Aengus Anderson: You’re listening to The Conversation. I’m Aengus Anderson.
Micah Saul: I’m Micah Saul.
Neil Prendergast: And I’m Neil Prendergast. And if you’re just tuning into the series you may want to check out an earlier episode where we lay out the whole premise of The Conversation.
Anderson: Yeah, these are our final episodes. They were all recorded in 2013, and we’ve just been horrifically lazy about getting them packaged up for you. But, they are now ready and, here they are.
Anderson: Today’s conversation is with someone that I imagine anybody who listens to this is probably familiar with, George Lakoff. He’s a linguist. He’s a researcher.
Prendergast: He’s written many many books, of course, including The Political Mind, Metaphors We Live By, and Don’t Think of an Elephant, which is kind of about elephants but not really.
Anderson: He’s also been a Democratic consultant for a long time. He’s not an armchair academician. George Lakoff is engaged in the world.
Anderson: What do you think the crisis of the present is, you know, acknowledging that there’s a million ways that could be answered and there are a million facets of it?
George Lakoff: Uh, I don’t think I can pick one. But I have a couple of favorites. Part of it has to do with a lack of understanding of how brains work and how that contributes to how minds work, and how that in turn contributes to our concepts of morality, religion, politics, and even mathematics, science, economics, and so on. That is, there’s a whole set of disputes about these that come out of morality. And that the morality itself can be understood in scientific terms, and that people don’t want to understand that in scientific terms.
What I do as a scientist is I study the relationship between the brain, the mind, and language. How concepts that are expressed in language are characterized in terms of the brain. And I’m working right now with Srini Narayanan, who is one of the world’s experts on neural computation, on a theory of how you get ideas and language out neurons. That’s an important thing because the answer to that tells you a lot about where morality comes from, for example.
One of the things that I did way back over thirty years ago was figure out how metaphorical thought works. Not language, just, because language is based on metaphorical thought, but we think metaphorically. But we don’t know it. Because 98% of thought is unconscious. We have a view of rationality, goes back at least to Descartes, some of it to the Greeks. You know, Descartes said, “I think therefore I am.” I’m conscious of my thought. Correct. You are conscious of your thought. Of 2% of it.
Consciousness is linear; goes, you know, one step after another. And the brain doesn’t work that way. The brain is parallel and has lots and lots of parallel tracks going on at once in thought and in characterizing the substrate of what it is you understand and express. There’s no way you could possibly be conscious of most of or even a small part of what you’re thinking. And what we’ve been able to do over the past thirty or thirty-five years in the field of cognitive linguistics is get techniques to study the unconscious nature of thought, and now we’re trying to show how that could work in the brain.
We have brain mechanisms that allow us to function in the world and allow us to function as if we see the world objectively. But one of the things we know, for example, is the world has no color in it. Color depends upon wavelength reflectance but also upon color cones in your eyes, and upon neural circuitry connected to that, to give you color. Color isn’t just out there, but we see it as being in the world. We see green as being in grass, and red as in blood, and you know, blue as in the sky but that’s not the case. What we see about color in this case is true of everything. Because what impinges on a retina is very degraded we have to create what we see.
Anderson: So it all goes down to a hardware model of this brain.
Lakoff: This brain in this body. And that’s the other thing. The brain goes through the whole body. It’s through the nervous system. But also through the system of topographic maps. So we not only have topographic maps of the visual field and of every point on our body is mapped onto the brain, but there are other topographic maps around that run down your arms and down your legs, and they continue in your brain. The cortex is covered with small maps, those maps are connected to each other, which is connected to circuits. And what we’ve been doing is working out the kinds of ways the maps are connected to each other to give us concepts. And then the way the concerts are related, via the circuits.
Anderson: So even if you became a brain in a bottle, you would still think of the world in terms of maps of the body.
Lakoff: You wouldn’t have a body. So you wouldn’t have any way to think, at all.
Anderson: So that would be a fundamentally different type of consciousness entirely. So the body really is—the physical body is essential to how we understand the world.
Lakoff: Exactly. The physical body is essential. And experience coming out of functioning in the world with bodies is crucial to understanding morality. And that comes through metaphor. Metaphor is not something that is additional to thought. Metaphor is essential to thought. Because what metaphor does is link up different parts of the brain. And structures the brain. And then those metaphors get used in tens of thousands of other ways.
For example, we understand more as being up, and less as being down; that’s a metaphor. We understand affection as being warmth; that’s a metaphor. But why is that the case? When you held warmly, as by your parents, affectionately, you feel their body temperature. Right? Affection correlates with warmth. You pour more water in the glass or you see it poured in as a child, and the level goes up every time. There’s a correlation between verticality and quantity. That correlation is perceived in different parts of our brains. So a child looking at that is going to have—even if they’re not conscious of it—is going to have activity in different parts of the brain. Each one of those neurons is connected to a between a thousand and ten thousand other places. And they form networks that go through the brain.
Well what happens then is as they spread, every time a neuron is activated it gets stronger. The connections get stronger, the synapses gets stronger. And then they spread. And if they’re activated again, they get stronger and they spread further until you hit the shortest pathway between them. And that pathway becomes a metaphor. That is normal, and we have hundreds if not thousands of what are called “primary metaphors” linking the most basic of experiences of the body together.
Now, if you think about what a child encounters, one of the most important parts of the brain has to do with wellbeing. That is what is called a reward system. It’s a system that has to do with making you feel good or making you feel bad. And there are different pathways in the brain for this, putting out different neurotransmitters. Dopamine for example makes you feel good.
Now, if you say what sorts of things make you feel good and make you feel bad, give you a sense of wellbeing or not, those things have to do with morality. Because morality is about wellbeing. The wellbeing of others and yourself. You’re going to feel good if you eat pure food, and rotten if you eat rotten food. That’s why immorality is rottenness. Morality is purity. You have purification rituals around the world. Every one-year-old knows it’s better to be able to stand up than crawl on the ground. Morality is uprightness. Immorality is being a low-down snake, being underhanded, etc.
Anderson: So this is kind of a physical basis to thinking about the words we use every day in spirituality?
Lakoff: It’s not the words, it’s the ideas that we use in reasoning. It’s the basis of reason that is not within one category. It’s reason across categories that create things like morality.
Among the most interesting parts of this are the family-based moralities. You’re better off as a child if you listen to your parents than if you don’t when you’re a little kid, assuming that they want to help you and take care of you. And that gives rise to a metaphor that morality is obedience to legitimate authority.
There’s another metaphor that says you’re better off if your parents nurture you. So morality is nurturance. What is nuturance? Nuturance is connecting to you, having empathy, feeling for what you say, having responsibilities so you take care of yourself as well as the children you have to take care of, and doing your best at it—having an ethic of excellence to take care of things.
Those are two different models of family life. What I discovered when I started looking at politics, and conservatism and progressivism, was that conservative thought is based on a strict family metaphor and progressive thought is based on a nurturant parent metaphor. And that that gives rise to the reasoning that goes on in both cases. And they contradict each other.
Anderson: How early is that stuff locked in? Or is it locked?
Lakoff: You learn them very early. You’re born with a hundred billion neurons, each connected to about ten thousand others, which gives you about a quadrillion connections. By the time you’re five, half of them have died. That is, your brain has been shaped.
Now, one of the interesting things about that is most of us have both models used in different cases. So these are what I call “bi-conceptual cases.” So I mean, take a university. In universities you usually have professors who are nurturant at home, nurturant in their progressive politics, but often strict fathers in the classroom. Or very conservative about their academic work. You have these kinds of things but you have the same sort of thing in business. You can have different kinds of businessman with different opinions about these things. And they vary a lot. There is no ideology of the moderate.
Anderson: There are just different blends?
Lakoff: Just different blends. Different combinations. What’s called a “moderate conservative” is somebody who’s mostly using a strict father model, but sometimes using the other. A moderate progressive is somebody who is mostly using a nurturant model, but sometimes strict. That’s normal.
Anderson: And you would assume that more from like, a household that blended both of those things, too, in the raising of the child?
Lakoff: Well that, but also exposure to peers, to movies, to stories, to books. They all have morals [indistinct]. Every fairy tale has a moral. Religion, you go take kids who go to church or mosques or synagogues. They get morality, moral lessons. The question is what are they?
So this is a very common thing, to have both of them. But often more one than the other. What’s happened in our politics is that the conservatives have understood this better than liberals. Empathy has everything to do with our politics. Our kind of government was set up on the basis of people caring about their fellow citizens. From the very beginning we had roads and bridges and public schools and a national bank and a patent and a whole system of things that are there for everybody. And that’s been elaborated more and more over the years. So we have vast public provisions, whether it’s sewer systems now, and electrical systems, if you’re going to start a business you need all of that. Yes, you have to do it yourself, starting with what is given to you. This system allows you to be free in thousands of ways that are not seen by conservatives.
Now, that’s the progressive view of democracy. That view is denied by conservatives. Why? If you have the idea of a strict father family and you project it onto let’s say the economy, what does it say? Let the market decide. Well, what does that mean? It means that the market decides who should get rewarded and who should be punished on the basis of their discipline. Why is that? In a strict father model, children are born bad. They just do what feels good. They don’t know morality yet.
Anderson: So there’s an assumption that in a way morality should hurt a little bit. Or it shouldn’t be the easy way.
Lakoff: Right. That is, the idea on a conservative point of view is that the strict father has to punish kids when they do wrong, physically, so it will hurt. So they will try to avoid it. They’ll get internal discipline by being externally disciplined. And then if they’re disciplined, then they can do what the father says—it assumes that the father knows right from wrong—and then become moral beings. And if they’re disciplined they can go out into a free market and become prosperous. So what does that say that people who aren’t prosperous? Means they’re not disciplined. They can’t be moral, so they deserve their poverty.
Anderson: And then the empathy is…gone.
Lakoff: It is gone. Empathy’s gone. And—
Anderson: Because they’ve taken responsibility.
Lakoff: They’ve taken— And it’s all personal responsibility, not social responsibility.
Lakoff: It’s personal responsibility, exactly.
Now, in a strict father family, no one can have authority over the father. If anything is to be preserved, it’s the authority of the father. So in the market it’s the authority of the market. So you can’t have government regulations, taxation, worker rights, unions, or tort cases.
Anderson: Interesting. So the market is superior to the government in that mind, and the government is considered something that meddles in morality, almost.
Lakoff: Exactly. The market is seen as natural and moral. Why? Two reasons. It’s seen as natural because it’s assumed that self-interest is natural. Secondly, there’s a conservative understanding of Adam Smith which is different from his view of moral sentiments. The conservative interpretation is that by the invisible hand, if everybody seeks their own profit the profit of all will be maximized. And that’s the most moral thing. So, the assumption is therefore the market is moral and natural. So it should decide. Rationality is acting to maximize your self-interest.
The other part of this is about politics. The highest view in a family for a strict father is that the authority of father must be maintained. The highest view for a conservative, an extreme conservative, is that the authority of conservatism itself must be maintained. And what does that mean when you get strict conservatives coming into and taking over Congress? It means that if the president proposes even a conservative position, they have to vote against it.
Anderson: So there’s something superior to an issue-by-issue sort of…
Lakoff: Yeah. It goes above the issue-by-issue thing. Conservatives have a remarkable communication system that most people don’t see. It’s not just Fox News. Fox News only has two to three million viewers—it’s not a lot. Over more than four decades, starting in 1971 with Lewis Powell’s memo to the national Chamber of Commerce before he went on to the Supreme Court, what they did was they set up a series of think tanks. They now have over eighty national ones, and think tanks at all state and local levels. They have training institutes to train people to think and talk conservatively. That’s tens of thousands of people every year. They keep track of them. They have people who are relative—able to go on talk shows or give lectures to local business groups or schools or whatever, on various topics. They keep track of them. They have people who are good at framing issues and using language and inventing language for their positions. And they have a system to spread these around—booking agents to book their people on radio and TV, every day all over the country.
The Democrats don’t have this. If you think about conservatives going to college, they will often major in business. And in the business curriculum you have marketing. And the marketing professors study cognitive science and neuroscience—the stuff I study. They understand that rationality doesn’t work. They understand that people really think in terms of frames and metaphors and images and emotions. So they’re great at marketing their ideas. Whereas progressives who want to go to college and go into politics are mainly going to study political science, economics, law, and public policy. And they have the old rational model.
Going back to Descartes, we not only have the idea that we think consciously, but also that reason is logic. And that everybody has the same reason, because we’re rational animals so we have the same reason. If you tell somebody the facts they should reason to the right conclusion. And moreover, that we can all have access to any fact at all. And that language is neutral. That language just fits what’s out there in the world. And that the reason that we have reason is to serve our interests.
None of that is true; none of it. It doesn’t have in it metaphorical thought. It doesn’t have in it the necessity for emotions. Tony Demasio, who has studied what happens when people get brain injuries, found that if you have a brain injury that keeps you from feeling emotion you don’t get super rational like Mister Spock on Star Trek. Instead, if like and not-like mean nothing to you, then you can’t set any goals.
Anderson: Because you have no arational assumptions about what’s good, I assume.
Lakoff: Yeah, you don’t know what’s good. You don’t know know what other people will think is good. You must have emotion in order to be rational. And real rationality means being aware of how your brain really works, is the deeper rationality. But we don’t have that. And you don’t have it in general in the culture. It’s not part of there.
And language is a big deal. Charles Fillmore, who was in this department for many years, discovered in the mid-1970s that all words in all languages are defined relative to conceptual frames. When you say the word you activate the frame. The frame is in a hierarchy of frames. You activate everything in the hierarchy. In politics, the highest part of that hierarchy is morality. So if you have a word that expresses a conservative frame, it’s going to activate the conservative moral system. On any issue. [crosstalk] Any issue at all.
Anderson: Okay. So that’s how you get the strong connection between a micro issue but a very powerful, large feeling about a systemic change.
Lakoff: Exactly. That’s the connection. And it’s a physiological connection.
Anderson: It seems like through most of history, we haven’t had a very strong nurturing family model.
Lakoff: Not necessarily. What you find is both of them throughout history. Think about the Catholic Church. The people running the church is very strict father, but you have all those nuns. You have all of the progressive Catholics and progressive Catholic movements. You have progressive Protestantism. The anti-slavery movement is a religious movement that had to do with empathetic religion. The same thing with women’s suffrage. It was a religious movement that had to do with empathy.
Anderson: So when we look at sort of the strict parent or the nurturing family model, we need to look beyond just the family and look at other social institutions that might embody those things.
Lakoff: Exactly. Because they are projected via metaphorical thought, unconscious metaphorical thought that is there fixed in your brain, onto other things.
Anderson: It seems like part of the crisis that we’re talking about now is that we’ve skewed far to one side, if we’re to look at these two family models.
Lakoff: And, it’s going international. The conservative strategists have been hired by conservative movements all over Europe, Latin America, Asia, etc. So you have them actually consciously there to try to change those countries. And they’re succeeding.
Anderson: What happens if this continues unchecked?
Lakoff: You get a conservative view of the world taking over, which will deny global warming. Why? Because it interferes with liberty. It interferes with you using your land and your property and anything you want and natural resources, for anything you want to do.
Anderson: So you see the complete obliteration, almost, of the idea of the commons, or the common good, in a way.
Lakoff: That’s right.
Anderson: This is a project where I’ve talk to a lot of people about the environment. I’ve talk to people about economic fallacies. You know, limitless growth in a finite material system. And this seems like this brings a lot of that stuff together.
Lakoff: Let me give you a technical way in which it does. One of the things you learn as a linguist is that every language in the whole world has in its grammar the ability to express direct causation. You know, you go pick up a glass of water and you drink it, okay. That is to apply force to something, it moves—it changes state. Direct causation, right there.
The environment is a system. It uses systemic causation. No language in the whole world has systemic causation in its grammar. No language. You have to learn systemic causation. And it’s not obvious. Because certain things work by systems. The environment, the economy—the world global economy—is a system. Most of the important things are systems.
Anderson: And they seem like they’re abstractions that are difficult for us to apply our preconceived metaphors to?
Lakoff: Exactly. Because the preconceived metaphors come out of direct experience. We don’t as children directly experience systemic causation.
Anderson: I mean, this seems like it puts us at a really interesting point in history, where our technological ability to create and affect massive systems, both man-made and also organic in the world, requires a new type of language that we’ve never had to use before.
Lakoff: Exactly. A few years ago, there was this huge snowstorm and Washington DC. And the conservative said, “Hey, there’s no global warming. It’s snowing. More snow than ever.”
Well, if you think about it, it is caused by global warming over the Pacific Ocean. The warming over the ocean means that more water goes water vapor, goes into the air. Well, what happens when it goes into the air? The winds take. Where do they blow? They blow toward the northeast, over the Pole. And they come down over Washington DC as snow in the winter.
Now, scientists are not trained to think and talk this way. But if they’re asked about it, they think causation means direct causation. And that is predictable. And you can’t predict a lot of the things, because they’re probabilistic. That’s part of the system. It’s a partly probabilistic system. So the fact is that it is systemically caused by global warming, not directly caused.
Anderson: Now, do you feel that we have the biological hardware to start thinking about systemic change in this way? Or are we really rooted in millions and millions of years of dealing with just direct causation?
Lakoff: We are rooted in millions and millions of years of just dealing… Not only millions of years, children are not raised and cannot be raised to understand systemic causation by the time they’re five.
Anderson: So it’s something you have to really push…
Lakoff: You have to teach. But as we get more and more people in the world, the chances of teaching them something like that aren’t great. It’s someone that has to be taught really early, and it’s hard to teach.
Now you can teach it if you break it into parts. The first part is network causation, like dominoes: this causes this causes this causes that. Or compound causation: Hurricane Sandy was caused by two effects of global warming occurring at once. And probability is another part of this. Probability’s hard for anybody to understand. The third is feedback. Take the ice cap on the North Pole. The ice cap reflects light and heat. The more it melts from heat in the rest of the air, the less light and heat it reflects. That makes it warmer. And therefore it reflects still less, and you have a cycle. So you need to understand feedback, you need to understand network causation, and you need to understand probability, and how those fit together. Those are the three things you’ve got to get. to understand systemic causation. It’s not in any curriculum. No environmental curriculum teaches systemic causation. Environmental scientists never talk about systemic causation.
Anderson: So say I’m sitting in a bar with someone and I’m trying to tell them about systems and things like this—
Lakoff: Forget it.
Anderson: Yeah. I mean, I could tell them all the things like, well here’s this chain of small direct causations…
Lakoff: But they’re not— You see, look. When they turn on the TV in the bar, they didn’t hear that every single night. And they haven’t heard it from the time they were little kids.
Anderson: I mean, we’re facing…really some existential problems with the environment, and possibly even with say, the economy. We don’t need to get into that here. But it seems like the stakes are high if the status quo is maintained. But if thinking about systems is maybe a way to start remedying that, how do we get systems as a whole field of thought out on that TV in the bar?
Lakoff: You’ve got a problem. Because people don’t know about direct vs. systemic causation and what’s in a grammar, and why what’s in a grammar means something. They don’t know about the nature of thought and the nature of the brain, and how the brain does this. I go to MSNBC and there it is: brilliant people; very well-educated; they know everything about policy and they’ve got all the facts. And they shoot themselves in the foot every night. Why? I wrote a book called Don’t Think of an Elephant. Which makes you think of an elephant.
So what are they gonna do? They’re gonna say, “There’s the argument Glenn Beck gave. Here’s the first thing in the argument and here’s the fact that contradicts it.” And what they do is support Glenn Beck.
Anderson: Just by citing him.
Lakoff: Just by citing him, and citing his argument and negating him. By giving the facts that negate him, they support him. And they don’t get that.
Anderson: Because it’s not a fact-based thing.
Lakoff: Because it’s not a fact-based thing. And because you’re not thinking in terms of logic. In logic you know, negation…negates something. And you can’t have both P and not‑P. But in the brain, not‑P activates P.
Anderson: Which is really puzzling because like, here’s this environmental problem, and we have facts about it.
Anderson: And we know through science that it is a problem, and if logic mattered you could articulate that to people. But it’s almost like we need to have that understanding that is then delivered through…something that almost feels dishonest to me because you’re not using facts to articulate it. And maybe that’s my own humanities background, right?
Lakoff: I don’t think— You know, it’s not that you don’t use facts. I’m not saying that at all. I’m saying the facts alone don’t do it. Especially when you’re trying to use traditional logical arguments. But you should use facts. You know. Never lie. But what you need to do is talk positively from your moral system, which means you have to know your moral system. You have to know how you think. You have to know that you’re thinking via those metaphors not others. You have to use your language, not anybody else’s. And you have to give the facts from that perspective.
Anderson: So it’s less of a conversation in that case, and more of…two sides asserting facts, one side presumably having right facts. But I mean, is there no…dialogue in that case between say, the Glenn Beck over here and the guy refuting him?
Lakoff: Well, the first part of the dialogue is about the moral systems themselves. If you don’t start there and say, “Hey, we’ve got these two moral systems, and we’re reasoning from those and they define what’s right,” then you’re hopeless. Nobody has a dialogue about that.
Anderson: And that’s actually what this project tries to do.
Anderson: Tries to like, go beneath that conversation to what’s good.
Lakoff: Right. But the problem with that is, if you are strongly…in terms of your moral system, that’s what your brain is structured to have. And you can’t see anything else.
Anderson: There are actual limits to understand.
Lakoff: There are limits to understanding, given by the structure of your brain. And unless you understand what the structures are and what limits come out of that, you’re in bad shape.
Anderson: But if you can do that can you then… Or in essence is there a part of your brain, a higher consciousness that can say, “Ah. This is the pattern of what my brain is doing. I can sort of go back and then empathize with this other system of…morality?”
Lakoff: Only if you’re bi-conceptual. Only if you have both, know that you have both, and see where they’re each applying, and then ask, “what would happen if this shifted here?” It’s not something that you can just do. And that requires a high level of introspection, which very few people have.
Anderson: So how forward, then? You know, it seems like…to address the sort of environmental problem, which seems like one of the biggest problems, you’ve got these myriad of very difficult linguistic and social challenges.
Lakoff: Mm hm.
Anderson: And…is that something that we can even preemptively do through conversation or through education? Or do you think that that’s something where minds can be changed only through the failure of a system that’s so big?
Lakoff: No, it won’t be changed with the failure of the system.
Anderson: Really? Because that’s something that a lot of people in this project have said. No, we’re gonna have to have the economy just fall down in ruins, [crosstalk] and then we’ll change.
Lakoff: Disas—no. No, it won’t help. In fact, it will hurt. I mean, think about what it’s going to universities. It’s killing universities. It’s killing research at universities. It’s killing government research on all the things we need research on. You know. It’s killing the educational system. It’s exactly the worst thing that could happen.
Anderson: So, how about a really precipitous decline or problem? Something I mean…
Lakoff: Because that helps the—
Anderson: —like the Great Depression.
Lakoff: It helps conservatives.
Anderson: So basically because of their command of language, they can take any scenario and always use it to fortify…
Lakoff: Not just command of language, it’s command of… See, they have a communication system that changes brains.
Lakoff: Physiologic— The use of language can change brains. If you repeat the language over and over, that activates the frames in your brain, and they change. Now, brain change sounds like Frankenstein or something. But it really is just smart. And progressives don’t know how it works. “Let’s have a debate. Let’s get two people on opposite sides and have a debate, and then have the audience vote,” you know. Useless.
Anderson: So what that makes me wonder is, are we beyond…some critical threshold at which enough minds have been changed that the big conversation cannot be changed back?
Lakoff: Um…not necessarily. We’re at a point where that could change. And the only way it could change is through science. And that’s why I spend my time on science. You need to understand that religion is coming out of the way brains function. That politics, morality, is coming out of that, and how it’s working. And how language works. The science needs to be out there, and that science needs to be taught.
Anderson: You know, that increased understanding, couldn’t that be more effectively used by people in power?
Lakoff: Moral systems are not equally valid. Because some moral systems are consistent with the facts, and some are not.
Anderson: Is this…kind of an unprecedented point in terms of science getting us closer to an idea of good? I think a lot of people I’ve talked to, and myself included, always see science as answering tangible questions about the world and maybe it answers questions about the brain. But when it comes down to like, how should we live, what kind of world do we want to create, they seem like they don’t…I mean…
Lakoff: The answer is yes. First of all because it tells you where morality comes from. And what it is in detail. And how there are different moral systems. And then it tells you that some moral systems fit what’s real, and others do not. And that’s important to know.
Anderson: And that by doing that we can say that some are better than others?
Lakoff: That’s… Yes. I think so. That some are better than others in the sense that some…are more real than others. People think that if you’re studying metaphorical thought you’re not dealing with reality, and that’s the opposite. You’re very much dealing with reality because you can only understand reality itself through metaphorical thought. I have a book called Where Mathematics Comes From, with a marvelous colleague from San Diego, Rafael Núñez. What we did was show that mathematics comes out of human brains and bodies. And out of metaphorical thought. And it sounds abstract because they build metaphors upon metaphors upon metaphors. And the metaphors are utterly precise.
Anderson: But they tie to physical stuff when you apply it, right, in a way that like, God doesn’t necessarily tie to [crosstalk] something testable.
Lakoff: They don’t necessarily apply to physical stuff. There’s all sorts of branches of mathematics that will never have anything to do with physical stuff. Though it turns out that [crosstalk] more and more they do
Anderson: But they are sort of testable within their own…[crosstalk]…world, in a way that God maybe isn’t testable like that, right?
Lakoff: Yeah. They’re consistent. The issue is consistency.
Now, there are inconsistent branches of mathematics. There are approaches to mathematics that don’t fit together, but are internally consistent. Hundreds of them. Thousands of them.
Anderson: Right, right. And so thinking about how that conversation happens in the world of math, and then sort of the analog in the world where we’re talking about the good or spirituality or something like that… You know, I think of all the people I’ve spoken with in this project who come from just, all these different backgrounds. And course we all live in the same world together. Here we’re in the same political system. And we’ve got to talk to them. And a lot of them, they just never accept any of this science, is there any way to like, come to a compromise, or is this something where…
Lakoff: No. I think what’s going to happen is that first of all you’re not going to eliminate conservatism. Because the metaphor it’s based on, the strict father metaphor, is based on the fact that children in fact are better off if they listen to their parents. And they are better off if they’re nurtured by their parents. You know? Each of those gives rise to different family models and different modes of political moral thought. You know, you’re not going to get rid of that. The best you can do is understand it.
Anderson: And so that’s ultimately not an issue of compromise so much… Or maybe it is an issue of compromise but it’s [crosstalk] finding out where you can have it?
Lakoff: It’s not political compromise. It has to do with a respect for the understanding of science itself. For the understanding of who you are and who other people are. And why they are as they are. The people who do things that I consider evil, consider those things moral. And I can tell you why they consider them moral.
Anderson: So if we’re looking at moral systems as a function of the brain, which I think is something that…you have to have a type of confidence in science as a way of understanding the world, and a certain type of physicalism that’s entailed in that, a lot of people might take issue with on philosophical grounds and others might just have a very knee-jerk reaction to it because it really threatens a lot of how we think about morality, right? I mean, [crosstalk] for most people it’s—
Lakoff: And how you think about yourself. Your identity.
Anderson: Right. Because you don’t want to be just a really complicated meat machine.
Lakoff: But you’re not.
Anderson: And why is that?
Lakoff: One of the things that I’ve done and that my colleagues have done is study the metaphorical structure of religion. Thirty years ago when I started working on how metaphorical thought worked and started teaching it here, I got a student from the divinity school. And I said, “Gee that’s great. Welcome. Take the class. And by the way, how come?”
And he said, “God is ineffable. We can only understand God through metaphor. I want to know how we do it.” Exactly the right idea.
Well, we’ve had a lot of the divinity students come through. And what they’ve been doing is studying the metaphorical structure of the Bible. The metaphorical structural structure of various branches of religion. And various religions. Last semester I had another one of these students. He accepts the religion, and he accepts the idea that his view of God is metaphorical. And he has no problem with that. Because he understands that his morality is tied to his view of God—he has a nurturant God. He understands that there’s a strict father God and there is a nurturant parent God, and he has one. And he understands that, and he says, “There’s a good reason why I have this. And it allows me to function well in my life. And other people should have this one, not that one.”
The other part of this is that the emotional effects of religion are real. They are in your body. There was another dissertation a couple of years ago from a brilliant young woman in the divinity school here, who had studied two women who had spiritual visions. What she pointed out was these visions had metaphorical structures. They had to do with the fact that metaphors are physically there in the brain. And that they fit the metaphors from the religion. And that they heard God talking to them.
Well, what does that mean? If you study a little bit of neuroscience, and some linguistics, you note that you can talk to yourself. The part of the brain that is used for imagination is the same as that which is used for perception and action. Language comes through two parts, the articulatory system and the acoustic system, which are linked. When you have activation of the articulatory system without talking, you can get input to the acoustic system and hear yourself talk to yourself. But it doesn’t have to be you. You can hear God telling you what the religion says you should hear.
Anderson: And for people from these faith traditions, is this very threatening? Because in a way that takes God out of the sky and puts God right between your temples?
Lakoff: It is threatening, if you take that literally. What is interesting to me is the students from the divinity school who have become pastors, they say, “Whether God exists outside me or not I couldn’t tell. Because God is ineffable. If there’s a God outside I could only understand him through a metaphor. But I can’t tell the difference between understanding and creation; there is none.”
And that’s okay. Because the emotional, social, familial, other parts of religion, and moral parts of religion are so important that it doesn’t matter if they come through metaphorical parts of the brain. The spiritual feeling that you have, the emotions that you have, are real emotions—you feel.
If you say, “It’s giving me meaning,” and what kind of meeting is important, what is important is the kind of person I am. What’s important is what I feel. What’s important is how I raise my family, and my kids, and how I act with my spouse. What’s important is how I act with my neighbors and friends. What’s important is the community that I have, inside the church and outside the church. Those are important in my life. And it doesn’t matter what’s outside.
Anderson: Is science itself, though, not a system of understanding? You know, obviously it has testable premises in the world, but there’s much that it can’t test, you know. We look for the things that we—
Lakoff: But we can test this. The dissertation just finished by Elizabeth Wehring did test it. She took the parts of the metaphors that we had for strict and nurturant, and she broke them down into dozens of pieces. And then she separated out the pieces and she had people answer survey questions or react in experiments to the pieces and saw what the correlations between the pieces were. Overwhelming, that they show the metaphorical structure is there.
And by the way, it will be immediately attacked by people who are in the science that doesn’t want that to be true. This violates all traditional rationality. Just as neuroscience does. No neuroscientist will believe Descartes. It’s the inadequate theory of reason that has to be deepened. The deep understanding of reason understands how we reason.
Anderson: Something I wonder about that is kind of endless regression. We come to this next understanding [crosstalk] of the brain, and then there’s something beyond that?
Lakoff: It’s not a— No. But it’s the body. The body. Every idea is fully embodied, in many ways. That’s where it’s grounded. It ends right there.
Anderson: But out conceptions of the body change over time as science [crosstalk] changes and advances, right?
Lakoff: No. No no. Those are active, conscious, scientific things of the body. But there are built-in topographic maps in the brain and brain circuits that are connected to the body, that are there from birth. Simple things, like you understand what motion is. Those things have everything to do with how we think.
Anderson: And you feel pretty confident that the science about those is not going to be revised by a deeper understanding of science coming further. Like, that’s kind of basic stuff that’s pretty solid?
Anderson: Because that seems kind of essential to this, right?
Lakoff: Yeah. This is something where the science has to go forward. In cognitive linguistics it’s solid. The work on embodied cognition is overwhelmingly done; experimentally, it’s clear. We think metaphorically, and those metaphors affect behavior. And experiment after experiment shows it.
Anderson: The enterprise of science, the scientific method, the way we go about defining our questions and looking for results, that is obviously then built on a structure of metaphors.
Lakoff: Except for w— Yes, it’s built on a structure of metaphors, and it’s not an infinite loop. Because those metaphors are grounded in the body.
Anderson: Because that’s something, you know— In this series I’ve talked to some people who’ve talked about the philosophy of science. It answers certain questions extremely well, but there are other questions—moral questions—that lie outside of it.
Lakoff: Except for the following thing: there’s a bad understanding of the philosophy of science, in terms of the notion of converging of evidence. That’s what’s going on here. In science, you have to have converging evidence. And you get more and more of it from different fields, with different methodologies. The science of the brain doesn’t come from just studying the brain. People say, “Oh, the science of the brain. You’re doing fMRIs.” No. Because the people do fMRIs don’t ask how the brain works. What the how is. They don’t look at how language works. They don’t look at how conceptual thought works. They don’t look at how embodied cognition works. That’s not seen as the science of…The Brain, which is delimiting what the science is. What we’re doing is bringing the science of the brain together with all of these other things that have to fit together.
Anderson: And that’s kind of the piece of understanding that gets us to systems, that gets us to addressing some of these existential problems.
Anderson: Are you optimistic?
Lakoff: Well, my personality is generally optimistic. Um—
Anderson: How, after this conversation?
Lakoff: Well you see, look. I mean… The conversation has to do with what’s real. And I’ve been around long enough… I’m 72. I’ve been around long enough to see how things change. To see a lot of change. There’s a computer revolution going on. There’s a change in economics. There’s a change in foreign policy. There’s a change in people’s personalities because of all of this stuff. Vast changes.
And you know, when I was a kid, my mother never made it to high school—my parents didn’t go to high school. They had to work from the time they were twelve and thirteen. But my mother was raised, literally, with horses and buggies. Literally. Where they had people lighting the lamps in the streets with the gas lamps.
Now, here I am in 2013, remembering what my mother told me about 1905 and 1907. The world is so different, even from the time I was a child from hers. To now?, its’ huge.
So the question is, how is it going to change? Not whether. And science plays a huge role in this. The question is, is it gonna be appreciated or not? The good science is not immediately appreciated. Einstein, 1905, did relativity theory and it didn’t get popular till the experiment in 1919. That was something easier to do than this, okay. And there wasn’t that much competition. I mean other theories and so on. These things take time. And the question really is, is the science going to work? And is it going to be popularized? And is it going to be taught? We have so many things going against public education now, against any form of education. They’re all political questions. So I spend a lot of my time on the framing of political questions, for that reason. Some of them do well. Some of them don’t.
But the framing gets out there. I mean, I started working on this stuff in 1995. So it’s 18 years. Well, in 18 years a lot of people now understand what framing is. They’re gettin’ there. They’re understanding that morality matters. It could be that in another twenty years, it’ll be around to all over the place.
My feeling is this: the work I’ve done so far has gotten out to hundreds of thousands of people. Maybe more; I don’t know. But hundreds of thousands of people. That’s remarkable. That’s amazing to me. If you had told me, when I was a graduate student, that any work I had done would be appreciated by hundreds of thousands of people I’d’ve thought you were nuts.
So you simply don’t know what will happen with this. The wonderful thing about it is that the knowledge exists. My job in there is to develop it as well as it can be scientifically, to write it up as closely as I can, and to talk about it as long as I can. And to train other people to do that, and to work with people who care about these things. That’s the most I can do.
Aengus Anderson: So that gives you just a small sense of what a conversation with George Lakoff is like. It’s…remarkable. It’s daunting. It took me the first hour of the conversation to kind of figure out where we were going and to get my head to stop spinning. George built one of the biggest sort of intellectual systems of anyone we’ve heard in this project. There are so many moving parts. When I was editing this I was trying to figure out, what is an area that I can take out? What’s essential? What’s inessential?
And when you start pulling things out of this, the whole thing falls down. There’s a lot of stuff that you must include here. So as an editor or an interviewer or as a listener, I think this is probably one of our more daunting episodes. It was certainly one of the hardest interviews I’ve conducted, for a variety of reasons. One was that building the system took an hour. I got two hours with George. The second hour was a lot more back and forth, and I got to search a some of the ideas down more.
But man, I did not do half the job I wanted to do. And going back and listening to this, especially like two and a half years later, I am embarrassed with a number of things that slipped by me. And that’s always the tension with these. You need to let an interviewee explain their perspective, kind of delineate the scope of what they want to talk about. And you also need to challenge them. But you need to challenge them and stop them without derailing them. And that was something that in this…in retrospect, I wish I’d challenge him more. So I’ll just say that and then I’ll hand it over to you guys and stop giving metacontext, and let’s talk about what you actually thought when you heard this.
Neil Prendergast: Yeah, I’ll jump in right away because I think that we’re all going to disagree a little bit about the significance of what Lakoff was relaying to you, Aengus. What I really liked I think the most about this is that it opened up a space where real action can be meaningful. And I think that in some of the interviews we’ve done, there’s just been this kind of “well, you have to throw your hands up in the air because you can’t do anything about the world.” And I really kind of listened to this interview and heard Lakoff saying, “Well, there are actually some things you can do to effect change.” I heard that as education. Some of the the listeners probably don’t know, but I’m a college professor so when anybody says that education is worthwhile I say thank you for validating my existence. So, there’s maybe a little bit of positioning there that I should be clear about.
But anyway, I really did hear that in what he was saying. Because he has this comment in there I think at some stage, where he says there’s so much of your brain that’s formed by the time that you’re five. But of course that also means that the inverse is true, too. That there’s still a lot left as you’re getting older. I teach principally college students who are eighteen to twenty-four—not everybody, but mostly. And I can see they’re kind of sorting through these two different types of metaphor, the strict father and the nurturing parent, that he discusses. And when my students become aware that there are these two different ways of thinking about…really about American culture—the conservative way, the progressive way—they start to understand them when I give them actually these metaphors. And I actually do share this with them a little bit in the classroom.
Anderson: Oh, so you actually bring some of the things that you’ve drawn from reading Lakoff into your teaching?
Prendergast: Yeah, I’ll just kind of mention the idea of the nurturing parent and the strict father. And they start to kind of actually I think grasp some historical documents a little bit better. I have this exercise early in a very basic US history class that I teach, where I give them something on social Darwinism, which is the sort of late 19th-century sort of defense of attaining as much wealth as you can. And I also give them another document about the Social Gospel Movement, which was more about trying to do something for other people out of empathy.
So you can see there there’s a strict father document and a nurturing parent document. And they both sort of define freedom differently. And the students don’t know what to make of it. And when I give them this language that Lakoff has, they say, “Oh my gosh. I kind of understand the documents a lot better now.” And then they say, “Well, which way should I think, because I understand both systems?”
And then you know, usually I say, “Well, I think you’re gonna like the rest of the semester, then. [both laugh] Because you have a lot to think about.”
So there’s this move of becoming aware of these two different types of metaphors that I think is like, really really valuable for growing minds. And so that’s really where I see the significance of Lakoff’s interview.
Micah Saul: I definitely agree that he gives us tools that we can use to think about the world and think about how we interact with each other and the systems were we live in. But I had some serious problems with this conversation. And it wasn’t because of the tools, but it was because of the overarching system that he created. Separate from the system those tools are are still useful, and I think that’s awesome. But, a little bit of a bias here, I tend to run away screaming anytime I hear the word “every single” or “not one” in the context of social sciences. It just seems a little…hard to believe.
Prendergast: You’re a good humanities thinker.
Saul: When he sort of proposes that every culture has this duality of metaphor, my immediate reaction is oh really? I’m…not so sure about that. It may just be my personal experience that set me off on the wrong foot here. But by the end of it I was sort of feeling like he’s built this really elegant, pretty system that’s internally consistent, but it all comes from that initial hypothesis, and I’m gonna call it a hypothesis, that doesn’t seem questioned, doesn’t seem…proven.
Anderson: You mean the two models.
Saul: The two models, right. Two and only two models. So that’s one side of why I sort of found this problematic.
The other side is, by the time we got to the end of the system, my understanding of what he was saying is that you can’t convince people of anything. That once you’re set into one of these metaphors, into one of these models, and once your brain has adapted to that and all of the other metaphors in your life stem from that initial, primordial metaphor, physiologically you cannot have ideas that are not based on that metaphor without a lot of work, and without a lot of introspection, which he says most people can’t do.
So I found this remarkably pessimistic, just because you know, if the conversation doesn’t matter at all, does that sort of nullify everything Torcello was talking about and are we just left with throwing chairs at each other?
Anderson: I’m really intrigued, Neil, that you found it empowering because I truly had the same reaction that Micah did, how do you talk to people who are welded shut in so many ways? And…it’s a yelling thing, right? It’s like, you know, this person who’s way on the right or way on the left, shares a couple of your metaphorical systems, but it’s only on a small issue here and there. Lakoff says there’s no ideology of the middle, there are only combinations and generally people lean to one side or the other. That’s discouraging. I happen to think it’s wrong because I think you can find examples in history where things don’t work like that.
I asked George, say we have a full economic collapse. Does that threaten capitalism as it’s practiced? Because what was going through my head was the Depression, where you have a roaring laissez-faire system. It kind of implodes. And then you get the New Deal. You get a wave of dare I say nurturant parenting from the federal government…that seems like it would have been unthinkable in 1923. And clearly a lot of people had to change their thinking there. So I feel like people can be a lot more fluid in changing their minds, and we’re not nailed down by these metaphors.
Prendergast: Yeah, and I think maybe we’re just having different reads what Lakoff was saying in terms of maybe how nailed down that is, to use your words there. Because I didn’t feel like he was saying it was too nailed down. And of course my example came from teaching and we’re talking about people whose minds are are still forming. And so it is exciting to sort of show them that there are these different pathways to think with, and they’re making their own choices about which one they’re going to lean more toward. So, I kind of felt like the flexibility was there. But there is maybe something maybe something a little bit different when people are older. Not trying to insult people who are older…
Anderson: No no, you’ve just entered their ranks.
Prendergast: I’ve just [colluded?] now. I’m in their ranks now. But you know, there is something to that and he mentions five-year-olds, right. But how does this change a little bit further into life? I would’ve liked to have heard more about that.
Anderson: One thing I like about this is that, based on our different reactions, I think each listener is going to hear this interview a little bit differently and they’ll probably draw something possibly radically different out of it. Is it empowering? Is it discouraging? I think it’s fascinating when someone has a perspective which seems so cleanly nailed-out, and yet can be so ambiguous.
That was George Lakoff, recorded June 12th, 2013 in Berkeley, California.
This interview at the Conversation web site, with project notes, comments, and taxonomic organization specific to The Conversation.