Friday, 20 December 2013

Cognition by mutual reflection

Escher mobius

A paper I have been meaning to read since it was published in October is Dr. Callan Slipper’s “Towards a New Kind of Cognition,” in which he reviews a number of cognitive modes, characterizing not only an individual’s development, but also the evolution of the human species and of cultures and then introducing a new, social mode that has roots in the mystical experiences of Chiara Lubich.

As far as setting the scene and providing context, Slipper’s approach bears resemblance to Dr. Yuval Harari’s “A Brief History of Humanity,” both in that it goes back to the cognitive modes of hominids and that it considers both biological and cultural factors. Even Harari’s favorite device of “fiction” (quotes mine) is mirrored in Slipper’s references to myth as a cultural contributor to cognition.

Instead of attempting a summary of the already concentrated review of classical modes of cognition, where Slipper discusses Jean Piaget’s somatic, symbolic and theoretic modes of knowledge that can be observed in a child’s development and then proceeds to show how these are mirrored also in the evolution of the Hominidae family and the basis of rational enquiry into the present day, I’d instead recommend reading the excellent, full paper itself. Instead, what I’d like to do is focus on the new cognitive mode that Slipper’s paper culminates in.

To understand the novelty and otherness of the new cognitive mode, it is worth considering the following observations Slipper makes about the state at which the evolution of cognition has arrived in the present day, as an evolution of “mythic culture”:
Mythic culture employs symbolic representations in the context of narratives (mythos is Greek for story), and these give human subjects powerful instruments to interpret and interact with the environment. Mythic cognition is not static and it did progress, using its narrative and symbolic methodology, to be self-critical. [...] The culture that emerged, which we are heir to today, can be called [...] the culture of the logos. The logos is a form of knowing that attempts to achieve objectivity, that is, to see things without projections from the hopes, fears, fantasies, or preconditioning of the subject. It develops conceptual reasoning that produces theories, and so it corresponds to the acquisition of theoretical knowledge. But the logos-word can also be a word of command and so have ethical and existential implications. Furthermore, as the light of understanding it can also mean conscience or a profound spiritual intuition, which attempts to see things as they truly are. [...] In Greece, for example, this was undertaken by theoretical discourse in the development of philosophy; the ethical-existential dimension was developed in the light of Transcendence by the Hebrew prophets; a transcendent spiritual intuition (bodhi) was at the root of the new conceptual thinking that arose with Buddhism.
The scene therefore is a cognitive culture that aims at objectivity and an abstraction of the individual’s bias from the cognitive process. It is against this cognitive background that Chiara Lubich’s experience and thought are set. It has as its central themes a focus on two of Jesus’ utterances: “where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” (Matthew 18:20) and “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). The first here makes the subject of cognition a community and the second is the key for that community to transcend itself, by imitating Jesus’ self-emptying (kenosis) at the moment of his greatest suffering. It is this mutual loosing oneself out of love for another that is Lubich’s central insight - the fruit first of years of putting the Gospel into practice and then of a mystical, intellectual vision that started in 1949.1 With the above, 10K mile view, let’s look at the consequences that Slipper spells out for cognition:
“The individual remains but it is now in a relationship of profound mutual involvement with other individuals, a form of recollection both within self and within the other person insofar as empathy, sensitivity, and attentive listening and communication (the apotheosis of the logos-word) will allow. [...] In relation to the other person, everything can be reframed or rethought; even hard-won theories cannot be defended by the ego that generated them. Gesture, symbol, theory are all offered, not imposed, within the context of a deep meeting. In this way it is the very social nature of this process that offers the participants an intensified reflexivity, an extra possibility of using critical reasoning to challenge their presuppositions. Ideas are seen as instruments of a mutual reflection, engaged in together, so that out of the meeting of persons emerges a new act of cognition, one based on but not bound by any of the previous mental models. It thus has creative potential and is capable of thinking thoughts not had before in an act of cognition that is not closed and which, at least in principle, can be developed in further encounters.”
I have to say that I recognize the features of what Slipper speaks about here from personal experience. The attitude that “everything can be reframed or rethought,” that “gesture, symbol, theory are all offered, not imposed” and that “ideas are seen as instruments of a mutual reflection” is precisely what, I believe, allows for the “deep meeting” and “recollection both within self and within the other,” which has the potential for a “new act of cognition” to emerge. When all, who are engaged in jointly trying to understand something, bring this attitude of detachment (that mirrors Jesus’ self-emptying) to the table, the result is a transcendence of each individual (that mirrors Jesus’ promise of being present among his followers).

Slipper puts this very clearly and succinctly as follows:
Meeting together in a shared transcendent experience, the human subjects both feel themselves united with Jesus and find that they are seeing things (nature, humanity, indeed all creation), as it were, from Jesus.
To conclude, I would like to emphasize one aspect of the above, that to me personally is of great importance: this social, transcendent mode of cognition is open to all and is not contingent on Christian beliefs, even though I (like Dr. Slipper) experience, pose and believe it to be their consequence. And this is not some hypothetical speculation, but again an observation from my personal experience. I have experienced the above “deep meeting” with Christians, agnostics and atheists alike, since self-emptying, being open to the other and a going out of oneself to meet the other are all open to everyone. Whether the person I am thinking with believes this to be a participation in Jesus’ vision or not, is not a prerequisite to it. Wherever there is mutual love and detachment from one’s own ideas, it is possible for thought to become a social, self-transcendent experience and lead to insights, already interiorized by virtue of the process itself, that would otherwise be unlikely or impossible. In some sense it is a turning on its head of Jean-Paul Sartre’s being-for-others where the other objectifies me and, by taking something away from me, becomes my “hell.”

For the text of her notes on how that mystical experience started, see here and for a commentary here.