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Cognitive Approaches to the Study of Religion by ARMIN W. GEERTZ of the most exciting developments in the study of religion during the past years is the application of cognitive theory. Many scholars are inspired . the thought that understanding human cognition can somehow help us to religion (and a lot of other things along the way). Others are more , .. .,V '_,ll. What can neurophysiology possibly tell us about social and cultural
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  Cognitive Approaches to the Study of Religion by ARMIN W. GEERTZof the most exciting developments in the study of religion during thepastyears is the application of cognitive theory. Many scholars are inspired.the thought that understanding human cognition can somehow help us to ' ; ' I1r 1prd~' rt religion (and a lot of other things along the way). Others are more , . ,V '_,ll. What can neurophysiology possibly tell us about social and culturalWhat does cognition have to do with historical processes let alonehistory of ideas? How do we, in other words,get from the neuron to theFurthermore, some of the daily headlines that flash around the world . ~s ground-breaking news in the neurosciences are either so mundane that wewhy money is being spent on such matters, such as Sheep don't forget lor are seemingly so absurd that we worry about the mental health ofcolleagues in the natural sciences, such as Do whales and dolphins have(RendelllWhitehead 2001), or are completely incomprehensible to humans, such as Ectopic expression of Olig1 promotes oligodendrocyte tormaltiolfi and reduces neuronal survival in developing mouse cortex:'l . Before introducing cognitive theory and its possibilities for the study of we should perhaps take a look at a few basic points, The most impoint is that as mundane or absurd as they might seem,advances in the: t\e'urc,sci . en1ces are considered to be advances because they are based on em :' pirical evidence.The number of faces that sheep can remember,and which can be confirmed by any shepherd, is not the point here, The point is that eth,have devised clever experiments to find out how sheep can do this sortthing and thus ultimately how perception works in animals and whether it is than human perception.These are matters that are not intuitively ,' aClces:siblle to us and therefore need scientific clarification.Empirical study is, of course, informed by theories, hypotheses and plain C . l1:\lleS~iW()rK. but there are concerted team efforts to prove anddisprove, to test Naillre 4 (14): 165-66 (8 Nov 2001) Brie! Communi cation by Keith M. Kendric k, AnaP. da Costa, Andrea E. Leigh,Michael R. Hinton,Jon W. Peirce. Natllre Neuroscience 4 (10), October 2001 , Brief Communications . TIle article was written by Q.R. Lu, L Cai, D. Rowitch, C.L Cepko and C.D. S tiles.    M~  . G ~ ' k :~ ~; ,\lid debunk,to re-think and re-design chemical, biological, and behavioral f,;ll ~~{ lesl s. The fieldof neurosciences depends on laboratory tests ranging from ,:i.:;~ it·: \. . ~< - ~ ~ ' .,.,. chemical analyses of DNA-molecules to behavioral, chemical and surgical tests';Jri., i-i::i'. on rats, mice,mdmonkeys, to simple reaction tests on three month-old human -~ ;~~,~ ' ' ; ~ ~f.; babies, to tests and surveys on human adult assumptions and behavior, to ; ~ r ;, ¥i}' ' , , , ~ ~ , : computer simulations of human neuronal networks, to linguistic competency /y!~ # ' f ~ ( ' tests on human children, to study of human or animal brain lesions, or tocom- \l ;1,;i: . parative ethological observations. Tests have been designed and applied not, : ;;,: : ~ I * ; i: onlyin Western societies, but also in non-Western societies by c r o s s - c u l t u r a l ,'~;~t ~ 0.:::,. psychologists, psychological anthropologists, and sociologists. And cognitive\S5 · f ~ ~. . ';' ,; ~  . - philosophers or philosophers interested in these matters aswellas linguists, t) '>::.~ ' scholarsof religion and cultural anthropologists have been making concerted ;; .' ;' f ~ > : , · effortsto gather the results of thisvastexperimental industry and draw c o n c l u - :J'j;, ; ~t! .sionsabout our knowledge of human cognition and culture.Those who think .:{ : y~;. thatthis is onlypassing fashion are in for a surprise. 'Y t (.~::::  Because of this intimate link between the natural and the human sciences, ,) >·; ,' , many scholars who usecognitivetheory are convinced that they are on theverge of a SCieHtific (as opposed to hermeneutic) interpretation of religion. Thisisin part unde rstandable because the evidence is experimental, but much is stillhypothetical and in some caseshighly speculative. This is why some scholars in thecognitive study ofreligion have gone on to develop their own experimentaltests.They have moved,so to speak,from text exegeses to field and laboratory ex periments.Whethertheir explanations are more scientific than other explana. tions is a philosophical problem that plagues the natural sciences as much asthe humanities. 3 Thechallengetoscholars ofreligion who are interested in or at least curious about cognitivetheory is to find literature that is dependable and informa·tive enough for us to develop plausible interpretations and explanations ofreligious thought and behavior. 111is is not an easy job,nor should it be taken li ghtly. We are too often the unknowing victims ofexciting and well-writtenbooks about cognition. Fewofus have the time, patience or knowledge to readtheex perinlentalliterature . If wewish to get a handle on cognition, we need to brush uponour chemistry, neurology,endocrinology, genetic theory, zoology,ethology,physical anthropology,archaeology, and evolutionary theory.Sowhy bother? We have enough trouble brushing up on our Pali or Greek, or trying to remember the difference between Sophists and Socratics, or just keeping trackofthe names of our field informants and all their relatives and kids!3 See William O'Donohue and Richard F. Kitchener's excellent collectionon the phi losophical pmblems in psychology and the cognitive sciences (1996) and jeppe Sinding jensen 's discussion on the study of religionand its model sciences (2003: 159-201) I hope in the following that it will become evident why we need to do thisanyway.I hope that it will become evident what kinds of questionscognitivetheory can and carmot answer, and why it is essential for us to bewell-versedin this field of inquiry. Histories of Cognitive Research Many scholars of religion wonder why cognition has becomeso popular during the past fewyears.Is it just another fad that in the meantime is preventing usfrom doing the real job ? What many do not realize is that cognition and brainscienceare more than a century old, and the reason for all the recentfuss is thatsignificantbreakthroughs have put neuroscientists in an unprecedented posi·tion. An inlportant point for scholars of religion to realize is that whereashuman and social scientificbreakthroughs are mostly due to new methods ,theories and approaches, breakthroughs in the neurosciences are mostly due to thedevelopment of new instruments that can support or falsify central hypothesessuch asthe neuron doctrine' or the ionic hypothesis. S For example,in ahighly acclaimedarticle on progress in neuralscience,Thomas D. Albright et al.citeamongother things the development of patch-clamp methods· and high-resolutionbrain imagingas someof the most important breakthroughsinthe neurosciences.The neurosciences have now developed instruments and techniques that not only allow them to draw usefulconclusions but also todirectlyview alarge amount of the microprocesses in the bodyand brain that produc ecognitionin aninlals and humans .This is why a large amount ofbreakthroughliterature has hit the ma .rketsincethe 1990s.Insights gained insomeareas have contributed significantl:<to insights gained in otherareas.Forinstanceim provements in DNA analYSis have now made it possible to draw fairlysolidconclusions in archaeology not only about dating but alsoabout genetic relations. 4 The idea developed at the tum ofthe twentieth century by Santiago Ram ony Cajal thatneurons serve as thefunctional signaling units of thenervoussyst em andthat neurons connect to one another in precise ways (Albrightet al. 2000:2). 5 Following on the insight that synaptic transmission waschemical in nature, th eio nic hypothesis put forward by AlanHodgkin, AndrewHuxley,and Bernhard Katz during the early 1950s is claimed to be one of the deepest insights in neural science, unifying the cellular study of the nervous system in general. The hypothesisexplains signalingwithinneurons (Albright et al. 2000:4). 6 Developed by ErwinNeherand Bert Sakmann in the late 1970s which revolutionized neurobiology by makingitpossible to study biophysical properties of the neuronsof the brain as wellas a large number of nonneuronal cells (Albrightet al. 2000:5).  Ln trying to determine what histories of research are relevant to the studyufcognition,it may help to look at which disciplines have been involved. Each discipline has its own history of research, which is why the history of researchon cognition is so complex, thus defying a simple genealogy. One thing thatseems to be a common complaint is that even though it all started out so promisingly when the German psychologist Wilhelm Wundt7 introduced ex- perimental psy~hology and laboratory methods for studying mental processes during the latter half of the nineteenth century, it was unfortunately disruptedby the behaviorism of the first half of the twentieth century in terms of whichthe mind was denied. 8 Behaviorism in psychology was introduced byJohn ~roadus Watson in 1913,9 but first became the serious paradigm of AngloAmencan experimental psychologists under the influence of Clark L. Hull during the 1930s. 10 In Germany, however, mentalistic terminology continued in the Ggstalt move!IlrnLduring 1912 tu lS33. 11 At the end of that period, thefounding pioneers Max Wertheimer, Kurt Koffka,t3 and Wolfgang Kiihler l4 were forced to emigrate to the U.s., but they had little impact there until the ne .il:.- behaviorism ofJl.F.Skinner (1938) began to lose its influence (Murray 1995: 1). 't1iingschanged to the better during the 1950s when studies on mem .o.qwere pursued by George Mill ~ r t 15 the field of artificial intelligence iAI) wasfounded by 1o 'lm McCarthy, Marvin MinShlJ16 and Allen Newell and Herb~rt Simon,17 and linguistics was trying to understand language in terms of mentalgrammarsin the work of Noam Chomsky.18 These s Lx.. U'tinkers are considered to be the founders of cogrutive sdence {'ITlagard 1996 : 6). 7 Wundt 1874, 1894, 1896. 8 TIle methodology of behaviorism required the abandonment of introspection and thedependency on observable, measurable data. This meant that mental events wereexcluded from scientific inquiry because they could not be observed or measured by other people. Along with this attitude, behaviorists did not study internally inducedsensations(called 'images' by psychologists) or use the words 'memory' and'unconscious'(Murray 1995: 7). 9 Watson 1913,1924,1928. 10 Hull 1935 ,1943; Hulletal. 1940. 11 The Gestaltmovement is said to have begun with Wertheimer's paper of 1912 on apparent movement and reached its culmination with Koffka's book Principles of GestaltPsychology (1935). 12 Wertheimer 1912, 1922a, 1922b. 13 KoHka 1915 ,1921,1922,1935. 14 Kohler 1929, 1938. 15 Miller 1956. 16 Minsky 1957. 17 Newell et al. 1958; Newell/Simon 1972. 18 Chomsky 1957 and 1959. The main paradigm of the cognitive sciences is the information processingmetaphor. Professor of philosophy, psychology and computer science, PaulThagard has identified at least six different and competing approaches to cognition that in part stem from independent intellectual traditions and from ways to understand different aspects of mind.These are: the mind as i1 logical system, a rule-based system, a concept-based system, an ~l.l\aloj;Y-based system animagery-based system, and a connectionist system. They all draw on computeranalogy in understanding the mind, and so far have failed to produce a unifiedtheory of the mind (Thagard 1996:128). Scholars of cognition today are in general agreement that the main disciplines involved in the cognitive sciences are: cognitive psychology, cognitiveneuroscience, computer science, linguistics, anthropology, and philosophy.19Cognitive psychology provides theories on and experimental strategies forstudying various cognitive capacities. Cognitive neuroscience studies cognitionat the neurological level. Computer science provides theoretical insight intohow human and animal cognitive systems might be organized. Linguisticsstudies the cognitive capacity of language processing. Anthropology introducesthe cultural, and especially the cross-cultural, perspective to cognitive study.Philosophy continues to contribute insight into classical philosophical problemssuch as the mind-body problem, consciousness, rationality, and mental representation. To this list of disciplines, neuropsychologist Howard Gardner rightlyadds European ethology as a contributor even though this discipline firstbecame acceptable rather late in the cognitive sciences (Gardner 1985: 31). European ethologists preferred to study animal behavior in their naturalhabitat ra.ther than in the laboratory and thus were able to contribute significant mS1ghts mto the relationships between cognition and the natural environ ment,2o Cognitive Anthropology But before moving on, mention should be made of the development of cognitive anthropology because, as it turns out, our anthropological coUeagueshave been doing things with cognition that are closest to what scholarsofreligion would be doing, if they did it.Anthropologists have long been interested in the dynamics of individualand culture. Many of Franz Boas' st1!<ients began quite early during the first 19 See for instance EysencklKeane 1995: 4, and Hamish 2002: 2-3. 20 Founding fathers were Konrad Lorenz (1935) and Niko Tinbergen (1951).Significantexamples of the wisdom of this interaction between ethology and cognitive psychology IS the work of Terence Deaco ,: (1997) and Michael Tomasello/Josep Call (1997).  Iwn orthreedecades of the twentieth century to focus their attention on thepsy(hological dimensions of culture. There were three phases in the culture dnd personali ty approach: 1) the pre-Freudian, which viewedcultureas individual psychologywrit large;2I 2) the Freudian, which developed the concept of'modal personality' in interactionwithfamily and socialization;22 and 3) the so- calledNew Directions. The latter arose as the Freudian approaches went into asharpdeclineinthe early 1950s because of attacks from anti-Freudian psychol ogists, culturalevolutionists andstructural-functionalists,and also becauseof the defeat of behaviorism.A new kind of anthropology appeared variouslytermed 'the newethnography,' 'cognitiveanthropology,''componentialana lysis,' and'ethnoscience'which clearly drew inspiration from the informationprocessing movement in the mathematical sciences where computers began to serveas models for how human minds worked. Through analyses of people'sdiscourse, the new anthropology attempted to identify how people perceiveand categori2.e theirsocialand natural worlds.23 Cognitiveanthropologyhas since become very diversified and dispersedthrough the lenses ofsuchdisciplines as cross-cultural psychology, psychological anthropology,andethnopsychology. 24 This development is much bemoaned by anthropologistswhowish to depart from the Platonism ofgeneralpsychologyand the central processing paradigm of thecognitive sciences.They reject the resE~arch heuristics of the 1960s,because they ignoreculture.The'per son'did not gain a foothold during the cognitive revolution and disappearedfromethnography. Therefore,itwas felt, there is a need for a liberated culturalpsychology,whichto anthropological psychologist Richard Shweder is thestudyof the role of intentionality in theinterdependent functioning and de velopment of coconstituting and coconstituted intentional persons and theircoconstituted embodiedand materialized intentional worlds (1984) . 25 This turnof eventsbrings us back to classical social psychology whereJames Mark Baldwin, George Herbert Mead, and Lev Vygotsky are toweringfigures.Thenewcultural psychology attempts to forge a synthesis between thetwo generic modelsofsocial psychology. The first modelseespersonsas re- linquishingtheir individuality in favor of either participating witha socialunit 21 Forinstance Ruth Benedict (1932 ,1934),MargaretMead (1928 ,1959), andPaul Radin(1913,1920,1926). 22 For instanceGeza R6heim (1925 , 1945), George Devereux (1951a,1951b, 1961, 1978), Bruno Bettelheim (1955, 1969) and Alan Oundes (1962). A broader neo-Freudianapproachdeveloped by psychoanalyst Abram Kardiner led toimportantcooperationwith leadingethnographers (Kardiner1939; Kardiner/Linton/West et al.1945 ;Kardiner/Preble 1961; OuBoisl944; and Whiting/Whiting 1975). 23 Agile1973; ae.clinlBreedlovelRaven 1973 ;,. 0' Andrade 1976. y' 24 Cole 1988; Spiro1982;Colby/Colby 1981. 25Se e Shweders earlierworkon cultureand personality theoryin1979a, 1979band 1980. or having communion with others. The second model sees personsascaptivesofthe SOCIal world, forced or obligated to follow its rules and regulations.The. ne~ third model, that of cultural psychology,seespersons as both individuallyunIque and sunultaneously interacting with social units (Valsiner/van der Veer 2000: 388). - What Is Cognition? Strangely e~ough, theliteratureis almost devoid of formal definitions of cogmtion.The lIterature focuses on approaches, theories, methods and models, but few authors actually definewhatthey mean by the term.Robert M.Hamish noticed the problem as well. Cognitive scientists are in general agreement ab~ut what constitutes'cognitive'phenomena, but there are nogeneraLdefi mhons.He would. much rather stick to what the study ofcognition is, likeevery.oneels:,. ~ut if ~ (:: modify slightly his 'broad conceptionof cognition,'a wor~g def~ltion rrug~t be: lIatten~on, memo!) learning, reasoning, problemsolvrng,motivation, action, perception, and lan.5.uaEie. What ttiese thingsallseem t~ have rn comm~n i~ what Hamish terms a-'narrow conceptionofcog- 1~ltion, n~ely ~ oSllltion IS the mental'manip-ulat:iQn'(creation,transforma tion, deletion) of mental ~eJ?resentati.ons  (Hamish 2002 : 5). . ~O~itive scientists don't know yet whatcognition is in its fullestsense.ThIs I~ rn part due to the stringent straightjacket of the information processingparadIgm.,A few key anthropologists arecurrentlyrethinking the relation betweencogmtion an~ culture and are coming up with results highly relevant to thestudy of relIgIOn. One of these scholars is Edwin Hutchins.26 In his book C~gnztlOn In the Wild (1995), Hutchins argues that cognition in its naturalen ~Ironment draws on contexts rich in organizing resources. Cognition is not just mfluen~ed by culture and SOciety, rather it is Jttndamentally culturaland social(Hutchms 1995: xiv). ~utchins chides cognitive anthropologists for ignoring ~ulture, context and hIstory. He claims that anyapproach to cognition thatIgnores ~ese factors is fundan:entally flawed. For him culture is a cognitiveprocess. that takes place both mSlde and outside the minds of people (354). SymbolIcsystem.sare not inside the head, and the boundary lineof cognition is not mSI~e the skin,rather it is inside the symbolic system. A Significant portion of cogllltionhappens in the social space of interaction between individualswhere primary symbolic systems, such as language, play a dominant role.Social psychologists have for a century now argued that even our most intimateselves arebasically prod1cts of social interaction and narrative.The individual 26 Seealso the work of Bradd Shore(1996).
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