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Cognition

“When someone says ‘I am thinking, therefore I am, or I exist,’ he does not deduce existence from thought by means of a syllogism, but recognizes it as something self-evident by a simple intuition of the mind.” Rene Descartes  (Replies 2, AT 7:140)

“I do not myself grasp all that I am. Thus the mind is too narrow to contain itself. But where can that part be which it does not contain?” Saint Augustine (Confessions 8:15)

Cognition is loosely defined as the mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses. The question of how cognition is formed and where cognition takes place is perhaps best reflected in the classic words of Saint Augustinewhen he inquired, “I do not myself grasp all that I am. Thus the mind is too narrow to contain itself. But where can that part be which it does not contain?” Augustine’s reflection on his experience is not only the common dilemma of the individual grasping for a sense of grounding of self, but also the “one central theoretical issue that moves across the subject areas and determines the ethical shape of knowledge”—the individual-social binary (Carrette, 2007: 70).This theoretic issue is the basis for the study of cognition and is found in the history and formation of the fields of religious studies, psychology, philosophy, linguistics, sociology, neuroscience, artificial intelligence and cognitive science. In The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James addressed the then newly in vogue expression “field of consciousness” in psychology, arguing that it was leading to the admission that mental life, formerly figured to be singular and discretely delimited was probably “the entire wave of consciousness or field of objects present to the thought at any time” and without “any definiteness” (James, 1902/2009: 206). James thought the new explorations of consciousness as relations that existed beyond the field of direct understanding casts light on many phenomena of religious biography. Current research in consciousness and the cognitive sciences can also provide new insights on many phenomena of religious biography, especially when researchers incorporate embodied theories of cognition.

As researchers, how do past and current research on and the debates surrounding consciousness affect our understanding of embodiment? Throughout modern research on cognition, there have been various theories and paradigms. Included in this is “introspectionism, Gestalt psychology, and behaviorism in the first half of the recent history of psychology, to computationally based paradigms, such as the ‘rules and representations’ approach that began the cognitive revolution in the 1950s and connectionism and dynamic systems theory that have challenged that approach more recently” (Wilson, 2004: 27). Over decades of research and development, the field of the cognitive sciences has almost entirely excluded the lived, embodied experience of the individual. The embodied mind theories of cognition seek to correct the computational and ideological frames of cognitive science by taking seriously the lived embodied experience of the individual.

Theories of cognition should also include, or at least address, embodied cognition.  Embodied cognition theories hold that the form of the human body mainly determines the nature of the human mind and cognition. Many researchers of embodied cognition argue that the body is responsible for all aspects of cognition. These theories are opposed to other theories of cognition such as cognitivismcomputationalism, and Cartesian dualism. Theories of embodied cognition have origins in Kant and 20th century continental philosophy, such as Merleau-Ponty. Current embodied cognition theories incorporate research in psychology (Eleanor Rosch), linguistics (Mark Turner, Rafael E. Nunez), cognitive science (Mark Johnson, Gregory Bateson, Humberto Maturana), dynamical systems, artificial intelligence (Andy Clark), robotics (Rodney Brooks, Hans Moravec, Rolf Pfeifer), and neurobiology (Gerald Edelman, Antonio Damasio, Francisco Valela).

Works cited

Carrette, Jeremy. Religion and Critical Psychology. London: Routledge, 2007.

In this book, Dr. Carrette argues that the psychology of religion is no longer sustainable without a social critique, and that as William James predicted, the project of the modernist psychology of religion has failed. Controversially he champions greater social and philosophical analysis within the field to challenge the political naivety and disciplinary illusions of the traditional approaches to psychology of religion. Dr. Carrette discusses the relevance of the social and economic factors surrounding the debates of psychology and religion, through three critical examples: (1) psychoanalysis; (2) humanistic psychology; and (3) cognitive neuroscience. A Critical Psychology of Religion provides a new dimension to the debates surrounding religious experience. It will be of interest to students and researchers in the fields of critical psychology, religious experience and the psychology of religion and extends an interdisciplinary challenge to the separation of psychology, sociology, politics, economics and religion.

Descartes, Rene. Meditations on First Philosophy (Indianapolis: Hackett publishing, 1998 [originally published in 1641]).

Rene Descartes goal in the Meditations is to establish a firm philosophical grounding from which we can ascertain, by the power of human reason, the truth of the existence of the world as well as our own existence. For Descartes, this is done by the famous method of doubt: doubt everything that can be doubted at all, until you find something that cannot be doubted. He eventually came to think that the very first thing that could not be doubted was the fact that we think—hence, the famous dictum, “I think, therefore I am.” Early in the Meditations, Descartes denied the factual reality of the body, but by the last two meditations—five and six—he had come to realize that one needs the body to experience, and therefore to think as well. However, he is still credited with making a distinction between the mind and the body, and subordinating the latter to the former. This distinction and the subordination that came along with it has motivated many philosophers, theologians, and social scientists to try to move past this distinction, and underscore the importance of the body in and for thinking itself.

James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience. 1902.

James classic text is at the crossroads of psychology and religion. William James believed that individual religious experiences, rather than the precepts of organized religions, were the backbone of the world’s religious life. His discussions of conversion, repentance, mysticism and saintliness, and his observations on actual, personal religious experiences – all support this thesis. James’ inclusion of the body and experience make this a useful text for embodiment and religion research.

Wilson, Robert A. Boundaries of the Mind. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Where does the mind begin and end? Most philosophers and cognitive scientists take the view that the mind is bounded by the skull or skin of the individual. Robert Wilson provides the foundations for the view that the mind extends beyond the boundary of the individual. The approach adopted offers a unique blend of traditional philosophical analysis, cognitive science, and the history of psychology and the human sciences.