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I have a question for you: Are you religious? Please raise your hand right now if you think of yourself as a religious person. Let's see, I'd say about three or four percent. I had no idea there were so many believers at a TED Conference. (Laughter) Okay, here's another question: Do you think of yourself as spiritual in any way, shape or form? Raise your hand. Okay, that's the majority.
My Talk today is about the main reason, or one of the main reasons, why most people consider themselves to be spiritual in some way, shape or form. My Talk today is about self-transcendence. It's just a basic fact about being human that sometimes the self seems to just melt away. And when that happens, the feeling is ecstatic and we reach for metaphors of up and down to explain these feelings. We talk about being uplifted or elevated.
Now it's really hard to think about anything abstract like this without a good concrete metaphor. So here's the metaphor I'm offering today. Think about the mind as being like a house with many rooms, most of which we're very familiar with. But sometimes it's as though a doorway appears from out of nowhere and it opens onto a staircase. We climb the staircase and experience a state of altered consciousness.
In 1902, the great American psychologist William James wrote about the many varieties of religious experience. He collected all kinds of case studies. He quoted the words of all kinds of people who'd had a variety of these experiences. One of the most exciting to me is this young man, Stephen Bradley, had an encounter, he thought, with Jesus in 1820. And here's what Bradley said about it.
(Video) Stephen Bradley: I thought I saw the savior in human shape for about one second in the room, with arms extended, appearing to say to me, "Come." The next day I rejoiced with trembling. My happiness was so great that I said I wanted to die. This world had no place in my affections. Previous to this time, I was very selfish and self-righteous. But now I desired the welfare of all mankind and could, with a feeling heart, forgive my worst enemies.
JH: So note how Bradley's petty, moralistic self just dies on the way up the staircase. And on this higher level he becomes loving and forgiving. The world's many religions have found so many ways to help people climb the staircase. Some shut down the self using meditation. Others use psychedelic drugs. This is from a 16th century Aztec scroll showing a man about to eat a psilocybin mushroom and at the same moment get yanked up the staircase by a god. Others use dancing, spinning and circling to promote self-transcendence. But you don't need a religion to get you through the staircase. Lots of people find self-transcendence in nature. Others overcome their self at raves.
But here's the weirdest place of all: war. So many books about war say the same thing, that nothing brings people together like war. And that bringing them together opens up the possibility of extraordinary self-transcendent experiences. I'm going to play for you an excerpt from this book by Glenn Gray. Gray was a soldier in the American army in World War II. And after the war he interviewed a lot of other soldiers and wrote about the experience of men in battle. Here's a key passage where he basically describes the staircase.
(Video) Glenn Gray: Many veterans will admit that the experience of communal effort in battle has been the high point of their lives. "I" passes insensibly into a "we," "my" becomes "our" and individual faith loses its central importance. I believe that it is nothing less than the assurance of immortality that makes self-sacrifice at these moments so relatively easy. I may fall, but I do not die, for that which is real in me goes forward and lives on in the comrades for whom I gave up my life.
JH: So what all of these cases have in common is that the self seems to thin out, or melt away, and it feels good, it feels really good, in a way totally unlike anything we feel in our normal lives. It feels somehow uplifting. This idea that we move up was central in the writing of the great French sociologist Emile Durkheim. Durkheim even called us Homo duplex, or two-level man. The lower level he called the level of the profane. Now profane is the opposite of sacred. It just means ordinary or common. And in our ordinary lives we exist as individuals. We want to satisfy our individual desires. We pursue our individual goals. But sometimes something happens that triggers a phase change. Individuals unite into a team, a movement or a nation, which is far more than the sum of its parts.
Durkheim called this level the level of the sacred because he believed that the function of religion was to unite people into a group, into a moral community. Durkheim believed that anything that unites us takes on an air of sacredness. And once people circle around some sacred object or value, they'll then work as a team and fight to defend it. Durkheim wrote about a set of intense collective emotions that accomplish this miracle of E pluribus unum, of making a group out of individuals. Think of the collective joy in Britain on the day World War II ended. Think of the collective anger in Tahrir Square, which brought down a dictator. And think of the collective grief in the United States that we all felt, that brought us all together, after 9/11.
So let me summarize where we are. I'm saying that the capacity for self-transcendence is just a basic part of being human. I'm offering the metaphor of a staircase in the mind. I'm saying we are Homo duplex and this staircase takes us up from the profane level to the level of the sacred. When we climb that staircase, self-interest fades away, we become just much less self-interested, and we feel as though we are better, nobler and somehow uplifted.
So here's the million-dollar question for social scientists like me: Is the staircase a feature of our evolutionary design? Is it a product of natural selection, like our hands? Or is it a bug, a mistake in the system -- this religious stuff is just something that happens when the wires cross in the brain -- Jill has a stroke and she has this religious experience, it's just a mistake?
Well many scientists who study religion take this view. The New Atheists, for example, argue that religion is a set of memes, sort of parasitic memes, that get inside our minds and make us do all kinds of crazy religious stuff, self-destructive stuff, like suicide bombing. And after all, how could it ever be good for us to lose ourselves? How could it ever be adaptive for any organism to overcome self-interest? Well let me show you.
In "The Descent of Man," Charles Darwin wrote a great deal about the evolution of morality -- where did it come from, why do we have it. Darwin noted that many of our virtues are of very little use to ourselves, but they're of great use to our groups. He wrote about the scenario in which two tribes of early humans would have come in contact and competition. He said, "If the one tribe included a great number of courageous, sympathetic and faithful members who are always ready to aid and defend each other, this tribe would succeed better and conquer the other." He went on to say that "Selfish and contentious people will not cohere, and without coherence nothing can be effected." In other words, Charles Darwin believed in group selection.
Now this idea has been very controversial for the last 40 years, but it's about to make a major comeback this year, especially after E.O. Wilson's book comes out in April, making a very strong case that we, and several other species, are products of group selection. But really the way to think about this is as multilevel selection.
So look at it this way: You've got competition going on within groups and across groups. So here's a group of guys on a college crew team. Within this team there's competition. There are guys competing with each other. The slowest rowers, the weakest rowers, are going to get cut from the team. And only a few of these guys are going to go on in the sport. Maybe one of them will make it to the Olympics. So within the team, their interests are actually pitted against each other. And sometimes it would be advantageous for one of these guys to try to sabotage the other guys. Maybe he'll badmouth his chief rival to the coach. But while that competition is going on within the boat, this competition is going on across boats. And once you put these guys in a boat competing with another boat, now they've got no choice but to cooperate because they're all in the same boat. They can only win if they all pull together as a team. I mean, these things sound trite, but they are deep evolutionary truths.
The main argument against group selection has always been that, well sure, it would be nice to have a group of cooperators, but as soon as you have a group of cooperators, they're just going to get taken over by free-riders, individuals that are going to exploit the hard work of the others. Let me illustrate this for you. Suppose we've got a group of little organisms -- they can be bacteria, they can be hamsters; it doesn't matter what -- and let's suppose that this little group here, they evolved to be cooperative. Well that's great. They graze, they defend each other, they work together, they generate wealth. And as you'll see in this simulation, as they interact they gain points, as it were, they grow, and when they've doubled in size, you'll see them split, and that's how they reproduce and the population grows.
But suppose then that one of them mutates. There's a mutation in the gene and one of them mutates to follow a selfish strategy. It takes advantage of the others. And so when a green interacts with a blue, you'll see the green gets larger and the blue gets smaller. So here's how things play out. We start with just one green, and as it interacts it gains wealth or points or food. And in short order, the cooperators are done for. The free-riders have taken over. If a group cannot solve the free-rider problem then it cannot reap the benefits of cooperation and group selection cannot get started.
But there are solutions to the free-rider problem. It's not that hard a problem. In fact, nature has solved it many, many times. And nature's favorite solution is to put everyone in the same boat. For example, why is it that the mitochondria in every cell has its own DNA, totally separate from the DNA in the nucleus? It's because they used to be separate free-living bacteria and they came together and became a superorganism. Somehow or other -- maybe one swallowed another; we'll never know exactly why -- but once they got a membrane around them, they were all in the same membrane, now all the wealth-created division of labor, all the greatness created by cooperation, stays locked inside the membrane and we've got a superorganism.
And now let's rerun the simulation putting one of these superorganisms into a population of free-riders, of defectors, of cheaters and look what happens. A superorganism can basically take what it wants. It's so big and powerful and efficient that it can take resources from the greens, from the defectors, the cheaters. And pretty soon the whole population is actually composed of these new superorganisms. What I've shown you here is sometimes called a major transition in evolutionary history. Darwin's laws don't change, but now there's a new kind of player on the field and things begin to look very different.
Now this transition was not a one-time freak of nature that just happened with some bacteria. It happened again about 120 or a 140 million years ago when some solitary wasps began creating little simple, primitive nests, or hives. Once several wasps were all together in the same hive, they had no choice but to cooperate, because pretty soon they were locked into competition with other hives. And the most cohesive hives won, just as Darwin said.
These early wasps gave rise to the bees and the ants that have covered the world and changed the biosphere. And it happened again, even more spectacularly, in the last half-million years when our own ancestors became cultural creatures, they came together around a hearth or a campfire, they divided labor, they began painting their bodies, they spoke their own dialects, and eventually they worshiped their own gods. Once they were all in the same tribe, they could keep the benefits of cooperation locked inside. And they unlocked the most powerful force ever known on this planet, which is human cooperation -- a force for construction and destruction.
Of course, human groups are nowhere near as cohesive as beehives. Human groups may look like hives for brief moments, but they tend to then break apart. We're not locked into cooperation the way bees and ants are. In fact, often, as we've seen happen in a lot of the Arab Spring revolts, often those divisions are along religious lines. Nonetheless, when people do come together and put themselves all into the same movement, they can move mountains.
Look at the people in these photos I've been showing you. Do you think they're there pursuing their self-interest? Or are they pursuing communal interest, which requires them to lose themselves and become simply a part of a whole?
(Video) Jonathan Haidt: We humans have many varieties of religious experience, as William James explained. One of the most common is climbing the secret staircase and losing ourselves. The staircase takes us from the experience of life as profane or ordinary upwards to the experience of life as sacred, or deeply interconnected. We are Homo duplex, as Durkheim explained. And we are Homo duplex because we evolved by multilevel selection, as Darwin explained. I can't be certain if the staircase is an adaptation rather than a bug, but if it is an adaptation, then the implications are profound. If it is an adaptation, then we evolved to be religious.
I don't mean that we evolved to join gigantic organized religions. Those things came along too recently. I mean that we evolved to see sacredness all around us and to join with others into teams and circle around sacred objects, people and ideas. This is why politics is so tribal. Politics is partly profane, it's partly about self-interest, but politics is also about sacredness. It's about joining with others to pursue moral ideas. It's about the eternal struggle between good and evil, and we all believe we're on the good team.
And most importantly, if the staircase is real, it explains the persistent undercurrent of dissatisfaction in modern life. Because human beings are, to some extent, hivish creatures like bees. We're bees. We busted out of the hive during the Enlightenment. We broke down the old institutions and brought liberty to the oppressed. We unleashed Earth-changing creativity and generated vast wealth and comfort.
Nowadays we fly around like individual bees exulting in our freedom. But sometimes we wonder: Is this all there is? What should I do with my life? What's missing? What's missing is that we are Homo duplex, but modern, secular society was built to satisfy our lower, profane selves. It's really comfortable down here on the lower level. Come, have a seat in my home entertainment center.
One great challenge of modern life is to find the staircase amid all the clutter and then to do something good and noble once you climb to the top. I see this desire in my students at the University of Virginia. They all want to find a cause or calling that they can throw themselves into. They're all searching for their staircase. And that gives me hope because people are not purely selfish.
Most people long to overcome pettiness and become part of something larger. And this explains the extraordinary resonance of this simple metaphor conjured up nearly 400 years ago. "No man is an island entire of itself. Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main."
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Psychologist Jonathan Haidt asks a simple, but difficult question: why do we search for self-transcendence? Why do we attempt to lose ourselves? In a tour through the science of evolution by group selection, he proposes a provocative answer.
Jonathan Haidt studies how -- and why -- we evolved to be moral. By understanding more about our moral roots, his hope is that we can learn to be civil and open-minded. Full bio »