The Universe, Loss Aversion, and Sin

I finished the book Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahnman several months ago. It’s a fascinating read about the ways in which the mind actually works, as opposed to the ways we think it works. It’s a long slog…. took me the better half of a year to finish, but well worth it. One of the big points I took away is that there is a part of the mind, called the amygdala which controls our gut responses, our intuitions.

For early humankind (if you think there’s some truth to evolution), it was the part of the brain that told its owner the dangers of walking though a forest at night because a tiger might leap out and attack. It’s also the part of the brain that attempts to distinguish between friend or foe. It needs to act quickly, because if it didn’t, our ancestors would be tiger breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Essentially, the amygdala takes outside stimuli, sorts them and classifies them as “good for my health and well-being” or “bad for my health and well-being” all before the conscious mind can get around to processing the data. Eventually, more brains developed (again, according to evolutionary theory, and again again, if you believe that). These new brain parts (I know, very scientific) were much more rational and able to seriously evaluate stimuli and make logical conclusions.

Oftentimes, the amygdala automatically operates and assumes the worst of certain stimuli. The amygdala is responsible for a thing Kahnman calls Loss Aversion, which basically says in situations where humans have an option to obtain or lose value (i.e., pretty much every decision made in a day), we will typically overvalue a loss which has an equal magnitude of a gain, and often we will respond in ways to avoid loss at unreasonable costs. See the graph below, and feel free to read more about it. I would recommend Kahnman’s book, as he obviously explains it much more appropriately and reasonably than my few paragraphs here.

By Laurenrosenberger – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=67117183


Now I’m no scientist. I am only a somewhat biased free-thinker, so stick with me as I try to draw out a conclusion I reached in regards to loss aversion, humanity, and Richard Rohr’s ideas about forces behind the universe.

Have you ever wondered whether there was a force behind the universe? Something that guides it along its wild and wandering path? Martin Luther King, Jr., would say something like: “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” He would tend to think there is some good force behind the universe. All this to say, I am not the first to break ground on this age-old question. Is the force behind the universe for us, against us, or simply indifferent?

I mean, growing up as I did in the good ‘ole Bible Belt, I can already feel the gentle scoffing…. “Duh, Jesus and God and stuff – the Holy Spirit??? The trinity. Come on man, why even bother with such an obvious question? That’s the force behind the universe.”

Well, sometimes I don’t think there is such a force. And sometimes, I definitely think there is such a force. Often, I am caught in between those two extremes, between wind-whipped peaks and snow-laden valleys, just trudging along, up or down, catching my breath more often than not.

This “force” whether it’s the God of the Bible, mathematical laws as Einstein thought, or an all-permeating being seems, to me, to exist. Most often I doubt it exists when I feel it is not for me, when I feel as if the universe itself is trying to see me fail in the face of its own absurdity.

Could it be that early humans looked out at the universe and in their gut reaction decided that it is a jungle with a tiger waiting to end their lives?Could it be that this perspective was the original “sin” of man, the development of what Kahnman calls loss aversion? That is to say, part of what contributes to the “sins of humanity” is this innate desire to look out for the self, to preserve the self in the face of an indifferent or spiteful universe?

I know am averse to loss, therefore I hoard at the expense of others. I don’t want to lose my life, so I will do whatever it takes to keep it. The idea of losing is so brutal to humanity, we have spent millennia concocting ways to avoid losing. Solomon spent a whole book of the Bible trying to avoid loss by gaining as much as he could.

And could the message of Christianity be that there was one who came specifically to lose everything? To face head on the greatest loss possible to humans – death? Only to show that losing everything for another is actually the way to gain? Could the message of Christianity be, in the words of Fr. Richard Rohr, that “it is finally a benevolent universe that is on our side?” One in which we can trust, rather than throw up automatic amygdala-led defenses?

It seems to me Jesus was on to something way before Kahnman when he said, “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.”

I’d like to think, at the very least, that the Christian message says something along those lines. And if that’s true, then I also think it’s something worth examining. It’s like when you’re trying to find parking at your favorite restaurant when it’s busy. You know that one spot where you normally park probably isn’t open, but for some reason you have an obligation to at least drive by and check to see if it’s open. I think something similar is happening here, at least, for me it is. Because of how the notion of loss aversion seems to oddly resonate with parts of the Bible, I’ve got to look into the whole story.

To those who do not like the idea of evolutionary theory: No matter how one views the origination of the amygdala, it is a scientifically verifiable part of the brain which causes intuitive and automatic responses. Can we at least admit that the amygdala operates automatically and intuitively from a scarcity mindset that tends to keep us closed and safe, rather than an abundance mindset? Or let me say it like this: When my body is dehydrated, I have a headache and am more grouchy and less caring. If I am aware that my body reacts to dehydration accordingly, could the appropriate “spiritual” action be to simply drink some water?

Why does the notion of loss keep us from seizing opportunities? How often have we missed out on abundant life because of loss aversion? Maybe instead of asking “What I will lose if I choose to take an opportunity?” a more appropriate question is, “What will I lose if I do nothing, stay here, and don’t seize the opportunity?”

TL;DR
Humanity’s natural tendency is to operate from a scarcity mindset rather than an abundance mindset, viewing the universe and everything as potential hazards. Could Christianity’s message be that the universe is on our side, and we no longer need to act out of a scarcity mindset? What might change if we viewed life from a place of abundance rather than loss?

The featured image is Henri Rousseau’s Tiger in a Tropical Storm. I love the surreal moment captured in the midst of the storm, where the tiger lurking in the brush is about to pounce on its prey.

Henri Rousseau’s Tiger in a Tropical Storm

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