To Hold Contradiction in Our Hands Is What Makes Us Unique as Humans

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

"The less it is possible that something can be,
the more it must be.”

I’ve been sitting on this unbelievably gripping, humorous, and intellectually stimulating lecture by Robert Sapolsky for months now. I’m not sure why. My work life whisked me away, but, in watching this video again, it’s too good not to share.

Sapolsky is one of the world’s leading neuroscientists who explores “the biology of neurons” and how stress factors in to our social lives. He’s an incredible storyteller who makes sense of the human species by studying primates, particularly baboons. Using many examples from the wild, he debunks a series of commonly held assumptions that most people believe define human beings as being distinct, as being unique to our species: theory of mind, the Golden Rule, empathy, tit-for-tat, etc.

Despite all the universal behaviors we humans hold in common with other animals, Sapolsky says that humans have one trait that best defines and distinguishes us from other species: the ability to hold two contradictory ideas in our head, and yet continue on in the face of it.

Dr. Robert M. Sapolsky Speaks at StanfordDuring a staff meeting several months ago, I recommended that one of our associate producers do some research on Dr. Sapolsky as a potential interview with Krista. The feedback: Dr. Sapolsky was a good storyteller with great depth of experience, but there was concern that his atheism might be too strident and might not work for our program.

To me, it’s these types of voices that we want to include in our repertoire of shows. He’s a non-believer who embraces the paradox himself. He’s not just against religion or worshiping a deity. He lives an intellectual life that listens to these religious and philosophical voices and internalizes them. He takes them seriously and doesn’t dismiss them.

So, when I’m evaluating future guests, I’m looking for clues, for indicators that strike me as openness to ideas without personally accepting them as doctrine. So, even though Dr. Sapolsky declares himself strident in the lecture above, he makes a Niebuhrian statement like the one that heads the top of this page. And, shortly thereafter, posts a slide with a quotation from Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard:

"Christian faith requires that faith persists in the face of the impossible, and that humans have the capacity to simultaneously believe in two contradictory things."

Sister Helen PrejeanAnd then he immediately cites the mercy-filled work of Sr. Helen Prejean, a Roman Catholic nun, and quotes her:

"The less forgivable the act, the more it must be forgiven. The less loveble the person is, the more you must find the means to love them."

What’s even more delightful is Sapolsky’s own ability and intellectual curiosity to live comfortably and reconcile his own positions and beliefs. He marvels:

"As a strident atheist, this strikes me as the most irrational, magnificent thing we are capable of as a species. … And this one does not come easily. On a certain level, the harder this is, this contradiction, to take the impossibility of something and to be the very proof that it must be possible and must become a moral imperative, the harder it is to do that, the more important it is."

Check back on this blog in the coming days when Nancy makes an interesting connection between Evangelical leader Richard Mouw and self-proclaimed atheist Robert Sapolsky.

In the bottom photo, Sister Helen Prejean participates in a demonstration against the death penalty in Paris, France on July 2, 2007. (photo by Mehdi Fedouach/AFP/Getty Images).

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