Brandon notes that George Lakoff is clearly off his rocker when it comes to the discussion of religious concepts. He can't even grasp the appropriate literal-figurative distinction for the discussion of Biblical literalism. And that may be his sanest mistake. Brandon points out many more.
All of this makes me wonder why, for the last 25 years, some people -- very few of whom are, cognitive scientists, and even fewer who publish in the mainstream journals -- have taken all of this seriously. Personally, I realized that Lakoff was completely insane as an undergrad in the mid-90s, when I read Metaphors We Live By, the book he and Mark Johnson published in 1980, marking the beginning of conceptual metaphor theory. Admittedly, I got all the way to page 137 (out of 242) before I realized it, but something they said there made the absurdity of their view so apparent that even a naive young college student like me couldn't avoid writing "ha ha!" in the margins. Here is the passage (which actually starts on page 136):
We have seen that metaphors play an important role in characterizing regularities of linguistic form. One such regularity is the use of the same word to indicate both accompaniment and instrumentality. This regularity is coherent with the conceptual metaphor INSTRUMENTS ARE COMPANIONS. Many of what we perceive as "natural" regularities of linguistic form are regularities that are coherent with metaphors in our conceptual system. Take, for example, the fact that questions typically end in what we perceive as a "rising" intonation, while statements typically end in what we perceive as "falling" intonation. This is coherent with the orientational metaphor UNKNOWN IS UP; KNOWN IS DOWN... Questions typically indicate what is unknown. The use of rising intonation in questions is therefore coherent with UNKNOWN IS UP. The use of falling intonation with statements is therefore coherent with KNOWN IS DOWN.They go on (and on), discussing questions with falling intonation (rhetorical, indicating statements, and thus coherent with KNOWN IS DOWN), statements with rising intonation (indicating uncertainty, which is UP), and even offering an explanation for the reason that "WH-questions" have a falling intonation in English. Apparently WH-questions (they give "Who did John see yesterday?" as an example) usually indicate that only one piece of information is unknown (we know John saw someone, and we know when, we just don't know who!), and thus the rising intonation indicates that the question is statement-like.
Lest you think (as I, at the time I was first reading, desperately hoped) that they think the implausible, but at least remotely possible causal direction goes from our very early experience with intonation to a metaphorical understanding of uncertainty as UP (an abstract understanding that, in any account of cognitive development, would come well after we began uttering questions with the proper intonation), they quickly explain what all of this means, on p. 138:
Examples like this indicate that regularities of linguistic form cannot be explained in formal terms alone. Many such regularities make sense [editor's note: if only "make sense" was used ironically here] only when they are seen in terms of the application of conceptual metaphors to our spatial conceptualization of linguistic form. In other words, the syntax is not independent of meaning, especially metaphorical aspects of meaning. The "logic" of language is based on the coherence between the spatialized form of the language and the conceptual system, especially the metaphorical aspects of the conceptual system.So, to sum up p. 137-138, the upward intonation at the end of a question is an instantiation of the conceptual metaphor UNCERTAINTY IS UP, as are many of the spatially conceived aspects of syntax and speech. I wish I could present a coherent argument against this view, but it makes so little sense that it's well-nigh impossible to do so. The best I can do is point out that plenty of linguists have made sense of intonation without reference to conceptual metaphors, and that it's hard to imagine people need to recognize the connection in order to understand or use the proper intonations in questions and sentences. Who, exactly, needs this daffy explanation to make sense of intonation, then, is a mystery.
It may be that Lakoff's understanding of theology, religion, philosophy, mathematics, and the various senses of the word "infinity" are absurd, as Brandon notes, but we shouldn't expect anything but absurdity after we've read p. 137.