Elements of Idealized Cognitive Models

To better understand how idealized cognitive models (ICMs) might be useful in talking about religious language, prototype effects need to be understood in more depth. Before prototype effects were introduced, a prominent theory of categorization was that our mental categories objectively represented objects in our environment. This classic model of categorization rested on the premise that entities have necessary properties, so as long as someone has an adequate degree of knowledge, they could, for example, establish that something is either a bird or not a bird. Although this model may capture some features of categorization in ideal situations within science, it fails to represent what humans (and nonhuman animals) do in real-life “noisy” environments where there are pressures to categorize entities rapidly based on limited information. When trying to determine whether the rustling in the bushes is a bird or a snake, there simply may not be time to check whether the entity has a beak or lays eggs.

In contrast to the classic model, the idea that many categories exhibit prototype effects developed from empirical research into categorization in the late 1960s and the following decade (Нота & Cultice, 1984; Posner & Keele, 1968; Rosch & Mervis, 1975). A prototype is “a cognitive representation that captures the regularities and commonalities among category members and can thus help a perceiver distinguish category members from non-members” (Minda & Smith, 2011, p. 40). A key feature of a prototype is its similarity to group members and dissimilarity from non-group members. For example, a robin can, at least for some people, function as a good prototype for birds because robins look and behave like many other birds. A penguin, on the other hand, tends to be viewed as less prototypical, since it is both similar to non-birds and differs from most other birds—it swims (like a fish) but it doesn’t fly.

Rosch (1975) explored prototypes in a series of experiments and found that participants often viewed certain members of a category as better examples of that category than other members. Participants were asked, for example, to think about specific birds and rate the degree to which they represented the category of birds. They then provided “goodness of example” ratings to individual category members. Not surprisingly, at least in a Western context, robins were rated as better examples of birds than penguins. In other tasks, participants’ reaction times were measured when responding to questions related to category membership, such as whether a robin belonged to the category of birds. The birds that were seen as more prototypical were more quickly categorized than others.

So how do human beings manage to react quickly and smoothly to events and situations? To explain this, researchers in Cognitive Linguistics developed a framework adopting several key concepts from cognitive science (Lakoff, 1987b; Lakoff & Johnson, 1999). One such concept was that of a domain. Lakoff (1993) uses the term to refer to associated sets of experience; for example, the human experience of love or our experience of journeys. A domain, within this conceptualization, has a certain degree of stability—it is not some ad hoc set of associations that comes together within working memory to do a task only to disappear and never be seen again. Langacker (1987) similarly defines a domain as “a coherent area of conceptualization relative to which semantic units may be characterized” (p. 488) and further distinguishes between basic domains (e.g., color, smell) and abstract domains (e.g., the rules of chess, a kinship network).

Although language is used to describe experience of the world and to differentiate concepts, domains themselves are not limited to those experiences one can label and articulate. Of course, language plays a critical role in verbal communication, but in constructing meaning, a listener actually draws on an enormous store of extralinguistic (often called encyclopedic) knowledge to determine the meaning of an utterance, including such elements as the context of the communicative event, background knowledge of the world, and assumptions about the speaker’s communicative intentions. Our ability, for example, to understand Mother of God as a phrase used by a Roman Catholic but not by a Protestant Evangelical attests to our ability to draw on a rich network of preexisting knowledge.

One way to describe the structure of extralinguistic knowledge is in terms of frames. Largely synonymous with schemas, the concept of frames was developed in the mid-1970s through work in the areas of sociology, artificial intelligence, and linguistics. Fillmore and Baker (2010) view frames as “organized packages of knowledge, beliefs, and patterns of practice that shape and allow humans to make sense of their experiences” (p. 314). As such, frames “play an important role in how people perceive, remember, and reason about their experiences, how they form assumptions about the background and possible concomitants of those experiences, and even how one’s own life experiences can or should be enacted” (p. 314).

A good example of the way frames function in our daily communication is our use of everyday terms such as week (Lakotf, 1987b). When this term is used or heard, one understands that a week can be viewed as a whole or can be divided up into weekdays and a weekend or into seven parts that are referred to as days, which in turn can be divided further into hours, and so on. Each of these parts are arranged as a temporal sequence with Wednesday always preceding Thursday, so if someone is told that their colleague will be on holiday from Tuesday to Thursday, they understand that their colleague will be on holiday on Wednesday. They also know that different days “feel” different from each other, that a Friday feels different from a Monday. All of this knowledge is part of a frame for understanding the concept of a week.

Frames play an important role in religious conceptualization. Consider, for example, Buddhist psychology. In early Buddhist writings, the mind is treated as one sense alongside the other five senses. In this frame, individual thoughts and even the reaction to those thoughts are viewed as external phenomena, much in the way one might experience a physical landscape. This frame has strongly influenced how Buddhists talk about psychological processes. Consider the following guided meditation in which the American Zen master Jon Kabat-Zinn instructs meditators on how to observe the “body scape” and the “breath scape”:

For a time attending to the stream of thought rather than being carried away by the content or emotional charge of individual thoughts, instead resting comfortably on the bank of the thoughts, river or the thought stream itself, allowing individual thoughts if and when they arise to be seen, felt, recognized and known, as thoughts as events in the field of awareness.

[...] Seeing any and all of these fleeting thoughts as bubbles, eddies and currents within the stream.

[...] Expanding the metaphor, seeing any and all of these evanescent thought events more like clouds in the sky or bubbles coming off the bottom of a pot of boiling water.

[...] For now,just letting any and all thoughts come and go.Just let sounds come and go. Or sensations come and go. Just resting in an awareness of thinking itself and the spaces between thoughts.

(Kabat-Zinn, 2019)

Kabat-Zinn uses a host of metaphors for awareness of thought like watching a river go by, seeing bubbles, eddies and aments, watching clouds go by, and so on. All require a frame in which thoughts are external phenomena that are viewed in the same passive manner regardless of their content. Thoughts and sensations are presented as essentially identical within the frame, as objects of awareness that are to be perceived with wisdom (i.e., as not constituting a self and as unworthy of both attachment and aversion).

So far, our discussion has focused on extralinguistic knowledge structures that can be evoked by language to enrich communicative content. In some cases, this knowledge relates to events that occur in a specific temporal sequence. These structures, called scripts (Schank & Abelson, 1977), represent the abstract knowledge of what is done in a particular situation, such as when one holds a bat mitzvah or attends a funeral. Scripts play a particularly critical role in ritual activities within religious systems, especially in Confucianism, where the concept of

It encompasses a wide scope of human activities. These include ceremony, ritual, decorum, manners, rules of propriety, and so on. In the early Confucian writings, human agency relies on specific patterns of action (i.e., It) in order to participate in the harmonious functioning of the world, which in Confucian thought is often viewed through the frame of family and government relationships. These ideal patterns are thought to have been developed over time by ancient sages and wise kings before becoming embedded within civilized cultural practices.

Another important concept related to category formation is a schema, which is defined by Tuggv (2007) as “a superordinate concept ... which specifies the basic outline common to several, or many, more specific concepts” (p. 83). According to Langacker (1987), schemas underlie our ability to develop generalizations that capture the essential common features of a category by abstracting peripheral features. He further notes that there are hierarchies of “schematicity”. Consider, for example, the difference between engage in spiritual practice, meditate, and meditate on the breath. Each term can be used to represent the same action with varying levels of schematicity. Closely related to schemas, Lakoff (1987b) and Johnson (1987) developed the concept of image schemas, which are discussed in more detail in the next chapter.

Conceptual metaphor, where one understands one entity in comparison to another, and conceptual metonymy, where one understands one associated entity as representing another, are crucial components of Lakoff’s theory of idealized cognitive models. Domains play a crucial role here in that conceptual metaphor is typically viewed as a mapping of elements from a more physical, embodied domain to a more abstract domain, while conceptual metonymy is viewed as a mapping within a single domain. The next chapter is devoted to a discussion of conceptual metaphor while the notion of metonymy is examined in Chapter 4.

To illustrate how crucial ICMs are in the structuring of specific religious beliefs, week and day can be examined in the context of disagreements related to the six- day creation story in the book of Genesis. John Lennox, a well-known Christian apologist in the United Kingdom, identifies three principal interpretations that are popular in modern Christianity. These interpretations can be viewed as cluster models, analogous to the models for mother discussed at the beginning of the chapter.

The 24-hour view: The six days refer to six consecutive periods of 24 hours. However, the frames that we draw in order to understand the meaning of day here must also include the propositional content that the idea of a 24-hour day and a 7-day week comes from God and therefore represents a foundational, divinely selected segmentation of time.

The day-age view: The six days refer to six periods of an unspecified length that follow each other chronologically.The underpinning frames here therefore must include the idea of a literal temporal sequence and that, regardless of the length of each day, the order is critical, as is the idea that God chose to call this period of time a week consisting of seven days.

The framework view: The Bible is the word of God, but it is divinely intended to be read as literature, encompassing a wide array of genres, and it clearly should not therefore be read as a scientific, purely literal text. The six days, therefore, refer to six periods that are explained in a logical (not chronological) narrative order.

(Lennox, 2011, p. 44)

Lennox identifies these three views as a basis for a spectrum of interpretations, not simply a choice between the three distinct ideas. He goes on to make a careful argument for the third choice, which allows him to embrace evolution and many of the findings from modern cosmology. In his defense of the framework view, he draws an analogy between those Christians that opposed Galileo and modern Christians that oppose many of the key findings of modern science. He points out that early Christians, due to their acceptance of Aristotle’s cosmological model and their literal reading of passages from the Bible indicating that the Earth has a fixed foundation, condemned Galileo’s idea of the Earth revolving around the sun. By referring to Galileo in this way and emphasizing that the early Christians held views now accepted as incorrect, Lennox infers that modern Christians are also wrong in their thinking regarding the “24-hour view” and the “day-age view”.

These three views as cluster models are based on specific frames and exhibit prototype effects. Lennox feels, using Lakoff’s (1987b) phrase, a “strong pull” toward the framework model, and this in turn determines how he conceptualizes the first two chapters of Genesis. For him, the issue is not ambiguous; thus, he goes so far as to refer to the other models as harmful to Christianity because they oppose scientific understandings of the world. However, Christian supporters of alternative models of the week also voice strong opinions. Ken Ham and Steve Golden, two vocal supporters of the 24-hour view, criticize John Lennox’s position on their creationist website, answersingenesis.org. Ham and Golden (2012) begin by identifying Lennox as essentially “orthodox in his teaching of the Word of God” when it comes to his other views related to the Bible. However, they go on to lay out the harm he is doing to Christianity, arguing that Lennox has chosen to value the findings of science above the claims of God’s word, committing an error of grave consequence:

Dr. Lennox preaches the gospel and no doubt people have been led to Christ through his teaching of God’s Word. However, that does not discount the fact that his teaching on Genesis and his compromise with evolution and millions of years undermines the authority of the Word of God in spite of his sincere intentions to the contrary. Such collective compromise by numerous Christian leaders has been a major contributing factor to the demise of the church in our Western World.

(Ham & Golden, 2012)

Orthodoxy as a theological concept is closely connected here to the cognitive domain of prototype effects. The argument, common in conservative forms of religious belief, is that it is possible (and necessary) to have an unambiguous, one- to-one correspondence between perceived divine communication and human comprehension. A close correlation exists in many examples of religious language (and language related to other areas such as politics and national identity) between attraction to a particular model and the sense that other models are not just incorrect, but potentially subversive. In response to this, the cognitive linguistic approach would suggest that this position is itself a particular ICM related to how people conceptualize their relationship with the divine.

This also applies, for example, to how people use the term God to stand for their own preferred choice of models. This can also be applied to central figures like Jesus, where it is possible to identify several key, sometimes overlapping, models such as Jesus as the forerunner of Mohammad, Jesus as a carpenter, Jesus as Son of God and Jewish Messiah, or Jesus as God the Son and creator of the universe. However, there appears to be one important difference between the example of Jesus and the notion of a mother. When, for example, a conservative Christian talks about Jesus as God the Son and an agnostic historian talks about Jesus as a carpenter who became a wandering rabbi, they are not just adopting different perspectives; crucially, they are referring to radically different entities with very diverse spatial and temporal properties.

Lakoff’s theory of ICMs continues to be influential in research touching on categorization, cognition, and language. However, the growing emphasis on language in use within the developing field of Cognitive Linguistics has prompted Evans (2006, 2009) to propose a significantly nuanced version of the original theory, involving a reappraisal of cognitive models and their relationship to lexical concepts and meaning construction.

 
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