Dr. Mohammed Basha of Gainesville, Florida tells the story of a patient of his. He remembers walking through the parking lot and says, “all I could think about was the dire diagnosis I had handed my patient Jimmy: pancreatic cancer.” Just then, he noticed an elderly gentleman handing tools to someone working under his stalled car. That someone was Jimmy. So, he called out to him, “Jimmy, what are you doing?”
Jimmy dusted off his pants. “My cancer didn’t tell me not to help others, Doc,” he said, before waving at the old man to start the car. The engine roared to life. The old man thanked Jimmy and drove off. Then Jimmy got into his car and took off as well.
According to some psychologists, there is no such thing as “pure” altruism. According to them, when we help strangers, like Jimmy did, there is always be some benefit to us, even if we’re not aware of it. Things like making us feel good about ourselves, making other people respect us more, or it might (as some believe believe) increase our chances of getting into heaven. Or perhaps, they say, altruism is an investment strategy – we do good deeds to others in the hope that they will return the favor at some point. And, according to evolutionary psychologists, altruism could even be a way of demonstrating our resources, showing how wealthy or able we are, so that we seem more attractive to possible mates.
Another possible reason for altruism comes from evolutionary psychologists who have said that altruism towards strangers might just be… well, a mistake. Basically they think it could be what they call a “leftover” trait from when human beings lived in small groups with people that we were genetically closely related to. Quite naturally, those humans had an instinct to help the other members of their group, because their own survival depended on the safety of the group as a whole.
Evolutionary psychologists would say that while it is true that we don’t live in small tribes anymore, out of habit we sometimes behave as if we are, helping the people around us as if they are part of our tribe. I think this is actually a more promising theory than it might seem at first blush, so we’ll be coming back to this.
The question of why human beings help strangers and are sometimes even prepared to risk their own lives to save others has puzzled philosophers and scientists for centuries. After all, from an evolutionary point of view, altruism doesn’t seem to make any sense. I mean, from an evolutionary point of view, we shouldn’t be the least bit interested in sacrificing ourselves for others, or even in helping others (you know, “survival of the fittest” and all).
I’m not sure that this is ultimately an either or question. The truth is some acts of kindness may be a bit motivated by self-interest. But, that doesn’t necessarily mean that “pure” altruism doesn’t exist. There are plenty of stories about people who just react to help or save someone – no time for thought of the benefits or detriments of doing so – at the very moment when the act takes place their only motivation is an impulsive, unselfish desire make things better.
Each of us actually practice some forms of altruism on a more regular basis than we might imagine. The times you swerve your car to miss a squirrel, or take a sidestep in order to not step on a bug, or tidying up the table at a restaurant after a meal. The list could go on and on. These are things that won’t give you any special advantage (in the case of the car it’s actually a little dangerous), but you do them anyway.
I believe that’s because of empathy – empathy is ultimately at the root of all pure altruism. Frequently, empathy is defined as a cognitive ability to see the world through another person’s eyes, but it seems to me that empathy is actually much more than that.
In some ways, the capacity for empathy shows that all living beings—are interconnected. At some deep level, we are expressions of the same consciousness. Or as Carl Sagan reminds us, we are all made of the same star stuff. Or as Hildegard put it, “Everything that is in the heavens, on earth, and under the earth is penetrated with connectedness, penetrated with relatedness.”
Perhaps a quote that is more more insightful and helpful for this consideration comes from Echart Tolle who said, “Ultimately, there is no such thing as ‘my consciousness,’ but just the one consciousness and to sense your connectedness with the one – to sense that connectedness with the one consciousness that pervades the universe, which in some traditions is called God, to sense that frees you of fear, from anxiety, and takes you to a very deep place of peace, but also of heightened aliveness.”
As some philosophers of consciousness have hypothesized, it may be that rather than producing consciousness, the function of the brain is to “receive” or “channel” a consciousness which exists outside the brain, and which in fact permeates the whole universe. Consciousness may be a fundamental force of the universe, like gravity. In fact, several prominent scientists have recently suggested that the Universe itself is indeed conscious.
Add to that recent discoveries about quantum entanglement which suggest when two atoms come into contact with each other, they create an “unconditional bond” with each other. And, as far as science can tell at this point, no amount of time or space can put an end to that bond. They are permanently entangled as it were. These atoms can influence and communicate with each other without regard to time or space – the influence is instantaneous.
Working of this reality, Senior scientist at Princeton University, Dr. Roger Nelson began a 14-year long study and organization called The Global Consciousness Project (GCP). The GCP uses electromagnetically-shielded computers (called “eggs”) placed in over 60 countries around the world that generate random numbers. Imagine that each computer (egg) is flipping a coin and trying to guess the outcome. With heads being counted as 1’s and tails as 0’s. Each time they guess correctly, they consider it a “hit”. The computers do this 100 times every second.
Based on probability, you would imagine that with enough attempts, the computers would break even at 50/50. And up until the events of 9/11, that’s what was happened.
But here’s where it gets a bit… well, spooky. After 9/11 occurred, the numbers that were once behaving randomly, started working more in unison. All of a sudden the 1’s and 0’s were coinciding and working in sync much more consistently than they should have. In fact, the GCP’s results were so far above chance it’s actually kind of shocking.
Over the 426 predetermined events measured in the entirety of the project, the recorded probability of a hit were greater than 1 in 2, far more than probability could explain. As a matter of fact, their hits were measuring in at an overall probability of 1 in a million.
So, what this suggests to those in psychological and philosophical fields, is that what we once thought was just a figment of our imagination is much more real than we could’ve ever imagined. When you become close to someone, emotionally become attached to someone, something occurs. It would seem that our atoms, the building blocks of your presence in the universe, become entangled.
Let’s go back to the theory from evolutionary psychologists who have suggested that altruism towards strangers might just be a mistake, a “leftover” trait from when human beings lived in small groups with people we were genetically closely related to.
If we are all made of the same star stuff and if our interactions with others create entanglements that know no limits of time or space and can directly and immediately impact each other, perhaps the “leftover” trait of which evolutionary psychologist speak, is not so much a mistake as it is an expansion of what was once a survival skill for people living in small groups – an expansion that now extends to all of humanity and points to the oneness of life, the connectedness of Creation.
It has been argued that it is this fundamental oneness that makes it possible for us to identify with other people, to sense their suffering and respond to it with altruistic acts. To some degree, we can sense their suffering because we are connected to them. And because of this common identity, we feel the urge to alleviate other people’s suffering – and to protect and promote their well-being – just as we would our own. In the words of the 19th century German philosopher Schopenhauer, “My own true inner being actually exists in every living creature, as truly and immediately known as my own consciousness in myself…This is the ground of compassion upon which all true, that is to say unselfish, virtue rests, and whose expression is in every good deed.”
From my perspective, altruism is one of the truest expressions of humanity and spirituality. It is both selfless and fully connected to others all at once. At its core, it recognizes the impact we have on each other – an impact that science is increasingly confirming as real. It not only helps build a better world but it entangles us even further with each other. It encourages others to do acts of altruism and reinforces our own desire to do so. So, it not only recognizes our connectedness but it also further builds that connectedness. It is a cycling action that creates a sort of feedback loop of empathy which draws us even closer together.
I’ll conclude with this thought: altruism and oneness are deeply entangled with one another. They are spiritual partners. They draw us all closer together and in doing so , they draw us all closer to the oneness of Creation – which, from my perspective, is one of the most important goals of spirituality.