Transcript for George Vaillant on "Spiritual Evolution"


Jim Fleming: George Vaillant is a Harvard Psychologist on a mission, he's out to change the way we talk about spiritually. To take it out of the realm of sacred scripture and religious dogma and instead ground it in hard science. Specifically, Neuroscience and Cognitive Psychology. He lays out his argument in his book, Spiritual Evolution : A scientific defense of faith. Vaillant says people are innately spiritual. But as he told Steve Paulson, this insight has been lost on the medical profession, at least until very recently.

George Valliant: It's only within the last 20 years that psychiatry and psychology have rediscovered the positive emotions which are just as hate, fear and anxiety. And these emotions when you start thinking about it are the same thing that we mean in the terms spirituality and they derive from the same parts as the brain, namely the limbic system in contrast with the instinctual hypothalamus or the Homosapians’ neocortex.

Paulson: OK so you just laid out a lot there, let's unpack that a little bit. What positive emotions are you talking about?

Valliant: Well, St. Paul gave us three with Faith, Hope and Love. Faith being portrayed as Trust rather than belief which underlies dogma. You can then add to those emotions gratitude, forgiveness, joy or compassion. All of which are hard -wired in mammals and in homosapians.

Paulson: So to some degree you are distinguishing between spirituality and religion?

Valliant: Oh absolutely, you know when you are playing with words you can do anything you want with them but let me just try to separate them out as black and white. If you study twins, separated twins and twins who were raised together religion is entirely a function of culture, unrelated Sibs raised in the same family will have the same religion. Identical twins separated at birth will be concordant at high levels of spirituality or low levels of spirituality. Second that religions almost all require an intermediary between us and our higher power, where with spirituality you don't need a mediator to feel spirituality in a cathedral or on a mountaintop. And the third is that religions tend to be left brain, verbal, dogmatic. Whereas spirituality is emotional, you don't need words, it's often hard to express spiritual experiences and yet if you think of Golden Retrievers they are models of faith. Hope and love.

Paulson: You see you're kinda down on religion is what it sounds like, I mean you're saying it's a matter of belief, of kinda buying into some belief system or maybe some kind of...

Valliant: Oh I'm not down on religion but I am very much in favor of connectedness I think we have to live as one planet and to discover ways in which we are most similar than dissimilar and the second reason that I make this difference is in psychiatry and psychology the positive emotions are thrown out with the Richard Dawkins bathwater. And so if you take a 21st century classic textbook of psychiatry there are hundreds of lines on negative emotions, hate, terrorism, sin, guilt and of course thousands of lines on depression and fear. And yet there's only five lines on hope, one on joy and none on compassion, love and forgiveness.

Paulson: Now you brought up the name of Richard Dawkins the famous atheist.

Vaillant: Yes

Paulson: Who I am sure would say that some of these positive emotions you have mentioned love, joy, compassion and gratitude are wonderful things. I don't think he would classify them as spiritual, he would just say it's part of what it means to be human. I guess I’m still coming back to that question, why do you want to use these as a way into our understanding of spirituality?

Vaillant: I mean from an idealistic or I suppose a religious sense, it's because the positive emotions are all about the other, they're pro-social but they're also “I am not God.” And the negative emotions and the sort of mechanistic Dawkins or Dennet or Same Harris approach is that I can figure this all out for myself. And as soon as we start thinking, "It's all about me" we lose some of the pro-social, let me use the word, magic. There's something beyond myself, there is a higher power which may just be Mother Nature, but at least one has the sense of reverence for it and to bring this closer to home, Ralph Nader says cars kill 100,000 innocent people a year, automobiles are terrible. And Richard Dawkins says quite correctly that religions kill 10,000's of innocent people a year, religion is terrible. And what Nader forgets is that to about a billion or 2 billion people cars are quite handy. And what Dawkins ignores is that to about 6 billion people religion is a vehicle we have of pulling the very emotions up into consciousness. That the psychologists and the psychiatrists ignore.

Paulson: Hmm, Well let's talk about the brain here. You have said that spirituality is rooted in the limbic system, well I guess what's been called the mammalian brain. Can you explain that?

Valliant: Yes. For the hundreds of millions of years that reptiles existed the brain didn't expand. Evolution depended on size, teeth, thickness of skin. It was only with the evolution of animals that evolution started to select for brain size. And the first dramatic difference between mammals and reptiles was that mammals developed the limbic system which allows for selfless care of the young by the parents. It allows the separation to cry which conveys the attachment if the mammal hollers, he or she is gonna be brought back into the nest. Whereas if a reptile makes too much noise he ends up as his father's lunch. So that these basic mammalian traits evolved and there importance can be brought home to the cortex which is what the philosophers and the psychologist and generally rational people that take a dim view of spirituality and regard reason as the best thing that could possibly happen.

Paulson: Reason, ideas and uh all of that is rooted into the cortex.

Vaillant: It's rooted in the cortex and yet if you do the simple experiment of scraping off all of a mother hamster’s cortex she's real stupid in mazes but she can raise her pups well. Whereas if you damage her limbic system only slightly but leave the cortex intact she can run mazes just fine but she is a totally inadequate mother.

Paulson: At one point in your book you say the new science has liberated the positive emotions from the realm of mysticism and from religious dogma. Are you saying that we need to have a new understanding of spirituality that is rooted in science that's not so dependent on spirituality and religious beliefs?

Vaillant: Oh Absolutely, I mean old Einstein who was a pretty cool scientist said the most important emotion for a scientist was awe and to be without awe was to be a snuffed out candle. And this of course is diametrically off from what Floyd said who felt that if you had awe you were some kind of an infant.

Paulson: I am wondering if there is a larger quest for you that's going on, and that's to find scientific grounding for meaning and for purpose in our lives, I mean essentially we are looking to science so that we don't fall into nihilism.

Vaillant: Well you are asking a very important question which is where does meaning come from? The trouble with science is it takes us back up into the cortex and I think that what meaning comes from is fostering and bring in positive emotions into consciousness. Yet isn't science not science? It's positive feelings verses depression, anger or just putting the clutch in neutral and obsessing about multiplication tables. Which isn't any fun.

Fleming: George Vaillant is a psychoanalyst and research psychiatrist at Harvard University. He talked with Steve Paulson about his book, “Spiritual Evolution.”

Comments for this interview

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