While many of our group were off in Renton for the annual Northwest Freethought Alliance Conference, a good number stayed behind and on April 1 (National Atheist Day to some) watched Jonathan Haidt's recent TED talk on Religion, Evolution, and the Ecstasy of Self-Transcendence. The following write up is provided by Ian.
Jonathan Haidt's talk (available on TED.com) centred on the question of why do people seem to have these transcendent, selfless experiences. He began by describing these experiences in terms of an analogy provided by William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience, as a staircase from our profane consciousness (that deals with selfish day-to-day struggles and desires) to a higher level that makes us humble, selfless, and calm.
Haidt attempted to provide a naturalistic explanation based on group, or multi-level, evolutionary selection. Computer simulations provided evidence that groups of cooperators could be more effective than individual cooperators (who get overwhelmed by selfish free-riders). His examples included insects like ants and bees that came together to build a common hive or nest.
In our own history, Haidt argued that our ancestors came together around fires and built communities. Genetic competition still occurs within each group; however, when two groups come into conflict, individual conflict must be set aside for the greater good.
Haidt gives this as the reason that humans will come together around sacred ideas (religious, cultural, political, etc.) and set aside their personal issues for the greater good - hence achieving self-transcendence.
Many in our group were uncomfortable with Haidt's use of the term sacred and noted that this self-transcendent behaviour has been used for great good as well as great evil.
On Monday, Haidt was in town, and I managed to catch his talk at UBC. He is touring promoting his new book, The Righteous Mind. His talk focused on the moral psychological differences between self-professed liberals and conservatives. He argues that while liberals value care and harm, (and to a lesser extent fairness and liberty), conservatives also value loyalty, authority, and sanctity.
He argued that it is fundamental to understand these differences to have meaningful political dialogue on the issues of the day. Finally, he suggested that society needs both liberals and conservatives in a ying and yang balance between pushing the boundaries while also ensuring a stable social order. He referred to research that has suggested that too much choice is paralysing for people and that our intuitions take precedence over our reason (which is typically post-hoc).
His work is very interesting and we will most likely come back to it again in the future.