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Why Mythologies Like Adam and Eve Are Such Good Thinking Tools

Don't settle for comfortable and familiar thoughts, reach for what you don't know, says Harvard professor Stephen Greenblatt.

Stephen Greenblatt: I think the first thing to say about the story of Adam and Eve is it’s one of innumerable origin stories. It happens to be the most celebrated, the most famous and powerful origin story in our culture, central to Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, but it’s only one of many, many origin stories. It seems to be something that our species does; and as far as we know other species don’t do it. I don’t think that chimpanzees ask questions about the origin of chimpanzees, or bottlenose dolphins and sperm whales, but we do ask, “Where did we come from? What were the first ones of our species?” And this appears to be a universal phenomenon in culture, to ask about origins. So this is a crucially significant version of the kind of story that is generated. And we might ask, “Why? Why do we want to know? Why don’t other creatures want to know?”

Well, I think there are a number of different explanations—one is our insatiable curiosity, including something like scientific curiosity. Another is our uneasiness, perhaps, about ourselves and the course of our existence: Why is it so hard? Why do we have to labor? Why do we weeds grow in the fields and we have to clear them out in order to get food from the ground? Why can’t we just get everything we need naturally? Why do women scream in pain when they give birth to offspring—a totally natural event that is part of the replication of the species? Why are men so miserable to women, and why do they put up with it? And, maybe above all, why do we die?
So the story addresses these in an incredibly powerful though difficult way, but in very, very tight compass it addresses those questions and more in a way that human beings appear to want and need, as a way of orienting themselves in the world, as a way of understanding their fate.

The fact that the first humans are in a garden where they’re told that they can eat of any tree that they want—they’re vegetarians—and they can eat of any tree in the garden except for one, which they are prohibited from eating. And it happens that the one tree that they’re prohibited from eating is the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. And it was noticed a very long time ago, say several thousand years ago, that it’s a problem to be prohibited from eating of the tree that will enable you to distinguish between good and evil, since distinguishing between good and evil is presumably what enables you to observe the prohibition in the first place!
So that problem bothered people right away, or at least maybe not right away but at least 2,000 years ago. And then we have various other problems: they’re warned that they will die if they violate the prohibition. He doesn’t explain, unfortunately, what that means, and since there had been—as far as we know—no death in the world up to that point, it must have been rather perplexing. I sometimes think of Adam hearing this for the first time and thinking, “I don’t really know what he means, but next time I talk to him I’ll ask him, what do you mean by "die"?” But in any case we don’t get any explanation given to the first humans as to what it is they’re being told to beware of.

And in fact when they encounter the talking snake, when the woman encounters the talking snake, the talking snake says, “No, you’re not going to die, you’ll become like a god.” He denies that the punishment will be death. And you could say that immediately after the man and woman eat, they don’t die, so they keep going on, and this is a problem that actually puzzles many early commentators: why don’t they die immediately since they were warned that they would die?

It’s a perfect instance of something that I think should puzzle us and interest us: why is it that when we look around or when we look at the polls that are conducted of our own fellow citizens, men and women in the United States, but also more broadly in the world, so many people profess to believe in the literal truth of this literally unbelievable story.
And we could shrug and say it’s religious dogma, we could say it’s stupidity or gullibility, but I’m not inclined to say any of those things. I think that this is an incredibly powerful story. It’s very good to think with. I think it’s extremely naïve to believe that any of us can live without narrative, without stories, without myths. We don’t. Even those people who think that they’re not living with myths—maybe Spock on Star Trek, but people don’t live lives like that. We need ways of orienting ourselves in the world, and this is one of the great instances in the history of our civilization, an instance of a very complex kind, with good sides and bad sides, of people orienting themselves in the world.

I'm not the least bit surprised that millions of people in our world—despite the evidence of genetics, despite the evidence of geology—nonetheless cling to a belief in this story.
When I am reading or looking at an image or a painting or listening to music, I try to make myself as alert as possible to what I don’t get, what seems to me not to be working or to puzzle me or not to make sense. And sometimes it actually just doesn’t make sense; all right we leave it at that.

But actually I think often the thing that seems incomprehensible is the place you want to start digging—not the thing you want to let your eyes slide over and go onto the part that looks super familiar and easy.

So for myself, and since I’m a teacher I encourage my students to be alert to the stuff that doesn’t fit, that looks weird, and to think about why it looks weird and to pay some attention to that. Because our temptation as readers and as lookers, listeners, our temptation is just to seize—like flailing in the ocean—to seize on what we are familiar with already, but then that tends to give you what you already know. I’m interested in what we don’t know.

The story of Adam and Eve and their eviction from paradise is one of the most famous origin stories on Earth, central to Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. But, it's full of holes. Harvard professor Stephen Greenblatt illuminates some of these: for example, how could the first humans, who had no prior concept of death, understand God's ultimatum—eat the forbidden fruit and you will die. And when they did eat the fruit, why didn't they die? The same questions have puzzled scholars for millennia, but it doesn't stop massive numbers of people all over the world believing it in a literal sense. This doesn't strike Greenblatt as stupid, or naive, or even surprising, it only strikes him as human. We have always needed the power of narrative to orient ourselves in the world, and the tale of Adam and Eve is one of the earliest and most powerful examples of good and evil on record. To understand why this story exists is to understand something fundamental about human nature, and to pick at the holes in its logic to think deeply. "Often the thing that seems incomprehensible is the place you want to start digging," he says. Stephen Greenblatt's latest book is The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve.

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A new hydrogel might be strong enough for knee replacements

Duke University researchers might have solved a half-century old problem.

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Predicting PTSD symptoms becomes possible with a new test

An algorithm may allow doctors to assess PTSD candidates for early intervention after traumatic ER visits.

Image source: camillo jimenez/Unsplash
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  • 10-15% of people visiting emergency rooms eventually develop symptoms of long-lasting PTSD.
  • Early treatment is available but there's been no way to tell who needs it.
  • Using clinical data already being collected, machine learning can identify who's at risk.

The psychological scars a traumatic experience can leave behind may have a more profound effect on a person than the original traumatic experience. Long after an acute emergency is resolved, victims of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) continue to suffer its consequences.

In the U.S. some 30 million patients are annually treated in emergency departments (EDs) for a range of traumatic injuries. Add to that urgent admissions to the ED with the onset of COVID-19 symptoms. Health experts predict that some 10 percent to 15 percent of these people will develop long-lasting PTSD within a year of the initial incident. While there are interventions that can help individuals avoid PTSD, there's been no reliable way to identify those most likely to need it.

That may now have changed. A multi-disciplinary team of researchers has developed a method for predicting who is most likely to develop PTSD after a traumatic emergency-room experience. Their study is published in the journal Nature Medicine.

70 data points and machine learning

nurse wrapping patient's arm

Image source: Creators Collective/Unsplash

Study lead author Katharina Schultebraucks of Columbia University's Department Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons says:

"For many trauma patients, the ED visit is often their sole contact with the health care system. The time immediately after a traumatic injury is a critical window for identifying people at risk for PTSD and arranging appropriate follow-up treatment. The earlier we can treat those at risk, the better the likely outcomes."

The new PTSD test uses machine learning and 70 clinical data points plus a clinical stress-level assessment to develop a PTSD score for an individual that identifies their risk of acquiring the condition.

Among the 70 data points are stress hormone levels, inflammatory signals, high blood pressure, and an anxiety-level assessment. Says Schultebraucks, "We selected measures that are routinely collected in the ED and logged in the electronic medical record, plus answers to a few short questions about the psychological stress response. The idea was to create a tool that would be universally available and would add little burden to ED personnel."

Researchers used data from adult trauma survivors in Atlanta, Georgia (377 individuals) and New York City (221 individuals) to test their system.

Of this cohort, 90 percent of those predicted to be at high risk developed long-lasting PTSD symptoms within a year of the initial traumatic event — just 5 percent of people who never developed PTSD symptoms had been erroneously identified as being at risk.

On the other side of the coin, 29 percent of individuals were 'false negatives," tagged by the algorithm as not being at risk of PTSD, but then developing symptoms.

Going forward

person leaning their head on another's shoulder

Image source: Külli Kittus/Unsplash

Schultebraucks looks forward to more testing as the researchers continue to refine their algorithm and to instill confidence in the approach among ED clinicians: "Because previous models for predicting PTSD risk have not been validated in independent samples like our model, they haven't been adopted in clinical practice." She expects that, "Testing and validation of our model in larger samples will be necessary for the algorithm to be ready-to-use in the general population."

"Currently only 7% of level-1 trauma centers routinely screen for PTSD," notes Schultebraucks. "We hope that the algorithm will provide ED clinicians with a rapid, automatic readout that they could use for discharge planning and the prevention of PTSD." She envisions the algorithm being implemented in the future as a feature of electronic medical records.

The researchers also plan to test their algorithm at predicting PTSD in people whose traumatic experiences come in the form of health events such as heart attacks and strokes, as opposed to visits to the emergency department.

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