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TED2012

Jonathan Haidt: Religion, evolution, and the ecstasy of self-transcendence

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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.

- Social psychologist
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

I have a question for you:
00:15
Are you religious?
00:18
Please raise your hand right now
00:20
if you think of yourself as a religious person.
00:22
Let's see, I'd say about three or four percent.
00:25
I had no idea there were so many believers at a TED Conference.
00:28
(Laughter)
00:31
Okay, here's another question:
00:33
Do you think of yourself as spiritual
00:35
in any way, shape or form? Raise your hand.
00:37
Okay, that's the majority.
00:39
My Talk today
00:42
is about the main reason, or one of the main reasons,
00:44
why most people consider themselves
00:46
to be spiritual in some way, shape or form.
00:48
My Talk today is about self-transcendence.
00:50
It's just a basic fact about being human
00:53
that sometimes the self seems to just melt away.
00:56
And when that happens,
00:59
the feeling is ecstatic
01:01
and we reach for metaphors of up and down
01:04
to explain these feelings.
01:06
We talk about being uplifted
01:08
or elevated.
01:10
Now it's really hard to think about anything abstract like this
01:12
without a good concrete metaphor.
01:15
So here's the metaphor I'm offering today.
01:17
Think about the mind as being like a house with many rooms,
01:20
most of which we're very familiar with.
01:23
But sometimes it's as though a doorway appears
01:26
from out of nowhere
01:29
and it opens onto a staircase.
01:31
We climb the staircase
01:34
and experience a state of altered consciousness.
01:36
In 1902,
01:40
the great American psychologist William James
01:42
wrote about the many varieties of religious experience.
01:44
He collected all kinds of case studies.
01:47
He quoted the words of all kinds of people
01:49
who'd had a variety of these experiences.
01:51
One of the most exciting to me
01:53
is this young man, Stephen Bradley,
01:55
had an encounter, he thought, with Jesus in 1820.
01:57
And here's what Bradley said about it.
02:00
(Music)
02:06
(Video) Stephen Bradley: I thought I saw the savior in human shape
02:09
for about one second in the room,
02:12
with arms extended,
02:14
appearing to say to me, "Come."
02:16
The next day I rejoiced with trembling.
02:19
My happiness was so great that I said I wanted to die.
02:22
This world had no place in my affections.
02:25
Previous to this time,
02:28
I was very selfish and self-righteous.
02:30
But now I desired the welfare of all mankind
02:32
and could, with a feeling heart,
02:35
forgive my worst enemies.
02:37
JH: So note
02:41
how Bradley's petty, moralistic self
02:43
just dies on the way up the staircase.
02:45
And on this higher level
02:47
he becomes loving and forgiving.
02:49
The world's many religions have found so many ways
02:53
to help people climb the staircase.
02:55
Some shut down the self using meditation.
02:57
Others use psychedelic drugs.
02:59
This is from a 16th century Aztec scroll
03:01
showing a man about to eat a psilocybin mushroom
03:05
and at the same moment get yanked up the staircase by a god.
03:08
Others use dancing, spinning and circling
03:12
to promote self-transcendence.
03:14
But you don't need a religion to get you through the staircase.
03:16
Lots of people find self-transcendence in nature.
03:19
Others overcome their self at raves.
03:22
But here's the weirdest place of all:
03:25
war.
03:28
So many books about war say the same thing,
03:30
that nothing brings people together
03:32
like war.
03:34
And that bringing them together opens up the possibility
03:36
of extraordinary self-transcendent experiences.
03:39
I'm going to play for you an excerpt
03:42
from this book by Glenn Gray.
03:44
Gray was a soldier in the American army in World War II.
03:46
And after the war he interviewed a lot of other soldiers
03:49
and wrote about the experience of men in battle.
03:52
Here's a key passage
03:54
where he basically describes the staircase.
03:56
(Video) Glenn Gray: Many veterans will admit
04:01
that the experience of communal effort in battle
04:03
has been the high point of their lives.
04:06
"I" passes insensibly into a "we,"
04:09
"my" becomes "our"
04:12
and individual faith
04:14
loses its central importance.
04:16
I believe that it is nothing less
04:19
than the assurance of immortality
04:21
that makes self-sacrifice at these moments
04:24
so relatively easy.
04:27
I may fall, but I do not die,
04:30
for that which is real in me goes forward
04:33
and lives on in the comrades
04:36
for whom I gave up my life.
04:38
JH: So what all of these cases have in common
04:42
is that the self seems to thin out, or melt away,
04:45
and it feels good, it feels really good,
04:48
in a way totally unlike anything we feel in our normal lives.
04:50
It feels somehow uplifting.
04:53
This idea that we move up was central in the writing
04:56
of the great French sociologist Emile Durkheim.
04:59
Durkheim even called us Homo duplex,
05:02
or two-level man.
05:04
The lower level he called the level of the profane.
05:06
Now profane is the opposite of sacred.
05:09
It just means ordinary or common.
05:12
And in our ordinary lives we exist as individuals.
05:14
We want to satisfy our individual desires.
05:17
We pursue our individual goals.
05:20
But sometimes something happens
05:22
that triggers a phase change.
05:24
Individuals unite
05:26
into a team, a movement or a nation,
05:28
which is far more than the sum of its parts.
05:31
Durkheim called this level the level of the sacred
05:34
because he believed that the function of religion
05:37
was to unite people into a group,
05:39
into a moral community.
05:41
Durkheim believed that anything that unites us
05:44
takes on an air of sacredness.
05:47
And once people circle around
05:49
some sacred object or value,
05:51
they'll then work as a team and fight to defend it.
05:53
Durkheim wrote
05:56
about a set of intense collective emotions
05:58
that accomplish this miracle of E pluribus unum,
06:00
of making a group out of individuals.
06:03
Think of the collective joy in Britain
06:05
on the day World War II ended.
06:08
Think of the collective anger in Tahrir Square,
06:11
which brought down a dictator.
06:14
And think of the collective grief
06:17
in the United States
06:19
that we all felt, that brought us all together,
06:21
after 9/11.
06:24
So let me summarize where we are.
06:27
I'm saying that the capacity for self-transcendence
06:30
is just a basic part of being human.
06:32
I'm offering the metaphor
06:35
of a staircase in the mind.
06:37
I'm saying we are Homo duplex
06:39
and this staircase takes us up from the profane level
06:41
to the level of the sacred.
06:44
When we climb that staircase,
06:46
self-interest fades away,
06:48
we become just much less self-interested,
06:50
and we feel as though we are better, nobler
06:52
and somehow uplifted.
06:54
So here's the million-dollar question
06:57
for social scientists like me:
07:00
Is the staircase
07:02
a feature of our evolutionary design?
07:04
Is it a product of natural selection,
07:07
like our hands?
07:10
Or is it a bug, a mistake in the system --
07:12
this religious stuff is just something
07:15
that happens when the wires cross in the brain --
07:17
Jill has a stroke and she has this religious experience,
07:20
it's just a mistake?
07:22
Well many scientists who study religion take this view.
07:24
The New Atheists, for example,
07:28
argue that religion is a set of memes,
07:30
sort of parasitic memes,
07:32
that get inside our minds
07:34
and make us do all kinds of crazy religious stuff,
07:36
self-destructive stuff, like suicide bombing.
07:39
And after all,
07:41
how could it ever be good for us
07:43
to lose ourselves?
07:45
How could it ever be adaptive
07:47
for any organism
07:49
to overcome self-interest?
07:51
Well let me show you.
07:54
In "The Descent of Man,"
07:56
Charles Darwin wrote a great deal
07:58
about the evolution of morality --
08:00
where did it come from, why do we have it.
08:02
Darwin noted that many of our virtues
08:05
are of very little use to ourselves,
08:07
but they're of great use to our groups.
08:09
He wrote about the scenario
08:11
in which two tribes of early humans
08:13
would have come in contact and competition.
08:15
He said, "If the one tribe included
08:17
a great number of courageous, sympathetic
08:20
and faithful members
08:22
who are always ready to aid and defend each other,
08:24
this tribe would succeed better
08:26
and conquer the other."
08:28
He went on to say that "Selfish and contentious people
08:30
will not cohere,
08:32
and without coherence
08:34
nothing can be effected."
08:36
In other words,
08:38
Charles Darwin believed
08:40
in group selection.
08:42
Now this idea has been very controversial for the last 40 years,
08:44
but it's about to make a major comeback this year,
08:47
especially after E.O. Wilson's book comes out in April,
08:50
making a very strong case
08:53
that we, and several other species,
08:55
are products of group selection.
08:57
But really the way to think about this
08:59
is as multilevel selection.
09:01
So look at it this way:
09:03
You've got competition going on within groups and across groups.
09:05
So here's a group of guys on a college crew team.
09:08
Within this team
09:11
there's competition.
09:13
There are guys competing with each other.
09:15
The slowest rowers, the weakest rowers, are going to get cut from the team.
09:17
And only a few of these guys are going to go on in the sport.
09:20
Maybe one of them will make it to the Olympics.
09:22
So within the team,
09:25
their interests are actually pitted against each other.
09:27
And sometimes it would be advantageous
09:30
for one of these guys
09:32
to try to sabotage the other guys.
09:34
Maybe he'll badmouth his chief rival
09:36
to the coach.
09:38
But while that competition is going on
09:40
within the boat,
09:42
this competition is going on across boats.
09:44
And once you put these guys in a boat competing with another boat,
09:47
now they've got no choice but to cooperate
09:50
because they're all in the same boat.
09:52
They can only win
09:55
if they all pull together as a team.
09:57
I mean, these things sound trite,
09:59
but they are deep evolutionary truths.
10:01
The main argument against group selection
10:03
has always been
10:05
that, well sure, it would be nice to have a group of cooperators,
10:07
but as soon as you have a group of cooperators,
10:10
they're just going to get taken over by free-riders,
10:12
individuals that are going to exploit the hard work of the others.
10:15
Let me illustrate this for you.
10:18
Suppose we've got a group of little organisms --
10:20
they can be bacteria, they can be hamsters; it doesn't matter what --
10:23
and let's suppose that this little group here, they evolved to be cooperative.
10:26
Well that's great. They graze, they defend each other,
10:29
they work together, they generate wealth.
10:31
And as you'll see in this simulation,
10:34
as they interact they gain points, as it were, they grow,
10:36
and when they've doubled in size, you'll see them split,
10:39
and that's how they reproduce and the population grows.
10:41
But suppose then that one of them mutates.
10:43
There's a mutation in the gene
10:46
and one of them mutates to follow a selfish strategy.
10:48
It takes advantage of the others.
10:50
And so when a green interacts with a blue,
10:52
you'll see the green gets larger and the blue gets smaller.
10:55
So here's how things play out.
10:57
We start with just one green,
10:59
and as it interacts
11:01
it gains wealth or points or food.
11:03
And in short order, the cooperators are done for.
11:06
The free-riders have taken over.
11:09
If a group cannot solve the free-rider problem
11:12
then it cannot reap the benefits of cooperation
11:15
and group selection cannot get started.
11:18
But there are solutions to the free-rider problem.
11:21
It's not that hard a problem.
11:23
In fact, nature has solved it many, many times.
11:25
And nature's favorite solution
11:28
is to put everyone in the same boat.
11:30
For example,
11:33
why is it that the mitochondria in every cell
11:35
has its own DNA,
11:38
totally separate from the DNA in the nucleus?
11:40
It's because they used to be
11:43
separate free-living bacteria
11:45
and they came together
11:47
and became a superorganism.
11:49
Somehow or other -- maybe one swallowed another; we'll never know exactly why --
11:51
but once they got a membrane around them,
11:54
they were all in the same membrane,
11:56
now all the wealth-created division of labor,
11:58
all the greatness created by cooperation,
12:01
stays locked inside the membrane
12:03
and we've got a superorganism.
12:05
And now let's rerun the simulation
12:08
putting one of these superorganisms
12:10
into a population of free-riders, of defectors, of cheaters
12:12
and look what happens.
12:15
A superorganism can basically take what it wants.
12:18
It's so big and powerful and efficient
12:20
that it can take resources
12:23
from the greens, from the defectors, the cheaters.
12:25
And pretty soon the whole population
12:29
is actually composed of these new superorganisms.
12:31
What I've shown you here
12:34
is sometimes called a major transition
12:36
in evolutionary history.
12:38
Darwin's laws don't change,
12:41
but now there's a new kind of player on the field
12:43
and things begin to look very different.
12:46
Now this transition was not a one-time freak of nature
12:49
that just happened with some bacteria.
12:51
It happened again
12:53
about 120 or a 140 million years ago
12:55
when some solitary wasps
12:57
began creating little simple, primitive
13:00
nests, or hives.
13:02
Once several wasps were all together in the same hive,
13:05
they had no choice but to cooperate,
13:08
because pretty soon they were locked into competition
13:10
with other hives.
13:12
And the most cohesive hives won,
13:14
just as Darwin said.
13:16
These early wasps
13:18
gave rise to the bees and the ants
13:20
that have covered the world
13:22
and changed the biosphere.
13:24
And it happened again,
13:26
even more spectacularly,
13:28
in the last half-million years
13:30
when our own ancestors
13:32
became cultural creatures,
13:34
they came together around a hearth or a campfire,
13:36
they divided labor,
13:39
they began painting their bodies, they spoke their own dialects,
13:41
and eventually they worshiped their own gods.
13:44
Once they were all in the same tribe,
13:47
they could keep the benefits of cooperation locked inside.
13:49
And they unlocked the most powerful force
13:52
ever known on this planet,
13:54
which is human cooperation --
13:56
a force for construction
13:58
and destruction.
14:00
Of course, human groups are nowhere near as cohesive
14:03
as beehives.
14:05
Human groups may look like hives for brief moments,
14:07
but they tend to then break apart.
14:10
We're not locked into cooperation the way bees and ants are.
14:12
In fact, often,
14:15
as we've seen happen in a lot of the Arab Spring revolts,
14:17
often those divisions are along religious lines.
14:19
Nonetheless, when people do come together
14:23
and put themselves all into the same movement,
14:26
they can move mountains.
14:28
Look at the people in these photos I've been showing you.
14:31
Do you think they're there
14:34
pursuing their self-interest?
14:36
Or are they pursuing communal interest,
14:38
which requires them to lose themselves
14:41
and become simply a part of a whole?
14:44
Okay, so that was my Talk
14:49
delivered in the standard TED way.
14:51
And now I'm going to give the whole Talk over again
14:53
in three minutes
14:55
in a more full-spectrum sort of way.
14:57
(Music)
15:00
(Video) Jonathan Haidt: We humans have many varieties
15:02
of religious experience,
15:04
as William James explained.
15:06
One of the most common is climbing the secret staircase
15:08
and losing ourselves.
15:11
The staircase takes us
15:13
from the experience of life as profane or ordinary
15:15
upwards to the experience of life as sacred,
15:18
or deeply interconnected.
15:20
We are Homo duplex,
15:22
as Durkheim explained.
15:24
And we are Homo duplex
15:26
because we evolved by multilevel selection,
15:28
as Darwin explained.
15:30
I can't be certain if the staircase is an adaptation
15:33
rather than a bug,
15:35
but if it is an adaptation,
15:37
then the implications are profound.
15:39
If it is an adaptation,
15:41
then we evolved to be religious.
15:43
I don't mean that we evolved
15:46
to join gigantic organized religions.
15:48
Those things came along too recently.
15:50
I mean that we evolved
15:52
to see sacredness all around us
15:54
and to join with others into teams
15:56
and circle around sacred objects,
15:58
people and ideas.
16:00
This is why politics is so tribal.
16:02
Politics is partly profane, it's partly about self-interest,
16:05
but politics is also about sacredness.
16:08
It's about joining with others
16:11
to pursue moral ideas.
16:13
It's about the eternal struggle between good and evil,
16:15
and we all believe we're on the good team.
16:18
And most importantly,
16:21
if the staircase is real,
16:23
it explains the persistent undercurrent
16:25
of dissatisfaction in modern life.
16:27
Because human beings are, to some extent,
16:29
hivish creatures like bees.
16:32
We're bees. We busted out of the hive during the Enlightenment.
16:34
We broke down the old institutions
16:37
and brought liberty to the oppressed.
16:40
We unleashed Earth-changing creativity
16:42
and generated vast wealth and comfort.
16:44
Nowadays we fly around
16:47
like individual bees exulting in our freedom.
16:49
But sometimes we wonder:
16:51
Is this all there is?
16:53
What should I do with my life?
16:55
What's missing?
16:57
What's missing is that we are Homo duplex,
16:59
but modern, secular society was built
17:01
to satisfy our lower, profane selves.
17:04
It's really comfortable down here on the lower level.
17:07
Come, have a seat in my home entertainment center.
17:10
One great challenge of modern life
17:13
is to find the staircase amid all the clutter
17:15
and then to do something good and noble
17:18
once you climb to the top.
17:21
I see this desire in my students at the University of Virginia.
17:24
They all want to find a cause or calling
17:27
that they can throw themselves into.
17:29
They're all searching for their staircase.
17:31
And that gives me hope
17:34
because people are not purely selfish.
17:36
Most people long to overcome pettiness
17:38
and become part of something larger.
17:40
And this explains the extraordinary resonance
17:42
of this simple metaphor
17:45
conjured up nearly 400 years ago.
17:47
"No man is an island
17:50
entire of itself.
17:52
Every man is a piece of the continent,
17:54
a part of the main."
17:57
JH: Thank you.
18:00
(Applause)
18:02

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About the speaker:

Jonathan Haidt - Social psychologist
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.

Why you should listen

Haidt is a social psychologist whose research on morality across cultures led up to his much-quoted 2008 TEDTalk on the psychological roots of the American culture war. He asks, "Can't we all disagree more constructively?" In September 2009, Jonathan Haidt spoke to the TED Blog about the moral psychology behind the healthcare debate in the United States. He's also active in the study of positive psychology and human flourishing.

At TED2012 he explored the intersection of his work on morality with his work on happiness to talk about “hive psychology” – the ability that humans have to lose themselves in groups pursuing larger projects, almost like bees in a hive. This hivish ability Is crucial, he argues, for understanding the origins of morality, politics, and religion. These are ideas that Haidt develops at greater length in his new book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. Learn more about his drive for a more productive and civil politics on his website CivilPolitics.org. And take an eye-opening quiz about your own morals at YourMorals.org

During the bruising 2012 political season, Haidt was invited to speak at TEDxMidAtlantic on the topic of civility. He developed the metaphor of The Asteroids Club to embody how we can reach. common groun. Learn how to start your own Asteroids Club at www.AsteroidsClub.org.

Watch Haidt talk about the Asteroids Club on MSNBC's The Cycle >>

More profile about the speaker
Jonathan Haidt | Speaker | TED.com