On Brains, Science, and Political Positions
Recently I was sent an article by my old friend (literally, on both attributes) and theology teacher from seminary. The article was by George Lakoff, a professor of cognitive science and linguistics at Berkeley, and titled, "Obama, Tea Parties, and the Battle for our Brains." The grand theolog rightly sniffed-out that something was fishy about this article, but he couldn't quite identify the problem. (Since I was his T.A. some decades ago, he apparently thinks he can still simply assign me tasks at whim and I'll drop everything and jump right on them. Dang it -- apparently he's right!)
At the general level, the article is not too surprising: that the metaphors we use to mentally frame issues are often tied to how our brain processes bodily states. And since conscious mental states are also processed by the brain, it's not surprising that there would be shared processing structures, or similar processing structures involved in both mental processes and body-monitoring processes.
Again, that people use different metaphors to frame common issues, and then fight to understand one another is also well known. People have preferred metaphors, and words are not limited to strictly defined or precisely understood meanings. Yet, happily, metaphorical language can be decoded into less-metaphorical or even non-metaphorical language, the latter being what scientists do when they utilize mathematics and logic to explain and predict phenomenon. Reasoning with analytical languages give us the precision, understanding, and control of concepts that would otherwise be unavailable with natural languages.
Mr. Lakoff is a cognitive scientist and reports on studies that are well attested, and there's no reason to suspect his accuracy in recounting of those results. However, he seems to be defending a troublesome argument:
- The vast majority of political reasoning by people is by metaphorical framing.
- And those people who reason with metaphorical framing are people who are hearing only what they want to hear. Whether affirming or denying how they've framed the issue, the very re-statement of their frame simply reinforces it.
- Therefore, the argument goes, people on the liberal and conservative sides of political issues are generally hearing only what they want to hear.
Furthermore, as an additional argument, he thinks conservatives of one brand or another are committed to eliminating any contrary positions, and any riding-the-fence positions, thus leaving their ideology as the only one around. After all, on Mr. Lakoff's analysis, conservatives think their position is the only one that "should" be around.
What can one make of all this? On my view, Mr. Lakoff draws a false dichotomy between what he misleadingly labels "real" reason and "false" reason, where the former is how people (allegedly) really think, and the latter is what is traditionally associated with Enlightenment ideals of reasoning. I would point out straightway how suspicious one should be of this bifurcation, as if somehow humans didn't use metaphorical framing during the Enlightenment era, or that humans are not deeply engaged in using the traditional kind of reason in science everyday. (Recall my math usage observation earlier.) Although I think the argument above is often an accurate portrayal of how the general populous operates, premiss one allows for other kinds of thinking (which Mr. Lakoff himself is doing), and premise two is plainly too strong; that people use metaphorical framing does not mean they are locked into it; it's just that people are generally ignorant, unwise, and easily manipulated -- a view of the citizenry that our U.S. founding fathers, themselves Enlightenment figures, mind you, were quite happy to maintain.
Mr. Lakoff wants his readers to think that there is a direct, uncomplicated circuit between metaphors and words in our brains, and even that "every word is neurally connected." This is complete poppy-cock. First, that every word has a location for a convenient connection has not been shown, not even partially, not even remotely. (Where is the word 'trinity' stored in my brain, or 'infinity'? Is 'stairway' stored as one word or two?) This is idle speculation tossed about as good science. Second, even if there were found circuits between metaphors and words, there would be a host of other branching circuits modulating and interfering with how that information is exchanged. Indeed, the average single neuron has 7,000 connections to it, so I hardly think that a simple, on/off mutual inhibition of brain circuits explains why, in Mr. Lakoff's words, "There is no moral system of the moderate or the middle." This claim is laughably simplistic, and all the more surprising coming from a scholar of Mr. Lakoff's level. Contrary to what computerniks wish, neurons are not like on/off switches, but fire in analog fashion and modulate the signals among one another with great subtlety and by means of complicated, even recursive feedback loops.
Granted, people can be pig-headed and stubborn, but they are not merely slaves to stimulus-response conditioning when it comes to abstract philosophical matters like politics. On the supposition that humans do have some level of free will, they can chose to reason using several different modalities, not just by their metaphorical framing. Oh but that they would pause for a while and recognize (or learn) that traditional reasoning has it's place in politics too, and can be beneficial for everyone in the political community!
[image] ABC news
 George Lakoff, "Obama, Tea Parties and the Battle for Our Brains" Feb. 22 2010 Truthout (Accessed Feb. 27, 2010)