We’ll look back and cringe at our conception of humans as fully rational beings.
Krista Tippett is a Peabody-award winning broadcaster and National Humanities Medalist. She founded and leads The On Being Project, a media and public life initiative which includes the On Being public radio show/podcast and the Civil Conversations Project. She is the author of Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living.
We have wanted so fervently, in the post-Enlightenment West, to believe that thinking — and we the thinking creatures, by extension — could be rational and that objectivity was possible. That we could check our messy physicality and emotionality, our subjective beliefs and values, at the doors of our places of work and learning and leading. Politics and economics we elevated as the serious places in our midst where we dealt in numbers that could add up, and facts that could be debated. Reason would always ultimately hold sway.
But by the economic downturn of 2008 — with its spectacular revelations of market machinations and depths of human greed and gullibility — it became impossible to sustain the modern faith that we are rational thinkers and actors in our economic lives. Now politics has become the thinnest of veneers over our enduring messiness; every geopolitical rift of this early century hinges on a dividing line through human hearts and well-being.
Science in our time, just in time, is coming full circle to explain that thinking and feeling are all wrapped up with each other in every nanosecond. Ideas and emotions lodge in our bodies as much as our minds. Our brains themselves are a conglomeration of animal instinct and higher discernment. And this boundary between what is personal and civilizational becomes more porous when human beings feel the ground beneath their feet — and their children’s futures — shaking.
Meanwhile, the science of implicit bias is helping us understand why W.E.B Dubois’s “color line” is still alive despite all the laws we changed and all the progress we made; it was in our heads all along. The new frontier in economics is behavioral psychology: the study of why we contradict ourselves and confound others. And the gut biome is, in new medical parlance, a “second brain.” This new frontier itself may unsettle everything we always believed about the meaning of the phrase “to think.”
The great frontier of this century is to finally reckon with the hazard and the bounty of what it means to be human. That is to say, as we are on the cusp of creating artificial intelligence, to mine the intelligence we already possess, the embodied consciousness that is already ours to work with. To build a better politics, a more humane and sustainable economy, and while we’re at it better schools and prisons and health care, we have to design with sophisticated emotional intelligence and social technologies.
We can stop childishly trusting that markets or social media platforms or political processes that favor the loud and unthinking will somehow become more thoughtful if we criticize them enough, and stop wasting so much valuable energy being surprised anew, every single morning, when they don’t.
How embarrassing to have seen this all so partially, while taking ourselves so seriously, for so long. Yet how astonishing to be the human generation with tools to claim the fullness of what it means to be embodied and whole for the first time with consciousness.