Christianity, representation and psychology

May 15, 2016 – 11:49 am

I a previous post I cryptically alluded to a possible link between the Christian sphere and the readiness of psychologists to accept an image as a substitute for the thing itself (in that case, for a real flesh-and-blood face). I realise this is insufficient, and I cannot do it justice here either, but there is an important conversation that needs having.

When I say “Christian”, I do not mean one institutional church or another, nor do I mean one set of beliefs or another. Indeed, the notion of belief as underlying the rational deliberation of an autonomous agent is itself resolutely “Christian” in the sense I mean. I could say “Western” instead, but I don’t like that, it leads to fatuous East/West orientalism, and it dodges the theological import of many ideas that shape our contemporary discussion within the human sciences. More after the fold.

The basic terms in which we discuss the relation of natural law to experience and behaviour have arisen in a particular context. It could not be otherwise. The trajectory extends back to the Greeks (so it includes pre-Christian contributions). The scientific ground runs from roughly 1600 to the present, and so comes after the twin developments of the Protestant reformation and the Renaissance. The Reformation brought to the fore the notion of the autonomous individual bearing full moral responsibility for his (yes, usually his) actions. This extreme individualism was not a feature of early Christianity (or Judaism, or Islam), and does not extend to those earlier Christian branches, the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox churches. The Renaissance introduced the notion of linear perspective and gave rise to a culture of images in which the representational image presupposes a fixed viewing point in an isometric space.

When we hat-tip Newton, Galileo and Descartes as seminal figures in the emergence of a scientific framework, we point to the emergence of a culturally specific view of reality, based on a highly idealised notion of what physics is about (the motion of matter based on force), that to this day does not contain any account of some rather important aspects of existence (agency, experience, mentality). This view, which extends the old pre-socratic Parmenidean notion of a timeless deterministic universe, found its most modern elaboration in the special and general relativity theories of Einstein.

There has never been a place in this picture for experience or mind. Instead, we have the notion of a fixed locus from which the observer regards a mind-independent universe. The separation of the experiencer from the world is a legacy from this tradition, reinforced by the empiricists, most notably Hume, but really established by Kant. When latter-day cognitive scientists of the embodied persuasion speak of Cartesian dualism, they usually mean something closer to the transcendentalism of Kant. This is one source of the psychologists belief that a subject can be made to be still. I critiqued this here, but it needs repeating: subjects are active. They dodge, move, weave, approach, flee. The idea that a subject can be associated with a fixed viewing point from which a mind-independent world is observed is, in this broad cultural sense, thoroughly Christian.

We might note in passing how the developing philosophy of mind, which led in the 19th century to a scientific psychology, was populated with figures with strong Christian beliefs. Kant and Descartes, of course, but the important contributions of Brentano, Husserl, and even James were strongly grounded in Christian beliefs. Hume is an important and obvious exception. Ed Reed has done a great job of tracing the manner in which the Christian idea of the Soul was integrated into the emerging discipline of psychology in the reified notion of the mind – or as we might now say, the cognitive system.

The tradition I am crudely sketching has adopted one view of the relation of immanence (the Now and Present) to transcendence (beyond, persistent, independent). Some technological developments have further served to build upon this view. This brief post cannot hope to track this adequately, but any serious discussion would have to look at the effects of widespread literacy, of recording technologies both visual and auditory, and of course the political legacy of the enlightenment, where the political subject emerged, replete with human rights. (I hope that latter point makes it clear that I am not denouncing science as a Christian fantasy, but I am rather trying to be aware of the contingent cultural framework within which our contemporary human sciences work.)

One hallmark of this culturally specific trajectory, is the willingness to allow representations to stand for that which is not there. The belief that looking at an image is somehow comparable to being in the presence of an thing represented (a face, necessarily attached to a person) was the bizarre starting point, but one forced upon us by the practices of contemporary cognitive psychologists, who seem unaware of their basic philosophical, political, and theological foundations. This is singularly Christian in the sense I have sketched above. It is indeed a hallmark of the Western Christian tradition that appeal is made to a transcendent God, transcendent Heaven and Hell, and a solipsistic starkly individual mind.

There are alternative approaches to the scientific treatment of the person that are coming into view. My money is currently on the enactive approach as potentially delivering a liberating vocabulary that is not so beholden to Christian assumptions. The fact that its seminal volume, the 1991 The Embodied Mind, actually set out to inject some Buddhist considerations into the science of the mind is here not a detail but acknowledges a hugely important need to relativise our understanding, to try to be aware of the strengths and limitations we each must necessarily have as we approach the oldest of questions. Within our local traditions we also have available to us an alternative pre-Socratic figure in Heraclitus, whose approach to immanence stands in stark contrast to the state-based Parmenidean view. There is much to be done. But part of that work necessitates becoming aware of where we currently are.

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