Antonio Damasio, in his work analyzing the operation of the brain, has been plagued by the cartoony idea of the homunculus, It is deeply rooted in humans because the first task of the infant’s developing brain, just as it was when the species was evolving, is the mapping of the body of which the brain is a part. The task of the brain is to know what’s going on everywhere, inside the skin and outside, so as to tell what to order done about it. The internal goal is the maintenance of homeostasis, or the limits which the body must observe in order to exist -- enough oxygen, enough water, enough glucose, the right balance of acid/alkali, enough sleep, and so on. Since an animal moves through an environment, the biggest decision is whether to stay or go or make changes of relationship to the place.
The business of the brain is the sustaining of the body and therefore it sees everything in terms of that earliest of metaphors BODY, a metonymy (part for the whole) that is then imposed on the outer world. It is called anthropomorphism, as distinguished from anthropocentrism, which supposes that everything revolves around humans. The idea that God created the world for humans to inhabit is an anthropocentrism, the same as heliocentrism is the idea that everything revolves around the sun, which it does. (Thinking everything revolves around humans has led us into some real troubles, like denying the heliocentrism of the solar system.)
The “cerebral homunculus” is the map the brain constructs, drawing on the sensory information it gets from the rest of the body. It is sort-of sketched out on the rumpled laminations of the cerebrum. If a representation of that map (a map of a map) is created in terms of the amount of neural space allotted to each part, the result is a person with a huge face, hands, and genitals. Alchemical homunculi have been suggested by various ingenious ways of creating a guardian “mini-me,” mostly involving mandrake roots -- which resemble a human about as much as an iniskum (buffalo stone) resembles a bison. The “spermist homuncili” were suggested by the idea that each sperm cell had a little “man” in it.
When people try to understand things they have little information about, a “black box,” they are inclined to think there is a little man in there. Thus, when philosophers reflected about how people think, they figured there was a little man in your head who was telling you what to think. The problem was how that little man knew things: was there another smaller little man in HIS head and then another even smaller man in . . . you get the picture. In the Medieval period the idea went around that since the Communion Wafer was the Body of Christ (and one didn’t really like to think of dismembered chunks of the Savior in one’s mouth), if you caught the right moment, you could see a teeny tiny Jesus on the tongue. People screamed out that they could feel him kicking. Even now, children hate to bite the wafer for fear it hurts Christ. The other homunculi that children are likely to know these days are the avatars or little “men” or other graphical creatures that represent players in a video game.
A homunculus is a way of referring to a human-like “object” to represent the interior of the body, but the brain must also learn to form symbol/objects of the world outside the body. The brain is the only interface we have with the world we inhabit: if we can’t sense it, to us it’s not there. Conversely we are capable of constructing “objects” that in fact are not there: love, the economy, peace, the rules of a game, are all constructs that have no physical sensory existence, but are seen by the mind through the magic of metaphor, so that we think of them as being “like” the concrete things we know. How else could we think about them? There is a social dimension to these objects: the culture will need to agree that they exist in order to communicate their content, which may be contentious. What IS love? The cultural dimensions of these “objects” are what defines the culture.
Another similar thinking strategy is “personification” in which we think of an idea-object as a person, for instance, maybe Venus or Cupid as a personification of love. The difference between love as a grown and sexually active woman and love as a little boy with a bow and arrow is worth pondering.
But the really humonguous personification is God. Theists do not agree on the attributes of God -- some cultures (Islam) will forbid you to try -- not gender, not temperament, not even name (the idea is that the TRUE name would be so powerful it would be dangerous). At PNWD Leadership School I remember Alan Deale, my minister, asking an older, dignified, educated scientist what his mental image of God might be. (It was an exercise in theology we were all doing.) He said, “a luminous oblong blur.” NOT a homunculus. He was not anthropomorphic.
By defining and imposing a homunculus that is favorable to their interests, authorities hope to persuade their constituency that this anthropomorphic metaphor is a source of real authority. Thus, humongousness is an important attribute, along with all-seeing, all-powerful, all-knowing, omnipresence, and so on. It gives people someone to imagine while praying. And the authorities hope they will be intimidated. I am not saying that imagining a theos is wrong or a form of falseness -- it can be a powerful thought exercise. In a sense, the reality of that being is in the person praying and in that sense it is as powerful as the person’s ability to respond to it, because it is literally from inside that person.
But there’s nothing to keep people’s fav homunculous from being the Devil. Or consider that fascinating little creature in “Lord of the Rings,” the gollum, whose only power is yearning. And a major power it is. Can a person pray to a “pale oblong blur”? I guess so. Perhaps it’s slightly more poetic to pray to the Cosmos, more philosophical to pray to that-than-which-nothing-can-be-greater. more comforting to pray to a personification of a good mother -- if you HAD a good mother and therefore yearn for her.
We are in a time when people’s black box personifications are rioting. The Guardian Angel and the Conscience -- familiar little figures -- have been joined by sci-fi figures and zombies. It’s a puppet-dance of pixels offering confusion and sensation. Now the most humongous homuculi has become a Gulliver, pinned down by little figures that look just like us.