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.        
     
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Some Thoughts On Don Juanism


What is Don Juanism?  It is, perhaps, most easily expressed by this simple Latin phrase made famous by the film Dead Poets Society: “carpe diem!” or “seize the day!”  Loosely defined, it describes a certain disposition or attitude toward life which is explained by the French existentialist Albert Camus in his influential book The Myth of Sisyphus.

According to Camus, Don Juanism is not a system or a formula but a general outline suggesting a way in which the “absurd man” might proceed in a world devoid of intrinsic meaning or value.  Who is the “absurd man” you ask?  The man who acknowledges the world is meaningless—and, that there is no hope of a life after death—yet, seeks to ascribe or, at least, search for meaning anyway.    The absurd man, when faced with the dilemma of nihilism, may choose (following the manner of that famous womanizer Don Juan) to suck the marrow out of each moment of his existence.  He does not dwell upon the past nor does he worry about his inevitable fate (i.e., death, dissolution, and non-being) but seeks to experience as much pleasure (not necessarily erotic pleasure; but typically so) as possible here and now.  He is driven by passion, desire and self-love.  He chooses not to limit himself—to narrow himself—to the love of but one creature but to share himself with all.  As Camus explains:

“Don Juan, as well as anyone else, knows that this [i.e., love which limits itself to but one creature] can be stirring.  But he is one of the very few who know that this is not the important thing . . . A mother or a passionate wife necessarily has a closed heart, for it is turned away from the world. A single emotion, a single creature, a single face, but all is devoured. Quite a different love disturbs Don Juan, and this one is liberating. It brings with it all the faces in the world, and its tremor comes from the fact that it knows itself to be mortal. Don Juan has chosen to be nothing.”

In short, Don Juanism suggests we adopt a god complex. In the face of the void it calls for us to create meaning and value in accordance with our likes and dislikes (we, thus, become the truth). It further challenges us to extend ourselves–our vitality–as far as possible; to transcend limitations and take in as much of this life that we can. Yet, ironically, under the impetus that one day we shall no longer exist and, thus, no longer experience.

It is safe to say that this is a way of approaching life many in our culture–especially those in Hollywood and the music industry–have embraced and enthusiastically promote. We are constantly told to live in the moment; to be true to ourselves (i.e., to passively allow our irrational instincts and biological impulses to dictate who we are); to release our sexuality; to hold nothing back. We are told to liberate ourselves from the shackles of traditional mores and moral constraints. This means moving away from longterm, monogamous relationships and diving headlong into unabashed–unrestricted–eroticism. We hear this ever so loudly in the music industry (Miley Cyrus, Lady Gaga, or Beyoncé are but a few examples).

The lines become increasingly blurred as we seek to extend ourselves and to experience as much as we can: oral sex with members of both genders, multiple sex partners, bisexuality, polygamy, androgyny, threesomes, orgies, unrestricted masturbation, sex toy’s, hooking up with strangers, pornography, beastiality–the sky’s the limit! All this in an effort to establish our identity; to authenticate ourselves.

Note, however, the basic premise underlying Don Juanism (inadvertently expressed in the quote I shared from Camus): individuals or persons become nothing. There is no intrinsic value or dignity to the person–in the world according to Don Juan we are but brief irrational manifestations of the monolith that is the cosmos. And, the cosmos is unconscious, unaware, uncaring, and purposeless. You and I are, thus, non-being; because we (whatever “we” designates) are temporary, unidentifiable, meaningless blips, in a long series of meaningless blips, destined to fade out and be utterly forgotten. There is nothing concrete or eternal about us. We have no essence and, thus, no identity. And, to renounce identity is to renounce existence.

So I ask myself: What kind of freedom is this? The answer comes quickly: It is a freedom without hope; and, hence, not true freedom. It is a freedom built on an illusion; and, hence, not true freedom. What silly and pathetic little god’s we have become! God’s incapable of changing our fate; god’s with only the illusion of self; god’s with the mere illusion of being able to shape the way things are. Don Juanism requires the impossible–it requires something to come from nothing. It requires the unidentifiable to create identity; the non-existent to bring forth existence.

But, from out of nothing, comes nothing. The “absurd” man is far more absurd than Camus dared to imagine.

Random Musings: Erotic Love


1) Where does erotic love stand in relation to human existence?

2) Perhaps erotic love is the very end of man’s existence – his final goal, his purpose.  If God is dead, then it must be conceded that reproduction is the unconscious irrational driving force behind every decision we make.  Erotic love, under this worldview, becomes the primary tool utilized by evolution (please pardon my use of teleological language) in the preservation and further development of a species; it, thus, becomes the very meaning of our existence . . .

3) If, however, erotic love is the end of our existence then human beings are nothing but sexual objects.  This is precisely what we see in Western culture today – sexuality has been reduced to a mere biological process, a mere physical happening, and, in consequence, looks no different than the buying and selling of Cod at the fish market.  People have become products to be consumed.  Women lust after Magic Mike without a care in the world for his soul, his wellbeing, his happiness.  Men satiate their sexual appetites through internet porn without a care in the world for the sexual health or individual worth of the actors (or in most cases victims of human trafficking) on their computer screen.  We justify this behavior with the soothing notion that human beings are passive agents helplessly blown and tossed by a sea of physical laws and biological determination.  Our hands, we say, are simply tied behind our backs.

4) Sexuality becomes something mechanical and base – something devoid of true love and intimacy, something impersonal and selfish – when we live as if erotic love is the end of humanity.

5) What if we made Truth, Beauty, Goodness, Justice, and Love Himself the end of our existence?  What if we made living up to the image and likeness of the One who brought us into being our purpose?  What if we lived as if other human beings were of great value and importance?  What if we embraced erotic love as an act of self-giving instead of an act of narcissistic self-love?  What if we defined erotic love as two individuals giving of themselves to each other and becoming one flesh; as the intimate sharing of pleasure between two souls bent on each others happiness?  What if we understood that erotic love is a life giving process – the first step in the bringing into being of a new and uniquely special individual?

Magic Mike and the Search for True Intimacy


I was reading a review of Steven Soderbergh’s new film Magic Mike which, much to the excitement of thousands of undersexed (or, perhaps, oversexed depending on your point of view) desperate housewives around the country, chronicles the story of several male strippers as they scrape their way from blue collar jobs to fame and fortune.  As I read Mr. Buckwalter’s thorough review, one aspect of the films plot really stood out to me: namely, the romantic yearnings of the lead character (and successful stripper) Mike who falls in love with the one girl who refuses to jump into bed with him.  Mr. Buckwalter explains in more detail:

“Mike takes Adam — a shy young screw-up he meets at a construction job — under his wing, shaping him into a dancer in his own image, much to the consternation of Adam’s sister Brooke(Cody Horn), who inevitably becomes the one girl Mike can’t immediately charm into bed. She’s a symbol for the something more Mike wants out of life, the something that’s always frustratingly out of reach.”

We see this same theme in many great romance stories:  the flirtatious sex  magnet who sleeps around with any woman standing within a twenty yard radius suddenly realizes he’s madly in love with the one girl who never gives him the time of day; as he pursues her he realizes the one thing he’s missing in life is true intimacy.  This goes to show that all too often we confuse our sexual appetite with our deepest and truest human desire for real, meaningful, lasting intimacy–the one thing which always seems, “frustratingly out of reach.”

Our sexual appetites pressure us into believing, if only subconsciously, that the most satisfying or exciting relationships in life are erotic ones.  The media preys upon this weakness in our character and proceeds to add fuel to an already blazing fire.  This erotic desire, however, is one completely self focused and detached from the thought of others–a form of narcissistic lasciviousness whose only goal is the satiation of one’s lusts.  “It’s just business,” they say, “it’s not personal”–and thus we come face to face with the tragedy of it all:  we endlessly seek after impersonal forms of sexual gratification in our desperate attempt to satisfy our true desire for intimacy.

For our souls desperately cry out to be intimate with the One who truly satisfies our deepest longings.  We are all like the maiden who has lost her beloved:

“Upon my bed by night I sought him whom my soul loves; I sought him, but found him not; I called him, but he gave no answer . . .” (Song of Solomon 3:1).  

We feel lost and alone and impersonal, self-centered, erotic love will never give us the type of personal loving intimacy that our souls long for.  In fact, a fundamentally impersonal erotic love will always leave us empty and alone because it is built upon the shifting sands of a finite vacillating reality–mere biological processes and chemical reactions.  Sensual pleasure, devoid of the spiritual, becomes mechanistic and degrading.  Your senses, so strong, so vivid, so powerful today will deteriorate and when they are gone you will be alone and the work of your hands will seem meaningless.  As the Preacher learned so many thousands of years ago:

“whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them; I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil.  Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun . . . so I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me . . .” (Ecclesiastes 2:10-11, 17)

We may deny ourselves no pleasure, but without the true intimacy we long for, without ultimate meaning saturating our lives, everything indeed is vanity–for if we embrace a world of heartless, impersonal erotic love as the end of our existence then we are no different than a soulless dying flame hopelessly flickering on top of a melting candle . . . just waiting to be extinguished.

Let this not be our end.  Let us set our hearts affection on true intimacy with the Lover or our souls, the One who holds all things together, the One who bled for us.  Only then will we find lasting contentment: spiritually, emotionally, intellectually, and, yes, even erotically.

Are You a Free Spirit?


A question for you to dwell upon tonight: are you a free spirit? Nietzsche argued that the greatest human beings were free spirits—those rare individuals who transcend mankind, who break free from the shackles of value systems, who no longer follow the herd, who fully embrace what it is to be human (all too human), creating their own values and making their own meaning; rising above what their culture or religion has determined to be right and wrong or beautiful. Does this sound like the type of person you strive to be?

People often tell me that they desire freedom from the constraints of organized religion or from puritanical moral systems, which they believe bring about oppression and unnecessary limitations upon mankind. Some perceive that religion imposes overwhelming intellectual limitations—that is, they believe that religion stunts their intellectual growth or somehow disengages their rational faculties. They want the freedom to believe whatever they deem to be true. Others perceive that religion brings about suffocating ethical limitations—they want sexual liberation, they want to lie and cheat and steal from time to time without feeling guilty about it.

Perhaps the most common form of freedom that people speak about is the freedom to make meaning. Have you ever heard someone say, “life is what you make of it” or “my life has meaning because I make it meaningful”? Statements like these illustrate the type of freedom that I’m referring to. It’s the idea that we have the freedom to make meaning for our lives apart from any standard or universal meaning which applies to everyone. We see this in art as well. There’s no longer a standard for what qualifies as art—art is simply an expression of someone’s inner feelings or emotions. Thus, anything can be art. A jar of urine is art if you feel that it is and attribute to it some form of meaning. There is a real resistance among modern artists to placing any definition, label, or limitations on art. There is a desire for freedom—an unlimited freedom to express whatever one wants however one wants to express it (whether that be through urine in a jar or oil on canvas). There is also a tremendous resistance to the idea that beauty is objective—that something can truly be said to be beautiful. We want the freedom to make that determination for ourselves.

I wonder, however, if Nietzsche’s free spirit is truly free? I wonder if those of us who strive for this type of freedom are actually placing ourselves into bondage? What if, in our desire to be free spirits, we have actually enslaved ourselves to one of the most tyrannical and destructive dictators of all? The dictator to which I refer is of course self love. By self love I do not mean having a healthy self image (something we all should have); rather, I mean the placing of our pleasures and our needs as the very end of (i.e. the purpose of) our existence. When we direct our lives in accordance with our unbridled passions; when we make decisions solely based upon what is beneficial to our own wellbeing or to what brings us the most pleasure or satisfaction–this is self love. Self love is all about fulfilling any sexual urge or fantasy we might have, expressing ourselves in any way we want (without recourse to the good, the noble, or the beautiful), and about living life to feed the ego. The free spirit, in her desire to break free from values, from universals, from absolutes, ends up in bondage to her own arbitrary emotions; to her own ego. Rather than being a rational human being, the free spirit is more akin to a horse following a carrot on a stick—wherever the carrot goes the horse goes.

A free spirit, enslaved to self love, ultimately brings bondage and enslavement to others as well. In the eyes of the free spirit, people become simply a means to an end—objects to be used for personal gain. This happens whether the free spirit is aware of it or not. For example, you begin to think–perhaps only in your subconscious–of your girlfriend as a sex object; of course she is a person, but in practice she is nothing but a means to satiating whatever sexual desires you might have. She, in turn, is obligated to fulfill your sexual desires no matter how uncomfortable or dirty it might make her feel if she wants to keep you. You degrade her (maybe you don’t even think of it this way); you reduce her to a mere tool for masturbation and whether you realize it or not, she has become your slave. But, perhaps, she has enslaved you too. Perhaps she knows–even subconsciously–she can get something she wants out of you (money, power, respect, companionship . . .) if she gives you the sex that you want? In this case, you are ultimately her slave–not unlike the lab rat that won’t stop pressing the button which gives it sexual stimulation (to the exclusion of the button which dispenses food) and, in the end, dies of starvation.

St. Paul spoke of this type of self love in his second letter to Timothy:

“But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of stress. For men will be lovers of self,       lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, inhuman, implacable, slanderers, profligates, fierce, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God” (II Timothy 3:1-4)

This type of self love, which is the root of all sin, leaves us in bondage. We become slaves to sin–slaves to our unbridled passions, slaves to our ego, and slaves to each other. The freedom that we so long for turns out to be nothing but an illusion.

Freedom, true freedom, can only come through Christ. Jesus not only brings us forgiveness for the pain and suffering and oppression we bring into the world, but offers us an escape from the tyranny of self love. Jesus gives us the freedom to love what is truly beautiful and truly good–the Creator and sustainer of life Himself; and to love others who have been made in His image. This, in fact, is the essence of Christianity: to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27).

The follower of Christ, imaging God Himself, makes love the end or, the purpose, of his existence. By love I do not mean some fluffy sentimentality or warm sensation that one experiences in his stomach. I mean the act of sacrifice–of self giving. St. John said: “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us” (1 John 3:16). Later he states: “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love” (1 John 4:7-8). God is love, not in some abstract way, but his very nature is love. Within the blessed Trinity we see the existence of three persons, joined together by nature and eternally pouring out themselves, sharing themselves, submitting themselves to each other. We see true love. In the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ we see this love, this self-giving, spilling out into creation–we see the Divine Logos humbling Himself, giving of Himself, even unto death. We see true love.

The true free spirit is the one who embraces this love, who breaks free from the chains of self love and into the liberating arms of self-giving. So, the question remains: are you a free spirit?

How to earn your very own mancard


For whatever reason, people equate having sex with coming of age. For men especially, the way they earn their “man card” is by having sex with someone. Of course, we all know the double standard of our society is that if a man sleeps with ten women in two months, he’s a man, but if a woman sleeps with ten men in two months, she’s a slut. Some try to argue that we should treat the woman like the man and praise her for her prowess, but the fact is both the man and woman should face some harsh criticisms for their choices.

Among Christians – at least from Al Mohler and Mark Driscoll – comes from the ability to live on your own, have your own place, be married, have children, and so on. While this might be an indicator in some situations, it is not a universal indicator. For instance, if we take their ideas of manhood and apply it to Christ we quickly summarize that Christ wasn’t a man (He had no home, didn’t have a job, and His mother followed Him everywhere He went).

So what is manhood? What does it mean to be a man? More importantly, what does it mean to act like an adult? I have known many men and women who sleep around, but should not be considered adults because of their immaturity. I know of someone who is married, has a child, has a home, and owns his own company, but is still childish. Should we call him a man despite the fact that he acts like a child on the weekends?

Manhood is found in the ability to live a virtuous life. There are many men who lead a life of virtue who do not sleep around – in fact, sleeping around and leading a virtuous life are antithetical to each other – and other men who lead virtuous lives, but have no home or haven’t found a stable job due to economic hardships (or just a delay in deciding what to do). Manhood isn’t defined by your circumstances, but rather by who you are and how you react in those circumstances.

Are you chaste, that is, outside of marriage do you abstain from sex or pornography and for those inside of marriage do you abstain from affairs? Then you are a man. Do you display temperance in all that you do, not rushing into anger or actions, but instead evaluating and controlling your desires? Then you are a man. To you give to those in need or help those in need? Are you self-sacrificial for the needs of others? Do you display charity in your life? Then you are a man. Are you diligent, patient, kind, and humble? Then you are a man.

Living a virtuous life, not by having sex or living on your own or having a career, gains the “man card”. Anything short of a virtuous life simply doesn’t cut it.