Robert Sapolsky is professor of Biological Sciences and Professor of Neurology and Neurological Sciences at Stanford University. Below is a video of a talk he gave to the graduating class on June 13, 2009. It’s very interesting, as Sapolsky explains how various human traits (empathy, perception of other minds, etc.) exist in other animals, but merely as shadows, meaning that we remain unique in our ability to express these traits at a much higher level.
The talk is 38 minutes long, but you can skip the first five minutes. If you don’t have the time, I highly encourage you to watch the last five minutes, starting around 33:40. I’d like to discuss this below the fold.
Did hear see that? When it comes to the trait that is “most defining of who we are,” it is this:
Gaining the strength and will to do X from the irrefutable evidence that X cannot be.
As examples, Sapolsky quotes Kierkegaard and cites a Catholic nun who has devoted her life to serving those on death row.
Sapolsky didn’t use the word that describes it for what it is – faith.
Sapolsky describes himself as a “strident atheist,” yet can’t help but note that faith is both irrational and magnificent. It is “most defining of who we are.”
But it gets better. Carefully note the “moral imperative” Sapolsky invokes as he sends the graduating students of Stanford into the world. He notes that all their secular education has taught them an inescapable rational message – “it is really impossible for one person to make a difference.”
So the “strident atheist” sends the students into the world by encouraging them to deny this rational conclusion and do what it is that most defines us humans – go into the world with faith. One should exert every effort to make a difference precisely because it is impossible to make a difference.
It is thus highly illuminating to step back from all this. An extremely intelligent scientist speaks to a group of intelligent young people who have received a cutting-edge education. Knowing this education leads to nihilism, the scientist invokes faith and calls upon the students to practice faith in their lives. Education, science, philosophy leave off where religion has always begun.
The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. One should be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise. – F. Scott Fitzgerald
Let’s contrast this to the New Atheist Movement in upcoming messages.