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The Rules of Art: Genesis and Structure

The human mind is always projecting images of its own likeness unto the universe.  For Guthrie, the same principle applies no less with respect to religion. For him, religion is the embodiment of anthropomorphism. Guthrie makes a thought-provoking point. Whenever people try to explain abstract processes they do not understand, the tendency is to use language that is metaphorical, for it alone helps people connect with ideas that are subtle and not easily defined. [i] According to Guthrie, the various branches of science, cognitive sciences, ancient and modern philosophy, along with the literary and visual arts abound with anthropomorphism, even though secular scientists and philosophers often criticize it.

In Stewart Elliot Guthrie’s book, Faces in the Clouds, the author theorizes that anthropomorphisms represent a perceptual strategy of how humanity perceives itself in an uncertain world. If, for instance, we mistake a dark shape in the forest it is better to assume it is a bear and not a boulder. Guthrie’s innovative idea is a patterned after the famous wager of Pascal. If what we are observing truly resembles human behavior, then our use of anthropomorphic language is correct; if we are wrong, what did we lose by employing anthropomorphism? In a world where scientific analysis fails or is severely limited, human beings consciously and unconsciously gravitate toward imagining the universe in the likeness of themselves.

Guthrie’s observation is right on target. Human speech uses metaphor for even inanimate objects or a when describing a force of nature as if it the object or force being described possesses human-like qualities and/or actions. Thus, we metaphorically speak of a storm as “vicious” or “threatening,” or “the wind howls throughout the night.” Even in scientific terms, physicians and biologists frequently refer to white blood cells as “fighting off” “invading” microorganisms, or the “selfish gene,” or “the blind watchmaker” (to borrow a phrase from Richard Dawkins’s popular book). Analogical language is not only vital for understanding religious language, it is no less essential for discerning scientific truths about reality.