Is Self-Transcendence Unique to Humans?

Gil Bailie, in a 3/31/12 post on The Cornerstone Forum’s Facebook page, has this to say:

Upon discovering the unimaginable vastness of the cosmos and the equally inconceivable arc of time that constitutes its history, it is easy to conclude—as many do—that our little speck of cosmic dust and its proud little dominant species are utterly inconsequential. But if we sense, as Christians do, that what’s most precious is love, then how far might we have to look in the cosmic maelstrom to find another creature capable of love? It’s been said that the chances of finding the basic bio-chemical conditions for even rudimentary life are equal to the chances of a cyclone hitting a junk yard and resulting in a fully equipped Boeing 474. What are the chances of finding a creature capable of non-instinctual acts of loving self-sacrifice? It is, I think, precisely such acts which define and distinguish our species. We may be alone in the universe. If so, it can only be because we really aren’t alone.

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt has a different view, which he expounds in this TED talk from February 2012 (18 minutes long).

George Dunn responds after viewing Jonathan Haidt’s TED talk:

But I”m not convinced that the sort of “self-transcendence” Haidt discusses is always such a great thing. Girard’s theory helps us to understand that group cohesion is often, maybe even typically, forged at the expense of some enemy or scapegoat. Also, I’m not sure that what he describes is so much “transcending” the ego as it is a vast expansion of it. Finally, I’m always wary when people start talking about the “sacred,” having learned from Girard and others to associate the scared with violence, oppression, and obfuscation. Altruism, as I understand it, doesn’t have to depend on some “sacred” merger of one’s personality identity with the group. To the contrary, wouldn’t genuine altruism be a matter of responding to the alterity of the other person and recognizing her unique identity as a separate person, rather than simply responding to some identity that we both share? In any case, Haidt’s account of self-transcendence doesn’t explain why we—and other animals—are sometimes willing to stick our necks out for others who are not members of our own group or even our own species. Maybe he would explain that sort of altruism as a “bug,” rather than an adaptation. In any case, it seems to me that altruism can’t simply be reduced to the sort of vertical self-transcendence he describes.

If we achieve self-transcendence not only in war and religion, but also in sports and team research, then self-transcendence has got to be value-neutral. And then there’s the issue of the sacred, which Haidt seems to think is here to stay. He may be right, but I tend to agree with Sam Harris, who writes:

Even if Haidt’s reading of the literature on morality were correct, and all this manufactured bewilderment proves to be useful in getting certain people to donate time, money, and blood to their neighbors—so what? Is science now in the business of nurturing useful delusions? Surely we can grow in altruism, and refine our ethical intuitions, and even explore the furthest reaches of human happiness, without lying to ourselves about the nature of the universe.


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