Psychologist Jonathan Haidt describes the apparently universal human ability for transcendent spiritual experience: losing the self, merging with something beyond us, and the ecstasy that accompanies such experience. He uses the metaphor of “climbing the staircase” for this experience. Then he asks, is this ability a product of natural selection? Or is it a bug in the system – something that happens when wires cross in the brain?
He then makes the case that humans are products of multilevel selection. That is, we compete as individuals, but we also compete at a group level against other groups, and in those cases the ability to temporarily “lose ourselves” makes the group more able to succeed.
“We are Homo duplex, because we evolved by multilevel selection… If (the ability for transcendence) is an adaptation, then we evolved to be religious.
If this is real, it explains the persistent undercurrent of dissatisfaction in modern life. Because human beings are, to some extent, hivish creatures like bees. We’re bees. We busted out of the hive during the Enlightenment. We broke down the old institutions and brought liberty to the oppressed. We unleashed Earth-changing creativity and generated vast wealth and comfort.
Nowadays we fly around like individual bees exulting in our freedom. But sometimes we wonder: Is this all there is? What should I do with my life? What’s missing? What’s missing is that we are Homo duplex, but modern, secular society was built to satisfy our lower, profane selves. It’s really comfortable down here on the lower level. Come, have a seat in my home entertainment center.
One great challenge of modern life is to find the staircase amid all the clutter and then to do something good and noble once you climb to the top. I see this desire in my students at the University of Virginia. They all want to find a cause or calling that they can throw themselves into. They’re all searching for their staircase. And that gives me hope because people are not purely selfish.
Most people long to overcome pettiness and become part of something larger. And this explains the extraordinary resonance of this simple metaphor conjured up nearly 400 years ago. “No man is an island entire of itself. Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”
I watched the last three minutes of this talk half a dozen times.