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An Interview with David DiSalvo

Quite often, what makes us happy and what is actually good for us are directly at odds with each other. What worked for us evolutionarily over the millenia frequently becomes counter-productive in our current world. For example, fat was a scarce and valuable resource when Homo sapiens evolved on the African savannah, but with vending machines, Starbucks Trentas and the KFC Double-Down, what made our bodies happy millions of years ago are now things we should be trying to avoid today.

But if those same issues arise with our bodies, what about our brains? What do we do with our evolutionary cognitive history?

David DiSalvo, who writes about science, technology and culture for Scientific American, Forbes and Psychology Today, has a new book coming out entitled What Makes Your Brain Happy and Why You Should Do the Opposite. I had the opportunity to interview Mr. DiSalvo, exploring questions about the cognitive aspects of religion and atheism, hope and faith, certainty and doubt and the creation of meaning.

1. You recently wrote a piece asking, "Religion vs. Atheism: Which Fights Dirtier?" If we wanted to tone down the anger on both sides, what would help facilitate a more productive discussion?

DD: I think the major thing would be for all of us to realize that we're operating with essentially the same cerebral hardware, with all the foibles and biases contained therein. We often begin difficult discussions about belief (religious or otherwise) as if we are somehow set apart from the biases that plague the other person. In truth, we are all swimming in murky water, and there is nothing flawless or absolute about the iterative process of learning to navigate the waters with more clarity.

GM Response: I think DiSalvo is right -- recognizing that we are all "swimming in the same murky water" allows to focus the question differently. Rather than asking someone, "Why do you believe in God?" or "Why don't you believe in God?" we can ask, "What do I believe? What is leading someone else to believe something different? And what are the consequences of my beliefs?"

My rule of thumb whenever I talk with anyone (believer, atheist or anything in between) is, "Will this be a productive conversation?" I have rarely had productive conversations with people who are totally certain that God has told them what to do, and I have rarely had productive conversations with people who are totally certain that there is no God (and there's a big difference between "being certain there is no God" and "not being certain there is a God"). But I have had many wonderful conversations with people across the spectrum of belief about the question, "How can I create more fulfillment in my life and make a more positive impact on the world?"

So he's right on -- we all need to realize that we are not set apart from the biases others have. Accepting that none of us has absolute truth and that we all see the world through our own imperfect lens is what allows us to engage in fruitful dialogue, rather than vituperative attacks and counter-attacks.


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