Anthropogenic Cognition in Religion and Nature

Anthropogenic Cognition: The Mental Tool Set Humans Use to Conceptualize Everything from God to Mammals. Presented at the Sharif International School on Theism: East and West. Tehran, Iran. October 16, 2023. Dr. John Sanders.

Abstract: This talk uses cognitive linguistics which affirms the embodied mind approach gaining ground in cognitive science to consider natural kinds. The claim is that humans use a basic mental tool set grounded in our sensorimotor capacities to reason about entities we interact with in our environment. The specific nature of the human body is key to understanding how humans cognize. I will examine several of these tools and show how they are used to construe natural kinds as well as God.

A key debate regarding natural kinds is between Naturalism which affirms that natural kinds exist independently of humans and Conventionalism which says natural kinds do not exist independently of humans. Conventionalism has two versions. Weak conventionalism affirms that natural kinds do not exist independently of human knowers. Strong conventionalists go further and claim that categories of nature are human social constructs. Sanders affirms weak conventionalism and claims that some categories are panhuman due to embodied interaction with our environment (not social constructs).

Part 1. Embodied Cognition [Here I explain the broad outlines of the embodied cognition approach which is quickly gaining ascendency in cognitive science. For evidence supporting embodied cognition see the recommended readings.]

A. I affirm metaphysical realism—there are mind independent entities and events. There are entities that exist and events that happen independently of humans. For instance, the universe existed for hundreds of millions of years without humans and my dog exists independently of me.


B. Anthropogenic understanding. Human understanding of these mind independent entities and events is not mind independent. Human understanding of any entity, including God, depends upon our species-specific embodied cognition. I call this “anthropogenic” understanding.


C. According to the embodied cognition approach, what humans can perceive and conceive is deeply dependent on human sensorimotor capacities: the specific type of visual, auditory, kinesthetic (awareness of one’s body parts in motion), and tactile processes humans have. [Johnson 2017] Human sensorimotor capacities allow us to interact with other entities and we use these sensorimotor capacities to cognize our experience. We know other entities only in ways that humans can relate and cognize—it is species-specific. The approach known as embodied cognition in cognitive science requires us to attend to the fact that human cognition depends not just on bodies in general, but the specific types of sensorimotor capabilities peculiar to humans. [Sanders (2016), 20-24 and (2023), 3-5, and Gibbs 2005.]


D. We tend to think that the “sky is blue” is the way the world is apart from human understanding.

(1) However, the sky is not blue for species who lack visual systems with color cones. In fact, not only is the sky not “blue” for bats, the concept of “sky” may not make sense to bats. We say that water in a pond is not a “solid” but “liquid.” However, for the insects that move over the surface of water, the pond is solid. We need to pay attention to both characteristics of our environment and the characteristics of an organism’s body to interact with that environment. Organisms do not understand objects independently of their bodily capacity to interact with them.


(2) Someone might object that even if some species lack color cones, the sky is blue because species with color cones perceive it as blue. However, we need to distinguish between the phenomenological and neurophysiological levels of embodied cognition. On the phenomenological level (what typical humans perceive), the “sky is blue” is true for humans. On the neurophysiological level the sky is not blue because colors do not inhere in objects themselves. Rather, colors result from the interaction of reflected light, color cones in our eyes, and visual processing in our brains. If humans had fewer color cones, we would not perceive the sky as blue and if we had additional color cones, the sky might be a different color to us. [Johnson (2017), 198-199]


(3) Why do humans claim that there are four cardinal directions? It seems to me this is because we have vision, smell, and mouths for communication and eating on one side of our bodies. This leads us to think of human bodies as having a front, a back, and two sides. The four sides of the human body lead us to construe four directions from the body.


Jellyfish would not cognize this way for their bodies lack fronts, backs and sides.


(4) Two versions of the embodied mind approach to conceptualization: [Tanton 54]

  1. Strong conceptualization hypothesis. The concepts that a particular species can acquire are limited to it’s physiology. For example, a jellyfish cannot understand “front” or “back.” They might conceptualize a turtle eating them as near/far but not “front/back.” [Lakoff and Johnson]
  2. Weak conceptualization hypothesis. Though many concepts depend directly upon the physiology of a species, a species might be able to acquire additional concepts by observing other creatures. For example, jellyfish might develop the concept “front/back” by observing species that have fronts and backs. [Yet, the species-specific body still shapes such observations.]


(5) Embodied cognition rejects the claim that human senses merely “perceive” the environment while the disembodied mind makes sense of the information. The “sandwich” model is very popular. It construes human cognition like a computer. Keyboards and mice function like senses for inputs of information that the central processor then makes sense of. The CPU then instructs outputs such as monitors and printers what to do. The mind is thus “sandwiched” between two pieces of bread. The embodied mind approach holds that the human mind is an embodied mind in that our senses and motor capacities are important for cognition. In the Phaedo, Plato defends a disembodied approach. He says, “[I]n truth and in fact no thought of any kind comes from the body. . . . [I]t is impossible to attain any pure knowledge with the body. . . . While we live, we shall be closest to knowledge if we refrain as much as possible from association with the body and do not join with it more than we must, if we are not infected with its nature but purify ourselves from it” (Cooper 1997, 57–8). Plato was quite unaware that many of the very concepts in this paragraph such as “in,” “comes from,” “closest,” “join,” “must,” “infected,” and “purify” depend on the particular sensorimotor processes of human bodies–especially image schemas and primary metaphors to which we turn to next.

Part 2 Pan human concepts. Strong Conventionalists (also known as constructionists) claim that all human reasoning about the world is socially constructed. However, humans have what I call “panhuman concepts”—concepts available to all humans with normal sensorimotor abilities. There are around thirty panhuman concepts. Here are a few of them.

A. Image schemas are preconceptual notions such as up/down, front/back, in/out, part/whole, containment, center-periphery, near-far, link, blockage, source-path-goal, and balance. They arise from repeated patterns of human interaction with our environment. For instance, infants and toddlers have the repeated experience of placing things inside their bodies and expelling things from their bodies. They have the experience of being lifted up and put down as well as wanting an object and moving on a path to obtain it. [Sanders (2016) p. 47.] All normal humans have these image schemas which form the basic building blocks for human understanding of ourselves and our environment. Some other species share some of these image schemas while lacking others due to similar or different sensorimotor processes. If humans had different sensorimotor abilities, we would have different image schemas.


B. All humans use “primary metaphors” which are grounded in body-based image schemas.


  • For example, More Is Up and authority is up. There are no known languages where more is down, or authority is down.
  • Other examples are Knowing Is Sensing (seeing, smelling, etc.). “I see your point,” “I smell your point.”
  • affection is warmth, intimacy is closeness, bad is stinky, and purposes are destinations.
  • Most, if not all, human knowledge is grounded in image schemas and primary metaphors, including mathematics, religion, morality, science, law, and logic (Johnson (2017), 118).


C. Categorization

  • Note that the very idea of a category arises from the image schema of containment. The metaphor is Categories are Containers. An entity or event is either inside or outside the container. The laws of logic depend on this schema (e. g., law of excluded middle—an entity is either A or non A).


  • The traditional Western approach to categorization seeks necessary and sufficient characteristics for category membership. One implication is that no member of a category is more representative of a set than any other member—the entity either has the necessary characteristics or it does not. However, psychological research shows that humans tend to categorize by use of protypes/exemplars. [slide 15] For example, regarding the categories bird and fish, studies show that humans do not consider a penguin just as good an example of “bird” as a nightingale.




Nor do they believe an eel just as good a representative of “fish” as a trout.  [Sanders (2016), 27-37].




  • The importance of the “Basic-level” category

Superordinate                         Mammal                           Furniture              Tool

Basic-Level                               Dog                                    Chair                     Hammer

Subordinate                            Collie                                   Recliner               Claw hammer

Here are six findings from the empirical research:

  • The basic-level category is the most important because this is where much of our knowledge is organized.
  • In human languages, the words for basic-level objects tend to be short and they are among the first words learned by children.
  • The first category level understood by children.
  • Subjects (even adults) identify basic-level members faster than other levels.
  • **The highest level at which humans can form a mental image (average shape) of members in the category. You cannot form a mental image of “mammal”, but you can for “dog.” You can make a line drawing of a dog or tree, but you cannot make such a drawing for mammal or plant.
  • **The highest level at which humans use similar motor actions for interacting with the category. We have similar body movements for interacting with all dogs (e. g., we pet them and feed them, and put them on a leash) and hammers (e. g., grasp them and strike and object) but not for mammals and tools because there is no typical way of interacting with all mammals and different kinds of tools have vastly different shapes and require different body movements.



Part 3 Embodied cognition and religion. [Sanders 2016 and 2023, and Tanton 2023.] We use the mental tools discussed above to understand entities such as dogs and protons as well as events such as a solar eclipse. We also use them to understand religion and God because there are no mental tools used solely to think about God. There is no “God module” in the brain. We can easily identify image schemas and primary metaphors in sacred texts such as the Bible and Qur’an. By means of these mental tools we understand God and humans in relation to God. The key claim here is that Human understanding of God is anthropogenic and based on embodied cognition.


A. Up/down.

(1) For instance, in every religion God is conceptualized as “up” and above creatures, never below. Our anthropogenic understanding of God cannot be avoided by the claim that a sacred text is a revelation from God because, if God communicates to humans, God must employ the mental tools available to humans. Hence, it is not surprising that both the Bible and the Qur’an speak of God as “up.” Given the way humans construe authority and goodness as “up” it is inappropriate for us to think of God as coming from beneath us.

(2) Our prayers are said to rise up to God and Muhammed is said to have “ascended” to God in the night journey.

(3) Architecture makes use of these conceptual metaphors as well.

  1. Steeples on houses of worship and the interior height of cathedrals and mosques communicate that God is up (e. g.,  Chartres Cathedral and The Grand Mosque of Isfahan in Iran).


2. The architecture and artwork of both Chartres cathedral and the Buddhist temple at Borobudur use the conceptual metaphors good is up, holiness is up, salvation/deliverance is up, and authority is up. The shape of the Borobudur temple is a lotus flower: the conceptual metaphor infused in both the architecture and practice is that just as a lotus grows out of the muck in the bottom of a pond into a beautiful flower on top of the water, so, too, the pilgrim begins from the soil and ascends upwards to the open sky of Nirvana at the top of the temple.


B. A second example is that of a journey. This involves an embodied being at a location, a destination (goal), and movement along a path to reach the destination. Infants and toddlers have repeated patterns of embodied experience that produce image schemas such as source-path-goal. Both the Bible and the Qur’an speak of the religious life as a journey on a path (e. g., the “straight path”).

  • Biblical writers construe the Torah via the journey metaphor with three different roles. The Torah is the path to walk, the light to see the path, and the guide directing us on the path.
  • In the New Testament, Jesus, as the new Torah, takes on these same roles since he is “the way, the truth, and the life” (Jn 14:6): he is the path (way), the guide (truth), and the destination (life).
  • In Islam the Sunna, and Qur’an each are guides on the path. [El-Sharif 2018, 288).


Part 4 Embodied cognition and natural kinds.

A. Let us return to the debate. Do humans simply discover “kinds” in nature or do humans arbitrarily decide how to categorize nature?

  • According to embodied cognition, there are elements of both. Entities exist independently of human minds, yet humans understand these entities only through the mental tools we have access to. Do humans discover “kinds” in nature due to a mind independent ability to access nature “as it is” in itself? Humans have no mind independent access to nature as it is.


  • All human understanding of nature is anthropogenic and constrained by what humans can understand based on our specific sensorimotor abilities as we interact with entities in our environment. Therefore, humans do not discover “kinds” as they are in nature. Are “kinds” in nature then simply arbitrary social constructs? Though some categories are the result of social constructs, some are not. Human visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and tactile processes result in typical ways of categorizing nature such as the basic level à dogs, chairs, and hammers. This is the “natural” way of categorizing our world for humans, and it is not arbitrary since it is grounded in our sensorimotor interaction with our environment. Yet, it remains anthropogenic and, as such, is species-specific.


B. Different species may share some understandings of our environment if they share similar sensory and motor capacities. Various species may, for instance, understand that events cannot be undone, that one event occurs after another event, and that objects have spatial location.


C. Different species may agree or disagree regarding natural kinds.

  • Some species may affirm different “kinds” in nature due to differences in their embodied cognition. For example, in astronomy galaxies are classified as either elliptical, lenticular, or spiral.
  • But would species that use infrared classify galaxies this way?
  • Consider a species which lacked vision but had an auditory system that could access an amazing range of frequencies. They could hear the galaxies in ways humans cannot. Would such a species have a category called “galaxy”? If so, would they classify galaxies in the same way humans do? It seems to me that the “kind” of galaxy depends upon the sensory capacity of the species.
  • Thus, natural kinds may not be universal across species.


D. There may be some natural kinds for all humans since the basic-level category is not arbitrary in that it arises from human sensorimotor capacities as we interact with our environment. The basic-level seems “obvious” to humans and so it is understandable why we would claim it is the way nature is. Yet, it is not a universal description of the way nature is since other species do not have identical sensorimotor interactions with nature. According to anthropogenic understanding:

  • The most we can claim is that this is the way nature is according to human embodied cognition.
  • There are “facts” regarding states of affairs for human understanding (even if these may not be facts for other species).


E. Some claim that there is a way to get around this problem. If God communicates to us, then God will describe the world the way it really is. For example, “the sun stood still, and the moon did not move” (Joshua 10:13).

  • Many Protestant and Catholic thinkers used this verse to claim that Copernicus and Galileo were wrong—God knows the correct way the solar system is.
  • However, this fails to grasp that if God communicates to us regarding some aspect of the natural world, God’s communication will have to be in ways humans can understand. God will have to make use of human image schemas, metaphors, temporal orientations, and spatial orientations. For instance, if God was to tell us the location of a computer in a classroom, God would have to decide between those languages that use cardinal directions (north, south, east, and west) or those that use an egocentric orientation (left and right). God could say, “The computer is to the left of the desk” or God could say, “The computer is to the southeast of the desk.”
  • God may confirm to us that the “sky is blue” is true from a human perspective. But would this tell us that the sky is “blue” in itself, independent of humans? Is it blue for God? No. “Blue” is an interactional property between humans with particular color cones and capacities to observe particular waves of light. If God is not embodied and has no color cones, then what does it mean to say the sky is blue for God?


Recommended reading:

Sanders, John. 2016. Theology in the Flesh: How Embodiment and Culture Shape the Way We Think About, Truth, Morality, and God. Fortress Press.

Sanders, John. 2023. “Liturgical Jellyfish” in Philosophies of Liturgy: Explorations of Embodied Religious Practice edited by J. Aaron Simmons, Bruce Benson and Neal DeRoo. Bloomsbury.

Tanton, Tobias. 2023. Corporeal Theology: Accommodating Theological Understanding to Embodied Thinkers. Oxford University Press.

Gibbs, Raymond. 2005. Embodiment and Cognitive Science. Cambridge University Press.

Johnson, Mark. 2017. Embodied Mind, Meaning, and Reason: How Our Bodies Give Rise to Understanding. University of Chicago.

Shapiro, Lawrence A. ed., 2014. The Routledge Handbook of Embodied Cognition. Routledge.

Lakoff, George and Mark Johnson. 1999. Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and It’s Challenge to Western Thought. Basic Books.

El-Sharif, Ahmad. 2018. “The Muslim Prophetic Tradition: Spatial Source Domains for Metaphorical Expressions.” In eds. Paul Chilton and Monika Kopytowska. Religion, Language, and the Human Mind. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 263–293.



John Sanders

John E. Sanders is an American theologian who is a professor of religious studies at Hendrix College. He has published on four main topics: (1) open theism, (2) Christian views on the salvation of non-Christians, (3) Christian views on the nature of hell, and (4) applying cognitive linguistics to theology.

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