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Arbib, Michael A. “Crusoe’s Brain: Of Solitude and Society."

In the first part of “Crusoe’s Brain: Of Solitude and Society,” Michael A. Arbib develops a thesis regarding social influences on brain function and hence on brain structure. Social schema theory attempts to understand how social schemas, constituted by collective patterns of behavior in a society, provide an external reality from which a person acquires schemas “in the head.” There is thus a top-down influence of social interaction on the microstructure of the brain through evolutionary processes, with brain action effectuated through perceptual and motor schemas. Conversely, it is the collective effect of behaviors that express schemas held by many individuals that constitutes and changes this social reality.

The learning of language provides an example of how individuals interiorize social schemas. Current research on mirror neurons (neurons that are active not only when an action is performed but also when the action is being perceived) provides a hypothesis that language specialization in humans derives from an ancient mechanism related to the observation and execution of motor acts. Arbib rejects Noam Chomsky’s hypothesis that language learning depends on innate universal grammar. Instead, based on work with Jane Hill, he argues that language in children begins with repetition of words and phrases, shaped by the use of very rudimentary grammatical schemas that develop by means of (“neo-Piagetian”) assimilation and adaptation. The richness of the metaphorical character of language can be interpreted in terms of schema theory: a word or phrase is an impoverished representation of some schema assemblage. Thus, extraction of meaning is a virtually endless dynamic process.

In the second part of Arbib’s essay he applies social schema theory to a discussion of ideology and religion. Social schemas include those that we take to be representations of the world, but others that we do not, such as ideals of human life that are never realized and models that are false but useful. While schema theory has no implications for the question of the existence of God, it does offer new and useful vocabulary for discussing the projection theory of religion, found already in the writings of Ludwig Feuerbach and Sigmund Freud. An ideology can be viewed as a very large social schema. It is, like language, something that the child comes to as an external reality and internalizes to become a member of society. While it is central to schema theory to analyze the mechanisms whereby social construction and reality depiction are dynamically interlinked, it is important to note that many “realities” are socially defined rather than “physical.” Thus, social schema theory provides a way of asking whether the “reality” of God is both external reality and social construction, or whether “God” is merely a social construct. Arbib suggests that the wide variation among religious beliefs argues for the latter conclusion. He offers this argument as an antidote to the “unabashedly Christian worldview of many other contributors to this volume, for whom the reality of divine action is taken as a given.”

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