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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The Teacher


Truth is a Man

Here is another sneak peak from the book The Diary of a Despairing . . . I Mean Aspiring Author I am currently writing.  You can find the first two installments here and here.  Please keep in mind that this is only the first draft.


The Teacher

Growing up in a devout Christian family I heard the stories of the great biblical heroes numerous times and could recite most of them by heart.  It wasn’t until I was twelve, however, that I dedicated time to personally studying Sacred Scripture.  Naturally, I was immediately drawn to the more exotic, and often overlooked, books; the “black sheep” of the canon.  The first to grab my attention was Ecclesiastes, in which, to my great dismay, I read the following passage for the first time:

“Meaningless! Meaningless!”

says the Teacher.

“Utterly meaningless!

Everything is meaningless.”

What do people gain from all their…

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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.

Existence as an Act of Love


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Act I

Once I wallowed in the darkness of the void

That darkness darker than the night

Ever searching, ever groping, ever longing

My hands clutching shadows that slipped through my fingers.

Lost in a maze without meaning, without purpose, without destination

I wandered in a dry and waterless land

My soul aching for something or someone to give me hope

An experience to justify this pitiful existence.

How I yearned to escape the absurdity

I clung to my individuality, my uniqueness, but in vain

Having rejected You I acknowledged that all was One – ever turning, all encompassing

And within this Monolith “I” was an illusion.

How I longed to communicate – to understand and to be understood

How I longed to reciprocate – to love and to be loved

How I longed to impose my will – to create and to be created

But how could I escape the Monolith?

Mindless forces, endlessly indifferent, from the dawn of time

Blindly marching on, from everlasting to everlasting

Laws of nature too powerful to escape

Leading me, guiding me, shaping me, informing me, fating me.

I was but a cog in the wheel

One piece of the machine

And even this wasn’t real

For everything was One and “I” was an aberration, a twisted trick of nature.

My thoughts were merely a chimera

Every doubt, every fear, every belief, every feeling, every passion was an inevitability

A destiny set in stone by the cold, irrational, unconscious, laws of physics and biology

Since the dawn of time.

Reason and rationality became but a farce

I groped aimlessly in the night

For “I” was but the dust in a star

Like grass, my puny body would deteriorate and die

My atoms scattered to and fro . . .


 

Intermission 

And so it was that I sank into the pit of despair and hopelessness

Where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

 


Act II

But You, my Beloved, drew near in my distress

You who made blind eyes see, shattered through the night

Piercing the darkness with your unapproachable light

Illuminating my mind and reviving my heart of stone!

Through You, O Lord, we may see existence as an act of love

Ultimate reality as an intimacy shared between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit

The eternal wellspring of personality, communication, and love

The perfect communion of three distinct personalities sharing one

nature, energy, and will.

For in You, O God, is perfect community, true intimacy, and pure holiness

It was out of this  love that You gave birth to the Universe

Speaking into existence something other – yet still reflecting Your incomparable beauty

A supreme act of Self-Giving.

And You imprinted Your image and likeness upon it

Creating other distinct personalities capable of communication and love

That they, too, though finite and limited, might share in the wonder of your eternal glory

and experience the delight of Your All-Holy Spirit

Even now You lovingly maintain the order and harmony of the Universe

Fixing the laws of nature, those models of elegance and simplicity

Maintaining regularity – the ebb and flow of matter and energy

That we may live and move and have our being.

Ever communicating Your love!

Ever revealing Your heart!

Ever beckoning us to abide!

That we may join the everlasting and harmonious community of the Blessed and most Holy Trinity

Come let us abide in You and You in us!  Amen.

Let Me Be Forward . . .


Truth is a Man

I’ve never successfully completed an entire book–although I’ve enthusiastically outlined and written introductions to at least five!  This, of course, fails to include the vast number of book ideas that seem to enter my head every week (sometimes every day).  With the coming of the new year I resolved to narrow this list down to three projects.  I then made the decision to focus all of my efforts on completing one of these projects by this summer.  It was extremely difficult but, after much deliberation, I settled on a little book I’ve tentatively entitled The Diary of A Despairing . . . I Mean, Aspiring Author.  

In the coming months as I slave away writing, and re-writing, I intend to share “snapshots” of my progress.  I would very much like your feedback.  To get things started, I’m pleased to share the forward of this unusual little book:

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I Lost Faith in Myself . . . Now I Have Hope


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It occurred to me the other day that Nietzsche is right.  The only thing I could possibly have faith in, if God is dead, is me.  This thought, I must confess, is rather unsettling (namely, because I know myself far too well).  But, if there are no transcendent values, if there is no meaning, what else is there to put my faith in?

I suppose I could put my faith in “science” or in some abstract notion like “humanity” or “the universe”—but these things are only meaningful, in a world devoid of intrinsic value, if I consider them meaningful.  In such a world, I, the subjective knower, am the arbiter of truth, meaning, and value.  It is clear, therefore, that, in actuality, “I” (and not some objective reality outside of myself) am what I truly have faith in.  I have faith in my beliefs, my intentions, and my desires (e.g., my affection for science is the source of my trust in science; for science in and of itself has no objective meaning or value).

This, however, is truly a miserable, and hopeless, state of affairs.  I am finite; I am mortal; I can be (and will be) destroyed.  My existence is a temporary blip—a shifting shadow like the shadows on Plato’s cave wall.  I am merely the byproduct of cold, impersonal, meaningless, physical processes which blindly, and uncaringly, march on without direction until the final death and collapse of the universe.  In such a world, I am not a subject; but, merely, an object—a passive object.  All of my thoughts, longings, desires, and emotions, as well as my ability to reason, are merely physical happenings—unimportant, undirected, predetermined, events.  Thus we see the sickening irony of the situation: there is no “I”—at least, not in any traditional sense of the term.

To make matters worse, I am unreliable.   I fail to understand or to comprehend or to communicate effectively.  I am forgetful and can easily be deceived.  I fail to keep my promises.  I tell lies and cheat and steal and have pity parties.  I lack self confidence and lack the power to change anything about the laws of nature which completely hold sway over my fate.

As I ponder these things I realize that, in the absence of God, there is no hope; because I am my only hope . . . and I have no delusions of grandeur.

When we recognize that placing total faith in ourselves is utterly useless and ultimately futile, we are finally in a position to understand the paradox that Truth presents us with:  “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.  For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it” (Matt. 16:24-25).

“I” is an absurdity—a meaningless illusory object—operating under the delusion that the world has value.  Life is hopeless; the universe is impersonal; I will end; I can’t save myself.  This is because I live in a fallen world disconnected from Truth and estranged from the Giver of Life.  I remain in this despairing state so long as I worship “self”; so long as I pin my hopes on a temporal, finite, feeble, dying blip in the universe.  This is why Truth tells us to deny ourselves and to follow Him.  Only He can give us life; only He can restore meaning and value.  Apart from Him, we remain in the void, in the darkness, and held captive by death.

Previously posted on Truth is a Man.

Lost, Lonely, Confused, and Loving It: A Condemnation of Western Society’s Indifference


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We are, all of us, searching for water in a dry and desolate land; stumbling in the dark; groping for something stable to support us and give us direction . . . and that’s the way we like it.   Deep down, hidden beneath a host of questions and doubts, we realize we are lost and don’t want to be found.  We are hedonist at heart, and lazy ones to boot: we’d much rather watch pornography than discover Truth.  We are too selfish and controlling to even want Truth; because Truth is outside of our direct control.  Truth is not something we can create, or tame, or manipulate; it’s too restrictive and limiting and, thus, untenable.  It works against our inner narcissist.  Hence, we rest, quite contently – with only the slightest and most obligatory hint of angst – in the void of cynicism and doubt.

Sure, we pay lip service to the notion of Truth . . . but do we really desire it?  Years ago I met with a group of teenagers who fancied themselves Atheists and Agnostics.  I led discussions on a variety of philosophical and theological problems at a local coffee shop.  I remember asking one of the students, who attended regularly, what she thought the goal of our discussions was?  Her response was revealing:  “well . . . mainly to have fun, you know, talking about different ideas.”  Like so many in our culture, she wasn’t thirsty for knowledge; she was indifferent; she just wanted to have fun.  As many of religion’s “cultured despisers” did in the time of St. Gregory of Nazianzus:

“Who should listen to discussions of theology?  Those for whom it is a serious undertaking, not just another subject like any other for entertaining small-talk, after the races, the theater, songs, food, and sex:  for there are people who count chatter on theology and clever deployment of arguments as one of their amusements.”

The majority of young people I talk to have this attitude.  They are like the Athenians who, “spent their time in nothing else but either to tell or to hear some new thing” (Acts 17: 21).  Discussions about God, morality, meaning, or value are just “small-talk” – an amusing pastime, like baseball.  There’s no substance to their questions and no deep desire to find answers.  More often than not, their “intellectual” struggles – which prevent them from accepting objective truth – are merely a facade maintained to justify elicit sex and drug use.  For others, the questions are asked in an effort to appear sophisticated or edgy.  Very few young people thirst for knowledge and actually want to find an answer to the question of value.

Put bluntly, our culture has lost its desire for meaning and replaced it with an insatiable lust for “reality” TV and Starbucks Frappuccino’s.  This is why the New Atheists will acknowledge the universe is utterly meaningless, that life has no intrinsic value, and that morality is rooted in the blind, ruthless, unintentional, irrational, laws of evolution (which is really just another way of saying, there is no morality) . . . and then shrug.  “Well, I like my life” they say; or, “life has meaning when we give it meaning.”  And what, precisely, is the meaning we ascribe to life?  Ultimately, in the West (and especially in the United States), life’s meaning can generally be classified in one of the the following three categories: (1) our elation over the new Star Wars film directed by J. J Abrams, (2) our intense love for shopping, and (3) our constant and unbridled desire for orgasm.  This is why we look at people in third world countries and wonder, “how can they stand to live that way?”  It is also the reason we can’t understand why the majority of people in third world countries have a deep faith in God and a firm belief in the supernatural.

It’s only in the face of tragedy that we Westerners are forced out of our drunken stupor . . . and, even then, only for a little while.  In the face of intense evil and hardship the reality of our fate often begins to sink in; the reality that we are weak, fragile, finite, temporary, shifting shadows.  In the midst of pain and suffering we are reminded of the absurdity and futility of our existence.  When we realize that our fate is no different than that of the irrational beast or the unconscious rock, we then start to consider the question of meaning more seriously.  When our dignity has been violated and we are standing on the edge of a cliff, we then find ourselves asking the same haunting question that William Shakespeare posed in one of his most famous monologues:

“To be, or not to be — that is the question:whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune / Or to take arms against a sea of troubles / And by opposing end them / To die, to sleep no more, and by a sleep to say we end the heartache, and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.”

To exist or not to exist?  Have you actually considered this question?  Have you ever taken time to meditate on how utterly futile human existence is?  Or is Albert Camus just cool, hip and trendy?  Is it just fun to quote Nietzsche, to feel intellectual, and have a good laugh–or have you actually absorbed the implications of Nietzsche’s thought?  Have you, not just thought it, but felt it in your heart and soul?  It’s easy to shrug off the purposelessness of reality when you’re busy trying to look and sound cool . . . and trying to get laid.  It’s not so easy when your dignity and value has been utterly trampled on and life seems hopeless and unbearable.

Everything you think gives your life meaning becomes mere dust blowing in the wind when you have been violated or when life hangs in the balance.  Your cars, your computers, your video games, your films, your music, your beer, your pornography, your books, your drugs, your sexuality, your pets, your wealth, your sports, your technology, your scientific advancements, your successes, all fade into nothing when you are the girl who has been raped or you are the child sold into sex slavery, or you are the one lying in the hospital bed dying of cancer, or starving to death while living in a trash heap.  Suddenly, words like meaning, purpose, value, and eternity take on new life.  Suddenly trite answers like, “you give your life meaning” feel stupid and hopeless.  Especially when you understand that, if the nihilists are correct, there is no meaning, purpose, value, or eternity for the individual.

You’ll only want Truth when you realize that all of the things you think give your life meaning have no meaning at all apart from Him.  When you internalize the fact that we are completely helpless – slaves – in a world that is, at rock bottom, irrational, uncaring, and unintentional, you’ll finally be in a position to hunger and thirst for the Truth.  In that moment you will understand why Truth says,“I am the bread of life.  He who comes to Me shall never hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst” (John 6:35).

Re-Blogged From: Truth is a Man