Science of Biblical Interpretation: (2) Context Sensitivity

[This is Science of Biblical Interpretation Cognitive tool-kit article (2). The mini-series is explained here.]

In his article for This Will Make You Smarter, Gary Marcus discusses Cognitive Humility (read online here). I will be focusing upon the idea of Context Sensitivity.

Context Sensitivity
Marcus writes:
Human memories are deeply subject to context. Scuba divers, for example, are better at remembering the words they study underwater when they are tested underwater rather than on land, even if the words have nothing to do with the sea.
 …
Perhaps the most dire consequence is that human beings tend to be better at remembering evidence consistent with their beliefs than evidence that contradicts those beliefs. When two people disagree, it is often because their prior beliefs lead them to remember (or focus on) different bits of evidence. To consider something well, of course, is to evaluate both sides of an argument, but unless we also go the extra mile of deliberately forcing ourselves to consider alternatives–which doesn’t come naturally–we’re more prone to recall evidence consistent with a belief that is inconsistent with it.

The brain is a dynamic, complex web of neural connections, responding to sensory input, with connections strengthening with continued use. When it comes to memories, which occupy and function within this web, they too become strengthened when recalled, and are most strongly connected to the contexts in which they were first made and contexts in which they are most commonly recalled.

Going deeper, the connections between ideas and memories themselves are strengthened the more often they are linked. Opinions, assumptions and presuppositions can quite easily become fact, and the ‘correct’ viewpoint, in one’s thinking.

Context Sensitivity is the mode of thinking whereby our existing cognitive structure influences our automatic response and approach to interpreting and understanding the world around us. Positively, It helps us better deal with the barrage of information we have to process in every second of every hour of every day. Negatively, it produces a bias in interpreting the world around us, and our response to it.

Eisegesis: Context Sensitivity Of The Biblical Interpreter
As explored previously, an interpretation of the text lies within a causal nexus. Each individual moment of  interpretation, by each interpreter, will be a convergence of multiple influences.

For interpreters, Context Sensitivity is a powerful and influential force in this causal nexus. It is also one of the guiding forces that is regularly overlooked, or under-appreciated.

Opinions, assumptions, presuppositions, and accepted community norms will be strongly embedded into our neural circuitry, and any cursory reading of the text will be biased towards fitting into such a viewpoint. Such interpretations may be said to ‘simply feel right’, or be ‘obvious’, with little evidence to back up such a view. Essentially, one’s own meaning and understanding of how things should be is put onto the text to understand it and give it meaning. The text is distorted to to fit our own context.

Eisegesis is the technical term used in biblical interpretation for this process, whereby a meaning is read into the text. Context Sensitivity suggests that this is a natural and subconscious way to view the text. Unfortunately, it leads to misinterpretation of the text, and losing the original meaning, the meaning intended by the author. As with the strengthening of links within our neural circuitry, the more we view the text uncritically through our own Causal Nexus, the more it is effected by our Context, and the stronger our opinion and interpretation will become: it will simply feel right, without necessarily being right.

The problem at the heart of eisegesis, then, is that it places the text artificially into the reader’s Causal Nexus, rather than that of the author.

Exegesis: Accepting Our Place In the Causal Nexus
Alas, there is no simple answer, or psychological/neurological trick to combat this. The only way to lessen the effects of Context Sensitivity is consciously noting the influences of our Causal Nexus. Accepting that we do indeed sit within our own, influential, distorting, Causal Nexus.

We then have to be open to the difficult task of discovering the Causal Nexus in which the text was originally written: What was causing the author of the text to write what they did? What influences were converging in that moment of thought to create the text: culturally, socially, communally, linguistically, rhetorically. The biblical interpreter, by mentally locating themself in the Causal Nexus of the author, is more likely to understand the intention of the author, the significance of the text, and the meaning it can then have in other contexts.

Exegesis is the technical term used in biblical interpretation for this process, whereby the meaning is read out of the text. By investigating the historical-social context which led to the writing of  the text, the meaning of the text is moved into view, and becomes more sharply focused. The more we consciously attempt to view the text through the Causal Nexus of its author, rather than our own, the stronger will become our neural connections between the text and its true context. We will, by effort, be able to begin the process of transcending and overcoming our own limited Context Sensitivity.

Concluding Thoughts
Bad biblical interpretation is not necessarily the fault of the interpreter. If they have not been challenged about their opinions, assumptions, and presuppositions, then they are most likely responding subconsciously, and quite naturally, under the influence of their own Context Sensitivity.

The movement towards understanding our own Causal Nexus, and that of the author of the text, has to be a conscious, humble, community endeavour. Each individual is able to utilise their own Context Sensitivity to provoke others into examining theirs. By merging and sharing our opinions, assumptions, and presuppositions, we can overcome the limitations of the individual and their bias. We will also begin to learn how the convergence of different influences produces different outcomes; We will better understand how to interpret disparate Causal Nexuses, and thus better reconstruct the causal nexus of the authors of the biblical texts.

The next instalment of The Science of Biblical Interpretation will deal with the Uselessness Of Certainty.

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