David Eagleman’s Secular Sermon on Knowing One’s Selves
During the past week, we watched and listened to a half-dozen or more “secular sermons,” as Alain de Botton calls them, from The School of Life in London. These are weekday or Sunday meetings that are rich with singing and presentations by Mr. de Botton himself, as well as a wide array of outside speakers from all types of disciplines. Our task: to find about a minute of audio from one of these secular sermons that gives listeners a more visceral sense of what he’s describing:
“We’ve had terrific success by hosting what we’re calling secular sermons. Why are we calling them sermons? It’s to try and suggest that listening to them is not simply going to be an intellectual exercise, you know, fascinating little bit of knowledge, a way to show off to friends about new stuff you’ve learned. It’s actually going to be something that will hope to steer how you live. So it’s didactic, you know, it’s explicitly moralistic not in a kind of starched, Victorian way, but in the best possible sense. It exhorts you to a kind of better, fuller life and why not? Why should these pretty quite nice maneuvers only be the preserve of religion? As I say, they really are for all of us.
We ended up excerpting part of neuroscientist David Eagleman’s lecture on “being oneselves.” Dr. Eagleman holds joint appointments in the Departments of Neuroscience and Psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, and is the founder and director of the Initiative on Neuroscience and Law. In this secular sermon, he focuses on how our conscious mind represents only a small portion of who we are: “It turns out that almost everything that you think and do and you act and you believe is generated by parts of your brain that you don’t have access to.”
He follows by saying that each person is not one singular body, but an amalgamation of many parts that are competing with one another. He likens our brains to conflicted democracies engaged in these internal battles with each other: emotion versus reason, how we make decisions in time and the appeal of right now, and the moral contracts (check out the part about the “Ulysses contract” at the 30-minute mark!) we make with ourselves.
“And I think the thing for all of us to think about, all the time, is how are we lashing ourselves to the mast. We all have weaknesses and things that we want to do better. And as we come to understand more about ourselves, there’s this issue of what can we do to — to combat this? How can we really think hard about structuring things in our lives so we don’t do the wrong things? And I think this gives us traction, you know, understanding what’s going on under the hood gives us traction on old philosophical problems and ways to think about things.
Just think about the concept of virtue. I think that virtue has to do with the battles between these populations. If you’ve got a real drive to do something you want it so badly and yet you override that with more long-term decision making, with the parts of your brain that care about the deferred gratification verses the parts that care about, I want it right now. If you have that battle and you’re successful, I think that’s what we mean by a virtuous person…
I think virtue comes at people’s point of struggle, right when the parliament is sort of evenly balanced and they have real decision to make there about which way it tips.”