damper on things. Better off
to stay home and maybe get caught up on your reading-perhaps offer your
ticket and accommodations to your more scientifically minded and gritty
mother-in-law who has always wanted to travel abroad (and will simply have
no truck with time travelers and gloomy predictions). But this scenario
does illustrate the dynamic between hope and contentment
a linguistically operating mind. That dynamic might be sketched out as
Hope as an Overarching Goal Orientation
In philosophical literature hope is often identified as an emotion along
with anger, joy, compassion, gratitude, resentment, feelings of shame and
the like. I think this is right; hope is emotional in the sense
that it is belief-infected feeling, but it has certain characteristics
that make it special and unique. To gain clarity, it is important to distinguish
two senses of hope in everyday language. In one sense hope is used pretty
exclusively as a verb and comes close in meaning to the verb to wish.
That is not the sense we want. The other sense of hope has a simple verb
form in biblical Greek, but in English is best rendered as something one
"to have hope." This is the hope whose opposite is despair (rather than,
say, the absence of being wishful toward something), and without which
life seems not worth living.
Having hope, of course, is a certain regard for the future involving
happy expectation. The Christian hope, for example, is the anticipation
of an eternity in which all will be made right-an eternity that will include
oneself. In the words of Robert C. Roberts (Spirituality and Human Emotion,
1982), "Christian hope is the construal of our future in terms of God's
promises of eternal life and righteousness." The Apostle Paul speaks of
it as "Christ in you, the hope of glory" (Col. 1:27) and identifies its
most significant content as permanence with Christ through the resurrection.
The Christian hope is given as nothing less than the
of death itself. The Apostle Peter echoes Paul when he exclaims that Christian
believers are given new birth into a living hope through the resurrection
of Christ from the dead. It is a hope involving an inheritance that can
never perish, spoil, or fade (I Pet. 1:4).
Less exalted hopes, on the other hand, might include a financially secure
retirement, relational permanence with one's spouse or children, or making
a lasting contribution in some endeavor. And then there are frivolous and
downright irrational hopes. The hope of a Heaven's Gate post-suicide
beaming up by a passing UFO is doubtless an instance of the latter. Our
present point, however, is that in matters of religious faith and practical
life, hope has a distinctive core of characteristics: Hope is a goal-orientation,
its concerns are overriding, and subtly but powerfully it bestows meaning
on all that takes place within the interval of time that it takes to arrive
at one's destination.
Hope: An Enabling Emotion
Hope, moreover, is a fundamentally enabling emotion. It is a
curious kind of force in life (distinctively human life) and over time
provides cohesion for life as a whole. Though its importance is
in being always present, its role in keeping us glued together becomes
especially noticeable only in times of crisis and those life episodes that
seem to threaten our living with meaninglessness. Hope is what makes even
terrible suffering bearable, and in the warmth and beauty of its promise
it creates-even forges-contentment in the midst of otherwise bewildering
circumstances. Hope is worth talking about precisely because it is powerful
in this way. But it is a subtle power in routine living, and in this regard
I think it is somewhat analogous to physical gravity-the weakest of the
four basic forces known to physics. Gravitational "pull" subtly but powerfully
provides an invisible cohesion for the solar system and beyond. It is,
so to speak, the force that will determine the destiny of the universe
in the long run (so long, of course, as nothing else intervenes; barring
intervention, the cosmically long run is indefinite expansion or final
collapse and implosion).
Hope, on the other hand, gently tugs us into the future with the constant
reminder that it makes sense to keep going. That tug is not physical (as
in the case of gravity), but teleological and cognitive; and its content-what
it promises-is of the utmost importance. False hope will make fools of
us, while no hope at all will reduce us to despair, inactivity, and even
suicide. Perhaps the key biblical metaphor for the function of hope is
given in Hebrews 6:19. The hope offered in the Gospel is "an anchor for
the soul," the source of one's innermost cohesion regardless of tempestuous
life circumstances. It is worth some reflection, then, to ponder how hope
does its work. In a profound sense, a hope fulfilled retroactively
charges the past with a significance it could not otherwise have and the
anticipation of fulfilled hope is an ongoing participation in that significance.
Cosmic Hope & the Redemption of Suffering
Shakespeare wrote "All's well that ends well"-a folk truism, perhaps,
but the aphorism is not very informative and it is not particularly comforting
to those whose lives are not presently going well. In the midst of suffering
it might appear that things will not turn out well, or that, all things
rationally considered, they cannot turn out well. The Muslims who suffered
unimaginably at the hands of the Bosnian Serbs, for example, might well
have felt an abject hopelessness. The one suffering a relentlessly painful
terminal illness might find Shakespeare's "cliché" less than sensitive.
The same goes for the outlook of a man or woman whose spouse no longer
communicates love but an unending emotional (or even physical) abuse. In
such cases, and in countless others, it is easy for one's entire world
to shrink to just the dimensions of the pain involved. Living becomes little
more than survival and one's personal horizons are narrowed in the extreme.
The question then arises: Under what general conditions is suffering meaningful?
The answer, I think, is when suffering contributes to, and is interpretable
by, an ultimate fulfillment.
Although I speak and write as a Christian, my present concern is not
the content of the Christian hope. That of course is vital, but
can be taken up only briefly below and in the final section. My aim here
is to clarify the essential role of hope for distinctively human existence.
That too is a uniquely Christian theme for me but space does not allow
the development it deserves. I will have to limit myself to a few conceptual
points and speak, more or less, in a philosopher's conceptual style rather
than in a theologian's prose. In the event that my style begins to clank
quite badly, permission is granted to skip the offending word-salad for
more readable thoughts beyond. And now to restate my immediate concern,
I want to try to clarify the metaphysical function of a hope that is
grounded in truth. That's a mouthful, but it's meaning is pretty straightforward.
We have already seen that hope is future oriented and that it somehow
charges the present with significance. Call this sense of hope, eschatological
hope, or to lose a few syllables, cosmic hope. What must be appreciated
is that cosmic hope has application only to the lives of
beings-beings for whom the rational significance of past, present,
and future is vital to self-identity. Moreover, the importance of cosmic
hope to historical beings resides in its constituting an answer to a
problem. It is worse than silly to offer someone hope when the proffered
"hope" does not constitute such an answer. So if we humans require hope
(of the cosmic kind), and require it merely due to our membership in the
human race, then there is something about human existence that constitutes
a problem-something very wrong.
Christianity, of course, locates that wrongness in a historical fall
with all its repercussions. To borrow a couple of metaphors from C. S.
Lewis, we come into the world "bent" and we inhabit a "silent planet" whose
communication and fellowship with God was cataclysmically broken leaving
us with no internal resources to regain the life and communion that
were lost. (God has provided external resources, of course, but
I leave that for later.) By contrast, the visions of human existence provided
by materialistic humanism and by (most) eastern mysticisms deny the existence
of a generically human problem in need of
personal cosmic hope.
Humans do not require hope in the Christian sense, they say, because Christianity
is wrong about the human condition. Materialistic humanism confines all
inquiry into what is humanly meaningful to the categories arising from
the cycle of birth, life, and death. Nothing transcends that cycle so we
had best make our psychological peace with it. Eastern mysticisms characteristically
repudiate the "Western" logical distinctions and dualities that lead us
to suppose that there are the problems which Christianity addresses (e.g.,
subject/object, good/evil, and propositional truth/falsehood). Once the
illusoriness of these distinctions is recognized, say the mystics, there
is no longer any real problem, for the problem itself is defined
in terms of those very illusions. Thus it is irrational, or at least misguided,
to pursue cosmic hope. So say the folks I take issue with.
Where have we gotten? A cosmic hope, in the event that it is fulfilled,
somehow charges the historically lived events that preceded it with a significance
(a value or worth) that they would not and could not otherwise have. A
terminally unfulfilled hope, on the other hand, confers no such
significance and leaves the "hopeful" looking pretty foolish, or in the
biblical idiom, "put to shame" (cf. Rom. 5:5). Metaphysically, that is
because of the sort of whole a human life is. Henry Ford is supposed
to have once quipped that "history is the succession of one damned thing
after another." I take it that that goes for personal histories as well
as world history. But in either case, Ford surely got it wrong; human history
(including personal history) constitutes a curious teleological whole,
not a series of logically disconnected vignettes. The eventfulness within
a teleological whole is purposive and goal directed, and individual events
gain their ultimate significance in terms of the telos to which
they lead. That's curious, I say, because a kind of retro-causation is
suggested here. Can the future determine the significance of the
past and present?
Consider the woefully beleaguered Frodo Baggins trekking through Middle
Earth on his quest to drop the evil ring of power into the fires of Mount
Doom. (My apologies to those who haven't read Tolkien, but I think such
readers will have no trouble following my point anyway.) Suppose you have
been reading Tolkien's three volume tale and now, at very long last, you
are there on the slopes of that evil mountain with Frodo and his faithful
companion Samwise, peering into the "Cracks of Doom"-an apocalyptic ending
for either good or evil imminent! Suppose that instead of the scuffle
that sent the ring to its destruction (then followed by the rescue of our
improbable hero), Frodo had been stripped of the ring by Gollum whereupon
Gollum threw poor Frodo and Samwise into the molten lava. Finis. Punkt!
We would then have a resounding and unqualified triumph of evil over good
for the "foreseeable" eons! What then?
Well, after hurling all my Tolkien through the nearest window, and regaining
some philosophical composure, I might well reflect that endings
have a semantic and valuational impact upon whatever led up to them. A
novel is instructive in this regard because it too is a kind of teleological
whole. That is my claim for human life and much of the suffering it may
contain. I am disposed to take the Apostle Paul's comment on his own suffering
in just this way. In II Corinthians 4:17 he says: "For momentary, light
affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all
comparison." It is the phrase "affliction is producing .
. . an eternal weight of glory" that I find amazing here, not the fact
that the affliction and the weight of glory are far beyond comparison.
The astonishing moral is that God can weave even our pain and sorrow into
a tapestry of eternal life! So in God's hands present faithfulness,
in whatever circumstances, is a historical investment in glory.
And to come full circle, fulfilled hope retroactively gives suffering
its very character as precious investment.
The purely philosophical point is worth stating clearly before moving
on: Because of the kind of teleological whole that is constituted by a
human life, historical nuance that obtains later in one's own story
can affect historical nuance that obtains earlier. Thus the overall
significance of one's life trades crucially upon its eschaton (how things
ultimately turn out). Happy endings may be merely quaint within contemporary
story-telling, but they are vital to human identity. We return now to more
pedestrian matters. What has language got to do with all this? What makes
a cosmic hope existentially wax and wane? And how does one rekindle a flagging
Language & Hope
There is a staggering leap from a merely sentient animal to a linguistically
competent human. Because of the representational system that is language,
the human being has an enormously powerful means of representing the environment
to itself. By means of language we think
about the environment.
This is such a commonplace-so very familiar-that the profundity of what
it means to think about things can easily escape us. It is
such a commonplace, in fact, that one might think that only a philosopher
would pay any serious attention to it. So I beg the reader's indulgence
to say a bit more about it.
We have the ability not only immediately to detect our surroundings
and physically interact with physical stimuli in law governed ways, we
can, as I say, re-present salient features of our surroundings-re-present
them, deliberately abstract them, within the representational medium
of language for the purpose of considering them, pondering them, puzzling
over them. And we can do this in a way that is independent of the
physical stimuli that got our attention in the first place. (We can, for
example, consider an event long after it has occurred. In the technical
literature this incredible feature of linguistic thought is called stimulus
Endowed in this way, our hypotheses, as the saying goes, can "die in
our stead" as we consider future options. But if there truly is such "information
processing" in the privacy of one's mind, it is easy to see how profoundly
mistaken Behaviorism was with its purely external stimulus-response
account of intelligent behavior. The brain, whatever else it may be, is
a "semantic engine" that somehow combines consciousness with cognitive
processes for the production of behavior.
Carrying this a step further, we can, thanks to language, actually stand
back from the immediate flux of daily life to reflect about and interpret
our pasts (where we have been) and represent a future (where we would like
to go). In fact, we seem driven, as language users, to require that
the flow of our lives and our relationships be meaningful. While professional
historians chronicle a human past writ large, so to speak, individually
we concern ourselves with family trees, diaries, photo albums, camcordings
of special events, carvings on trees, high school reunions, and mementos
of personal honors and accomplishments. Sub-human animals cannot do this,
and it's not just that they lack opposable thumbs. They lack the intellectual
medium by which to track historical meaning. They lack language.
Viktor Frankl called this drivenness to embrace personal significance
over time our "search for meaning." The gift of language, at a single stroke,
is the gift of a sense (no matter how inchoate) of personal history. Human
beings have a natural thirst for meaning, and this goes beyond simple curiosity.
We are more than informavores, to use the current computer inspired
metaphor; we are also semantivores. The entire emotional and spiritual
make-up of ordinary people makes the relentless demand that their personal
histories make satisfying sense, that their personal long-term aspirations
which are represented in, and periodically monitored by, language not be
ultimately blocked or thwarted.
Hope, we may now say, is the linguistically modeled and emotionally
driven investment in a future scenario in which our personal histories
will not ultimately prove empty or futile. It is the enabling confidence
that a fulfilling personal destiny is at least possible, even though
we may not know the fine details of its attainment. But there is a far
stronger claim in the case of cosmic hope of the Christian sort
and I need to use caution in its statement lest I get hung up in epistemological
issues that would be extraneous just now. Cosmic hope is the enabling confidence
that a fulfilling personal destiny is certain, and it is God who
takes care of the details of its attainment.
But there is a problem here, for language seems to impose both a curse
and a blessing. The blessing is that inhabiting a linguistic world is to
be a historical being, a being, that is, that is able to identify, work
for, and finally savor a personal destiny. Dogs, cats, lizards,
beetles, and other creepy-crawlies, so far as I know, are not blessed in
this way. On the other hand, the curse of inhabiting a linguistic world
is that by our powers of observation and reflection we will also become
acutely aware whenever our meaningfulness seems canceled and our own fulfillment
begins to look impossible.
Hope involves a longing for fulfillment, but thanks to language it
must be a rational longing. Rationality imposes the constraint that
fulfillment be consistent with the body of knowledge that one is committed
to, that the objective content of one's hope be attainable-indeed, that
that objective content be somehow secure within the realm of possibility.
Rationality, it should be conceded, is a tricky constraint; but what
I want to guard against is identifying hope with the mere feeling of optimism.
I have nothing against feelings of optimism and wish that I had them far
more often than I do, but as feeling, optimism is non-cognitive
and non-rational. Optimism in and of itself can afford no reason
for supposing that the future is bright or that it should be welcomed.
We should thus be very reluctant to recommend quixotic hope. Even though
something inside us may stir whenever we hear those ostensibly noble and
heroic strains of the popular song "The Impossible Dream," the sober truth
is that Don Quixote was quite mad (in spite of his charm), and so is anyone
who sincerely hopes to own the Hawaiian Islands or to be President of the
Solar System (not to mention anyone willing to ride the
first-class believing that it will sink).
It is primarily because of language that human hope cannot be
equated with mere feelings of optimism or a merely positive psychological
anticipation of the future. In Western nations generally, but particularly
in the United States, a number of powerful secularizing currents have reduced
rational cosmic hope to private psychological "well-being"-a well-being,
as it happens, that is in very short supply. Dispassionate psychotherapists,
mood technicians, and motivation experts ply their craft among a paying
public whose feelings are badly out of whack. It is, moreover, disquieting
feeling rather than ultimate values and worldviews that are considered
out of whack. The passengers aboard the Titanic, to play again on
the metaphor of Richard Keyes, become increasingly antsy afloat their scientific
marvel. On board, "fortunately," mental health professionals abound! There
are chaplains too-proclaiming, for the most part, the gospel of The
Power of Positive Thinking (or, perhaps,
as well as pastoral adaptations of the latest pop psychology. But while
conceding this shallow "spirituality," the metaphor of the Titanic
is a metaphor for secular humanism. Its cosmic view of the human
race is bluntly stated in The Humanist Manifesto II (1973). Here
is a paragraph from that document with regard to religion, God, and salvation:
Traditional religions often offer solace to humans, but, as often, they
inhibit humans from helping themselves or experiencing their full potentialities.
Such institutions, creeds, and rituals often impede the will to serve others.
Too often traditional faiths encourage dependence rather than independence,
obedience rather than affirmation, fear rather than courage. More recently
they have generated concerned social action, with many signs of relevance
appearing in the wake of the "God Is Dead" theologies. But [by the critical
use of scientific reason] we can discover no divine purpose or providence
for the human species. While there is much that we do not know, humans
are responsible for what we are or will become. No deity will save us;
we must save ourselves. (Italics my own.)
The italicized phrase in brackets occurs one paragraph earlier in
Manifesto II, and is very important. It is only by "the critical use
of scientific reason" that secular humanists are willing to take up the
"salvation" prospects of mankind. But a scientifically disciplined rationality,
they boldly claim, rules out the substance of Christian hope. "No deity
will save us; we must save ourselves." For the secular humanist, therefore,
longing for the coming of Christ and his kingdom is an irrational-even
It is tempting to digress here to talk about the compatibility of science and religion, but that would take us too far afield. Besides, there are excellent materials the reader can consult that treat the compatibility issue with proper thoroughness (for example, Donald M. MacKay's Science, Chance, and Providence ). Suffice it to note here that the Christian's quarrel with the atheistic Manifesto is not with its bare insistence on the critical use of scientific reason. In the broadest sense of science, one's concern is with truth-truth in physics, psychology, biology, history, and so on. What critical scientific reason amounts to for the signers of Humanist Manifesto II, however, is emphatically not the broad scientific quest for truth but scientific method confined to a metaphysics of materialism. Let me illustrate with a parable. It concerns the inappropriate extension of a successful but quite narrow investigative method outside its legitimate area of application.
A drunk staggers around a light pole late at night, apparently searching
for something. A police officer stops to ask him what he is looking for
and the drunk answers, "My keys."
The officer responds, "Where did you lose them?"
The drunk points out to the darkness. "Out there."
Perplexed, the officer asks, "So why are you looking here?"
The drunk replies, "Because this is where the light is."
Perhaps the moral of this little story is a bit less than obvious. Suppose
you are looking within human history for an authentic miracle. Can the
flashlight of scientific method operating from within a metaphysics
of strict materialism cast any light on this subject? Francis Crick (of
Helix fame) is armed with precisely this "flashlight" when he says
that even if a statue of the Virgin Mary should wave at you we should not
count this as a miracle. The phenomenon should be reckoned as a marvel
of physics and investigated as such. The reason Crick's investigative method
cannot illuminate miracle is because it "shines" only on the physical properties
of things. To shift metaphors, his "viewing distance" on the imagined statue
is, so to speak, too close. It is as though we were to say that because
a newspaper photo of the President is really nothing but a purely
physical distribution of black dots, there is no picture.
As already mentioned, the other instructive contrast with a broadly
and hence linguistically mediated, cosmic hope is eastern (monistic)
mysticism. The Titanic, it should be noted, is a distinctively
boat. I'm afraid, however, that for eastern mysticism (and, in general,
for devotees of pure consciousness) I have no catchy metaphor. Ghost
Ship might do, but there are ways that that metaphor can be misleading.
Even ethereal existence aboard a Ghost Ship would be far too individualized
and logically determinate for those ineffable ports-of-call,
and Satori. The primary culprit for the eastern mystic is a consciousness
laden with rational categories-particularly Western scientific and
logical categories. This Western "false" consciousness is one whose would-be
contact with reality is mediated (and hence distorted) by logic
and language. The mystical alternative is to follow the regimens of Hindu,
Buddhist, and Zen masters that offer a salvation, of sorts, by following
a path to a fully deconstructed, and hence a truly receptive, consciousness.
For the mystic, the damage done by linguistic mediation is far worse than
getting short-changed by words that may be inadequate to their subject
matter. Rather, linguistic mediation itself brings the very rational
distinctions that generate such irreconcilable dichotomies as pleasure/pain,
good/evil, subject/object, self/not-self, and propositional truth/falsehood.
For the eastern mystic, reality itself is One. In the seamless perfection
of this Oneness there is no misery, struggle, and pain. It is precisely
a dichotomizing false consciousness that creates a prison of illusion from
whence come all pain and suffering! A radically deconstructed consciousness
is the remedy, for only then is one beyond all mediation and therefore
beyond all dichotomies. Indeed, some mysticisms are so radical that one
is said to transcend self-identity itself-somewhat like what happens to
a drop of water once it has fallen into a pond. What is on offer from eastern
(monistic) mysticism, then, is a "salvation" that requires the obliteration
of individuality-the obliteration of the self.
In contrast to eastern mysticism, Christianity finds nothing illusory
about evil and suffering in this world. They are horrifyingly real and
must be dealt with. In contrast to secular humanism, Christianity does
block the road of scientific inquiry at the empirically material level.
History bears witness to an interventionist God who transcends this
world. Christianity is thus both gloomily diagnostic (humankind is fallen
and under a sentence of death) and joyfully hopeful (its Christ has defeated
death and still calls men and women everywhere to repentance and life).
Before launching in a new direction, let's briefly sum up. What have
our reflections on hope-cosmic or eschatological hope-turned
up so far? First, in everyday life this hope is a subtle but powerful carrot-and-stick
phenomenon that provides spiritual cohesion and meaning for life as a
Second, this hope confers real enablement. Like a particular gravitational
field, hope may be either strong or weak, but unlike physical gravity,
hope (in its felt subjectivity) is the product of emotion-driven rationality
rather than simple mechanical force. Third, therefore, hope is a cognitive
phenomenon made possible by our linguistic ability to represent our histories
as personal histories and to represent future satisfactions that
are worthy of the sort of beings we are. There is, however, a dynamic or
"mechanics" to hope. Hope in this life, after all, requires the physical
brain. And this brings us to the most complex leg of our journey.
Illuminating the Black Box
What I have in mind at this point in our discussion is to remain, as
much as possible, in the shallows of current discussion and debate. In
saying this I certainly am not expressing the desire to keep things superficial,
but only the aim to swim at the right depth given our primary concern:
the invigorating of hope and the revitalizing of life-enhancing perspective.
Note that the content and truth-claims of any particular
hope are not in view at this point; our present concern is with the function
activation of hope.
Two areas of research in recent years invite some intriguing speculation
along these lines. One is the mapping of brain function-chiefly left and
right hemispheric function within split-brain research. The other is the
work in cognitive science that seeks to model
how the brain processes
information-in particular, the suggestion that our cognitive architecture
may be, in part at least, connectionist. I begin with a brief overview
and historical perspective on philosophy of mind and the beginnings of
In the history of human inquiry into the causes of intelligent behavior,
the brain has steadfastly remained a near total mystery as to its utterly
strategic role in the production of thought, images, mood, emotion, and
behavior. It has been a black box which has seemingly worked a distinctive
kind of magic, utilizing a complex physical organ to transform physical
stimuli into the rationally ordered, comprehended, colorful world we inhabit.
It gives every appearance of being a physical box, but a box
a point of view--and that boggles the scientific mind! A physical object
is simply not the sort of thing that can have a point of view (be
sad, glad, mad, nostalgic, understanding, etc.). Or is it?
In the modern era (since Descartes' formulation of the mind/brain relation
in the early 17th century) the philosophical pendulum has swung from dualism
to materialistic monism. Dualism is the view that at work between one's
ears are two radically dissimilar stuffs, one stuff immaterial and the
other material. Because in our modern conception of science we require
the disclosure of material mechanism to explain empirical regularity, strictly
immaterial causes of such regularity are frowned upon; these cannot be
fitted into the scheme of things that science investigates. No one has
yet empirically isolated a spiritual mechanism and shown how it
can causally influence a material mechanism. This may be an overly
narrow view of science (I think that it is overly narrow), but it
is roughly the view that is back of the materialistic monism which has
held the field for most of the 20th century.
The materialistic monism of our day (since, roughly, the early '60s)
has changed dramatically, however, from the older metaphysical materialism.
The latter theorized in a rather conceptual armchair fashion about material
in the abstract. Its fundamental worry was how to generate a smooth conceptual
account of how it is that mind is really nothing but matter, or how to
conceive of "mind" as a conceptual category that does not name anything
real at all.
In a manner of speaking, the new materialistic monism has thrown away
the armchair and has enthusiastically followed the lead of science in scrutinizing
the conceptual implications of material processes rather than substances
(or alleged substances). In a word, the notion of mechanism has
replaced matter, and the notion of mental processes has replaced
spirit, and soul. I overstate this somewhat, but those imbued
with this vision are betting that all the old problems that are still worth
solving are now to be solved by regarding the brain as an information
processing system fully accessible, in the final analysis, to empirical
science. This striking shift of emphasis and subject matter is due to a
number of important intellectual discoveries and developments whose most
significant achievement is the computer revolution (the best depth analysis
of these developments that I've seen is Zenon W. Pylyshyn's Computation
and Cognition, ). What computation theory and computer technology
have provided cognitive science is, roughly, its very claim to
a science, for what has been provided looks very much to those in the field
like a mechanics of thought itself.
We should note, however, that a mechanics of thought modeled on information
processing in a computer is not a mechanics of consciousness. Consciousness
itself (the subjective experience of information processing, whether
discursive or gestaltic) finds no place in computation theory and remains
utterly mysterious. Or if you like, although computers may process information
like mad, they do not experience what they are doing. They are not
"self-aware" of their own projects.
Nevertheless, leaving aside the problem of consciousness as such, it
seems to me that there is value for our present concerns in understanding
both the compartmental character of brain functioning (the brain's distribution
of cognitive labor) and in understanding cognitive architecture (the type
or types of "mechanism" responsible for the flow of information in the
brain). Both kinds of inquiry provide some illumination into the black
box. Of course, I can't even begin to tell those complicated stories in
a short space, so I will proceed to simplify with our more narrow interests
Selective Vacations for Cerebral Bureaucrats
The two cerebral hemispheres of the brain make quite different and specialized
contributions to cognition. Nearly three decades of research still confirm
this-though with some interesting qualification. During the seventies and
eighties some really excessive and exaggerated claims were made (an overdoing
it sometimes referred to as dichotomania). The past twenty-five
years of left brain/right brain literature (some of it sheer nonsense)
is worth reviewing, and I cannot do better than refer the reader to two
works. For a non-speculative assessment of the basic data,
Right Brain  by authors Sally P. Springer and Georg Deutsch is
still excellent as an introductory work. For a summing up of what is now
accepted with reasonable confidence, and a nice correction of past error
and exaggeration, see The Right Mind: Making Sense of the Hemispheres
 by Robert Ornstein.
As I was saying, the two cerebral hemispheres provide quite different
and specialized contributions to cognition. Language is typically located
in the left hemisphere (in right handed individuals) while spatial,
aesthetic, and generally intuitive (holistic and non-inferential) tasks
heavily involve the right hemisphere (again, in right handed individuals).
The limbic system (of the brain) seems to manage emotional traffic and
there are specialized subsystems within the major brain systems as well
as all manner of sub-subsystems. In short, the brain seems to be, to borrow
a phrase from Daniel Dennett, a kind of task-oriented bureaucracy (sometimes
referred to as the brain's modularity). The human brain seems, in fact,
to be rather like a committee (with certain important qualifications).
If you were to travel down the corridors of your bureaucratic brain you
might see signs on doors like "Bureau of Language Parsing," "Bureau of
Affective Nuance Distribution," "Bureau of Sex," "Bureau of Visual Edge
Detection," "Bureau of Hearing," "Bureau of Face Familiarity," but probably
not "Bureau of What to Do Next."
I'll return to the bureaucracy metaphor in a moment, but let me add
here that the evidence for the brain's modularity of cognitive function
is impressive. Scientists get clear on the autonomy (relative independence)
of specific cognitive functions in a variety of ways. These include the
study of neurological deficits, the correlation of a region of brain damage
(or disease) with a specific cognitive impairment or loss of function,
EEG readings correlated with specific tasks assigned to the subject, and
experimental stimulation of just the right hemisphere or just
the left hemisphere (in commissurotomized patients, or in patients with
one hemisphere anesthetized). As we proceed I would like to caution the
reader that my playfulness with metaphors like "committee" and "bureaucracy"
is not intended to imply that human minds are fragmented. The modularity
of the brain does not imply the disunity of the mind. I say this
because the "bureaucratic" complexity we are considering might produce
the idea in the reader's mind not merely of a bureaucracy, but a nightmare
bureaucracy not unlike the one located in Washington, D.C.-wasteful, inefficient,
and one in which the left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing.
So keep in mind that what we have been talking about is brain
function, not necessarily mind function. Again, the physical distribution
of specialized function (visual, olfactory, speech, contextual connectedness,
etc.) does not lead to a splintered mind in the healthy brain. An automobile
engine is composed of a number of mechanical subsystems, resulting in a
division of labor that secures the smooth functioning of the engine as
a whole. Large corporations may function efficiently and productively even
though that very efficiency and productiveness are facilitated by a large
number of relatively autonomous departments and bureaus. Similarly, unified
mental life should be conceived as facilitated by a very complex organ
in which reside several larger systems whose behavior is the product of
subsystems and a plethora of sub-subsystems all the way down. Return with
me now to my play upon the metaphors of committee and bureaucracy.
Some committee members, or cognitive bureaucrats, must get constant
updates from other cognitive bureaucrats in order to carry out their tasks.
But there are apparently brain systems (e.g., the several systems of the
senses) that are much more informationally insulated from the rest of the
brain. These do their work with minimal risk of editing or modification
from other brain systems and they report, uncensored and without having
to disclose their sources, to general intelligence. For example, we can
be thankful that the optical system of the brain is modular in this way
since we would surely want our sighting of the tiger near a bush to our
left to be a very stubborn optical datum in the event of an actual
tiger! When time is of the essence it's okay that some of our brain systems
be relatively hardwired-not subject, that is, to time-consuming bureaucratic
reinterpretation. Better to be visually mistaken than eaten! Moving along,
we complicate this picture still further when the bureaucracy is conceived
of as hierarchically organized, and as one in which we have no conscious
access to how the lower levels in the bureaucracy do their work.
But, so what? How does a knowledge of discrete brain functions with
their locations and mechanistic embodiments help us in a quest to renew
hope-to regain the enabling perspective that hope uniquely has to offer?
The answer, I think, is that it does not help very much. But it may help
What if some key cognitive bureaucrats must take a break, stop
working, do some R & R, whenever certain other cognitive bureaucrats
are in charge of the overall system's activity? And what if the resulting
relaxation reinvigorates the bureaucrats who got the time off, returning
them to their jobs free of fatigue and more efficient for their specialized
tasks? We might call this the Vacation Principle and it is certainly a
With regard to the ordinary kind of vacation, we send the entire
organism (ourselves in mind and body) away to a setting-Tahiti, let's say-where
there will be a radical break with all our routine cares and worries. Even
if Tahiti should prove to tax our system with its own set of stressors,
it will nonetheless call upon our mind-body system's resources in a way
that is entirely different from the life we have briefly interrupted. The
result is that we often return to our everyday lives refreshed and ready
to go again. This can be true even though we may have endured "the vacation
from hell" (within limits, of course).
But our present concern is with the prospect of "in-house" vacations,
so we return to those sometimes stressed-out, fatigued, and fevered cognitive
bureaucrats. But rather than considering them all at once, we address only
the crew that staffs the language bureau (left hemisphere). And
small wonder, because it is linguistic cognition that is reasonably
regarded as the most powerful kind of cognitive resource in the work of
the quality and direction of our lives. But it is also this crew that uniquely
fuels worry, remorse, and dread, for it alone has the resources to make
worry, remorse, and dread verbally explicit, and hence ever so compelling.
The question is, How do we get those guys to take some time off before
they reduce the entire system to anxiously muttering in circles, clinical
depression, or even suicide?
We can, of course, drug them or get them drunk, but that would produce
a system-wide funk affecting all bureaus at once and lead to worse problems.
The saner course is to see whether we can selectively get just this
crew to shut down for a time without doing violence or damage to the rest
of the system. Let's assume-what is surely the case-that these word-mongers
over in the language bureau won't willingly and cheerfully leave their
posts, for under stress they become control freaks. Is there an indirect
way to get them to cease and desist?
Apparently, that can be done-right in the privacy of our own bodies
(brains). Although we have always known at least some of the activities
that work in this regard, in 1972 researchers Ornstein and Galin experimentally
confirmed (using an EEG study)(2) that when
a subject is given an exclusively right brain task the left brain tends
to idle (emit an alpha rhythm) and vice versa. Right brain tasks are now
activities in which cognitive energy is neither deployed in representing
the past nor the future. So when the brain's resources are sufficiently
immersed in a right brain task, a gloomy and anxiety-ridden left brain
go on holiday, if only briefly. The Vacation Principle is at least part
of what is back of the success of bio-feedback and a large part of the
explanation for why exercise works to the same effect. Aerobically strenuous
exercise is a perfectly wonderful now activity. So are relaxed spatial
and aesthetic activities. (Of course, a complete account involves brain
hormone release and distribution.)
Time to sum up again. Cosmic human hope, when present, is typically
a quiet voice in our lives and the force it exerts is subtle.
If our heads become verbally and analytically noisy, if our verbal selves
begin frenetically to crank out problems without solution, then that quiet
voice may be drowned out. Even though hope may still be informationally
present (more on this shortly), our ability to hear it and be encouraged
by it is much reduced. One natural way to give our linguistic cognitive
bureaucrats the vitality to be governed by a positive perspective (thus
minimizing the noise of remorse, worry, and dread-all verbally fueled states
of mind) is by regularly engaging our whole selves in activities that
the noninvolvement, or a greatly restricted involvement, of those bureaucrats.
The Computational Theory of Mind & Connectionism
There are, of course, no actual bureaucrats in the brain nor is there
any deliberative committee. As I have been careful to stress, that has
all been metaphor in the service of making a few important points about
function. Thus there is no army of minded idiots in our brains speaking
our speech or behaving our behavior. Whatever its complexity, the brain,
while embodying a single mind, is a physical system and in that sense it
is mechanical and functions by physical law. The astonishing fact, however,
is that in its obedience to physical law the brain implements
processes whose fundamental behavior can only be described as rulelike
rather than as lawlike. What dramatically distinguishes rulelike
behavior from strict lawlike behavior is that the former has semantic
properties: rulelike behavior possesses what philosophers call intentionality.
When a system (e.g., the mind/brain system) produces for its own purposes
syntactically well-formed expressions through a generative grammar, that
system is engaged in rulelike behavior. Also rulelike are inferential and
heuristic thought processes in general. Prior to some extraordinary developments
in the '30s and '40s, however, we simply had no theory (or model) for how
lawlike and rulelike processes might be intimately associated in one and
the same mechanistic process. It is very important that we not be
thrown off by the word "mechanistic". Within the present context this term
refers to a lawful process and not to any particular physical implementation
of it. Particular implementations, then (whether gooey or dry, whether
of plastic, metal, silicon, or protoplasm), are not in view here. As Zenon
Pylyshyn has clarified, we are concerned with a certain abstract
conception of mechanism.(3)
It was not until the mathematical logic developed by Frege, Whitehead,
and Russell was combined with important results achieved by Alan Turing,
Emil Post, and Alonzo Church that the required abstract understanding of
mechanism finally arrived. Computational theory was born which,
for better or worse, began dramatically to change our commerce and information
consumption habits forever. But much more than that, cognitive psychology
now had a theoretical foundation that seemed to provide a scientific basis
for investigating a mechanics of information processing-and perhaps overly
optimistically, a mechanics of thought itself!
Whether computational theory will prove ultimately fruitful in providing
the rudiments for a fully psychological model remains to be seen and the
research it has inspired (in artificial intelligence) continues to provoke
controversy. As I have already indicated, there is good reason to suspect
that a computational theory of mind is inherently limited when it comes
to explaining consciousness and when it comes to explaining what philosophers
have called "original intentionality" (a fancy expression for a system's
ability to be informationally sensitive to its own goals and meanings).
No computer-not even a hypothetical computer-can be conceived as other
than intellectually prosthetic at the present time-a tool whose
results are utterly parasitic upon human interpreters for their significance.
I suspect that the major reason for this is that the computational theory
of mind is actually a theory about certain purely formal aspects of a thought-like
not a theory of mental agency.
But still, computational theory (and so the computer revolution) is
a spectacular achievement in intellectual history. Whether there are at
least some deep, thought-like processes whose neural implementation is
genuinely computational only time can tell (see Roger Penrose's Shadows
of the Mind  for an intensive exploration of this topic). Nevertheless
computation is the only currently understood process that, after
a fashion, unites semantic and purely lawlike properties in a way that
can be mechanically realized-i.e., physically embodied. And here,
if I may greatly simplify matters, there are two styles of computation,
two candidate cognitive architectures, with quite different characteristics.
One style is the more or less classical symbol processing style which,
in artificial intelligence, invites the construal of information "flow"
as syntactic operations on precisely defined, discrete symbols.
Until quite recently, virtually all research in artificial intelligence
has proceeded in terms of the classical model. In the elaborate theory
of Jerry Fodor,(4) the crucial computational
activity occurs subconsciously as the manipulation of symbol tokens
in a "language of thought". The point to be pressed here is that for classical
symbol processing in theories like Fodor's, informational traffic is sentence-like.
The primitive elements in this sort of computation are either propositions
or proper symbolic parts of propositions out of which propositions may
be built according to syntactic or logical rules.
One thing that troubles me as I consider this sort of computational
model is how believed propositions exert their influence in the
system or, in general, how they throw their weight around. It seems they
would have to do that through sheer sentence crunching-through implicatory
(logical) relations among elementary elements. If so, it would seem that
ideas (propositions) get to be powerful merely in terms of storage
logical manipulation. I think that is extremely implausible,
especially as it concerns general, global, and emotionally charged cognitive
content. In particular, this strict symbol manipulation model seems ill-suited
to accommodate the character of rational hopefulness (as well as all the
other emotionally charged rational attitudes-e.g., love, compassion, anger,
fear, and the like).
In the mid-'80s another candidate cognitive architecture was revived
from earlier disappointment. It is called connectionism, or parallel
distributed processing (PDP).(5) Its computational
character is quite different from the higher level processing we have noted
in the classical computation over symbols. Keep in mind that the notion
of a cognitive
architecture is simply the general name we give to
the ultimate neural
structure or organization that facilitates
information processing in the brain. It takes familiarity with the literature
to get used to the jargon, but it is really important and useful. Classical
computation is discrete symbol manipulation; connectionism is not.
The primitive elements in a connectionist system need not have any symbol
at all. In a nutshell, connectionist architecture is that of a network
of (characteristically) simple units whose discrete or fixed "content"
is sub-symbolic and whose cognitive content proper-e.g., "There is a horse
running in the field"-is distributed throughout an activation pattern
of the network. Since it is the activation pattern that counts (in parallel
processing), there is no precise address in the brain where that specific
content is stored. (Precise numerical content addressing is an essential
feature of classical computation.) So in a connectionist (or PDP) system,
the content "There is a horse running in the field" is not stored as a
proposition at a given location. Rather, this propositional content is
"spread out" and stored not as a symbol structure but as a disposition
of the network to reactivate the same pattern given the right stimulus.
This disposition is determined by the distribution of connection weights
and values among the simple elements.
There are important differences at this point in research between actual neurons and a PDP system's simple elements, but the staggering numbers involved in the brain's complexity is surely adequate for the brain to be, in part at least, a PDP processor. There are quite literally many trillions of interconnections among the brain's 1012 neurons! Here is a paragraph from Jack Copeland's Artificial Intelligence on this subject:
Each neuron sports an enormous number of connecting fibres, known as
dendritic projections and axonal projections. These fibres snake about
the brain, connecting each single neuron to maybe ten thousand of its neighbors.
Picture a neuron as a body with many hands and feet. Each hand (axonal
projection) grasps a neighbor's foot (dendritic projection). The bodies
hang there, each the centre of a tangled web of linked projections--a web
of awesome complexity. At a very conservative estimate of a thousand "hands"
per neuron and 1012 neurons per head (that's a million with
six more zeroes added) there are a staggering total of one thousand million
million interneural connections in each brain. In the words of Steven Rose,
an eminent neurobiologist: "The mass of processes, structures and interactions
possible within this [maze] beggars both description and mathematicization.
The fascination is almost akin to terror . . ."(6)
A key attraction of connectionism for our purposes is that a connectionist
network learns by repeated exposure (to input) in which connection weights
and values are redistributed resulting in new activation patterns for the
Though I cannot develop the idea further at this point, real life degrees
in strength of belief find a far more plausible architectural counterpart
within connectionist architecture than in classical symbol manipulation.
I say this while acknowledging that connectionist theory and its computer
realization are quite embryonic at the present time. Connectionism is exciting,
nevertheless, because at stake is cognitive muscle for the system and not
merely monotonic logical relatedness. Put another way, since beliefs in
ordinary life may have their poignancy or forcefulness (in one's outlook)
upgraded or degraded without affecting their sheer status as
information, we need a model that includes the emotional saliency of
a system's information in addition to the flat implicatory complexity of
that information. We need, somehow, a model that integrates affect with
From Cliché to Energetic Hope
Distinguishing Mere Information Problems
from Problems of Personal Strength
We have already considered the problem of hope-enervating cognitive
"noise" (aided and abetted by linguistic representation). I want now to
conclude with a suggestion for enhancing hope that does not have the indirectness
of mere stress management (physical exercise or right brain activities).
I want briefly to explore the prospect of renewing causally energetic
hope by means of social reinforcement-encouragement from another person
(whether divine or human). In doing so it should become clear why interpersonal
encouragement, in terms of a connectionist cognitive architecture, may
affect our cognitive-emotive systems in a way that is fundamentally different
from, and causally more effective than, auto-encouragement (or self-talk).
We begin by assuming that encoded information may be causally inert as well as causally active. We might think of causally inert information as having the energy status of a cliché; such a datum may be easily accessed and subscribed to, but it has no power to alter behavior or enhance one's emotional state.
Accordingly, one's emotional attitude toward the intellectual content
of one's hope might, for a time, be flat or uninspired. This seems to imply
that a flagging or dimming hope need not be an information problem as
such. The irony is that basic hope-forming beliefs may remain constant
informational holdings while hope itself waxes and wanes. Here the
classical computation theory is no help for all it provides is (memory)
storage and computation.
Let's assume also that one's entire cognitive-emotive system is, to
borrow a term from physics, an inertial system. What I mean by that
is that one's cognitive-emotive system will tend to conserve its
set of dynamic characteristics over time unless it encounters a learning
regimen strenuous enough to alter those characteristics. This is in contrast,
for example, to a doctrine in Jean-Paul Sartre's existentialism. Sartre
firmly states "there is no inertia in consciousness."(8)
The Sartre of Being and Nothingness (1943) is quite famous for championing
a radical freedom to choose how one will be emotionally disposed toward
circumstances, come what may. One chooses one's "inner state" from moment
to moment in a kind of total volitional autonomy (or freedom). There are
absolutely no neural or circumstantial constraints on the Sartrian freedom
to emote one way or another. From my own standpoint, and that of contemporary
psychology and cognitive science, Sartre could hardly have been more mistaken.(9)
But I digress. There are two initial assumptions before us: (1) Human
agents often believe content that is causally inert-content whose energy
for their cognitive-emotive systems is little more than that of a cliché;
and (2) the cognitive-emotive system itself is an inertial system whose
stock of beliefs, both inert and active, tends in a systemic
fashion to conserve one's mental status quo. The question before us is
the relative merits of self-administered encouragement versus other-administered
encouragement. Suppose, now, that Fred is forlorn, for he has fallen into
a funk and finds it difficult to function with his customary freedom and
fortitude. I grant that this is a less than scientific description of Fred's
problem. (Funk, for example, doesn't even show up on DSM-IV's list
of psychological maladies.)(10) But my
little thought experiment doesn't require exacting diagnosis. It is enough
to grant that Fred is "down" because he has lost perspective.
Let's assume, moreover, that Fred has not lost his perspective
He now knows and believes what he knew and believed before he lapsed into
his despondency. His positive perspectival beliefs remain informationally
encoded, therefore, with the very same set of upbeat logical implications.
And to give my central point some perhaps needless emphasis, Fred does
not have an information problem-not in the ordinary sense. I prefer
to think of Fred as having a strength problem.
Fred, I think, needs to be re-minded of what he already believes.
His beliefs need to be somehow upgraded, energized, rendered causally effective
again. If the classical computational view of mind were correct, Fred might
bootstrap himself by reaffirming a few logical implications he has temporarily
lost sight of, for in that case his problem was the simple failure to duly
note implicatory links among propositions in his system.
I pause here to say that my intention is not to deliver a put-down of
such bootstrapping. Upbeat and realistic self-talk is not silly and it
is not nothing. But it needs to be borne in mind that it may be less than
adequate, and for this reason: Given that information is broadly distributed
and variously weighted within an inertial system, even Fred's ostensibly
upbeat cognitive holdings serve in a holistic way to conserve Fred's
funk. Those very upbeat holdings are themselves a part of the problem
their energy for the system has temporarily been determined by the level
of energy of the system as a whole; and within the system the energy
value of the "clichés" (zero or near zero) is sadly a function of
the system's total energy. So if the system presently gives the
value of cliché to a proposition or set of propositions,
the system's inertial resources are hard put to re-energize the clichéd
beliefs as profound or moving. And again, that is because the clichéd
content, as holistically implicated in the system, is
itself a factor
in the current distribution of weights and values.
If I am right, Fred's cognitive-emotive system would have a fundamentally
different receptivity to another person's reminding him and encouraging
him of the very same information that Fred himself could supply.
That is because intersubjectivity requires a systemic vulnerability
to the other that is absent in self-talk. It seems to me that the social
dimension dramatically alters the dynamic whereby even a simple item of
information may become cognitively re-distributed, re-weighted, and thereby
become salient and energetically present in one's outlook.
But why? I think it is this. Data inform, whereas relationships
strengthen. Of course certain conditions must be met for either of
these to hold true. Cognitive data must be understood in order to inform,
while trust in a relationship seems vital to any would-be strengthening.
The point is, we often draw strength for our living through social
intercourse with trusted others. And my question, again, is why?
Why should what anyone else thinks, anyone else's communication, have a
general tendency to energize (or conversely, enervate) what is already
informationally present in my cognitive system? To make what could become
a very long story deceptively short, I think it is because intersubjectivity
(accompanied by trust) produces an expanded system. A monadic system
becomes a dyadic system, and the dynamic of the latter is what does
the work. If I let the other in, I am instantly vulnerable (subject)
to my own bag of truths in a fresh way-from the perspective of the other.
The emergent dyadic dynamic may be destructive as well as beneficial,
but again, my point has to do with accounting for how a strengthening
(or weakening) takes place.
In passing, it is perhaps worthwhile to note that it is this
social dynamic that accounts for the remarkable success of support groups.
Christians, it seems to me, should refuse to credit Twelve Step success
to the abstract and generic, fill-in-the-blank, deity (or quasi-deity)
that is so often invoked. A group of Druids gathering on Thursday nights
to kick a bark-eating habit could surely boast of the same success rate
as Alcoholics Anonymous, because they too (even though invoking tree spirits
as the Higher Power of choice) possess cognitive-emotive systems
that are designed by God to draw strength within fellowships of suffering.
The Ark or the Titanic?
Before concluding I want to add a note of urgency and content to all that I have said. There is a remarkable irony to riding life's seas aboard the Titanic. A vast number of books are available to the general public on how to flourish in any relationship, on how to maximize personal wealth, on how to be a consummate lover, on how to live with or conquer any disease-even on how to die with proper dignity. Even a cursory browse through the self-help and psychology sections of your local Barnes & Noble bookstore is likely to turn up two or three books on whatever is afflicting you! And for what it is worth, not all these books are junk. Some are genuinely insightful and helpful. The irony, however, is this. The mere availability of all these technique-based "secular scriptures" has not helped our culture where it needs help the most. Indeed, one might almost conclude that there is an inverse relation between the abundance of such works and the public capacity to be profited by them. One wants to ask, "Since we know so much these days, shouldn't the resultant availability of this knowledge be reflected in the population at large?" Apparently it doesn't work that way. An enormous percentage of the children born into our culture make their arrival without fathers. The divorce rate (for those who do marry) is about fifty per cent. Public education is a disaster. Television era adults seem not to have the attention span to read depth treatments of anything. And on and on.
To return to Barnes & Noble, there may be chicken soup for the
soul, but there is no anchor for the soul (unless one finds
the occasional work in biblical Christianity). To sum up, technique-based
psychology and healthy brains have their places of importance, but living
hope is not the same as the attainment of Nordic Track physique or
the tolerance for this or that stressor. Living in hope is the linguistically
modeled and emotionally driven investment in a future scenario in which
our personal histories will not ultimately prove empty. The Christian hope
is the rational longing for, and expectation of, such a scenario, and here
I want to add two ancient voices to this cosmic theme. The speakers are
Jesus's Apostles Peter and Paul, and they speak, as I believe, God's own
word. To understand these voices of hope one must, again, first come to
grips with the biblical understanding of a universal human plight-God's
estimation of the human condition.
It is Peter's and Paul's contention that humankind has been historically
estranged from God and that as a consequence each human journey through
life is on a collision course with death-an everlasting estrangement
from God. Humans were never designed by their Creator for such a final
denouement and yet they stubbornly choose it for themselves. The Christian
hope is remarkable in that it acknowledges the realities of physical and
spiritual death as well as the reality of evil. The latter cannot be explained
as psychological dysfunction or a dichotomizing mind's illusion. Evil is
and poses precisely the problem for which Christ is the solution and mankind's
The simplicity of the biblical witness is that death is unnatural
to our original design, but that the Designer, in a historical act of mercy,
extends a hope of reconciliation and life. It is the eyewitness of Peter
and Paul (as well as many others) that God himself intervened in our
history in the person of his Son to defeat both spiritual and bodily
death. In words from Peter's first New Testament letter, God has shown
us mercy by offering us "new birth into a living hope by the resurrection
of Jesus Christ from the dead" (I Pet. 1:3). What makes the Christian hope
alive rather than dead (or quixotic) is that it is sustained by one who
has himself conquered death. The probative value of Peter's testimony to
this hope is summarized in his second New Testament letter:
We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the
power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses
of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father
when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, "This is my
Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased." We ourselves heard this
voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain.
(II Pet. 1:16-18, NIV)
Paul likewise claims eyewitness credentials regarding a risen
Christ (I Cor. 15:1-9), and places the same significance on the resurrection
as Peter. The Christian hope is the final triumph over death; it is the
very "redemption of our bodies" (Rom. 8:23). And even beyond these benefits,
it is the "hope of glory," the prospect of everlasting life with Christ
As we move more and more deeply into the "scientific" era of our species
the message of Peter and Paul seems to be met with increasing skepticism
and indifference. The skepticism is not owing to scientific method itself;
it is owing rather to a humanistic faith in science to deliver human beings
from whatever might ail them. And one thing that this humanistic faith
says cannot ail us is a literal and historic alienation from God
whose consequence is death. Hence, say the materialists, Peter and Paul
cannot have announced any such hope as they supposed.
But offer it they did. And that, dear reader, is at once both the intellectual
and moral scandal of the Gospel-the hope offered humankind by Jesus
Christ. It is perhaps fitting to close with the observation that Peter's
first letter makes mention of Noah's Ark as he reminds his readers of their
hope in Christ. In its time, the Ark was mankind's only hope from a catastrophic
judgment, although Noah's contemporaries considered such a judgment nonsense.
And they all perished. It seems to me that Noah's Ark serves nicely in
our own time as a metaphor for another Ark that is, once more, offered
as mankind's only hope. Peter and Paul would be quick to identify that
Ark as Christ.
Here then is the final proposition: God has put eternity in our souls (Eccl. 3:11), so the only hope that is cosmic enough to embrace that fact is one that promises everlasting life. The choices, in effect, are either to board the Ark or stay afloat the Titanic. If you stay with the Titanic you may be fortunate enough to ride first-class (though I suspect that most of its passengers ride third-class or less than third-class). If you board the Ark your earthly accommodations may be less than wonderful, but your destination is right off the chart and is as secure as the living Christ who guarantees your passage. The Titanic, by cosmic contrast, has an appointment with an iceberg.
1. It occurs to me that I haven't noticed PFH on television for quite some time. Perhaps they were forced off the air due to unforseen circumstances. At any rate, there continue to be several other "psychic" groups (on cable TV, at least) offering their dubious services on a daily basis.
2. D. Galin and R. Ornstein, "Lateral Specialization of Cognitive Mode: An EEG Study," Psychophysiology (1972) 9:412-418.
3. Zenon W. Pylyshyn, Computation and Cognition: Toward a Foundation for Cognitive Science (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1984), p.49.
4. Fodor provides a nice summary of his basic position in the introductory chapter of Jerry A. Fodor, Representations: Philosophical Essays on the Foundations of Cognitive Science (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1983), pp.1-31.
5. Cf. Chapter 10 of Jack Copeland, Artificial Intelligence: A Philosophical Introduction (Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers, 1993), and John Haugland, ed., Mind Design II: Philosophy, Psychology, Artificial Intelligence (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1997).
6. Copeland, p.183.
7. We are, of course, clueless with regard to a model that integrates cognition with affect (or emotionality). Such a model would have to go beyond information processing to include consciousness, and that is nowhere on the horizon. But concerning whether an adequate model of mind would have to provide for such integration we are certainly not clueless. It is now generally acknowledged that no sharp disjunction exists between emotion and cognition. Once we distinguish emotion from mood, it seems clear that all emotions have a distinctive cognitive aspect. Anger, for example, is in part constituted by the construal (where construal = cognitive act) that one has suffered offense (often with the accompanying desire for penalty or revenge). And similarly with these emotions: A case of compassion is in part constituted by the construal that a person, say, is in need, with a desire to help that person; a case of envy is in part constituted by the construal that a valued thing, talent, or advantage belongs to another with resentment that this is so; and a case of fear typically involves the construal that something is threatening harm with a more or less urgent desire to get out of harm's way.
Significant writings that relate cognition to emotional states include Robert C. Solomon, The Passions (Garden City, New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1976); James R. Averill, "Emotion and Anxiety: Sociocultural, Biological, and Psychological Determinants," in Explaining Emotions, ed. by Amélie Oksenberg Rorty (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1980); and an excellent and far less technical work by a Christian philosopher in the field, Robert C. Roberts, Spirituality and Human Emotion (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1982).
8. Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness: A Phenomenological Essay on Ontology, Hazel E. Barnes, trans. (New York: Philosophical Library, Inc., 1956), p.61.
9. Humans simply cannot "turn on a dime" emotionally. An emotional state--whether grief, fear, anger, sadness, joy, resentment, jealousy, gratitude, or the like--is conserved, in part at least, by the physiological "mechanisms" of its embodying structures. That is, the neurophysiology that helps facilitate an emotional state is inextricably bound to such features as intensity and duration. One clear example is anger. Anger (especially when it is correctly informed) cannot instantaneously be "turned off" by the exercise of a Sartrian will as though flipping a light switch. Anger needs time to subside, and that is why in marriage, for example, spouses do well to respect one another's need for recovery time.
10. DSM-IV refers to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th edition . It is published by the American Psychiatric Association for the purpose of standardizing clinical psychiatric diagnoses according to the latest research.