New York Times columnist David Brooks is known for his Op-Ed pieces on the social sciences, especially psychology. In his book, The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement, Brooks establishes the interaction between the conscious and unconscious minds. Brooks synthesized a wealth of social science evidence into one narrative in order to show how it explains human nature and to draw out the social, political, and moral implications of the findings. In doing this he wanted to expose what he sees as a bias in our culture – that the “conscious mind writes the autobiography of our species. … the conscious mind assigns itself the starring role.” He observed that little attention is paid to the unconscious or moral and emotional faculties below. Intuition plays a big part in life, but people have been taught to push it down or distrust it. Brooks wishes to give us a fuller picture of who we are.
The research cited in The Social Animal is vast but not so deep as to put the average reader to sleep. To make it more interesting and relevant, Brooks invented two characters called Harold and Erica. We follow Harold from conception to death and Erica from school age to old age. Each phase of their lives however takes place in the 21st century. Brooks wanted to show how individuals act in our day. This was confusing for me at first but I forced my conscious mind to imagine a puppet dressed like a baby or child dropped down on the 21st century stage, lifted up, redressed in the next stage of life and then dropped down on the same 21st century stage. Apart from the fact that real maturity develops as we grow in real time, Brooks managed to use his device to illustrate the research findings in each stage of life.
Through the stories we find that both Harold and Erica do develop both sets of skills. Conscious and unconscious skills drive Erica, born out of wedlock to a Chinese mother and Mexican father, to change her environment so that she could get a better education and succeed. Harold used his conscious and unconscious skills to assess whether or not to marry Erica. Both were highly educated and motived toward success. Both eventually learned “street smarts” as they aged.
Erica had a bad temper as a young woman. She learned to develop self-control through her habits. This enabled her to become a high achiever until she reached the pinnacle of success – a job in the White House. After she retired Erica took time to look at her shortcomings. Her busy career left her with few true friends. In her new humility Erica cultivated friendships and even a soul satisfying activity with art.
Harold learned from a good teacher how to become an active thinker. He became a lifelong student. In his old age Harold contemplated the meaning of life. He wanted desperately to find the definition of his life in a calling or mission. On the last day of his life he imagined that the essence of his life, manifested in the connections between the neurons and synapses in his brain, was his soul. But he wondered what could make those synapses and neurons turn into love? Was there a God?
Harold wondered if he had contributed to future generations. Had he done everything with the talents he possessed to make life better for others? “Had he transcended this earthly realm? No. … He had lived a worldly life and, regretfully, had never tasted Divine transcendence.”
Though in some ways Brooks’ characters, Howard and Erica, were not very believable or commanding of much sympathy, they did act in very common human ways. As I reflected on the stories I wondered how they might fit into our churches. There are plenty of “bad choices” to go around in churches that we call sins. Do Christians believe that neurons are the essence of emotions? How do Christians differ in where they find their identity?
I truly agree with Brooks that the debate between pure reason on one side and intuition and emotion on the other should not result in an either/or answer. In his humorous and engaging way, Brooks cautions us against making a caricature out of either the level 2, conscious side – Mr. Spock, mature, reflective, and far-seeing, or the level 1, unconscious side – Homer Simpson, an impulsive, immature goofball. “One thing we know is that we need both systems to thrive – the conscious and unconscious, the rational and the emotional.” 
The church does seem to have a problem with these ideas on two levels. I have heard men criticize women saying that women are too emotional. Somehow that makes women less useful. I know some pretty emotional men, but even if their belief about women was true, why not include women in leadership to balance out the decision making?
My own denomination is very cerebral. Proof of salvation is knowing the catechism. Sadly, I have heard some put Pentecostals down as lesser Christians because they are too emotional. Most Pentecostals I am acquainted with know their bibles very well. And as for love, well the Pentecostals have the most missionaries around the world of anybody. It seems that they have a good combination of cognitive and non-cognitive skills.
Though the church has some misconceptions, we as leaders can help them understand. We can remind ourselves that we have an advantage that Erica and Harold did not.
God created us with minds, hearts, wills, and souls. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30).
We honor God when we contemplate the beauty of His creation with our minds, feel the pleasure of a baby’s laughter with our emotions, pray that Jesus will fill our souls with love, and trust the Holy Spirit to give us the strength and courage for kingdom work.
 David Brooks. The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement. New York, NY: Random House, 2012. xi.
 Ibid. 374
 Ibid. 380.
5 responses to “Epistemological Humility”
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Wow Mary, what a beautifully written post. I loved how you summarized the book, brought it back to the church, then personalized it for you. I especially enjoyed how you brought out the needed balance of head and heart. It seems churches divide on this, like they do with men and women, and don’t value bringing the two together well.
I especially liked your closing statement: “We honor God when we contemplate the beauty of His creation with our minds, feel the pleasure of a baby’s laughter with our emotions, pray that Jesus will fill our souls with love, and trust the Holy Spirit to give us the strength and courage for kingdom work.” This says it all. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and feelings.
Mary, I enjoyed your take on Brooks book. I too love your last paragraph “We honor God when we contemplate the beauty of His creation with our minds, …”
If we as God’s people would focus one seeing the world through Jesus eyes, we would be in a better place.
“We honor God when we contemplate the beauty of His creation with our minds, feel the pleasure of a baby’s laughter with our emotions, pray that Jesus will fill our souls with love, and trust the Holy Spirit to give us the strength and courage for kingdom work.”
Yes! A well-rounded person would be balanced both emotionally and thoughtfully, or rather, “in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and people.” Of course Jesus was able to balance out the emotional and cerebral. I appreciate your recognition that the church movement you’re part of leans towards thinking over feeling, contra Pentecostals. Perhaps the Body of Christ is truly only perfect (complete, whole) with all the parts put together– Reformed, Pentecostal, Catholic, Orthodox, Baptist, etc. etc. And from Asia, Latin America, Europe, Africa, North America. In other words, we need each other to be complete.
Mary, what an excellent post. I was laughing when you said that women are accused of being too emotional because know a lot of men who are emotional. We Pentecostals have never been accused of being too cerebral. 🙂 Thanks for your kind words about Pentecostals. Your closing paragraph is very powerful Mary. I think that Kary makes a good point as well—maybe the many expressions in the Body of Christ do constitute one complete “whole.” Enjoyed your post.
Mary, thank you for bringing this complexity of emotions and reason into the framework of the church. As always, you provide a fantastic summary of the book and manage to zero in on how we can put the thoughts into practice in the church.
It is interesting that, the deeper we get into leadership studies, we see the importance of integrating the whole person into our leadership. Someone who only acts on the ‘gut’ level can be unpredictable and volatile while a leader who represses that gut instinct misses the broader vision. Thank you for showing how this impacts the church.