In the rather cheesy disaster-fest “The Day After Tomorrow” there is a very dramatic moment when the hero draws a line across the middle of the United States and tells the President ‘evacuate everyone South of this line’. The President asks, ‘what about the people to the North?’ ‘It’s too late for them’ comes the reply. Now, I happen to think that this film is even more implausible than most, but what this scene does is exemplify the nature of a hard choice. Sometimes we are forced to make a decision between different outcomes – to choose the least worst from a series of bad options (a bit like the general election perhaps). What comes to the fore in such situations is that we reveal what it is that we value the most and, most importantly, what we value expresses who we are. In a context of declining energy resources, who will we choose to be?
I would like to talk about an obscure railroad foreman from the nineteenth century by the name of Phineas Gage. Gage was working in the Vermont area clearing land for the building of a new railroad when he had a rather dramatic accident – a tamping rod (used in the controlled explosions) was propelled up through his head, entering just below the eye and leaving through the top of his skull. Those who were with him thought that it must have been a fatal accident, but Gage survived. That is, the physical form of Gage survived, for following the accident his personality seemed to be completely different. Whereas previously he had been sober and responsible, now he couldn’t hold down a job and was delinquent and uncouth. He ended up being part of PT Barnum’s travelling circus, where he was exhibited – with the tamping rod – as a modern miracle.
According to a modern neuro-scientist’s reconstruction, what had happened to Gage was that his capacity to exercise judgement had been destroyed. Consider what happens in a game of chess. There are a vast number of moves that are possible at any one point in the game and a competent player will immediately discount some of those moves as being ones likely to cause a defeat. Unlike with a computer, this is very rarely done on the basis of a full analysis of all the permutations that might follow (our brains are not that efficient); rather it is done on the basis of a judgement about what constitutes good and bad moves. That is, we react emotionally to certain outcomes and rule them out.
In the same way, in order to function in our normal, daily human lives we have to exercise judgement regularly, from when we get up in the morning, through all our daily interactions and deciding when to go to bed. Without that capacity to judge and decide we relinquish something essential. The particular area of the brain that was damaged in Gage related to the ability of the brain to process information from the body, especially the viscera – in other words, our emotional reactions. What seems to be happening in some neuro-scientific circles today is a return to the classical understanding of human understandings and cognition – that our emotions are an essential part of the process, that they are the means by which we evaluate information and make decisions.
This is where the great religious traditions of the world come in. For each religious tradition might be better characterised as a ‘wisdom tradition’, that is, they are ways of educating people’s emotions so that they can make better decisions. This starts very simply, such as in teaching children to delay gratification – ‘if you eat up your supper you can get pudding’ – or with adults, ‘if you work hard for three years you will get a degree and a better job’. It expands to include all the language of virtues and vices, that is, how to cultivate in ourselves things like courage, honesty, patience, self-control, tolerance and so on. Essentially, all the things that make for a good society flow from emotional maturity.
Sadly, in our society, this truth was obscured by the Enlightenment perspective that reason and emotion are necessarily opposed, and that the path to Enlightenment lay in repressing and controlling our emotions wherever possible (and, as a corollary, that religion was all about emotionality, fit only for women and children, not the hard-headed strong rationality exhibited by manly men.) This had the sad result that we lost our ability to judge what is good and what is not. As a society we handed over our ability to assess good and evil to the scientists – who are, of course, so very rational – and now we are in a situation where the scientists say ‘if we carry on like this we are doomed’ – and we lack the emotional maturity to respond to this information correctly. As a civilisation, we are like poor Phineas Gage – once we knew who we were, and were competent and capable. Now we are a circus exhibit, fit only for a world of reality TV and game shows. How to get out of this predicament – and where our historic Christian faith has something to say – I will start to explain next time.