The Virtue Blog

Blog for the Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life project

Scholarship of Self-Transcendence

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Allegorical Tapestry with Sages of the Past, The Cloisters Collection, 2014, CCO, 1.0.

This article originally appeared in Tableau, the Division of the Humanities at the University of Chicago’s quarterly publication, as Scholarship of Self-Transcendence: Candace Vogler leads a search for the meaning of life by Courtney C. W. Guerra.

 

Candace Vogler, the David B. and Clara E. Stern Professor in Philosophy, is invested in her fellow human beings, and she’s determined to help them—us—find fulfillment. To tackle such a complex issue, she proposed the collaborative research project Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life, the aims of which are every bit as ambitious as its name implies. With major support from the John Templeton Foundation, this multiyear initiative—jointly led by Jennifer A. Frey, a philosopher at the University of South Carolina—explores self-transcendence: a feeling of connection to something beyond the individual self.

 

Of course, there’s no single way for human beings to attain self-transcendence: it can happen through spiritual practice, professional drive, familial bonds, or any number of commitments to a higher cause. Vogler’s group includes psychologists, philosophers, and religious thinkers from a variety of traditions. Many are UChicago colleagues: assistant professor Marc G. Berman and professor Howard C. Nusbaum in Psychology, associate professor Tahera Qutbuddin in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, and, in Philosophy, assistant professor Matthias Haase and Josef Stern, the William H. Colvin Professor Emeritus. The 30-scholar cohort represents institutions throughout the United States, Middle East, and Europe; they have been meeting and teaching since October 2015.

 

When she devised the project, Vogler says, “The ambition was to get a kind of deep integration between people working in very different disciplines” without relegating their work to the margins of less widely read, explicitly interdisciplinary publications. And it worked: the participants are “doing disciplinary work, they’re publishing in the disciplinary journals, and the inspiration for it is coming out of the frame of the project.”

 

These discussions have informed 10 published or forthcoming articles—a figure that “pretty dramatically exceeded” her initial expectations—with many more on the way. One essay that encapsulates the spirit of the project is being developed by Notre Dame theologian Jean Porter, about studies by Cornell University psychologist Katherine Kinzler on early childhood food preferences. Porter finds parallels between contemporary psychology and the views of Catholic philosopher Thomas Aquinas on the influence of group identity on what children choose to eat. (A draft is available on the Virtue Blog, along with other writings and filmed lectures.) This video helps to introduce and contextualize the group’s scholarship.

 

Like Porter’s essay, much of the project is “built on things that ought to be super interesting to people who are not academics,” says Vogler. She hopes a broad audience will attend the culminating conference at UChicago over the weekend of October 14–15. From there, Vogler plans to share her team’s findings with educators—from early childhood through MBA programs and beyond—to help promote self-transcendence at every stage of development. “There’s a big difference,” she points out, “between leading a life that’s super busy and leading a life that’s full.” Her hope is that the group’s work, as it reverberates out into the broader world, will help people achieve the latter.

Can cognitive effort be measured?

Elegant . Mixed media

My central research question for our December 2016 Working Group Meeting is, Can cognitive effort be measured?

There is growing evidence that fluctuations in brain activity may exhibit scale-free (“fractal”) dynamics. Scale-free signals follow a spectral-power curve of the form P(f ) ∝ f−β, where spectral power decreases in a power-law fashion with increasing frequency. In this study, we demonstrated that fractal scaling of BOLD fMRI signal is consistently suppressed for different sources of cognitive effort. Decreases in the Hurst exponent (H), which quantifies scale-free signal, was related to three different sources of cognitive effort/task engagement: 1) task difficulty, 2) task novelty, and 3) aging effects.

These results were consistently observed across multiple datasets and task paradigms. We also demonstrated that estimates of H are robust across a range of time-window sizes. H was also compared to alternative metrics of BOLD variability (SDBOLD) and global connectivity (Gconn), with effort-related decreases in H producing similar decreases in SDBOLD and Gconn.

These results indicate a potential global brain phenomenon that unites research from different fields and indicates that fractal scaling may be a highly sensitive metric for indexing cognitive effort/task engagement.


Marc G. Berman is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology and is involved in the Cognition, Social and Integrative Neuroscience programs, and a Scholar with Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life.

Questions our scholars are asking – part 1 of 2

We’ve distilled our Scholars’ research for this semester into respective questions; tomorrow we’ll post eight more. And in forthcoming posts, we’ll feature in-depth look at each. For now, we thought our readers would enjoy pondering each question. Together, they can read as a kind of meditation on the inter-relatedness of virtue, happiness, and deep meaning in life.

Herbst Wald Panorama im goldenen Sonnenschein
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Can cognitive effort be measured?

~Marc Berman, University of Chicago

 

What good are the humanities?

~ Talbot Brewer, University of Virginia

 

What work does anger do across moralities?

What work ought anger to do in a particular morality?

~ Owen Flanagan, Duke University

 

How can Thomistic notions of of Temperance enlarge and enrich our understanding of that virtue?

~ Jennifer Frey, University of South Carolina

 

What is the role of friendship in human flourishing?

~Michael Gorman, The Catholic University of America

 

Given my circumstances, can I do what befits a human being? 

~Matthias Haase, University of Chicago

 

Can we achieve happiness without an understanding of the ultimate finality of the human soul?

~Reinhard Huetter, Duke Divinity School

 

Can human character experience sudden moral change?

~Angela Knobel, The Catholic University of America

 

How is Aristotle’s meta-virtue of megalopsychia, or magnanimity, useful to us today?

Can immoral people undergo sudden moral conversions?

~Kristján Kristjánsson, Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, University of Birmingham

Days 1-2 Working Group Meeting in Chicago – photos

Our 2nd working group meeting of scholars met June 6-10, 2016 at the University of Chicago in the beautiful Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society. Although the sessions were closed, you can read our scholars’ abstracts for their June Meeting Topics here and see more photos up in our Flickr album for the week.