Thinking With the Wrong Head or, Richard Dawkins on Altruism


As many of you are well aware, the existence of genuine love or altruism is often leveled against the naturalistic worldview as evidence of its implausibility.  But those who buy into such pathetic argumentation simply don’t understand the richness of the Darwinian perspective.   You may be surprised to learn that the New Atheists, especially Richard Dawkins, are actually romantics at heart.  I dare say that the conception of altruism explicated so eloquently in his acclaimed work The God Delusion would move even the hardest of hearts to start composing Shakespearean sonnets! 

Like many great romantics, Dawkins begins his discourse on love with a rousing passage on the ontological foundation of love itself:       
“The most obvious way in which genes ensure their own ‘selfish’ survival relative to other genes is by programming individual organism to be selfish.  There are indeed many circumstances in which survival of the individual organism will favour the survival of the genes that ride inside it.  But different circumstances favour different tactics.  There are circumstances – not particularly rare – in which genes ensure their own selfish survival by influencing organisms to behave altruistically.”
In this stirring piece of prose Dawkins skillfully uncovers the underlying foundations of naturalistic anthropology.  Through it we learn that man is but a passive composition of matter blown and tossed by the mindless and purposeless wind of biology (please note that you should ignore the teleological language he employees; words like “tactics” and the like).  We see that, at its core, altruism is rooted in pre-programmed instincts involuntarily thrust upon us by our “selfish” genes.  From this foundation he weaves a beautiful tapestry of possibilities–sure to make many a fair maiden’s heart pound with passion:     
“We now have four good Darwinian reasons for individuals to be altruistic, generous or ‘moral’ towards each other.  First, there is the special case of genetic kinship.  Second, there is reciprocation:  the repayment of favours given, and the giving of favours in ‘anticipation’ of payback.  Following on from this there is, third, the Darwinian benefit of acquiring a reputation for generosity and kindness.  And fourth . . . there is the particular additional benefit of conspicuous generosity as a way of buying unfakeably authentic advertising.”
In order to fully appreciate the profundity of the kaleidoscope of Darwinian explanations offered here we must pause to consider exactly what kind of love is being presented to us. 

The Four Loves

Classically speaking, there are four kinds of love.  The Greeks distinguished between the different forms of love using four distinct words: agápe, éros, philía, and storgē.  Dawkins’ elaboration on altruism seems to fall within the realm of éros, and storgē–the forms of love that come upon us in waves of emotion entirely outside of our control.  For we undergo these forms of love as mere passive receptors.  They are the product of a diverse range of factors including our environment and, yes, even our biology.  Storgē is quite simply the feeling of affection that we have for our kin—e.g., the “fluttery” warm feeling experienced by a mother holding her child—and éros is the feeling of desire—e.g., a wave of sexual longing, or craving a succulent piece of steak.  While, according to the classical understanding, we can make choices that intentionally direct our lives toward things that engender these types of love, they are ultimately brought on by forces outside of our volition.  Thus, they stand in marked contrast to agápe (self-giving love), and philía (friendship) which are rooted in the will.
 
But Richard Dawkins, in a stroke of poetic genius, turns away from the classical veiw and paints a picture of a world in which true agápe and philía are but an illusion.  For him altruism can only be explained in terms of éros, and storgē: 
         
“What natural selection favours is rules of thumb, which work in practice to promote the genes that built them.  Rules of thumb, by their nature, sometimes misfire.  In a bird’s brain, the rule ‘Look after small squawking things in your nest, and drop food into their red gapes’ typically has the effect of preserving the genes that built the rule, because the squawking, gaping objects in an adult bird’s nest are normally its own offspring  The rule misfires if another baby bird somehow gets into the nest . . .”
He goes on to explain:  
“I am suggesting that the same is true of the urge to kindness – to altruism, to generosity, to empathy, to pity.  In ancestral times, we had the opportunity to be altruistic only towards close kin and potential reciprocators.  Nowadays, that restriction is no longer there, but the rule of thumb persists.  Why would it not?  It is just like sexual desire.  We can no more help ourselves feeling pity when we see a weeping unfortunate (who is unrelated and unable to reciprocate) than we can help ourselves feeling lust for a member of the opposite sex (who may be infertile or otherwise unable to reproduce).  Both are misfirings, Darwinian mistakes:  blessed, precious mistakes.”
In other words, true acts of love are glorious (?) mistakes; accidental properties of nature brought about by instincts and passions mechanically instigated by our genes.  Now, I don’t know about you, but this moves me to tears every time I think about it.  If you don’t feel the same, stick with me and I think you’ll change your mind.    

The Blessedness of Darwinism

Contrary to what some might think it’s clear that Darwinism, with its robust foundation of unintentional self-edifying desire, warm fuzzy feelings, and brute instincts, is a powerful platform upon which to build and explain deep, meaningful, expressions of love.  Take, for example, the Catholic priest in North Africa who is currently harboring nearly 700 Muslims in his church.  He’s literally risking his own life to protect them from an extremist group attempting to eradicate the Muslim population in their country.  Thanks to Dawkins we now understand that he is not intentionally laying down his life for his fellow man because they are made in the image of God and therefore intrinsically valuable.  And he is surely not acting in accordance with the virtues of courage or fortitude.  Rather, and I say this in the most beautiful and uplifting way imaginable, he is undergoing an evolutionary misfire.  Just dwell on that notion for a moment.
You see, in a strange and (to use the adjectives so aptly employed by Dawkins) blessed and precious quirk of fate this priest is mistakenly extending charity to Muslims.  Mind you, this is ultimately a meaningless and quit unintentional happening in the life of the universe–and I really don’t have to explain to you how heartwarming that fact is—but we can all appreciate the beauty of this utterly futile event!
Herein lies the real magic of Darwinism.  No matter how meaningless our actions are, we can make them sound nice by attaching uplifting adjectives like “blessed” or “precious” to them.  This is especially helpful when considering a variety of seemingly “self-less” acts performed my people every day.  Consider the gentleman who cared for and eventually married his invalid fiancé.  We all know the real reason he tenderly cared for her, after she had that unfortunate fall and became paralyzed from the waist down, is because of an irresistible sexual impulse built into him by his “selfish” genes.  You see, his brain mistakenly thought he needed to preserve her to bear children and preserve his genetic code (and possibly do his laundry).  The folk way of viewing love might have mistaken his actions as being actual acts of self-giving and service; sacrifices he intentionally chose because he valued her and recognized her personhood.  The folk way would even have us thinking he was acting in accordance with the virtue of charity.  But, in truth, he was just thinking with “the wrong head”—as my grandfather’s drill sergeant might have described it.  Now this might sound crass but there is really no need to despair because if we close our eyes and click our heels . . . we’ll soon see that this evolutionary misfire is the stuff of poetry.        
     

The Irrationality of Existence or, How to Find the Meaning of Life, much to Nietzsche’s Chagrin


DSC01524We’re too busy to ask the big questions anymore, but they linger over our heads like an ominous shadow lurking in our rooms while we sleep. We keep ourselves occupied with jobs, television, movies, video games, the internet, and a host of other things. Companies make billions of dollars a year off the fact that we will buy anything, any amount of money, and do anything we can in order to keep ourselves busy and thoughtless. The more thoughtless the entertainment, the less it demands of us, the more likely we are to consume it. Why is it that reality television shows have become so popular? Is it because we are that dumb, or are we that desperate to silence the big questions of life? At least the alcoholic is honest with himself and admits to drinking in order to avoid and suppress life’s difficulties; the TV junkie or video game addict hardly realizes he has a problem.

Yet, we must all face the big questions. At a funeral, they sneak up on us without our permission and infect our minds. What if I’m next? What has the purpose of my life been? What if this is all it’s worth? We hate funerals because it reminds us of our own inevitability; certainly we will miss the person who has died, but even for strange acquaintances whose funerals we attend out of social obligation we still feel our stomachs turn.  We realize that one day we will be the person in the casket and it is in that moment that life’s big questions engulf us, it is then we all become Jonahs in the belly of a great fish, trapped in a darkness we’ve fought so hard to avoid.

We quickly push such thoughts away by looking at our phones for the latest news, looking at what Jane is wearing, thinking about what the kids have to do tomorrow, putting together a grocery list, and the line of distractions grow. We distance ourselves from the big questions, yet they remain. When forced to confront our own mortality, we are faced with the meaninglessness of our existence. To the ancient Greeks, life wasn’t meaningless because one was supposed to pursue the good. Of course, they then spent countless hours defining and attempting to understand exactly what “the good” was. For Plato, the good was some abstract form, something to which we could only achieve within the form world. To Aristotle, the good was found mostly in this life, through living a virtuous life. Yet, both seem meaningless; if the good is abstracted and unobtainable in this life, then what is the purpose in trying to pursue it? If the good is found in a virtuous life, how much virtue and how long do I have to live before I obtain it? For the Romans, specifically Cicero, the good was best manifested in being a good citizen. But oh that Cicero could have seen his Republic fail (he did see its twilight), for then he would realize that being a good citizen cannot be our ultimate end since the State is mutable. Turn East and one could seek the Tao, but the Tao is immutable and therefore one cannot know if it is obtained or not. Or one could seek Nirvana, which is ultimately nothingness; if the purpose of life is to obtain nothingness, then there is no purpose.

Before we ridicule the ancients in the East and the West, we should better understand that us moderns are infantile in our quest compared to the ancients. At least they dared to stand their ground against the big questions of life. Rather than fleeing as we do, they turned and like a brave soldier fought against these questions. They did battle with the struggles of life and even if they did not emerge victoriously, at least they fought. We moderns are far too quick to run away. We tend to take the meaning of life for granted, hiding behind beautifully written platitudes that when exposed to scrutiny, dissolve like paper in acid. Think of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, which while a great film, provides a cleverly written, but stupidly simple meaning of life: “To see the world, things dangerous to come to, to see behind walls, draw closer, to find each other, and to feel. That is the purpose of life.” Like modern music, such a saying might sound great to the masses, but there’s really nothing behind it. If the meaning of life is to see the world, then already those who are poor are now excluded from enjoying the meaning of life. Only those who can afford trips need apply to having meaning in life. To see dangerous things to come, to see behind walls (that is, to see the truth of the world), to draw closer and find each other, and to feel; none of these, however, indicate positive things. By all accounts, both Gandhi and Hitler obtained the meaning of life, both Mother Theresa and Josef Stalin stood on equal footing when it came to finding meaning in this life. All involved saw the world, they saw the dangerous things, they saw behind the lies of the world, they drew closer to some and even found love, and they did feel. Such a meaning of life is amoral, which means there is no meaning at all.  Continue reading

Random Musings: The Nature of Beauty


1)  Does beauty truly exist?

2)  Perhaps beauty is merely a feeling; an inner subjective experience; my impression of a perception . . . an emotion.  Perhaps beauty truly is in the eye of the beholder.  If this is the case, it is false to believe anything truly is beautiful.  When I look at the sunrise and exclaim in awe, “how beautiful!” I am merely expressing a feeling—I am communicating something private.  For the sunrise is not beautiful in any objective, concrete, sense; it is just an object within space and time.  Like all objects, it has no intrinsic value, no purpose, no meaning, it conforms to no pattern.  I, the observer, give it meaning . . .

3)  If beauty is simply a subjective experience, a feeling, then to speak of beauty is no different than to speak of indigestion.  In effect, the expression, “how beautiful,” is functionally equivalent to the expression, “my stomach hurts.”

4)   How wretched life would be if beauty did not exist!  I look at my wife, an angel, the radiance of the sun instantiated in human form . . . yet, this isn’t real.  The beauty of my wife is nothing but maya—an illusion.  In reality she is the endless shifting of atoms, the constant flux of matter and energy; as am I.  To say that my wife is beautiful is really to say that one shifting batch of atoms (my wife) collided with another shifting batch of atoms (my eyes) creating a chemical response in my brain and producing a particular emotion.  Her beauty is but one euphoric chemical reaction—an animal instinct, a sexual desire.

5)  In a world devoid of intrinsic value, beauty is degraded—it becomes something base.

6)   But surely beauty must exist!  Surely the sunrise is more than the endless shifting of atoms; more than the sense of awe engendered by a brute biochemical response to perception.  Surely such reactions occur in the presence of great beauty—a beauty woven into the very fabric of reality.  A form . . . an idea . . . a logos . . .