How Do You Know What You Think You Know?

“Minari” actress Youn Yuh-jung stunned me by saying in a radio interview, “Self-sacrifice is human nature.”  What a refreshing improvement over a typical US person-on-the-street opinion, “We’ll always have war because violence and selfishness are human nature.”

As a professional social scientist, I maintain that you can’t find any legitimate study that claims it shows that anything is “human nature.” Social scientific studies can tell you what people do and what they report about their thoughts and feelings, but cannot point to any specific nature among all humans.

When my first child was born, elders told me that if I picked her up when she cried I’d “spoil” her, a notion so absurd it’s amazing anyone would say it out loud. How can babies be born selfish and manipulative?

This train of thought led me to wonder about the dogma of original sin. I followed the trail to Augustine of Hippo (d. 430 CE) who wrote something in his Confessions XII:29 that became adopted as church doctrine at the Councils of Trent in the 16th century.

While sitting with his friend Alypius on a bench, Augustine was reading the Bible and meditating about his two “opposing natures.” It seems as he was trying to read scripture and focus on obedience to God, he kept thinking about his former mistresses who still “enthralled” him. He decided God was angry with him and tormenting him which upset him so much that he went to sit under a fig tree to cry and pray. As he was meditating, he heard nearby children playing a game and chanting, “Pick it up, read it! Pick it up, read it!” which Augustine took as a sign meant specifically for him. (Sidebar: let’s acknowledge that some people are heavily medicated for thinking that radio messages, for instance, are meant specifically for them.) Augustine went back to the bench and picked up the Bible where he’d left off and read a verse that he interpreted to mean that if he did something bad, it wasn’t he himself who did it but the “sin” that lived in him like a tumor. And the reason he and everyone else had this metaphorical tumor was something he’d heard about it being the fault of Adam thousands of years before.

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

We’re all born with capacities to grow either way: selfish and self-absorbed or self-sacrificing. But human communities – that is, cultures— adopt stories and myths about who they are, that are often proposed and circulated by their leadership. So at birth we’re plunged into a sea of collective consciousness that tells us our shared values as well as tells us what’s real. We all pass along our shared mythology through the generations without wondering how and why they originated.

This “inherited knowledge” affects the worlds we construct in every way imaginable. Maybe we should try to see with our own eyes. And maybe then we’ll construct better worlds.

Have you read SYLVIE DENIED yet? I invite you to grab your copy, and please leave an honest review when you do.