Placeholder Image

Subtitles section Play video

  • 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.

  • (Music)

  • (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,