Roshi Joan Halifax outlined the direction of the conference and handed it over to the presenters. Dan Batson, of the University of Kansas, opened with a very direct question – Does altruism exist? After speaking about egoism and empathy, he referenced empathy-based experiments and what they might infer. Tania Singer, of the University of Zurich, explained two neural routes to understanding others’ minds – via empathy and compassion and via the “theory of mind,” the conscious thinking of someone else’s mental state. After explaining neural networks and their relation to compassionate thoughts and feelings, she talked of how some people have a deficit in comprehending their own feelings. Studies of meditation have been shown to help this deficiency.
The afternoon session began with Joan Silk of UCLA, who defined altruism biologically, as seen in other species. Research has shown that altruism is common and beneficial in many species. As humans develop during childhood, they trend away from this commonality in other species.
One notable exchange during the conversation with His Holiness went as follows. “Does hostility come from not being connected? For instance, if bees from one colony are mixed with bees from another colony, do they see each other as alien or other?” Joan replied, “There doesn’t seem to be much flexibility in their behaviour, though I do not know much of bees. So the ‘outgroup’ or ‘other’ perspective seems to remain intact.” His Holiness mused, “Does biological altruism require the ability to appreciate others? Mosquitoes, I think, have no appreciation! One may land on me, and I let it feed. But then it flies away and shows no appreciation!”