Who Are We?
In the book “The Social Animal, The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement,” New York Times columnist David Brooks introduces us to the world of brain research and behavioral science through a literary style that is a marriage between fiction and reporting (anyone who enjoyed this book must watch Brain Games in Netflix).
What is his driving motivation to write this book? After years of political coverage, Brooks has observed a diversity of foreign and domestic policies in American government that have failed to produce the desired stability in foreign nations or improve the educational system in the U.S. What is the core problem? Brooks argues that the problem is that these strategies are based on a deficient understanding of human nature.
Our traditional view of human nature has been shaped by the French Enlightenment, which emphasizes pure reason over emotions. In this view, rational abilities are depicted as superior and divorced from emotions. However, advancements in neuroscience reveal that the relationship between emotions and reason is rather intricate. The many experiments in cognitive science mentioned in the book reveal three core principles that shape our new understanding of humanity. First, even though we rely on our conscious mind, the vast majority of the brain activity that affects our decisions happens at the unconscious level. Secondly, emotions are central to rational abilities, providing a framework of how we think and how we make evaluations. Third, we are not self-contained individuals; rather, we are highly interconnected with one another through our mind processes.
Therefore, Brooks argues that if we are to live fulfilling lives and produce policies that actually work, we need to base our strategies on a better understanding of humanity that is shaped by the insights from neuroscientists. This understanding points to five valuable traits that we must pursue: Emotional connection (mind sight), epistemological modesty (equipoise), environmental perception (metis), relational perception (sympathy), and self-control (character). Building a lifestyle or creating social policies within this framework will lead to fulfilling results because they are built upon a more accurate understanding of the human mind. Brooks concludes, “The research being done today reminds us of the relative importance of emotion over pure reason, social connections over individual choice, character over IQ, emergent, organic systems over linear, mechanistic ones, and the idea that we have multiples selves over the idea that we have a single self. If you want to put the philosophic implications in simple terms, the French Enlightenment which emphasized reason, loses; the British Enlightenment, which emphasized sentiments, wins.”
I enjoyed the book in many levels. It reminded me of Empower to Connect, a parenting philosophy based on brain development founded by Dr. Karyn Purvis. Brooks succeeds in reminding us that our brains are complex and that good discernment is a combination of what Manfred Kets De Vries calls analytical, emotional, and social intelligence. He also gives us a sobering call to exercise intellectual humility, realizing that our human perception is not as objective as we may believe. However, Brooks approaches his research with the assumptions of a Darwinian worldview, which results in a shallow portrait of human nature.
Brook asks, “Who are we? …We are junctions where millions of sensations, emotions, and signals interpenetrate every second. We are communication centers, and through some process we are not close to understanding, we have the ability to partially govern this traffic.” Reducing humanity to a series of bio-chemical processes borders into genetic determinism. He also seems to consider mind and brain synonymous, ignoring the many studies of brain research conducted by Dr. Bruce Greyson which indicate that mind activity continues even after brain death.
Even though the book is insightful in many ways, there is an underlying fallacy that runs throughout the pages. The author confuses who with how. Attempting to define who we are is not the same as asking how we function. Ontology is a branch of philosophy and theology—not science. Giving science the final word in ontological issues inevitably leads to Darwinian ethics, which presents a problem that Brooks does not address. For instance, the author recognizes that emphasizing skills over character leads to failed results. Yet, if we are only a highway of bio-chemical processes as he suggests, what is the objective foundation that defines good character from lack of character? Dr. John Lennox identifies the deficient relationship between science and ethics and poignantly asks, “If there is no non-material, non-genetic, element or force within us, what is there in us that could possibly have the capacity to rebel against our genes and behave morally?”
I find it ironic that the life guiding principles that Brooks discovered in science were already given in theology. Christian theology tells us that humans were designed to be social beings. We know that godliness is more important than material possessions, that humility is a divine virtue we should embody, and that koinonia is an essential ingredient of a healthy life. The difference is that theology answers Brooks’ ontological question with God at the center. We are beings created in the image of God, and loving Him is the beginning of wisdom.
Despite disagreeing with his apparent Reductionist-Darwinian view of human nature, Brooks reminds me that a thriving life is characterized by emotional health. “The key to a well-lived life is to have trained the emotions to send the right signals and to be sensitive to their subtle calls.” However, this level of emotional health is fragile and requires disciplined pursuit.
According to Brooks, the discerning abilities of a healthy emotional mind can be damaged by brain injuries. In the same vain of thought, Dr. Friedman reveals something even more astonishing, “Every single skewing of perception, reasoning, discernment, decisions, judgments, and thought processes observed in physically brain-damaged people who otherwise seem to have their intellects intact can also be the result of chronic anxiety.” In addition, in the book The Road Back To You, Ian Cron describes nine types of personalities and the distorted emotional processes that can enslave them. All of these authors value emotional health but warn us of the struggle to achieve it.
Despite the difficulty of achieving emotional health, the good news is that emotional maturity is attainable. Ian Cron says, “All of us bring some amount of brokenness to our connections with others, but you should understand that every single number on the enneagram is capable of healthy and life-giving relationships.”
From the Christian perspective, in order to have trained emotions as Brooks says, we must align our worldview with God’s view. We must love him with our minds and hearts, with our intellect and emotions. When we embrace our identity in Christ and live accordingly, we begin to experience a healthy emotional life—one that never ceases to be broken but also never ceases to be in the hands of the One who heals the brokenhearted. This is the place where the distorting effects of anxiety are replaced with God’s peace and the discerning abilities of our rational mind are guarded in Christ Jesus. These are, after all, the revealed sources of love, character, and achievement that remained hidden to Brooks.
 The Social Animal, 10.
 Ibid, 15.
 Gunning For God, 111.
 Brooks, 44.
 A Failure of Nerve, Loc 2225.
 The Road Back to You, Loc 438.
14 responses to “Who Are We?”
Leave a Reply
You must be logged in to post a comment.
Happy New Year Pablo!
I enjoyed reading your thoughts once again. Thank you. I like how you wrote that it is ironic that theology already had so many scientific answers. My concern is though when we use our scientific pursuits to force answers to everything. Once thing I am learning recently is how so much of Christianity is a mystery and will always be. Could it be part of God’s plan and grace to remain mysterious? I think so. Mystery should have a place in theology, but that stresses out the scientific minded person. I like how Brooks seems to make a general case that so many invisible “scouts” are at work in our lives and behaviors.
Aaron, Happy new year! How did you do with your sugar-free diet in 2016?
I agree with you about how much of reality, both physical and spiritual remains a mystery. That reminds me of Deut. 29:29, “The Lord our God has secrets known to no one. We are not accountable for them, but we and our children are accountable forever for all that he has revealed to us, so that we may obey all the terms of these instructions.” (NLT) That’s why it is good to exercise theological humility.
I enjoy the study of science (especially neuroscience), because it is a great complement to theology. The problem I see is when we develop convictions that digest theology without science or science without theology. As Deuteronomy said, we are accountable for the revealed not for the hidden. May we learn that balance as we continue to engage with different ideas in our doctoral studies.
Happy New Year and thanks for such a powerful, enlightening, and God-inspired post.
You stated that you see a problem when we “develop convictions that digest theology without science or science without theology.” I understood that it is imperative that our scientific conceptions cohere with our theology, but I never realized before that the converse is also true. If one is devoid of the other, our conceptualizations are skewed and lack objectivity.
I like the way you integrated Brooks’ thinking on the complexity of the brain and good discernment with Manfred Kets de Vries’ analytical, emotional, and social intelligence constructs. I thought to include him in this post but I have some issues with some of his thinking and the trends neuroscience in general is taking. I believe neuroscience operates under the same fallacy you noted in Brooks. There is some confusion with “who we are” vs. “how we function.” You nailed it when you stated, “Theology answers Brooks’ ontological question with God at the center. We are beings created in the image of God, and loving Him is the beginning of wisdom.” You indicated the true sources of love, character, and achievement are not hidden as Brooks supposes, but rather revealed in the Bible.
Happy new year, Claire! As we interact with many authors who do not write with a Christian worldview, it becomes more obvious how Christian theology gives us a deeper view of life that is congruent with reality. Perhaps that’s why I think of the marriage between Theology and science as a two-way street. Science without theology can lead to dangerous places; especially when it comes to moral issues. On the other hand, Theology without science can also lead to error. Historically, we have seen how Christians used to believe that the world was flat or held to a geocentric view of the universe. Now we look back throughout the years and can appreciate how science has helped us have a more refined biblical perspective. That’s why it is important to exercise theological humility while holding tight to non-negotiable biblical convictions. Thank you for your encouraging words about my post.
WOW! I think this is your best blog yet! I really was blown away with your difference and variance of Brook’s confusion of who we are and how we function. Connecting that ideology to Darwinian thought was incredibly insightful for me, because I believe that nuances such as that is what can cause us as a people to to be led away from the truth that we hold dear. Great insight!
Thank you, Aaron! In light of the current advances in brain research, several of our convictions are being brought into question. That’s why I feel like we need to pay close attention to the details in the arguments and in the emerging “theories.” Fake truth can look pretty much like the real thing! Thus, as church leaders we must be careful in thinking through these issues. I’m glad you found this blog insightful.
Your writing is do in depth. I wrote the junior high version and you brought the doctoral level writing to what I was trying to express. The dismissal of the spiritual side of life leaves such a gaping hole in who we are as humans that it keeps leading me back to your same questions.
The Darwinian thought process leads there to being an emptiness that can’t be fulfilled but always pursued.
Thanks for making all of these connections of other authors and their thinking into a very clear picture of where peace comes from.
Kevin, I read your blog earlier and I enjoyed your tone. That’s why it is a good exercise to read the book and then read all of our reflections, because each one of us brings a new flavor to this academic feast. Particularly for me, it is not easy to write about some of these topics. It takes me a while to think through it and write in a way that makes sense to me. So I appreciate your encouraging words!
Great insight into a great book. I too enjoyed the systematic and scientific approach that Brooks uses in the midst of the narrative of Harold and Erica.
You mentioned Ian Cron. Have you had much interaction with enneagrams? My middle daughter and son-n-law interact with them and have been featured on his show. How do you see Cron’s spin on enneagrams and Brooks view relating?
I enjoyed the book as well, but I could have done without the fiction part. I guess I am more interested in the facts. However, I appreciate that the author took a creative risk. I know that some readers connected more with the narrative than with the dull facts. It is interesting to realize how the way we are “wired” affects us so differently in how we digest information.
I see Brooks and Cron intersect in the realm of emotional health. Brook points out the importance of managing our emotions. Cron helps us grow in self awareness and gives us some concrete steps to achieve emotional health. This year I asked all of my staff to do the enneagram test and gave them a copy of the book. So far it has been very insightful even for our marriages too. I’m glad that we learned about it through our DMin.
I was just introduced to the enneagram this past semester, so I am still new to Cron’s work and website. What’s your daughter and son in-law’s name? I would love to listen to their interview. Maybe you can send me the link.
You wrote, “Christian theology tells us that humans were designed to be social beings…We are beings created in the image of God, and loving Him is the beginning of wisdom.”
What do you think of the idea that God, in whose image we are created, eternally exists as a society within the Godhead? Can you offer a brief thought on this?
I know that there is a lot of mystery surrounding the Trinitarian relationship and there is much theorizing we have to do. Yet, we know through the teaching of Jesus that the Trinitarian relationship is very social. There is dialogue, teamwork, hierarchy, unity, and love. I know that in Oxford we were introduced to a critique of the Social Trinity, yet even if we have to theorize of how the Godhead operates internally, we cannot ignore the descriptive passages in the New Testament that point to the social nature of the Godhead. What is interesting is that humans were not only created in God’s image, but God says explicitly that “it is not good for man to be alone.” God made us with the need for belonging in relationship–both vertically and horizontally. Thus, there seems to be a direct connection between the social nature of the Godhead and the social needs that we humans have.
What are your thoughts about this?
Pablo – Yes, I agree to all you have said. I know some theologians reject social trinity, but it makes sense to me.
Also, created in the social-image of God gives meaning (and necessity) to the unity taught in Psalm 133 and John 17. Jesus said that our unity witnesses to the truth of Jesus. I believe that is because our social and spiritual unity demonstrates the nature of God in social unity.