This morning I submitted the final version of my doctoral dissertation (“Deity and Divine Agency in the Hebrew Bible: Cognitive Perspectives”) to the University of Exeter after inputting a handful of typographical corrections recommended by my examiners. The abstract is below. If you’re interested in a PDF of my dissertation, please feel free to reach out to me.
This thesis interrogates the conceptualization of deity and divine agency in the Hebrew Bible, focusing particularly on the problem of the relationship of divine images and representatives to their patron deities. In order to move beyond the tendentiousness of previous scholarship that addresses this problem, I employ an interdisciplinary approach that will center cognitive linguistics and the cognitive science of religion, and also include biblical criticism, archaeology, anthropology, materiality studies, and other disciplines.
I begin in Part One with a methodological discussion that describes the approaches being taken and interrogates some of the conceptual frameworks that have governed the previous scholarship on the question, such as “religion” and the practice of definition. It will then move on to discuss the concepts of agency and personhood, and how contemporary anthropological research on both can help inform our interrogation of the ancient world.
Part Two begins the interrogation of the generic concept of deity, demonstrating that such concepts are products of the engagement of our intuitive and reflective reasoning with our cognitive ecologies, and that they build on our everyday conceptualizations of agency and personhood. These dynamics facilitate a view of divine agency as separable and communicable, which will be demonstrated to undergird the unique relationships understood to be shared by deities and their divine images. Chapter 4 employs a cognitive linguistic lens to propose semantic bases, domains, and profiles for the generic concept of deity in the Hebrew Bible.
Part Three applies the models developed in Chapters 3 and 4 to an interrogation of YHWH as a deity and of YHWH’s divine agents, such as the ark of the covenant, the messenger of YHWH, and the very text of the Torah itself. The Conclusion summarizes findings and discusses implications for further research.
My recent post regarding the fact that words do not possess meaning in any sense is intended to set the methodological stage, along with this post, for a future post regarding how people approach authoritative texts like the Bible or the Constitution. An important principle that’s going to inform a lot of this particular post is something called dual-process cognition (an excerpt from a book about this is here). This is the observation that our reasoning seems to occupy a spectrum that runs from fast, automatic, and subconscious reasoning (based on evolution and our mind’s conditioning) all the way to slow, reflective, and intentional reasoning (based on our goals, values, and logic). These types of reasoning can and frequently do conflict with each other (a fascinating example is here).
In this post, I’d like to highlight how our experience of the world around us and our place in it is constructed entirely by our subconscious minds. The cognitive architecture responsible for constructing this experience runs the gamut from innate and evolutionarily-determined predispositions down to default settings established through experience and habit. In short, nature and nurture combine to help us experience the world in similar and roughly accurate ways. The goal is to maximize our chances of survival and of social success (we have evolved not just to survive ourselves, but to help our social groups survive and to improve our standing within them). Because our experiences are all different, no two people experience the world in exactly the same way.
Here’s a pretty compelling example of an interpretive lens pretty much all of us share. Look at the image below (taken from the first episode of Brain Games). It shows two gray discs before a horizon line, with one darker than the other. The trick here is that the gray of each disc is the exact same shade of gray. You can demonstrate this by placing your finger over the spot where the discs join to cover up the highlight at the top of the bottom disc and the shadow at the bottom of the top disc. If you remove your finger, they go back to looking like different shades of gray. If you slide your finger over so only half of the joint is covered, focusing on your finger will render the grays identical, while shifting your focus to the corner where the two discs meet will make them appear different shades again.
What’s going on here? Your mind is subconsciously interpreting the world around you at all times, and it has a number of default settings regarding how to tell you to interpret things. Because this image highlights the top of the bottom disc, and puts a shadow at the bottom of the top disc, it mimics the features of a three-dimensional object in space. In light of that, our mind expects the surface in the light to be a lighter color than the surface in the shadow. They’re exactly the same, though, so our mind actually makes us perceive the surface in the light as a darker gray, and the surface in the shadow as a lighter gray. Our mind detects something off, but instead of letting us perceive it as “off,” it simply alters our perception so it does not seem off. This all happens automatically and subconsciously, because our minds want our experience of the world to be consistent with its expectations, and where there are tiny discrepancies, our minds are happy to blur the lines for us.
The mind’s curation of our experience of the world around us and our place in it extends to all our senses. I highly recommend the Brain Games episode from which I borrowed the image above. It goes through a number of different experiments that show how our minds construct our experience of the world. One fascinating thing it does not discuss (but briefly approximates with the fake hand trick) is phantom pains. One particular kind of phantom pain illustrates how our minds construct our experience, but also how we can intentionally fool our minds to change that experience. A phantom pain is when the mind decides for whatever reason that it is receiving pain signals from a limb that has been lost or was never there. Some people experience the sensation of an absent hand being clenched in an excruciatingly tight fist that they cannot unclench. A neuroscientist named V. S. Ramachandran came up with an ingenious solution to this particular kind of pain (he described it here, and much more recently here, but it was also dramatically depicted in an episode of House). He put together a box with two holes and a mirror. The subject would put their existing arm in one hole and then whatever they could of their other arm in the other hole. The reflection on the mirror inside the box made it look like both hands were there. The subjects would clench their existing fist, look at the reflection (which their mind now perceived to be their clenched phantom fist), and then release their fist with their existing hand. Their mind would see the reflected fist unclench and would unclench the phantom fist, relieving the excruciating pain.
Of particular interest to me is how texts work, though, and that episode of Brain Games doesn’t go into much depth with reading. There’s another episode that offers a good illustration of one of the ways our minds prejudice our reading:
One of the main reasons this kind of thing fools us, in addition to what is explained in the clip, is because reading is a process of stitching together what we see in the text and what we anticipate will come next. Because it takes about 1/10 of a second for our minds to process input, and because that’s more than enough time for something to threaten our existence, our minds have evolved to predict what is coming, based on a combination of incoming data and its past experiences, and to project an experience to fill in that gap. Just like with the gray disc illusion, our mind can compel us to see or not to see something if it is confident enough in what we should and shouldn’t be reading. (This is why typos in our writing are so much easier for other people to see.)
There is an added dynamic with authoritative texts, and that’s our identity politics. We all perceive ourselves to be members of different kinds and degrees of social groups, and those identities are phenomenally important to our minds. It’s one of the reasons some people who don’t feel like they “belong” to any or a specific group can suffer from severe depression. As a result, our social identities can exercise a great deal of influence over how our minds compel us to interpret authoritative texts. My next post will discuss identity politics in more detail.
In debates about the meanings of texts and public statements, it’s not uncommon for someone at some point to assert that, “Words have meaning!” Most commonly, this comes at a point of frustration when someone’s argument about what some linguistic expression means doesn’t seem to be landing, and it is frequently followed by the assertion that otherwise we would not be able to communicate. Neither claim is true, however. Words objectively do not have meaning.
All meaning associated with communication resides entirely and exclusively within the mind* of the individual articulating a linguistic expression or the individual interpreting a linguistic expression. There is no sense in which ‘meaning” somehow resides within blobs of ink, pixels on a screen, in the light reflecting off of hand signs, or in sound waves. There is no unit of meaning to measure and there is no paper we can rub on a word that will turn pink to indicate a hypothesized meaning is present. The meaning never leaves our mind or enters our mind from somewhere else. All meaning a person ever perceives is constructed entirely within their own mind.
When we create a linguistic expression (whether through signing, speaking, writing, or pantomiming), we are taking a concept or concepts from our mind and assigning the linguistic symbols we understand to most closely or most efficiently approximate them, according to the understanding our experiences have given us of the conventions of a given language. Those symbols are always only approximations. They are never absolutely isometric with the concepts in our minds. When we interpret a linguistic expression, we are taking the symbols expressed, and constructing in our minds the most likely semantic content they are intended to represent, based on our own experiences with the conventions of a given language.
Because the conventions of a given language derive from shared experiences, and because everyone’s experiences are different and constantly changing, the conventions of a given language are understood differently from person to person, and differ from one moment to the next. A simple and small-scale example of this is the word “boot.” Ask a person on the street in San Antonio, Texas, to describe a “boot” in as much detail as possible, and they’ll most likely describe a cowboy boot. Ask a person on the street in London, England, and they’ll most likely describe an army boot, if not the trunk of a car. While these are small differences, they illustrate just how fuzzy the connection of a word may be to the concepts in our heads. When we try to communicate about complex ideas that have different semantic layers, and then factor in non-verbal communication, rhetorical context, and our assumptions about the intentions, motivations, and socio-cultural background of the signer/speaker/writer or the viewer/hearer/reader, the potential for one mind’s reconstruction of the most likely intended meaning of a linguistic expression to be off-target from the symbols constructed by the other mind rises exponentially.
The one fascinating exception to the complete and utter arbitrariness of the assignment of meaning to combinations of sounds and their own assignment to combinations of letters is a small set of very generic conceptual metaphors that seem to be embedded in many people’s intuitive reasoning by the universal (or near-universal) patterns of experience inherent in growing up in a human society. Even these are not consistent across the world, but a famous example is the bouba/kiki effect. Look at the two shapes below. One shape in a given language is called “bouba,” and the other is called “kiki.” Which do you think is which?
The majority of people will say the shape on the left is “kiki,” since the sounds produced by that name are shorter and more abrupt––commonly perceived as “sharp”––while the sounds produced by the name “bouba” are commonly perceived as “round,” more like the shape on the right.
Dictionaries do not establish or adjudicate meaning, they chase after usage and try to reduce words and concepts to necessary and sufficient features, which is frequently distorting, as meaning is almost never built on such features. Think of the word “furniture,” as an example. You probably know precisely what furniture means, but almost all native English speakers have never had to look it up in a dictionary in order to learn what it means, and if asked, couldn’t give anything approximating a useful definition of the word. Look it up in the dictionary and you’ll also find a definition that isn’t very helpful, because in trying to reduce the concept to the shortest list of necessary and sufficient features, it ended up roping lots of things in to the category that are never referred to as “furniture.” You know what furniture is because of all of your years of experience seeing and hearing what kinds of things are referred to as furniture, not because there is some inherent meaning inhabiting the word that magically inserts units of meaning into your brain. If you had lived your whole life seeing people refer to pens and wires as “furniture,” the meaning you would conjure up in your head would have nothing to do with the meaning intended by a signer/speaker/writer. That’s because words do not have meaning, they are just conventionalized indices for meaning that index unique and subjective suites of meanings for every mind that interprets them.
* There is a caveat here. Frameworks like Material Engagement Theory hold that the mind extends throughout the material media that facilitate cognitive acts, including the human body and whatever tools and interfaces with which it engages. According to such frameworks, written, inscribed, or even spoken words could be conceptualized as extensions of the mind. However, given that meaning is still unilaterally confined to a given mind, the process of meaning making described in the rest of the post still obtains for any and all attempts by one mind to find meaning in the linguistic expression of another (or even in one’s own previous linguistic expressions).
In the next week or two, the newest volume of the Religious Educator will hit the stands. This journal is published by Brigham Young University’s Religious Studies Center, and it is intended for instructors of Seminary, Institute, Sunday School, and anyone else interested in religious education in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
This particular volume has a contribution from me entitled, “‘As Far As It is Translated Correctly’: Bible Translation and the Church.” This review article interrogates the relationship the Church has long had with Bible translation and looks at Thomas Wayment’s recent translation of the New Testament (here). I’m hoping to start a conversation with this paper that will address the complications that our dogmatic commitment to the KJV imposes on our study and teaching of the Bible. Keep an eye out for it in the coming weeks.
“Psalm 82 has long resisted a consensus regarding its genre. While some scholars have noted that the psalm’s language overlaps with that of the complaint genre, several features of the psalm appear to complicate that reading. As a result, the framework of the divine council is frequently given interpretive priority, which has resulted in a variety of solutions to the psalm’s several interpretive difficulties and has also contributed to a general reluctance to consider the psalm within the literary context of the psalms of Asaph. I argue that the psalm’s interpretive difficulties are best resolved by understanding the psalm as a complaint, specifically a complaint put into the mouth of YHWH and addressed to the gods of the nations—a “gods-complaint.” This reading provides a new interpretive framework that may help resolve important questions related to the psalm’s compositional background, rhetorical function, and theological influence.”
I’m excited to see that an Equinox volume to which I contributed a small essay is now available. The volume, Method Today: Redescribing Approaches to the Study of Religion, edited by Dr. Brad Stoddard, offers reflections by senior scholars on four different aspects of the study of religion, followed by responses from younger scholars. The table of contents is above. I responded to Dr. Naomi Goldenberg’s discussion of “description,” and I used cognitive linguistics to address concerns with attempts to define “religion,” as well as the notion that there’s something problematic about the category in light of its incommensurability with definition. You can get a 25% discount by using the code RELIGION at checkout. (Feel free to email me for more information on my essay.)
Next week, the first issue of Biblical Archaeology Review published under the leadership of its new editor, Robert R. Cargill, hits the stands. I, for one, am excited to see what Bob brings to the magazine, especially in light of the fact that he’s already a professional scholar working in the field and on its cutting edge. I expect to see much more insightful, more diverse, and more scholarly analysis. He’s already announced that there will be no treatment of unprovenanced artifacts, apart from criticism or using them as object lessons about the many problems with their use and proliferation. I think these are important and welcome developments. Make sure to pick up a copy!