Folk Wisdom

By John Lussier

Yesterday I picked up some Chinese food from a place across the street from where I live, and on my way back I ate my fortune cookie (but not the fortune— that only happened the one time, and I noticed it pretty quickly). I never wait to eat my fortune cookie. First, because I actually like how they taste; but second because, hello, a little golden nugget of “Well that is a little cheesy but exciting” lies inside. (Not to mention the giggles that come from the various tags we add to the end of our fortunes.)  Sometimes fortune cookies contain some folksy wisdom or wit. Those are the worst. I can’t giggle at those. This was one of those:

          If the brain were so simple we could understand                 it, we would be so simple we couldn’t.

I might be simple myself, because I had to read that a couple of times to get it. Despite some verbal density though, I think there is something there. Brains (and really beyond those, people) have an ineffable quality about them.

We are more than we appear.

If people were so easy to understand, I doubt we’d really think about them as much as we do. The time, energy, and money spent on psychological and sociological research would be more wisely spent elsewhere. But we’re complex beings. The research is worth it. Coming to understand the deep complexity of human beings is probably one of the most worthwhile vocations we can have.

That said, we need to place the science of the brain, human behavior, and morality in right order.

The human sciences can speak to reality, but they can’t say everything. There’s something immeasurable and untestable about people. We won’t ever fully understand the brain. Jonathan Haidt, in his book The Righteous Mind can boil religion down to a matter of binding group belonging, and morality down to natural selection for cooperative societies at multiple levels. But is that all they are? And if we’ve arrived on those subjects, do we need to stay there, or can we move on?

If morality and religion are all about creating cooperative and successful societies so that our genes are maximally passed on to the next generation, then we don’t need morality or religion per se.  We would just need good policy to keep us in line, and good science to inform that policy.

Thinking we have this whole morality and religion thing in the bag, we can go on to bigger and better things.

But is that truly what's going on?

[Photo Credit: "Fortune Cookies 2" by KSayer1]


[The above is part of a series on sociobiology, evolutionary psychology, and the nature of the mind by Master of Divinity student, John Lussier.  In this series he will be asking some pretty big questions: How might biology inform our sense of the moral? Where do emotions and reason come in? Who are we and what were we made for?  Definitive answers are often hard to come by, but sometimes becoming informed is just as much about learning to ask the right questions.  We hope you will come alongside him--and us--on this intellectual journey! ]