Sunday, February 9, 2014

Making Stew in the Freezer

February 9, 2014

Dear friends,

A writer is grateful—always—for readers. I am particularly grateful for readers who not only read but who also ask perceptive questions. This week’s blog has grown out of such a reader response.

“You haven’t clearly explained what you mean by cognitive processes,” a reader (and friend) said, then added, tongue-in-cheek, “You have left me thinking that cognitive processes are mysterious things like that piece of sky that fell on Chicken Little’s head. Right?”

Well, yes and no to the Chicken Little hypothesis, but the question merits serious effort to clarify the term. What are cognitive processes?

Every analogy has limitations, of course, and in the end inevitably fails to convey in full the meaning it seeks to illustrate. But a kitchen-based analogy at this point may provide some help in making cognitive processes a useful term.
Suppose, for example, I set about the kitchen-based task of making beef stew.  

Assembling the contents for the stew is fairly straightforward: meat, vegetables, liquid base, and seasonings. Nothing mysterious here.

Assembling the list of ingredients is not, however, all that is necessary in order to make a stew. I must do something to—with?—the items I have assembled. Specific processes must be applied.

Join me in the kitchen--willing suspension of disbelief [smile]—where you watch me dice finely all ingredients, using, of course, great artistic flourishes of my chef’s knife. Then you watch me mix these finely diced items at high speed for four minutes in a blender, add three cups of carbonated water, then pop this mix into the freezer for two hours. 

Clearly what will emerge from the freezer cannot be fairly called a stew whatever the excellent quality of the original ingredients may have been. The content has been severely—irreparably—altered by the processes to which it has been subjected.

The human mind has a truly spectacular repertoire of processes that it can use on the ingredients of the mind—ideas, feelings, and physical responses to data provided by the senses. But the human mind can at times apply an inappropriate process that leads to a frustratingly unhelpful conclusion. We can be as inept in processing feelings, ideas, and body responses as I was in processing the ingredients I assembled for my hypothetical stew.

There are interesting (and amusing) examples of this problem all through the history of thought. At one time, for example, some very bright people had this idea: If there is such a thing as the soul, we should be able to measure a difference in the body at the moment of death when the soul leaves the body. We will explore the idea of the soul by weighing people immediately prior to and following death.  If there is a soul, then the post death body will be lighter in weight than the pre-death state in which the soul is present in the body.

The problem here was not lack of logic—the idea that there must be “evidence” of the soul if it exists, is not in itself illogical. The accompanying presupposition, however, opened the door to inappropriate cognitive processes.  The assumption that the soul if “real” consisted of mass that could be weighed led to rigorously careful weighing of bodies, pre and post death.  When no reliable differences in body weight were found some people concluded that the absence of "weight" proved the absence of soul.

There is some truth here, obviously. It is highly improbable that “soul” exists in a form that can be weighed whether in terms of pounds, ounces or metric equivalent. 

But that is not the point on which I want you to focus. I want you to think about the way in which the very idea of soul became altered by using the notion of the weighing process. Our present understanding of the condition we term "brain dead" may make us shake our heads at the picture of frantic efforts to weigh a body at the point of death. But it should also make us cautious about the results of an error in cognitive processes.  A way of thinking that is indeed helpful when applied to objects that have mass is not  helpful in thinking about objects without mass. Processes that are useful in the study of objects with mass can lead to faulty understanding of those objects that exist without mass.

Demonstrating that the soul does not have mass does not demonstrate that the soul does not therefore exist. Things may exist even when an inappropriate process does not permit us to identify or understand their existence.  

It has become something of a cliche to say that we cannot reach a correct answer if we have the question wrong. Nevertheless, it is worth noting here in passing that one important way a question can be “wrong” is to shape the question in a form that initiates inappropriate cognitive processes. 

Anyone want to volunteer to answer this question: what factors alter the weight of the soul?

One of the gifts of the postmodern “age” is a new insistence that the processes of science, valuable as they are, do not permit discovery and understanding of ‘ALL’ truth.

Thinking with you today about the longing of Paul’s soul when he wrote, “. . . that I may know Him, and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings. . . (Phil. 3:10).” 

What did Paul mean when he said “that I may know Him” (italics added)?

Wondering too about the cognitive processes Paul had in mind when, a few sentences later, he added, “. . . join in following my example . . . walk according to the pattern you have in us (Phil. 3:17).”

See you next week.


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