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Communication, Knowledge, Bodies and God: Part 10

Limitations of Human Reason

One thing that comes out of Lakoff and Johnson’s analysis, almost as an aside, is that there are limits to what we can know because our reasoning is metaphorically based. That is, because we experience the world entirely through our bodies, we cannot really understand things that cannot be conceptualised bodily. This is not to say that we cannot engage in any kind of abstract thought, but rather that our range of senses, and therefore our conceptual ability, is limited.

By its very nature, it is very difficult to give an example of this—how can I give an example of something I completely fail to comprehend? The nearest I can think is the example of a photon. According to Wikipedia, “the photon is the elementary particle responsible for electromagnetic phenomena”*—in particular, light. We know that photons of light exhibit wave-like properties and particle-like properties at the same time. This is almost impossible to conceptualise because we do not experience anything like this through our bodily senses. Yet, these properties have been well documented. Even this is a poor example, however, since we can conceptualise both light and particles.

Applying this to street-level theology, this may be one of the reasons people find the doctrine of free-will versus predestination so confusing. In our conceptual models of causality, if something is predestined, choice does not exist, hence we do not have free will. The bible holds that we are morally responsible for our choice to accept or reject God. Yet, at the same time, it holds that God predestines some people for salvation (and, by implication, not others).

What is going on here? In western thinking, a primary metaphor we use to understand free will is freedom-of-motion. That is, freedom of motion implies a lack of physical constraints so that I can move wherever I wish. We map this bodily experience onto our concept of freedom-of-choice. If I am in gaol, then I do not have freedom because I cannot move about as I wish. I am constrained.

At the same time we also think of causes as physical forces. This is based on the bodily experience of achieving results by exerting forces on physical objects to move or change them. By coupling this metaphor with the freedom of motion metaphor, phrases such as ‘I had no choice—I was forced to go that way’ make sense. The phrase would make sense equally well if spoken by a prisoner, or of a man declaring bankruptcy. In the case of the bankrupt man, there is no actual physical force, nor is bankruptcy a literal direction of motion, but we understand these things metaphorically.

A common way to conceptualise predestination is as being forced to take a certain path (or paths) so that we arrive at a particular destination. The word ‘predestination’ even contains the metaphorical concept ‘destination’. So, if I am predestined, then my journey through life is constrained so that I reach a certain destination.

For myself, this conjures up images of train tracks. In Figure 2, a train travels from A to F. It does not matter which path the train takes (ABF, ADF, ACDF, ACEF), the destination is fixed. The tracks force the train to a certain destination.

Railroad tracks, showing multiple paths to the same destination

Figure 2: Railroad tracks as a metaphor for predestination: No matter which path is followed, the end destination is still the same.

It is difficult for us to conceptualise freedom and predestination in any other way. However, causes are not always physical forces and do not always work like physical forces. Neither does predestination, in the biblical sense, lead us to a physical location. Freedom of choice is not the same as freedom from physical constraint.

Further compounding the problem is that we often hold a folk theory of single causes. That is, that there is a single actor that can be blamed for causing an event. The folk theory is easily demonstrated to be false. A common example is the question ‘Did slavery cause the American civil war?’. A yes or no will not suffice to answer it. To give another example, imagine that I see a billboard advertising a particular soft drink. The advertisement appeals to me, so I then go and buy a bottle of the drink. Now, who is responsible for me buying the drink? Was it the advertiser? If I had not seen the billboard, then I would not have bought the drink. Yet, I still made the decision to buy the drink myself. The advertiser did not force me to do anything. Who is at fault? Both of us, and neither of us. Causality is not that simple.

It would be a mistake to extend the metaphor of advertisement to understanding predestination. God is not like the advertiser, and becoming a Christian is not like buying a bottle of soft drink. Yet the point remains that the metaphors we use to understand free-will and causality are limited. Our reasoning is limited by the metaphors that enable us to think about abstract concepts. Our minds are flexible enough to learn new metaphors, and thus broaden our capacity for understanding, but thinking will always be metaphorical.


* ‘Photon’, In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 23 March 2007.
URL: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Photon

Here, we define light as “electromagnetic radiation of any wavelength”; making X-rays, gamma rays, ultraviolet light, infrared light, microwaves, radio waves, and visible light all forms of light.

Tags: christianity, communication, free will, philosophy, predestination, reasoning
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