Conscious vs. Unconscious

This is a post in my project series, tentatively titled "Overlapping Magisteria" - which is a project to bring together old spiritual wisdom about how to live as human beings, with current scientific understandings.

On July 18th, an unarmed black man who was a caretaker for an autistic patient was shot while he was lying down, with his hands up. The officer who shot him, when asked why, said "I don't know." And the truth is, likely, he actually had no idea.

The main narrative of the simple, proven fact that being black means you are more likely to be shot by police than if you're white, is that there there is conscious bias in the police force towards people who are black. I don't doubt that this is the case - it clearly plays out in higher rates of traffic stops, for example. But what's also important is a different narrative - that biases that we cannot consciously control play a large role in these incidents, and in the ways police interact with people of color.

I'm going to take a little detour, then circle back, I promise.

In many spiritual traditions, there are three important ingredients to live a life that is holy. I'm using holy as a catch all. If you were a Buddhist, you'd say something like "free of suffering." If you were a Christian, you might say, "right with God." Whatever the optimal life a faith tradition imagines, fit that into the "holy" word.  Those three ingredients are: ethical behavior, spiritual practice, and a belief structure that holds it together. For some traditions (like Buddhism) that belief structure is less important than for others.

I want to focus on the first two: ethical behavior and spiritual practice. They are very different, of course. Each tradition has an ethical framework (which are, unsurprisingly, astonishingly similar.) You know the drill, do unto others, etc. And of course, the spiritual practices differ, but in the main, they are designed to quiet the mind and connect with the Divine, however one conceptualizes it. And these two, although quite different, are actually inseparable, because it is the spiritual practice that makes it possible for us to follow the ethical framework. And why is this so? Science knows the answer.

As I've outlined before, and again (and will again and again, I'm sure,) our brains are amazingly designed to keep us alive. A good chunk of it spends pretty much all of it's time figuring out whether or not we're safe. It does it without our conscious control. It's quite good at it, I mean, really, really good at it. So good at it, that we actually need help not to use that part of our brains. And the spiritual practices are one form of that help.

So back to the shooting, and the officer who didn't know why he shot the man lying on the ground: there is some very interesting work going on about the neuroscience of prejudice. Basically, our brains, because they are hard wired to figure out what's safe and what's not, makes super-fast (faster than we can consciously control) decisions about who is "us" and who is "them" - labeling "them" as dangerous. Add a gun, and you get the picture.

So who is responsible then? Is the officer off the hook because his Amygdala shot the man on the ground, not his conscious brain? No. But he is not solely to blame. My point is that we cannot really find the right solution to this problem without addressing the full spectrum of the causes, and one of them is unconscious bias. If police are going to continue being armed, without some sort of mindfulness training (and some anti-racism training, too, so that they understand how unconscious bias works,) unconscious bias + gun = more black people dying.

Of course, disarming them would be even better.