How “Extended Cognition” Can Augment Religious Community Beyond our Experience as Individual Bodies: An Interview with Warren Brown and Brad Strawn

Your new book Enhancing Christian Life: How Extended Cognition Augments Religious Community brings together the disciplines of neuroscience, psychology and philosophy.  How did you each come to work in this multidisciplinary space and what do you particularly enjoy about the intersections of these disciplines?

Teaching at a place like Fuller, one is inclined toward interdisciplinary conversations. We have both been very interested in the intersection of faith and science and our work in this area emerged out of the interface of changing understandings of human nature (e.g., dualism vs monism) and work being done in philosophy and biblical scholarship. What we enjoy about interdisciplinary dialogues is the challenge of being faithful to several disciplines in ways that don’t ignore any, don’t allow one to trump another and don’t make any say more than they should. Furthermore, we truly believe that these conversations are not just academic fun but have real life implications and important ones at that.

 

What are unnecessary limitations and issues in the Christian life that you are seeking to address in writing this book?

One kind of understanding of the Christian life (i.e., dualism) is limited because it degrades and even ignores the human physical body. From this stance, Christian life is about the state of one’s private, internal and individual soul. Christian life is assessed by an internal affective state. There are many problems with this approach to Christian life, but we see an ignoring of the real needs of bodies, both our own and our neighbors. Issues of justice don’t seem to be as important as “saving souls,” and issues of love of neighbor and fruits of the Spirit are downplayed.

 

What do you mean by “extended cognition”?  What are the origins of that term and antecedents for your work?

Extended cognition is the idea that our cognitive activities are not limited only to our individual bodies. We think “with” artifacts (e.g., tools, devices we have created) and socially with others in ways that increase our cognitive capacities beyond their normal individual limits. This idea first of all sits within the backdrop of embodied cognition that states that all cognitive activity is first and foremost embodied. Thought is not a series of manipulations of abstract symbols but is the work of the entire body moving its way through the world.

 

We’re living in a time where many people, including many Christians, seem to be rejecting science as part of the way we understand the world and ourselves, but rapidly embracing personal technology and social media with hardly any questions at all.  As you engage with pastors and laypeople, how do you make the case for compatibility of science and faith and careful engagement with technology?

We find no problem with the thoughtful engagement of science and faith. We are pro technology! However, we do understand that just because something can be good, doesn’t mean it always is. For example, we may extend our cognition into the life of the church in alignment with the reign of God, but we might also extend our cognition into a crime family. The same could be true of adopting technology. While a cellphone may enhance our lives immensely, it may also point us toward behaviors and attitudes that are in opposition to the reign of God. This is where we need the extended cognition of the body of Christ to discern not just what technology we should use but how we should use it. That is how we should be extended into it.

 

Our current pandemic has inserted technology into the creation, maintenance and expansion of Christian engagement in ways nobody could have predicted before this year.  How can the practices and approaches you recommend in Enhancing Christian Life especially apply in this unusual time?

As mentioned above, our concern with one prominent form of Christian life is a very individualist one – and we would add consumeristic. Individualism and consumerism are deeply embedded within the forms of democracy and capitalism we see in the United States. These have impacted the church in such a way that individual rights seem to override collectivist responsibility. We believe that by truly understanding the way that extended cognition, through the correctly used practices of faith, can bring us back to a more relational and communal understanding of human nature.

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