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William James and Embodied Religious Belief

In: Contemporary Pragmatism
Author: Tobias Tan1
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  • 1 Faculty of Divinity, University of Cambridge, West Road, Cambridge CB3 9BS, UK, tobias.tan@oxon.org
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Scholars have recently identified resemblances between pragmatist thought and contemporary trends in cognitive science in the area of ‘embodied cognition’ or ‘4E cognition.’ In this article I explore these resemblances in the account of religious belief provided by the classical pragmatist philosopher William James. Although James’s psychology does not always parallel the commitments of embodied cognition, his insights concerning the role of emotion and socio-cultural context in shaping religious belief, as well as the action-oriented nature of such beliefs, resonate with embodied and embedded accounts of religious belief. James’s insights are readily extended in light of contemporary embodied cognition research to highlight the interdependency between religious belief of individuals and the cognitive scaffolding provided by embodied religious practices.

Abstract

Scholars have recently identified resemblances between pragmatist thought and contemporary trends in cognitive science in the area of ‘embodied cognition’ or ‘4E cognition.’ In this article I explore these resemblances in the account of religious belief provided by the classical pragmatist philosopher William James. Although James’s psychology does not always parallel the commitments of embodied cognition, his insights concerning the role of emotion and socio-cultural context in shaping religious belief, as well as the action-oriented nature of such beliefs, resonate with embodied and embedded accounts of religious belief. James’s insights are readily extended in light of contemporary embodied cognition research to highlight the interdependency between religious belief of individuals and the cognitive scaffolding provided by embodied religious practices.

1 William James on the Nature of Religious Belief

In his essay ‘The Will to Believe’, William James sets out a case for religious belief.1 His primary antagonist, William Kingdon Clifford, argues that religious belief ought to be shunned in the face of insufficient evidence. Although James agrees that definitive evidence may not be forthcoming in the case of religious belief, in contrast to Clifford he contends that it may nevertheless be permissible and indeed beneficial to hold religious beliefs. In a pragmatist vein, he observes that to opt for agnosticism on religious matters is itself a decision which may have practical consequences.

James’s position should not be characterised as an anti-intellectualist one. He readily asserts that where a belief can be decided upon on intellectual grounds it ought to be accepted or rejected accordingly.2 Where he differs from Clifford is on the correct course of action to take when decisions for (or against) a belief cannot be made on intellectual grounds based on the available evidence. James argues that there is a certain class of hypothesis—namely ones which are ‘live’, ‘forced’, and ‘momentous’ as opposed to ‘dead’, ‘avoidable’, or ‘trivial’—for which deferring a decision until sufficient evidence is amassed is not possible. To remain agnostic in such cases is, when viewed in terms of its practical outcomes, for all intents and purposes the same as to decide against belief. While such a strategy can certainly guarantee the avoidance of error (a false positive), it also risks failing to adopt a true belief (a false negative).

James contends that certain religious hypotheses fall into the category of a live, forced, and momentous hypothesis, and cannot be conclusively decided on extant evidence (and may be by their nature evidentially underdetermined). Where the intellect reaches its limits, James argues that human ‘passional’ and ‘volitional’ natures can legitimately (and perhaps do inevitably) come into play. Although we cannot simply will ourselves to believe something we know to be patently false, such as the proposition that Abraham Lincoln’s existence is a myth,3 when the evidence is inconclusive James defends the right to allow our passional nature to will one belief over another.

James’s defence of religious belief, thus summarised, bears many of the hallmarks of his wider pragmatist philosophy. As Hilary Putnam identifies, the marrying of fallibilism and anti-skepticism is one of the basic insights of American pragmatism.4 This description certainly holds true for James’s treatment of religious belief: James argues that religious belief is evidentially underdetermined (and decisions to accept it are therefore fallible) and yet one is justified in adopting an anti-skeptical position in the case of such beliefs. Moreover, in keeping with the pragmatist maxim, James attends to the practical effects of religious belief.5 James’s treatment of religious belief thus fits squarely within his pragmatist philosophy; indeed, Graham Bird suggests that James’s philosophical position is not simply applied to the case of religion, but rather that ‘it is not too much to say that [James’s] epistemology was in part constructed for these issues [of religion and morality].’6

James’s overarching argument in ‘The Will to Believe’ is thus a normative one: he seeks to demonstrate that holding religious belief is justifiable because it is epistemologically permissible and potentially beneficial. However, in the process of making this normative case, he also implicitly deploys some descriptive insights about the psychology of belief to support his case. The remainder of this article focuses on these descriptive claims (and I shall leave to one side an evaluation of James’s broader normative argument against agnosticism and in favour of religious belief).7 In particular, James’s description includes three factors which contribute to the formation of religious beliefs.

First, James describes the role of the ‘passional nature’ in religious belief: ‘our non-intellectual nature does influence our convictions. There are passional tendencies and volitions which run before and others which come after belief…’8 Hence affective states are a cause, and not merely a symptom, of religious beliefs. He also goes further by declaring ‘a pox on all your houses’ when it comes to the utilisation of emotion in deciding upon religious hypotheses (although James would not characterise the role of emotion pejoratively): emotion plays a role not only in deciding for religious belief, but also in deciding against it. The exercise of emotion in these decisions is, for James, inevitable: ‘Our passional nature not only lawfully may, but must, decide an option between propositions, whenever it is a genuine option that cannot by its nature be decided on intellectual grounds; for to say, under such circumstances, “Do not decide, but leave the question open,” is itself a passional decision,—just like deciding yes or no,—and is attended with the same risk of losing the truth.’9 Those who adopt Clifford’s view that religious belief ought to be rejected on account of insufficient evidence are themselves, James argues, motived by a ‘fear of being duped’.10 Such fearfulness, according to James’s diagnosis, drives Clifford to the timid position of avoiding error at all costs, even if this timidity risks failing to adopt a true belief.11

Second, James is sensitive to the way in which an individual’s context shapes her belief. In his distinction between ‘live’ and ‘dead’ candidates for belief he observes that options considered ‘live’ in one culture may be ‘dead’ in another.12 Contextual, socio-historical factors thus shape the pool of religious beliefs which may be considered plausible.

Together these two factors contribute to what James terms the ‘willing nature’, from which the title of his essay is drawn. By ‘willing nature’ he intends more than simply an exercise of the will: ‘When I say “willing nature,” I do not mean only such deliberate volitions as may have set up habits of belief that we cannot now escape from,—I mean all such factors of belief as fear and hope, prejudice and passion, imitation and partisanship, the circumpressure of our caste and set.’13 James is thus sensitive to the way in which religious beliefs are formed by a wide array of ‘non-intellectual’ factors, including a whole host of affective and contextual factors.

Third, James’s account of religious belief is action-oriented. As mentioned above, in keeping with the pragmatist concern about the practical effects of a particular stance, James observes in a revealing footnote that religious belief is significant because of the behavioural differences it entails:

Since belief is measured by action, he who forbids us to believe religion to be true, necessarily also forbids us to act as we should if we did believe it to be true. The whole defense of religious faith hinges upon action. If the action required or inspired by the religious hypothesis is in no way different from that dictated by the naturalistic hypothesis, then religious faith is a pure superfluity, better pruned away, and controversy about its legitimacy is a piece of idle trifling, unworthy of serious minds. I myself believe, of course, that the religious hypothesis gives to the world an expression which specifically determines our reactions, and makes them in a large part unlike what they might be on a purely naturalistic scheme of belief.14

James thus envisages religious belief not merely as a set of views which a passive and distantiated observer formulates.15 Instead, beliefs actively shape how their holders act in the world. The implications of holding a belief can clearly be seen in James’s category of ‘self-verifying’ beliefs.16 By promoting this category of beliefs, James does not endorse the trivially false assertion that simply believing something makes it true, a kind metaphysical wish fulfilment.17 Rather he observes that since beliefs make a difference to how we act in the world, this behavioral difference can (in some cases) bring about the content of the belief. He thereby highlights the active nature of beliefs: beliefs do not simply represent something about what exists, they also direct behaviour.

2 James’s Anticipation of Embodied Cognition

A century after James formulated his psychology, the nascent paradigm of cognitive science loosely termed ‘embodied cognition’ or, in an attempt to capture the diversity of projects and claims, more specifically called ‘4E cognition’ (embodied, embedded, enactive, extended) has emerged. Broadly speaking, this paradigm proposes that human cognitive processes are shaped by their particular bodily contexts and environmental situatedness.18

The most frequently cited philosophical antecedent to theories of embodied cognition is French phenomenology. In particular, Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s seminal Phenomenology of Perception is routinely identified as an inspiration for later developments in embodied cognition.19 Alongside this prominent antecedent of embodied cognition, commentators have recently observed that pragmatist thought has significant resonances with theories of embodied cognition.20 James’s account of religious belief evidences such resonances; each of the three aspects of James’s implicit description of the psychology outlined in the previous section has parallels in embodied cognition research, which I shall briefly survey.

First, emotion was proposed as an early and important example of embodied cognition. Indeed, James’s own theory of emotion (also independently formulated by Carl Lange) posits that bodily states are not merely an expression of a preceding emotional mental state, but rather constitute part of the cognitive process of an emotion.21 The resulting James-Lange theory has recently been revived, notably by neuroscientist Antonio Damasio.22 This account of emotion furnished embodied cognitions theorists with an example of a cognitive process which is not confined to the brain, but also implemented by bodily states. On this theory of emotion, James’s contention that religious belief inevitably derives from the ‘passional’ nature introduces a role for the body in religious belief.

As outlined above, although James identifies the passional and willing natures as playing a role in belief formation in ‘The Will to Believe’, he also argues that these factors are only decisive where the intellect is inconclusive. Richard Rorty subsequently critiques James for seemingly positing a dichotomy between emotion and intellect, suggesting that ‘James accepts exactly what he should reject: the idea that the mind is divided neatly down the middle into intellect and passion, and that possible topics of discussion are divided neatly into the cognitive and the noncognitive ones.’23 This critique, if accepted, would place James at odds with certain streams of embodied cognition which are dubious about whether humans possess a ‘pure intellect’, unencumbered by the affective influence.24 However, elsewhere James explicitly dismisses a dichotomy between emotion and intellect. For example, in ‘The Sentiment of Rationality’, he rejects the notion that the intellect operates purely on rationalistic probabilities: ‘Intellect, will, taste, and passion co-operate just as they do in practical affairs… The absurd abstraction of an intellect verbally formulating all its evidence and carefully estimating the probability thereof by a vulgar fraction by the size of whose denominator and numerator alone it is swayed, is ideally as inept as it is actually impossible.’25 Hence a more charitable reading of James (than Rorty provides), which does not require a clear division between the intellect and the passions, is called for. Namely, although James distinguishes between beliefs which can and cannot be adjudicated on intellectual grounds, this does not entail that intellectual decisions are disentangled from emotions.

Second, theories of embodied cognition emphasise the way in which cognitive processes stretch beyond neural activity and are scaffolded by resources beyond the brain. These theories argue, first, that cognitive processes do not simply work on internal mental models of the world, but rather depend on sensorimotor engagement with the world (‘enactivism’) and, second, that (some) cognition is physically implement on non-neural media such as bodily states (as in emotion) or material culture (‘extended cognition’). According to these hypotheses, cognition cannot be fully understood exclusively through the operation of an isolated, individual brain, but must be studied in the context of a brain which is embedded in a body with a certain structure and environmental affordances.

James’s intuition that contextual factors lend support to particular kinds of religious belief, preempts such embedded theories of cognition. This view was already developed in the introduction to The Principles of Psychology:

On the whole, few recent formulas have done more real service of a rough sort in psychology than the Spencerian one that the essence of mental life and of bodily life are one, namely, ‘the adjustment of inner to outer relations.’ Such a formula is vagueness incarnate; but because it takes into account the fact that minds inhabit environments which act on them and on which they in turn react; because, in short, it takes mind in the midst of all its concrete relations, it is immensely more fertile than the old-fashioned ‘rational psychology,’ which treated the soul as a detached existent, sufficient unto itself, and assumed to consider only its nature and properties. I shall therefore feel free to make any sallies into zoology or into pure nerve-physiology….26

Here James asserts that human psychology is best understood as embedded in a body and an environment. Moreover, his critique of rational psychology mirrors the later critique of ‘traditional cognitive science’ by proponents of embodied cognition; both reject a view of the mind which largely functions independently of its concrete context.

Third, theories of embodied cognition typically stress the way in which perceptual and motor systems participate in aspects of cognition previously confined to ‘central cognition’, such as memory, conceptualisation, and judgements. One of the implications of this view is that motor movement and action planning are central functions of cognition rather than mere afterthoughts; evolutionarily speaking, cognition is geared towards guiding the body through its environment, and it is features such as abstract thought which are the afterthought. This view parallels James’s (and the broader pragmatist) stance on the action-oriented nature of belief. The prescience of James’s thought as a forebear of embodied cognition is evidenced by the striking similarity between a passage from James’s work and a key text in embodied cognition from almost a century later; James writes:

It is far too little recognized how entirely the intellect is built up of practical interests. The theory of evolution is beginning to do very good service by its reduction of all mentality to the type of reflex action. Cognition, in this view, is but a fleeting moment, a cross-section at a certain point, of what in its totality is a motor phenomenon. In lower forms of life no one will pretend that cognition is anything more than a guide to appropriate action. The germinal question concerning things brought for the first time before consciousness is not the theoretic “What is that?” but the practical “Who goes there?” or rather… “What is to be done”… Cognition, in short, is incomplete until discharged in act: and although it is true that the later mental development… gives birth to a vast amount of theoretic activity over and above that which is immediately ministerial to practice, yet the earlier claim is only postponed, not effaced, and the active nature asserts its rights to the end.27

Compare this passage with one from Andy Clark’s Being There: Putting Brain, Body, and World Together Again, a seminal text for contemporary embodied cognition:

Perception is commonly cast as the process by which we receive information from the world. Cognition then comprises intelligent processes defined over some inner rendition of such information. Intentional action is glossed as the carrying out of the commands that constitute the output of a cogitative, central system. But real-time, real-world success is no respecter of this neat tripartite division of labor. Instead, perception is itself tangled up with specific possibilities of action—so tangled up, in fact, that the job of central cognition often ceases to exist. The internal representations the mind uses to guide actions may thus be best understood as action-and-context-specific control structures rather than as passive recapitulations of external reality. The detailed, action-neutral inner models that were to provide the domain for disembodied, centralized cogitation stand revealed as slow, expensive, hard-to-maintain luxuries—top-end purchases that cost-conscious nature will generally strive to avoid.28

Both of these passages identify the way in which a cognitive system forged through evolutionary processes is geared towards adaptive behaviour. From an evolutionary perspective, cognition is not an end in itself, but serves the embodied organism it directs.

Although the points of connection between James’s account of religious belief and embodied cognition are significant, the resemblance between his overall psychology and contemporary embodied cognition research should not be overstated. A crucial point at which James is at odds with embodied cognition is in how cognition relates to perception and action. As the Clark passage quoted above intimates, a recurring theme in embodied cognition is the way in which perception and action systems pervade cognitive processes, be it through the sensorimotor grounding of concepts, reliance on interaction with one’s environment, or accessing resources which constitute external cognitive scaffolds.29 The imbrication of sensorimotor systems in cognitive processes challenges the previously widely held computational model which typically assumes what Susan Hurley calls ‘the classical sandwich model’: cognition proper is sandwiched between perception and motor systems which are understood as ‘input’ and ‘output’ systems respectively.

James, by contrast, essentially endorses the sandwich model when he describes the triadic structure of the nervous system: ‘The sensory impression exists only for the sake of awaking the central process of reflection, and the central process of reflection exists only for the sake of calling forth a final act.’30 Other pragmatists are closer to embodied cognition on this point; John Dewey, for instance, critiques the notion of the reflex arc which James affirmed: ‘the reflex arc idea, as commonly employed, is defective in that it assumes sensory stimulus and motor response as distinct psychical existences, while in reality they are always inside a co-ordination and have their significance purely from the part played in maintaining or reconstituting the co-ordinations.’31 Although various potential discrepancies arise across different texts in James’s oeuvre, his description of religious belief in ‘The Will to Believe’ is largely consistent with an embodied view of cognition.

3 Reconsidering Religious Belief in Light of Embodied Cognition

If James, informed by his pragmatist convictions, begins to intuit some aspects of an embodied account of religious belief, we might ask how these insights might be developed more fully in light of contemporary theories of embodied cognition. James’s intuition that religious belief is not solely determined by abstract rational deliberation—but is the purview of embodied, affective beings, scaffolded by culture, and directed toward behaviour—can be fleshed out by the ever-growing discoveries regarding the way in which cognition is shaped by the body and its situatedness.

The nascent cognitive science of religion (CSR) attempts to identify cognitive mechanisms which contribute to the psychology of religious belief. However, numerous scholars have observed that CSR typically assumes a ‘cognitivist’ understanding of human cognition (in which cognition is largely understood as being independent of the body and its situatedness).32 These scholars also identify various opportunities for embodied cognition to augment existing CSR work.

Existing approaches in CSR, however, are not completely at odds with theories of embodied cognition. Helen de Cruz observes that CSR research can be divided into content biases, which influence the content of intuitive and reflective beliefs, such as hypersensitive agency detection and minimally counterintuitive concepts, and contextual biases, which are situational factors that influence the transmission of beliefs, such as the perceived reliability or prestige of a source.33 Contextual biases, insofar as they underscore the external scaffolding required to acquire or maintain a belief, are consistent with an embodied view of cognition in which cognition is understood as stretching across (or embedded in) the wider system of brain, body, and world. For example, Gervais and Henrich highlight the case of Zeus, who once commanded a wide-spread following but no longer does.34 They argue that this change cannot be accounted for by content biases since the conceptual content of Zeus remains largely unchanged. Instead it is disappearance of contextual factors, such as the presence of fellow believers and ritual displays, which largely explain why belief in Zeus is no longer common.35 Even if contextual biases identified in CSR are consistent with embodied cognition, de Cruz nevertheless sides with those who argue that an embodied paradigm has been underappreciated in CSR when she observes that ‘[m]uch research in CSR has focused on content biases…’36

One (though by no means the only) source of evidence for the embodied nature of cognition is priming studies which demonstrate the way in which bodily states, movements, or environmental factors can influence cognition. For example, a body posture could influence memory recall or modulate emotional responses.37 These studies show that the body does more than merely provide life-support for the brain, but plays an active role in shaping cognition. Moreover, they provide evidence for the contention that cognition cannot be fully understood in isolation from the bodily and environmental context.

Bodily and ecological priming mechanisms are widely applicable to the context of religious practices.38 Religious practices such as rituals often carefully choreograph the bodily postures and movements of participants, and sometimes take place in ornately curated environments. As Robert McCauley observes, ‘[s]ome religious rituals are renowned for their sensory pageantry. Rituals employ countless means of arousing participants’ emotions. No sensory modality has been neglected. Religious rituals are replete with the smells of burning incense and the tastes of special foods, the sounds of chanting and the sights of ornate attire, the kinaesthetic sensations of the dancer and the haptic sensations of the fully immersed.’39 Bodily and environmental factors which are readily found in religious practices—such as incense, specialised clothing, body postures, gestures, and synchronised movement—have been shown to prime various cognitive effects.40 McCauley points out that these factors can arouse emotion, but they can also influence other aspects of cognition such as memory, judgement, or social bonding.

These findings call for a reconsideration of the nature of religious belief. Namely, religious belief is reframed as situated in and scaffolded by embodied practices. Such a view is articulated by Sosis and Kiper who develop a ‘systemic’ approach to religious cognition, which combines both the traditional findings of CSR and behavioural ecological approaches:

Religious beliefs give life to ritual performance, mythical recitation, symbolic meaning, and religious discourse, such that collective identities are constructed, which in turn further shapes and internalizes the beliefs. Thus religious beliefs, whether concerning the divinity of scripture, omnipotence of a supernatural agent, sanctity of land, potency of a ritual, or countless other convictions, cannot be understood as isolated propositional declarations about the world. Rather, religious beliefs must be understood and analyzed within the context of the religious system in which they are embedded.41

This systemic approach highlights the way in which beliefs inhere in a broader religious system as but one facet among others, and underscores the reciprocal relationship between beliefs and other factors.

Given this systemic account of religion, Sosis and Kiper argue that religious beliefs rarely stem from intellectual deliberation: ‘adherents do not attain their religious commitments through analytical contemplation; rather, they derive and sustain them by expressing them through rituals, symbols, myths, and other elements of the religious system.’42 This echoes James’s stance in ‘The Will to Believe’, where, as we have seen, he contends that religious belief is not a product of the intellect but derives from the passional and volitional nature. If James’s insight about the role of the passional nature in belief formation is combined with his embodied account of emotions, and this picture is further supplemented by contemporary understandings of the way in which embodied practices can elicit and modulate emotion, we arrive at a picture in which practices influence belief.

Although James’s description in ‘The Will to Believe’ is consistent with an embodied and scaffolded picture of religious belief, this is not an ever-present feature of James’s treatment of religion. Notably, in his monumental The Varieties of Religious Experience, James largely occludes the embodied ritual practices from his account of religious experience (itself a potential cause of belief). He admits that his focus on intense, individual experiences (at the expense of institutional and social religious practices) is somewhat arbitrary, but justifies it as a practical convenience ‘for the purpose of these lectures.’43 This circumscription, however, is not as innocent as it may appear.44 As Nicholas Lash point out, James makes an implicit value judgement favouring ‘individual’ experiences.45 Moreover he argues that there can be no strict division between ‘individual’ and ‘social’ experiences, since experience which occur communal settings is equally personal and experiences which take place in solitude are nevertheless conditioned by intrinsic social and cultural expectations. The effect of his circumscription is that James ‘gives the impression that religious experience is exclusively a matter of mental states.’46 As a result embodied sources of religious experience (and belief), particularly those mediated by corporate religious practices, are largely overlooked in James’s major work on religion.47

James does attend to the cognitive and emotional effects of embodied religious practices when he discusses the instinct of play in The Principles of Psychology:

There is another sort of human play, into which higher æsthetic feelings enter. I refer to that love of festivities, ceremonies, ordeals, etc., which seems to be universal in our species. The lowest savages have their dances, more or less formally conducted. The various religions have their solemn rites and exercises, and civic and military power symbolize their grandeur by processions and celebrations of diverse sorts. We have our operas and parties and masquerades. An element common to all these ceremonial games, as they may be called, is the excitement of concerted action as one of an organized crowd. The same acts, performed with a crowd, seem to mean vastly more than when performed alone.48

In this passage James seems to intuit the capacity for communal rituals—religious and non-religious alike—to arouse strong emotions (‘higher aesthetic feelings’, ‘love’, ‘excitement’) and effect social bonding. Such an insight is, by design, altogether absent from his tome on religious experience.

Returning to ‘The Will to Believe’, one of James’s primary interlocutors (after Clifford) is Blaise Pascal. James is critical of Pascal’s Wager and, in a characteristically anti-Catholic sentiment, derides ‘Pascal’s own personal belief in masses and holy water.’49 However, Pascal not only believes in ‘masses and holy water’, but recommends them as a means to belief:

You would like to attain faith, and do not know the way; you would like to cure yourself of unbelief, and ask the remedy for it. Learn of those who have been bound like you, and who now stake all their possessions. These are people who know the way which you would follow, and who are cured of an ill of which you would be cured. Follow the way by which they began; by acting as if they believed, taking the holy water, having masses said, etc. Even this will naturally make you believe, and deaden your acuteness.50

Whereas James recognises the link between emotional and contextual influences on religious belief, he fails to recognise the role of religious practices in framing these—blinkered, perhaps, by his anti-ritualistic bias.

In summary, James’s philosophical defence of religious belief is informed by his psychological insights into the nature of belief. As a result, rather than arguing for some idealised version of belief, he is attentive to the particular dynamics of belief as they play out in human subjects. His understanding of religious belief is largely consistent with contemporary insights from embodied cognition, which likewise identify the idiosyncratic nature of human cognition stemming from the particularities of human embodiment. An embodied approach to cognition can further extend James’s psychologically rich understanding of religious belief by showing how such beliefs are scaffolded by embodied religious practices.

A Jamesian-inspired embodied view of cognition suggests a number of ways in which the cognitive science of religion might be extended. In particular, I suggest three nascent strands of CSR which might be developed further. First, following ‘the Zeus problem’, greater attention might be paid to the role of contextual factors in influencing religious belief.51 Norenzayan and Gervais’s work on the origins religious disbelief, in which two of the four ‘pathways’ to disbelief are contextual, provides a helpful exemplar here. Second, further work on the role of emotions in religious belief would be welcome.52 Harvey Whitehouse identifies the role of heightened emotion in forming memory of ritual practices;53 and a growing literature catalogues the cognitive effects of awe;54 but there is scope for more research into a wider repertoire of religion-related emotions. Third, in addition to investigating how religious beliefs are formed, CSR could further investigate how such beliefs are operationalised. Findings showing that different belief systems lead to differences in attention-related behaviour are suggestive on this front.55 The Jamesian and embodied cognition approaches to religious belief not only have much in common, they also provide a fertile theoretical framework for the development of new experimental research.

I am grateful to the editors of this special edition and to the anonymous reviewer for their helpful feedback on an earlier version of this article. The work for this article was completed during a post in the Science-Engaged Theology Project funded by the John Templeton Foundation (Grant 59023).

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1

William James, “The Will to Believe”, in The Will to Believe: And Other Essays in Popular Philosophy (New York: Dover, 1956), pp. 1–31.

2

Ibid., p. 11.

3

Ibid., p. 4.

4

Hilary Putnam, Pragmatism: An Open Question (Oxford: Blackwell, 1995), p. 21.

5

E.g., James, “The Will to Believe”, pp. 29–30; James, “Reflex Action and Theism”, p. 123.

6

Graham Bird, William James (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986), p. 144.

7

For a discussion on how James’s ‘Will to Believe’ doctrine might be evaluated for the philosophy of religion, see Michael R. Slater, William James on Ethics and Faith (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

8

James, “The Will to Believe”, p. 11.

9

Ibid.

10

Ibid. Emphasis added.

11

Ibid., p. 26.

12

Ibid., pp. 2–3.

13

Ibid., p. 9.

14

Ibid., pp. 29–30.

15

Gregory Fernando Pappas, “William James and the Logic of Faith”, Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society 28/4 (1992), 781–808 (p. 801).

16

James, “The Will to Believe”, pp. 28–29.

17

Pappas, “William James and the Logic of Faith”, p. 788.

18

E.g., see Lawrence A. Shapiro, Embodied Cognition (New York: Routledge, 2011); Robert A. Wilson and Lucia Foglia, Embodied Cognition (2015) [cited 9 December 2015]; available from http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2015/entries/embodied-cognition/.

19

Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, ed. Colin Smith (London: Routledge, 1962).

20

See, e.g., the special issue of this journal introduced by Matthew Crippen, “Preface”, Contemporary Pragmatism 14/1 (2017), 1–3; Mark Johnson, “Cognitive Science and Dewey’s Theory of Mind, Thought, and Language”, in The Cambridge Companion to Dewey, ed. Molly Cochran (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), pp. 123–144; Joel Krueger, “Extended Mind and Religious Cognition”, in Mental Religion: The Brain, Cognition, and Culture, ed. N. Kasumi Clements (New York: Macmillan, 2016), pp. 237–254 (p. 240).

21

William James, “What Is an Emotion?”, Mind 9/34 (1884), 188–205. William James, The Principles of Psychology, ed. Fredson Bowers, Frederick Burkhardt, and Ignas K. Skrupskelis, 2 vols. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981), pp. 1065–1069.

22

Antonio R. Damasio, Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain (London: Vintage, 1994). For a philosophical theory of emotion in this vein, see Jesse J. Prinz, Gut Reactions: A Perceptual Theory of Emotion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).

23

Richard Rorty, “Religious Faith, Intellectual Responsibility and Romance”, in The Cambridge Companion to William James, ed. Ruth Anna Putnam (1997), pp. 84–102 (pp. 90–91).

24

The way in which embodied cognition research might suggest that human cognition systematically deviates from purely rational thought is traced in its application to behavioural economics and moral decision making; see Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow (London: Allen Lane, 2011); Jonathan Haidt, “The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail: A Social Intuitionist Approach to Moral Judgment”, Psychological Review 108/4 (2001), 814–834.

25

James, “The Sentiment of Rationality”, pp. 92–93. See also, James, The Principles of Psychology, pp. 1082–1085.

26

James, The Principles of Psychology, p. 19.

27

James, “The Sentiment of Rationality”, pp. 84–85.

28

Andy Clark, Being There: Putting Brain, Body, and World Together Again (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997), p. 51.

29

These three examples summarise the three hypotheses of embodied cognition distilled in Shapiro, Embodied Cognition.

30

James, “Reflex Action and Theism”, pp. 113–114.

31

John Dewey, “The Reflex Arc Concept in Psychology”, Psychological Review 3 (1896), 357–370 (p. 360).

32

Krueger, “Extended Mind and Religious Cognition”; Richard Sosis and Jordan Kiper, “Religion Is More Than Belief: What Evolutionary Theories of Religion Tell Us About Religious Commitments”, in Challenges to Moral and Religious Belief: Disagreement and Evolution, ed. Michael Bergmann and Patrick Kain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), pp. 256–276; Matthew Day, “Religion, Off-Line Cognition and the Extended Mind”, Journal of Cognition and Culture 4/1 (2004), 101–121; Tamer M. Soliman, Kathryn A. Johnson, and Hyunjin Song, “It’s Not “All in Your Head”: Understanding Religion from an Embodied Cognition Perspective”, Perspectives on Psychological Science 10/6 (2015), 852–864; Fraser Watts, “Embodied Cognition and Religion”, Zygon 48/3 (2013), 745–758. See also the article by Hans van Eyghen in this volume.

33

Helen de Cruz, “Cognitive Science of Religion and the Study of Theological Concepts”, Topoi 33/2 (2014), 487–497 (p. 489).

34

Will M. Gervais and Joseph Henrich, “The Zeus Problem: Why Representational Content Biases Cannot Explain Faith in Gods”, Journal of Cognition and Culture 10/3 (2010), 383–389.

35

Ibid., pp. 387–388.

36

de Cruz, “Cognitive Science of Religion and the Study of Theological Concepts”, p. 489.

37

Katinka Dijkstra, Michael P. Kaschak, and Rolf A. Zwaan, “Body Posture Facilitates Retrieval of Autobiographical Memories”, Cognition 102/1 (2007), 139–149; Mark E. McKinney et al., “The Impact of Biofeedback-Manipulated Physiological Change on Emotional State”, Basic & Applied Social Psychology 1/1 (1980), 15–21; John H. Riskind and Carolyn C. Gotay, “Physical Posture: Could It Have Regulatory or Feedback Effects on Motivation and Emotion?”, Motivation and Emotion 6/3 (1982), 273–298.

38

For a review of priming the concept of religion, by implicit, explicit, subliminal, or contextual means, see Azim F. Shariff et al., “Religious Priming”, Personality and Social Psychology Review 20/1 (2016), 27–48.

39

Robert N. McCauley, “Ritual, Memory, and Emotion: Comparing Two Cognitive Hypotheses”, in Religion in Mind: Cognitive Perspectives on Religious Belief, Ritual and Experience, ed. Jensine Andresen (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), pp. 115–140 (p. 118).

40

E.g., Arieh Moussaieff et al., “Incensole Acetate, an Incense Component, Elicits Psychoactivity by Activating TRPV3 Channels in the Brain”, The FASEB Journal 22/8 (2008), 3024–3034; Hajo Adam and Adam D. Galinsky, “Enclothed Cognition”, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 48/4 (2012), 918–925; S.L. Beilock and S. Goldin-Meadow, “Gesture Changes Thought by Grounding It in Action”, Psychological Science 21/11 (2010), 1605–1610; Susan Goldin-Meadow and Sian L. Beilock, “Action’s Influence on Thought: The Case of Gesture”, Perspectives on Psychological Science 5/6 (2010), 664–674; Michael R. Ransom and Mark D. Alicke, “On Bended Knee: Embodiment and Religious Judgements”, Current Research in Social Psychology 21/9 (2013); Robert C. Fuller and Derek E. Montgomery, “Body Posture and Religious Attitudes”, Archive for the Psychology of Religion 37/3 (2015), 227–239; C. Neil Macrae et al., “A Case of Hand Waving: Action Synchrony and Person Perception”, Cognition 109/1 (2008), 152–156; Tanya Vacharkulksemsuk and Barbara L. Fredrickson, “Strangers in Sync: Achieving Embodied Rapport through Shared Movements”, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 48/1 (2012), 399–402; Scott S. Wiltermuth and Chip Heath, “Synchrony and Cooperation”, Psychological Science 20/1 (2009), 1–5; Paul Reddish et al., “Collective Synchrony Increases Prosociality Towards Non-Performers and Outgroup Members”, British Journal of Social Psychology (2016), 1–17.

Robert C. Fuller and Derek E. Montgomery, ‘Body Posture and Religious Attitudes,’ Archive for the Psychology of Religion 37, no. 3 (2015). Michael R. Ransom and Mark D. Alicke, “On Bended Knee: Embodiment and Religious Judgements,” Current Research in Social Psychology 21, no. 9 (2013).

41

Sosis and Kiper, “Religion Is More Than Belief: What Evolutionary Theories of Religion Tell Us About Religious Commitments”, p. 263.

42

Ibid., p. 270.

43

William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1902), p. 28.

44

I make this argument in greater detail in Tobias Tan, “The Corporeality of Religious Experience: Embodied Cognition in Religious Practices”, in Experience or Expression? Religious Experience Revisited, ed. Thomas Hardtke, Ulrich Schmiedel, and Tobias Tan (Leiden: Brill, 2016), pp. 207–226.

45

Nicholas Lash, Easter in Ordinary: Reflections on Human Experience and the Knowledge of God (London: University of Notre Dame Press, 1990), pp. 1–104. See also, Charles Taylor, Varieties of Religion Today: William James Revisited (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), pp. 20–29.

46

Lash, Easter in Ordinary, p. 41. Emphasis original. Lash also argues that despite James’ ‘radical empiricism, his wider philosophical position, found in The Varieties and in his other works, ultimately fails to extricate itself from a Cartesian dualism. See ibid., p. 35. See also, Gerald E. Myers, “Introduction: The Intellectual Context”, in The Principles of Psychology, ed. Fredson Bowers, Frederick Burkhardt, and Ignas K. Skrupskelis (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981), pp. xi–xli.

47

Taylor, Varieties of Religion Today: William James Revisited, pp. 20–29.

48

James, The Principles of Psychology, p. 1045.

49

James, “The Will to Believe”, p. 6. James routinely identifies himself and his implied audience as Protestant.

50

Blaise Pascal, Pensées and Other Writings, ed. Anthony Levi and Honor Levi (Oxford: ­Oxford University Press, 2008), §233.

51

Gervais and Henrich, “The Zeus Problem: Why Representational Content Biases Cannot Explain Faith in Gods”.

52

A. Norenzayan and W.M. Gervais, “The Origins of Religious Disbelief”, Trends in Cognitive Sciences 17/1 (2013), 20–25.

53

Harvey Whitehouse, Modes of Religiosity: A Cognitive Theory of Religious Transmission (Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, 2004).

54

For example, see Michiel van Elk et al., “‘Standing in Awe’: The Effects of Awe on Body Perception and the Relation with Absorption”, Collabra 2/1 (2016), 1–16; Piercarlo Valdesolo and Jesse Graham, “Awe, Uncertainty, and Agency Detection”, Psychological Science 25/1 (2014), 170–178; Michelle N. Shiota, Dacher Keltner, and Amanda Mossman, “The Nature of Awe: Elicitors, Appraisals, and Effects on Self-Concept”, Cognition and Emotion 21/5 (2007), 944–963; Paul K. Piff et al., “Awe, the Small Self, and Prosocial Behavior”, Journal of Personality & Social Psychology 108/6 (2015), 883–899; Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt, “Approaching Awe, a Moral, Spiritual, and Aesthetic Emotion”, Cognition and Emotion 17/2 (2003), 297–314.

55

Lorenza S. Colzato, Wery P.M. van den Wildenberg, and Bernhard Hommel, “Losing the Big Picture: How Religion May Control Visual Attention”, PLOS ONE 3/11 (2008), 11–13; Lorenza S. Colzato et al., “God: Do I Have Your Attention?”, Cognition 117/1 (2010), 87–94. Cf. Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Talcott Parsons (London: Allen & Unwin, 1930).

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