[Paleopsych] Sigma Xi: The Soul of Science

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The Soul of Science 
American Scientist Online. The Magazine of Sigma Xi, the Scientific
Research Society
see full issue: March-April 2005 Volume: 93 Number: 2 Page: 101
DOI: 10.1511/2005.2.101


The Soul of Science

    [22]Michael Shermer

    According to Greek legend, Poseidon's son Theseus sailed to Crete to
    slay the monster Minotaur. After his triumphant return to Athens, his
    ship was preserved as a memorial. As the vessel aged, decaying planks
    were replaced with new ones; eventually, all the original timber was
    replaced. Philosophers know the story of Theseus's ship as a classic
    example of the problem of identity. What was the true identity of the
    ship, the shape or the wood?

    A more contemporary example may be found in the form of my first car,
    a 1966 Ford Mustang with a 289-cubic-inch engine and a speedometer
    that pegged at 140 m.p.h. As a young man high in testosterone but low
    in self-control, by the time I sold the car 15 years later there was
    hardly an original part on it. Nevertheless, my "1966" Mustang was now
    considered a classic, and I netted a tidy profit. Like Theseus's ship,
    its essence--its "Mustangness"--was intact.

    The analogy holds for human identity. The atoms in my brain and body
    today are not the same ones I had when I was born. Nevertheless, the
    patterns of information coded in my DNA and in my neural memories are
    still those of Michael Shermer. The human essence, the soul, is more
    than a pile of parts--it is a pattern of information.

    As far as we know, there is no way for that pattern to last longer
    than several decades, a century or so at most. So until a technology
    can copy a human pattern into a more durable medium (silicon chips
    perhaps?), it appears that when we die our pattern is lost. Scientific
    skepticism suggests that there is no afterlife, and religion requires
    a leap of faith greater than many of us wish to make.

    Whether there is an afterlife or not, we must live as if this is all
    there is. Our lives, our families, our friends, our communities (and
    how we treat others) are more meaningful when every day, every moment,
    every relationship and every person counts. Rather than meaningless
    forms before an eternal tomorrow, these entities have value in the
    here-and-now because of the purpose we create.

    Provisional Purpose

    In science, a fact is something confirmed to such a degree that it
    would be reasonable to offer our assent that it is true, provided that
    the assumptions on which it rests are intact. In life, purpose is
    provisional for the same reason--there is no Archimedean point from
    which we can authenticate final Truths and ultimate Purposes. In its
    stead, we have to validate our own facts and determine our own
    purposes. The self-correcting machinery of science corroborates
    provisional facts, and life itself provides the template for
    provisional purpose.

    Life's most basic purpose is survival and reproduction, and for 3.5
    billion years, organisms from the pre-Cambrian to us form an unbroken
    continuity. This alone ennobles us, but add the innumerable steps from
    bacteria to big brains and the countless points at which our lineage
    could have died and we conclude that human beings are a glorious
    contingency in the history of life.

    Humans have an evolved sense of purpose--a psychological desire to
    accomplish goals--that developed out of behaviors that were selected
    for because they were good for the individual or the group. The desire
    to behave in purposeful ways is an evolved trait; purpose is in our
    nature. And with brains big enough to discover and define purpose in
    symbolic ways that are inconceivable to millions of preceding and
    coexisting species, we humans are unique.

    The Purpose Pyramid

    With provisional purpose we define our goals, but there is an inherent
    structure to the human condition that helps delimit our search. By
    combining psychologist Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs and
    ethicist Peter Singer's expanding circle of sentiments, one can depict
    the 1.5 million years over which such drives and sentiments evolved
    among humans and our social-primate ancestors. At the bottom of the
    pyramid, the individual's needs for survival and reproduction--food,
    drink, safety and sex--are met through the family, extended family and
    community. Moving up the pyramid, psychosocial needs--security,
    bonding, socialization, affiliation, acceptance and affection--have
    evolved to aid and reinforce cooperation and altruism, traits that
    benefit individuals and the group. About 35,000 years ago, social
    groups grew larger and cultural selection began to take precedence
    over natural selection. The natural progression of this upwards trend
    is to perceive societies as part of the human species and the human
    species as part of the biosphere.

    The width of the pyramid at each level reflects the degree to which
    purposeful sentiment is under evolutionary control. The height of each
    level indicates the degree to which purposeful sentiment extends
    beyond us. Thus, the pyramid shows that these two variables are
    inversely related--the more a sentiment helps a complete stranger, the
    less it owes to specific evolutionary mechanisms.

    Selfish genes drive kin altruism, and social relations fuel reciprocal
    altruism, but to achieve species- and bio-altruism, we need to learn
    higher-order prosocial behavior. Achieving the upper levels of the
    pyramid requires social and political action. We evolved in a manner
    in which our concern for the environment was highly restricted, and
    global ecology and deep time were inconceivable until recent
    millennia--too short a time for evolution to expand the fundamental
    range of our purposeful concerns.

    The Pleasure of Purpose

    How can we attain deep-time awareness and global consciousness when
    our sense of purpose is grounded in an ancient evolutionary heritage?
    Thomas Jefferson suggested one answer in a letter to Thomas Law in
    1814: "These good acts give pleasure, but how it happens that they
    give us pleasure? Because nature hath implanted in our breasts a love
    of others, a sense of duty to them, a moral instinct, in short, which
    prompts us irresistibly to feel and to succor their distresses."
    Scientific research supports this proposition. Experiments with the
    "prisoner's dilemma"--a game in which one person's cooperation or
    defection elicits a varying payoff depending on whether the other
    person cooperates or defects--reveal that subjects adopt a cooperative
    strategy after multiple rounds, particularly when they can interact to
    establish trust. Usually, the most selfish thing to do--that is, gain
    the most in the long run--is to begin by trusting and cooperating, and
    then do whatever your partner does. Trust ... with verification.

    Our brains reinforce cooperative behavior. In one study by James
    Rilling and colleagues at Emory University, subjects that played the
    prisoner's dilemma while undergoing functional magnetic resonance
    imaging (fMRI) showed that cooperation activated the same brain areas
    as desserts, cocaine, beautiful faces and other pleasures. These
    responsive areas, the anteroventral striatum (the so-called "pleasure
    center," for which rats will endlessly press a bar to have it
    stimulated, even foregoing food) and the orbitofrontal cortex (related
    to impulse control and reward processing), are rich in dopamine, a
    neurochemical related to addictive behaviors. Tellingly, the
    cooperative subjects reported increased feelings of trust toward and
    camaraderie with their game partners. In addition to dopamine,
    neuroscientists believe that oxytocin--a hormone produced during
    eating, breast feeding and sexual orgasm--plays a vital role in human
    bonding and prosocial behaviors. Can we use this knowledge to
    accentuate purposeful behavior at the personal and global levels?

    Bootstrapping Purpose

    Purpose is personal, and people satisfy this deep-seated need in
    countless ways. Among these are avenues by which we can bootstrap
    ourselves toward higher goals that have proven to be especially
    beneficial to individuals and society. These include:

    Deep love and family commitment--the bonding and attachment to others
    increases one's circle of sentiments and corresponding sense of
    purpose: to care about others as much as, if not more than, oneself;

    Meaningful work and career--the sense of purpose derived from
    discovering one's passion for work drives people to achieve goals so
    far beyond their own needs that they lift all of us to a higher plane,
    either directly through the benefits of the work or indirectly through

    Social and political involvement--as a social species we have an
    obligation to community and society to participate in the process of
    determining how best we should live together;

    Transcendence and spirituality--a capacity unique to our species that
    includes aesthetic appreciation, spiritual reflection and
    transcendence through  art, music, dance, exercise, meditation, prayer
    or quiet contemplation, thereby connecting us on the deepest level
    with that which is completely outside of ourselves.

    My own journey up the pyramid began with falling in love, parenting a
    child and making the commitment to place family before self. The
    immeasurable joy generated by the most quotidian of family functions
    reinforces this commitment on a daily basis. Even with unlimited
    wealth, I would continue my career no differently because I have been
    fortunate enough to find a profession that offers more than just
    personal gain. As such, my work takes me ever further out of selfhood
    and toward global goals. Although I have visited many of the grandest
    cathedrals in the world and sensed a spiritual veneration of the
    highest order, my greatest transcendent experiences have come through
    the contemplation of nature in her grandeur, such as the view from
    Edwin Hubble's chair through the 100-inch telescope atop Mt. Wilson.
    From that perch, one's picture of the cosmos grows to galactic
    proportions, dwarfing any prior world view and yielding a perspective
    transcendent beyond imagination.

    The Purpose Principle

    Although purpose may be found in countless activities, is there a
    principle by which we may generalize its particulars? In The Science
    of Good And Evil I suggested two principles of morality. First, the
    happiness principle: it is a higher moral principle to always seek
    happiness with someone else's happiness in mind, and never seek
    happiness when it leads to someone else's unhappiness. Second, the
    liberty principle: it is a higher moral principle to always seek
    liberty with someone else's liberty in mind, and never seek liberty
    when it leads to someone else's loss of liberty. In this context I
    would like to suggest a purpose principle: it is a higher moral
    principle to pursue purposeful thought or behavior with someone else's
    purposeful goals in mind, and never pursue a purpose when it leads to
    someone else's loss of purpose.

    Although purpose is inherent, moral purposes are learned; thus, the
    highest levels of the purpose pyramid require individual volition,
    personal effort and social consciousness. Morality and purpose are
    inextricably interdigitated--you cannot have one without the other.
    Fortunately, nature grants us the capacity for both morality and
    purpose, culture affords us the liberty to reach for higher moral
    purposes, and history brings us to a place where we can employ both
    for the enrichment of all.

    Through natural evolution and man-made culture, we have inherited the
    mantle of life's caretaker on earth. Rather than crushing our spirits,
    the realization that we exist together for a narrow slice of time and
    space elevates us to a higher plane of humanity and humility: a proud,
    albeit passing, act in the drama of the cosmos.


   22. http://www.americanscientist.org/template/AuthorDetail/authorid/224

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