MUSIC: An Antidote To Cognitive Imperialism by Thomas H. Troeger

The Theology and Practice of Church Music

An Antidote To Cognitive Imperialism by Thomas H. Troeger

From: Music As Prayer

The columnist and commentator David Brooks has written that one of the major ways we are changing as a culture is in how we understand human cognition.  We are coming to see that our varied ways of knowing need to be integrated.  Brooks begins one of his columns by observing that an exclusive focus on rational ways of knowing distorts who we are as human beings.  It makes us what he calls “divided creatures.”  In a culture of divided creatures, things operate this way: “Reason, which is trustworthy, is separate from the emotions, which are suspect.  Society progresses to the extent that reason can suppress the passions.   This has created a distortion in our culture.  When we raise our kids, we focus on the traits measured by grades and SAT scores.  But when it comes to the most important things, like character and how to build relationships, we often have nothing to say.  Yet while we are trapped within this amputated view of human nature, a richer and deeper view is coming back into view.  It is being brought to us by researchers across an array of diverse fields: neuroscience, psychology, sociology, behavioral economics and so on.  I suspect their work will have a giant effect on culture.  It will change how we see ourselves.”

To assert that one way of human knowing is the only way or the highest way is what I call cognitive imperialism.  It claims to vanquish other ways of knowing on the basis of an unfounded assumption.  To give you a feeling for how cognitive imperialism diminishes the richness of human experience and expression, here is a brief mental experiment, based on a presentation I heard some years ago.

If you want to define what a tiger is, you can turn to a dictionary and get a description in scientific language: “A large carnivorous feline mammal, Panthera tigris, of Asia, having a tawny coat with transverse black stripes.”  Or you might turn to a poet:

Tiger Tiger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye.
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
(William Blake)

If you are a zookeeper and a tiger is sick, Blake’s poem will not be helpful.  And if you want to express the wonder of creation, the dictionary definition falls flat.  But if you want to convey the wholeness of tiger, you need multiple ways of knowing.  You need both science and poetry.

The so-called new atheists – Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens – exercise cognitive imperialism.  Karen Armstrong points out in her book, The Case for God, that atheists insist – as do fundamentalists of every persuasion – that “there is only one way of interpreting reality.  For the new atheists, scientism alone can lead us to truth.”

Of course, people of any one group of discipline can be susceptible to cognitive imperialism.  But if David Brooks is right, then our changing culture is now engaged in the process of leaving behind cognitive imperialism.  Brooks believes that a “richer and deeper view” of human knowing is “coming back into view.”

If it is “coming back into view,” where was it in view originally?  One of the first disciplines I think of is music, particularly the music of organists and singers.  I recall from my childhood the physicians, medical researchers, and other people of science who made music in and out of church, and I think with admiration of the musicians I have worked with in my adult life who are equally skilled at working in the laboratory, playing an instrument, or singing.  Of course, they practice the scientific method, but with equal aplomb they relish the joy of making music.  In doing so they provide the perfect antidote to cognitive imperialism: the wholeness of their lives gives witness to the fact that reality is filled with too much wonder and beauty to be reduced to a single way of knowing and being.

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