How Deep Are Our Thoughts?

For our first anniversary, my wife and I went on a trip through the Southwest, seeing Sedona, Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Taos and Los Alamos. But the highlight for us was walking up to Mather Point at the Grand Canyon as Friday evening turned into Shabbat.

While I had seen the Grand Canyon when I was seven, I had no real recollection of it. When someone I know had gone to the Grand Canyon when he was 15, he had been outwardly unimpressed, remarking “It’s just a big hole in the ground.” But when we walked up to edge of the Canyon, I had no idea just how massive, impressive and beautiful it is. We stood, awe-struck, at the ways the Colorado River had cut into stone over millions of years, and with that image in front of us, we welcomed Shabbat. And the line that kept coming back to me was a verse from Psalm 92, a song for Shabbat: “How great are Your works, Adonai, how very deep are Your thoughts.”

Obviously, exclaiming “how great are Your works” was a natural reaction to having seen something as impressive as the Grand Canyon. But in truth, the word I couldn’t get out of my head was “deep.” The majesty of nature often inspires awe, and the “go-to” images are often sunsets, beaches and mountains. But what makes the Grand Canyon so mind-blowing is how you can see the intricacies of the layers of rock, and you realize that every time you see it from a new angle or at a different time of the day, you see something brand new.

It is amazing to me that something as complex as the Grand Canyon was the result of the flow of the Colorado River. And the Yavapai Geology Museum explained how that could happen. A placard in the museum noted that while rocks are imposing, impressive and seemingly eternal, they are no match against the power of water. Instead, it is the persistence of water deepens what we able to see.

This immediately reminded me of the story about Rabbi Akiva, one of the greatest scholars in Jewish history. According to legend, by the age of 40, he had not learned anything. One time he was standing at the mouth of a well, and asked “Who hollowed out this rock?” He realized that it was the constantly dripping of water, and so he said to himself: “Just as the soft [water] shaped the hard [stone], words of Torah — which are as hard as iron — all the more so they will shape my heart which is but flesh and blood.” (Avot de Rabbi Nathan 6) In other words, a slow accumulation of knowledge deepened his learning, and deepened his ability to understand.

So when the Psalm says “how very deep are Your thoughts,” it teaches us how important it is to “think deeply” about things. It is far too easy for us to skim headlines and ignore context, to regurgitate ideas without considering them critically, and to find support only for perspectives we already buy into.

Instead, we have a responsibility to go in depth. And when we do, we have an opportunity to continually discover more nuance, more complexity, and more beauty than we ever could have imagined.

 

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Jonah Lehrer and the Betrayal of Trust in the Internet Age

Jonah Lehrer was one of my favorite authors. I found his writing style engaging and his content thought-provoking, but what I loved most was his ability to explain complicated scientific studies in ways that laypeople could understand.

Because my focus is on the interaction of science and religion, and in particular, how cognitive science can inform who we are as human beings, I constantly drew on his work, and quoted him in multiple posts. He was a great explainer and popularized some very complex and important ideas.

So when I read that he had fabricated and willfully misinterpreted quotations in his book Imagine (which I had read only a month and a half ago), I felt betrayed. Yes, I know that it’s important to be a critical thinker of what I read, and to have a healthy skepticism of any information I may come across. But since I don’t have an academic background in cognitive science, it would have been very hard for me to even know what questions to ask, or precisely how to examine the studies Lehrer talked about.

Instead, I simply had to trust him and trust his integrity. Unfortunately, as I found out on Monday, I couldn’t.

Beyond my personal feelings of betrayal, however, there’s a deeper issue that I’ve been thinking about these last few days: the importance of trust in the internet age.

Many people are mystified as to how Lehrer could have thought that his lies would go undetected. In an article on Salon.com, Roxane Gay wondered: “In the age of the Internet, when everything is just a click away, how did Lehrer think he wouldn’t get caught…when he simply lied over and over?” Indeed, truthfulness is a sine qua non for bloggers and writers who want to be respected, simply because if they don’t check their facts, eventually somebody else will.

But while crowdsourcing has made it infinitely easier and faster to uncover lies, there is now so much information out there that it’s impossible for us to personally verify each and every thing we read. And today, if we come across something intriguing, we go beyond simply reading it — we immediately share it, tweet it, draw on it, remix it, and build off of it. The only reason we do that is because we implicitly trust the accuracy of that information.

And as soon as we link our name with someone else, we link our credibility to theirs, as well.

Indeed, in the internet age, we are all not only consumers of content, but producers of it, as well. Anything we say or share might become the basis of others’ work, and more likely than not, they will simply have to trust that we are telling the truth.

That’s why the Rabbis highlighted an intriguing characteristic about the Hebrew words for “lie” and “truth.” In Hebrew, the word for “lie” is “sheker” — shin, qoph, resh. The shape of those three letters are balanced on thin footing, and are precariously balanced.

In contrast, the word for “truth” is “emet” — aleph, mem, tav. The shape of those three letters rest on more firm footing, and have stronger bases.

So in the Babylonian Talmud, the Rabbis looked at those letters and asked, “Why does falsehood [stand] on one foot, while truth has a brick-like foundation? Because,” they answered, “truth can stand, but falsehood cannot.”

Ultimately, in the internet age, everything we say becomes a potential building block for others to use, and the only way to ensure a solid foundation based on trust is to be truthful.

And as Jonah Lehrer learned, lies will topple your world.

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What Playing Games Can Teach Us About Prayer

While I certainly use my iPhone to check my e-mail and make calls, far and away, what really drains my battery are apps like Cut the Rope, Dark Nebula, and Words with Friends. Like almost everyone else on the planet, I simply love playing games.

But why? What is it about games that draw people in?

According to psychologist Alison Gopnik, it’s because the best games place us right into a sweetspot in the interaction between two poles — structure and creativity.

Sometimes, structure stifles creativity. That’s why Tic-Tac-Toe gets so boring so quickly, because there’s no space for imagination.

But for the most dynamic games, the rules can actually enhance our ability to be creative.

One of my favorite examples comes in a podcast from WNYC’s Radiolab, where co-hosts Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich interview chess expert Fred Friedel. Friedel wrote a computer program listing every chess move that has ever been played in any tournament. It’s called “Fritz.”

Now, whenever you play a game of chess, your first move has probably been done millions of times. After all, just about everyone starts with one of their pawns moving forward. But as the game progresses, the number of previous times a board position has occurred gets fewer and fewer and fewer. It goes from the millions to the thousands to the hundreds to the tens to the single digits.

Eventually, there comes a moment in the game that has never happened in tournament history. As Friedel describes it, the board is “in a position that has never occurred in the universe.” And when the game gets to that moment, as Abumrad and Krulwich tell us, it feels like “you get a peek at something infinite.”

What’s fascinating is that “a peek at something infinite” is not only something that happens in games. A “peek at something infinite” is truly the goal of prayer. And we get that glimpse when we find improvisation, imagination and creativity within the limits of a clearly defined set of rules. As Krulwich says, “[A game] has a small field of play, but then you step into it, and…whoosh!”

We want that “whoosh!”, but in order to get there, we need guidelines. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel argues, when it comes to prayer, spontaneity is the goal, but continuity is the way. And so Jewish prayer at its best has much in common with the best games — they both live in that space where structure helps us engender wonder and imagination.

In Judaism, prayer involves those two components — keva, the fixed words and set times we should pray, and kavannah, the intentionality and inspiration prayer is supposed to create. Often, keva is disparaged or ignored, because it feels boring, or repetitive, or that it’s simply rote recitation.

But when prayer is at its best, keva actually helps us get to kavannah. Rabbi Shawn Zevit says it well:

What is the structure that allows you to express your longing, your thanks, your wow, your reflection? I find that prayer, the structure of it and our own particular Jewish nuances of it, is an optimal part of the living diet for well-being In the Jewish modalities of prayer, those very longings, those very human dimensions are addressed… (in Comins, Making Prayer Real, 146-7)

We want to be inspired. We want to find strength. We want to feel connected to something larger than ourselves. But those moments rarely happen by accident.

By giving us a framework, rules and structures can help us get there. They remind us to practice. They tell us what to look for. And they allow us to regularly experience the ordinary, so that we can be ready to experience the extraordinary.

Indeed, that’s the deep connection between both games and religion. In a review of Robert Bellah’s book Religion in Human Evolution, Charles Mathewes reminds us that

…[p]lay involves a dialectic of freedom and constraint, or better, freedom within constraint. This is obviously so in games, but equally so in any form of play. The boundaries of play, the delimiting and the defining of the conditions of play, themselves can stand in a kind of dream-like state of critical assessment…

In short, play nourishes us, makes us fully human, equips us for reflective agency and enables us to understand that behind (or above) the routines of the everyday there can be a carnival of an altogether different sort.

In other words, “playing” and “praying” have much more in common than we may think.

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What Believers and Atheists Can Learn From Each Other (co-written with Sam McNerney)

Rabbi Geoffrey Mitelman: It’s inherently challenging for believers and atheists to have productive conversations. Discussing topics such as belief and nonbelief, the potential irrationality of religion, or the limits of scientific knowledge is difficult since each side often ends up more firmly entrenched in their own worldview.

But one bright person interested in broadening the conversation is Sam McNerney, a science writer who focuses on cognitive science and an atheist interested in religion from a psychological point of view.

I found Sam through his writing on ScientificAmerican.com, and started reading his blog Why We Reason and his posts on BigThink.com. We discovered that even though we approached religion from different perspectives, we had great respect for each other.

So as two people with different religious outlooks we wondered: what can we learn from each other?

Sam McNerney: There are many things we can learn. Let’s take one: the role of authority.

A recent New York Times article points out that secular liberal atheists tend to conflate authority, loyalty and sanctity with racism, sexism and homophobia. It’s not difficult to see why. Societies suffer when authority figures, being motivated by sacred values and religious beliefs, forbid their citizens from challenging the status quo. But a respect for authority and the principles they uphold to some degree is necessary if societies seek to maintain order and justice and function properly. The primatologist Frans de Waal explains it this way: “Without agreement on rank and a certain respect for authority there can be no great sensitivity to social rules, as anyone who has tried to teach simple house rules to a cat will agree.” (Haidt, 106)

Ironically, atheists’ steadfast allegiance to rationality, secular thinking and the importance of open-mindedness blinds them to important religious values including respect for authority. As a result, atheists tend to confuse authority with exploitation and evil and undervalue the vital role authority plays in a healthy society.

Geoff: You accurately bring up one aspect of why organized religion can be so complicated: it is intertwined with power. And I’m glad you note that authority and power are not inherently bad when it comes to religion. In fact, as you also say, a certain degree of authority is necessary.

To me, the real problem arises when religion adds another element into the mix: certainty. It’s a toxic combination to have religious authorities with the power to influence others claiming to “know” with 100% certainty that they’re right and everyone else is wrong.

One thing I learned from several atheists is the importance of skepticism and doubt. Indeed, while certainty leads to arrogance, uncertainty leads to humility. We open up the conversation and value diverse experiences when we approach the world with a perspective of “I’m not sure” or “I could be wrong.”

Recently, astrophysicist Adam Frank wrote a beautiful piece on NPR’s blog 13.7 about how valuable uncertainty can be:

Dig around in most of the world’s great religious traditions and you find people finding their sense of grace by embracing uncertainty rather than trying to bury it in codified dogmas…

Though I am an atheist, some of the wisest people I have met are those whose spiritual lives (some explicitly religious, some not) have forced them to continually confront uncertainty. This daily act has made them patient and forgiving, generous and inclusive. Likewise, the atheists I have met who most embody the ideals of free inquiry seem to best understand the limitations of every perspective, including their own. They encounter the ever shifting ground of their lives with humor, good will and compassion.

Certainty can be seductive, but it hurts our ability to engage with others in constructive ways. Thus when religious people talk about God, belief or faith, we have to approach the conversation with a little humility and recognize that we don’t have a monopoly on the truth. In the words of Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, we need to realize that another person doesn’t have to be wrong for us to be right.

This doesn’t mean believers and atheists will agree on the role of religion in society, the validity of a particular belief system, or even the very existence of God. In fact, believers and atheists will almost certainly continue to vehemently disagree about these questions. But we have to remember that not all disagreements are bad. Some arguments are quite beneficial because they help us gain a deeper understanding of reality, encourage clearer thinking, and broaden people’s perspectives.

The Rabbis even draw a distinction between two different kinds of arguments. Arguments they call “for the sake of Heaven” will always be valuable, while arguments that are only for self-aggrandizement will never be productive (Avot 5:20). So I’m not interested in arguments that devolve into mocking, ridicule, name-calling or one-upmanship. But I’d gladly participate in any discussion if we are arguing about how we make ourselves and this world better, and would actively strive to involve whoever wants to be part of that endeavor, regardless of what they may or may not believe.

Sam: You are right to point out that both atheists and believers under the illusion of certainty smother potentially productive dialogue with disrespectful rhetoric. What’s alarming is that atheism in the United States is now more than non-belief. It’s an intense and widely shared sentiment where a belief in God is not only false, but also ridiculous. Pointing out how irrational religion can be is entertaining for too many.

There’s no doubt that religious beliefs influence negative behavioral consequences, so atheists are right to criticize religion on many epistemological claims. But I’ve learned from believers and my background in cognitive psychology that faith-based beliefs are not necessarily irrational.

Consider a clever study recently conducted by Kevin Rounding of Queen’s University in Ontario that demonstrates how religion helps increase self-control. In two experiments participants (many of whom identified as atheists) were primed with a religious mindset – they unscrambled short sentences containing words such as “God,” “divine” and “Bible.” Compared to a control group, they were able to drink more sour juice and were more willing to accept $6 in a week instead of $5 immediately. Similar lines of research show that religious people are less likely to develop unhealthy habits like drinking, taking drugs, smoking and engaging in risky sex.

Studies also suggest that religious and spiritual people, especially those living in the developing world, are happier and live longer, on average, than non-believers. Religious people also tend to feel more connected to something beyond themselves; a sentiment that contributes to well-being significantly.

It’s unclear if these findings are correlative or causal – it’s likely that many of the benefits that come from believing in God arise not from beliefs per se but from strong social ties that religious communities do such a good job of fostering. Whatever the case, this research should make atheists pause before they dismiss all religious beliefs as irrational or ridiculous.

Geoff: It’s interesting — that actually leads to another area where atheists have pushed believers in important ways, namely, to focus less on the beliefs themselves, and more on how those beliefs manifest themselves in actions. And to paraphrase Steven Pinker, the actions that religious people need to focus on are less about “saving souls,” and more about “improving lives.”

For much of human history the goal of religion was to get people to believe a certain ideology or join a certain community. “Being religious” was a value in and of itself, and was often simply a given, but today, we live in a world where people are free to choose what they believe in. So now, the goal of religion should be to help people find more fulfillment in their own lives and to help people make a positive impact on others’ lives.

It’s important to note that people certainly do not need religion to act morally or find fulfillment. But as Jonathan Haidt writes in his new book The Righteous Mind, religion can certainly make it easier.

Haidt argues that our mind is like a rider who sits atop an elephant to suggest that our moral deliberations (the rider) are post-hoc rationalizations of our moral intuitions (the elephant). The key to his metaphor is that intuitions comes first (and are much more powerful) and strategic reason comes afterwards.

We need our rider because it allows us to think critically. But our elephant is also important because it motivates us to connect with others who share a moral vision. Ultimately, if we are striving to build communities and strengthen our morals, we cannot rely exclusively on either the rider or the elephant; we need both. As Haidt explains:

If you live in a religious community, you are enmeshed in a set of norms, institutions and relationships that work primarily on the elephant to influence your behavior. But if you are an atheist living in a looser community with a less binding moral matrix, you might have to rely somewhat more on an internal moral compass, read by the rider. That might sound appealing to rationalists, but it is also a recipe for…a society that no longer has a shared moral order. [And w]e evolved to live, trade and trust within shared moral matrices. (Haidt, 269)

Since religion is a human construct, with its “norms, institutions and relationships,” it can be used in a variety of different ways. It can obviously be used to shut down critical thinking and oppress others. But as you mention, religion has positive effects on well-being, and religious beliefs correlate with a sense of fulfillment. Perhaps the job of religion, then, should be giving us a common language, rituals, and communities that reinforce and strengthen our ability to become better human beings and find joy and meaning in our lives.

Ultimately, we don’t have to agree with someone in order to learn from them. As Ben Zoma, a 2nd century Jewish sage, reminds us: “Who is wise? The person who learns from all people.” (Avot 4:1) When we are willing to open ourselves up to others, we open ourselves up to new ideas and different perspectives.

Indeed, I have come to believe that our purpose as human beings – whether we identify as a believer, an atheist, or anything in between – is to better ourselves and our world. And any source of knowledge that leads us to that goal is worth pursuing.

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Is Religion Analytical or Intuitive?

A new study has just come out that argues that analytical thinking weakens religious belief, while at the same time, intuitive thinking may strengthen religious feelings.

Though the article comes out in Science today, this idea has been hypothesized for the last few years. For example, last September neuroscientist Joshua Greene and colleagues at Harvard University

…asked hundreds of volunteers recruited online to answer three questions with appealingly intuitive answers that turn out to be wrong. For example, “A bat and ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?”

Although $0.10 comes easily to mind (it’s the intuitive answer), it takes some analytical thought to come up with the correct answer of $0.05. People who chose more intuitive answers on these questions were more likely to report stronger religious beliefs, even when the researchers controlled for IQ, education, political leanings, and other factors.

In the same study, another group of volunteers wrote a paragraph about a time in their lives when either following their intuition or careful reasoning led to a good outcome. Those who wrote about intuition reported stronger religious beliefs on a questionnaire taken immediately afterward.

So why might critical thinking lessen religious belief? Why might intuitive thinking strengthen it? And what are the implications for the religious community?

First, from the critical thinking side, it seems obvious as to why analytic thought might lessen religious belief. After all, when you start to think critically, you stop accepting things purely “on faith.” So when people look at their texts or beliefs through a critical lens, they naturally begin to question the religious tenets that they held throughout their lives.

And yet religion is not just intellectual — it is designed to be predominantly emotional and spiritual. It is supposed to make us feel things — it is supposed to generate a sense of awe and wonder, build connections to others, elevate our compassion for those in need, and make us work to right the wrongs in this world.

So what does this mean for religion today? It means that for our world today, religion has to strive to be both intellectually sophisticated and emotionally resonant.

If religion is simplistic, or dogmatic, or anti-scientific, then as soon as new information or new ideas arise, it will shut itself off from the outside world. And as soon as it closes the door on new ideas, religion will stop being relevant.

And if religion is stale, or boring, or uninspiring, then no one will want to be part of it.

But if religion speaks to our deepest longings, if it inspires us to become better people, and if it can embrace not only faith but doubt, as well, then it will have the potential to become a great force for good in this world.

As Mayor Cory Booker said in a post on The Christian Left:

“Before you speak to me about your religion, first show it to me in how you treat other people; before you tell me how much you love your God, show me in how much you love all His children; before you preach to me of your passion for your faith, teach me about it through your compassion for your neighbors. In the end, I’m not as interested in what you have to tell or sell as in how you choose to live and give.”

Yes, critical thinking may lessen religious belief, and yes, intuitive thinking may strengthen it. But we have to remember that “religious belief” is not a value in and of itself.

Instead, the real question is how we use our religious beliefs to improve ourselves and our world.

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Why Bernie Madoff Didn’t Lurk in Dark Alleys

We all know that one of the Ten Commandments is “Don’t steal.” But it’s also hard for us to imagine Bernie Madoff or Jeffrey Skilling in a hooded sweatshirt in a darkened alley mugging a little old lady. And yet clearly, Madoff and Skilling violated that two-word, easy-to-understand commandment. So we have to ask: how in the world were they able to justify it?

A large part of that justification is because different forms of stealing have different “feels” to them. Physically taking money from another person feels more violent, more immediate, and less justifiable of an action. “Cooking the books,” however, can easily feel explainable by the perpetrator. It’s pretty easy to follow the commandment “Don’t steal” if it simply means, “Don’t go around robbing people in the middle of the night.” But Skilling and Madoff did steal – and stole significantly more money than all the armed robbers in America combined.

In fact, when people don’t deal in cash directly, they actually are able to rationalize their actions, and thus end up stealing significantly more money from people.

Cash Keeps Us (More) Honest

Behavioral economist Dan Ariely ran a fascinating study in the MIT dorm rooms to examine what might allow people to steal without feeling all that guilty about it. At first, he put six Coke cans in a communal refrigerator. Within three days, all six cans were gone. No doubt, people thought, “No one will notice, and hey – free Coke!”

He then put six one-dollar bills on a plate in the refrigerator. They were left totally untouched.

Why? As Ariely explains:

When we look at the world around us, much of the dishonesty we see involves cheating that is one step removed from cash. Companies cheat with their accounting practices; executives cheat by using backdated stock options; lobbyists cheat by underwriting parties for politicians; drug companies cheat by sending doctors and their wives off on posh vacations. To be sure, these people don’t cheat with cold, hard cash (except occasionally). And that’s my point: cheating is a lot easier when it’s a step removed from money. (Ariely, Predictably Irrational, 218-219)

There seems to be a psychological block that prevents most of us from simply forcibly taking cash from people, but allows us to rationalize small falsifications that ultimately end up being the same thing as stealing. And that is why, in fact, the Torah has more to say about honesty in business beyond just, “Don’t steal.” In Leviticus, the Torah even regulates what might happen one step away from money that might lead people to cheat.

Honest Weights and Measures

Leviticus 19 contains some of the most important and most famous laws in the Torah. The Ten Commandments appear here, as do the verses, “You shall not stand by idly while your neighbor bleeds” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The whole chapter is known as the “holiness code,” implying that beyond just being ethical, treating people fairly is truly a sacred obligation that God demands of us.

The very last laws in chapter 19 say, “You shall not falsify measures of length, weight or capacity. You shall have an honest balance, honest weights, an honest ephah (a unit of dry measure) and an honest hin (a unit of liquid measure)…” (Leviticus 19:35-36)

Why did this law have to be written in the first place? The simple answer is: you don’t forbid something from happening unless it has already been occurring. So clearly, there were people who would falsify their weights and measures. Cheating and stealing are nothing new in today’s society!

And that’s what makes this commandment so important and valuable. If the Torah had simply said, “Don’t steal,” our natural ability to rationalize would have given people the opportunity to say, “Well, if I weigh down my grain a little bit, no one will really notice. And after all, everyone else is doing it, so it’s not really stealing.” Instead, the Torah teaches us, “Don’t cheat even – perhaps especially – when you’re one step removed from money.” It’s a lot easier to steal when you’re one step removed – and that’s why that commandment is needed.

The First Thing We Will Be Asked When We Die

The Rabbis even elevated honesty in business to become one of the highest values we need to live up to. In fact, in the Rabbinic mind, the first thing God will ask us when we die is not, “Did you believe in Me?” or “Did you pray?” No – according to the Talmud (Shabbat 31a), the first question we will be asked when we die is, “Were you honest in your business dealings?”

We sometimes say that we know we are acting honestly if we can look at ourselves in the mirror in the morning. But perhaps that is not enough of a judge. After all, our ability to rationalize could make it very easy for us to say, “Well, it’s just a small thing I’m taking.” Moment by moment, we can easily find ways to steal that feel OK and won’t cause us to lose sleep.

So to truly bring ourselves up to our highest standards, the question should not be, “How do we feel about ourselves right now?” It should really be, “How do we want to feel about ourselves at the end of our lives?”

Only by having our day-to-day actions live up to the values we espouse can we truly be proud of the actions we take.

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The Science of Compassion — A Conversation with Professor David DeSteno

Compassion is a deep-seated value in every religious tradition. Judaism teaches that the world stands on Torah, on prayer and on acts of loving kindness. Christians celebrate the story of the Good Samaritan in Luke. And a major reason the Dalai Lama is so honored is because of his Buddhist teachings on compassion.

But compassion can also be studied scientifically, and one of the foremost researchers on compassion is Professor David DeSteno, author of the book Out Of Character: Surprising Truths About the Liar, Cheat, Sinner (and Saint) Lurking in All of Us and the director of the Social Emotions Lab at Northeastern University.

On Sunday, April 15th at 4 pm, Professor DeSteno will be speaking about the science of compassion at Temple Beth El of Northern Westchester. I had an opportunity to ask him some questions about how the science of compassion can inform our religious and ethical outlooks:

GM: Does religion foster or hinder our ability to be compassionate?

DD: It’s a trickier question than one might think. There’s been a debate going on in psychological science for the past decade about the nature of morality. Do our moral sentiments spring from innate intuitions (e.g., ubiquitous evolved responses) or from conscious dictates (e.g., religious doctrines, ethical principles). There’s data to support both sides, and therein lies the reason for the ongoing debate. It’s not simply one or the other. It is true that the challenges of human social life, among which is the question of when to feel compassion and act altruistically, have existed for much longer than we’ve had the cognitive wherewithal to engage in rational analysis. So, it makes good sense that we have moral intuitions that automatically guide our actions. We never would have made it out of the “ancestral savannah” if we didn’t.

Of course, the more recent ability of the human mind to engage in abstract reasoning opened up additional ways for us to embrace (or avoid) ethical actions. The result is that we’re of two minds — an intuitive one and a deliberative one. The trick is to realize that they’re both attempting to solve the same problem — how to navigate the social world optimally. Neither “mind” is more moral than the other, and that’s the most important fact to understand in learning how to live more ethically. You can’t always trust your intuitions or your rational mind. Both are capable of leading you astray.

When it comes to compassion, I think we can all agree that most religions embrace the view that compassion is a virtue and that we should help those in need. So, at a conscious level, I think religion works to increase the likelihood that we will help others. However, religion also functions as a social category; it can divide us into “us” and “them,” into believers and nonbelievers.

What we know from our own research is that, on the intuitive level at least, how much compassion we feel for others is a direct function of how similar we feel to them. For example, our work has shown that simply having people wear similar color wristbands to denote their membership in a recently created “team” alters the levels of compassion they feel for each other. When one individual is harmed, the level of compassion another feels for him is modulated up or down depending on whether the victim is wearing the same color wristband.

Consequently, we have to be aware that while our religious beliefs may be urging us to act compassionately, our religious identities may be introducing an asymmetry into our responses. We may feel the pain of our brethren more and the pain of others less.

An interesting fact here can be seen in some traditions of Buddhist meditation. A basic technique of compassion meditation is to realize that all beings are equally similar. That technique is quite congruent with our findings. The more the mind automatically comes to see all beings as alike, the more ready it is to feel compassion equally for all in pain.

GM: What situations most bring out our compassion? What situations bring it out the least?

DD: As I’ve hinted at above, the level of compassion we feel for others is greatly influenced by whether we see ourselves in them. If you think about it, it makes great sense biologically. Feeling compassion usually motivates us to act to help others, often at a cost to ourselves. If a person were moved to feel compassion for everyone in every instance, it could become paralyzing. That person would experience constant sorrow and utilize all of her or his resources to help others. Now, this might be a noble goal, but in terms of evolutionary logic, it’s anathema.

Consequently, the intuitive mind makes us feel more compassion for those with whom we share some affiliation. Of course, that affiliation can take many different forms — familial, team membership, or group-based identities along various social dimensions (e.g., vegetarians).

In short, it’s not just the nature of the tragedy that makes us feel compassion; it’s also whether the victim is likely to help us in the future. No one would be surprised that an American soldier would feel more compassion for a wounded comrade than for a Taliban fighter who sustained the same injury. But this phenomenon of relativism is so deeply ingrained in the mind that we find the same asymmetry simply due to mirroring another’s movements. If you tap your hands in time with a person right before they are victimized, you’ll feel their pain more and work longer and harder to help them than if you didn’t tap your hands in time with them. Synchronous movement, after all, is an ancient marker for joint purpose.

GM: What’s the relationship between compassion and ethical action?

DD: Compassion, like all emotions, is a feeling state that serves as an engine for action. Once we feel an emotion, it increases the likelihood that we’ll engage in certain behaviors (or at least makes us work harder to avoid them). Fear prepares us to flee. Anger prepares us for conflict. Compassion prepares us to support others. If you accept the view that emotions function to increase adaptive responding, then it makes great sense that humans have a suite of emotional responses that impel them to build social capital. We’re a social species at heart. We depend on others to flourish. Consequently, we have to possess emotional responses that enhance prosocial actions and not just ones that are aimed at selfish pleasure or competition and aggression.

In Judaism, compassion is not primarily a feeling — it is an action. “Just as God is compassionate, we should be compassionate. Just as God clothed the naked (by making clothes for Adam), we should clothe the naked. Just as God visited the sick (by going to see Abraham after he was circumcised), we should visit the sick. Just as God comforted mourners (by speaking to Isaac after his father died), we should comfort mourners. Just as God buried the dead (by burying Moses), we should bury the dead.” (Sotah 14a)

As DeSteno noted, there often is tension between our religious beliefs and our religious identities — between our religious teachings that tell us to be compassionate to all people, and the way religious groups can create an “us” and “them” mentality.

But “who we are” is very much “what we do.” If we act compassionately, we begin to view ourselves as “compassionate people.” Our sense of identity arises not only from the group we associate with, but from the actions we take.

So when we think about using religion to foster compassion, then, the focus should not be on how we strengthen our sense of identity — that simply reinforces divisiveness. Instead, as DeSteno’s research on science of compassion shows, we should aim to strengthen our values, to think about how we behave, and to consciously expand how we can “see ourselves” in others.

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