ISIS, Assad, and the trickster god

What does it mean to say there is a negative force in the world?

We have images of negativity that we use to talk about the idea, Heath Ledger’s Joker being one of them, the Christian Devil being another, the Dark Side of the Force being yet another, but the Joker, the Devil, and the Sith are just stand-ins to help us comprehend something much larger, something much more significant.

Incredibly intelligent people have believed in this negative force (St. Augustine, for example), and if they didn’t believe in this negative force as some kind of personified Devil, they still felt compelled to pass the idea down through the myths and stories they told their children and grandchildren, whether in the forms of Loki, Coyote, or Pan, all of whom are stands-in for the chaotic aspects of our universe.

But hold on a second, and witness the mistake I just made: I equated negativity with chaos. We’ll have to unpack that a little bit.

There is no trickster god in the Christian pantheon, if only by virtue of there not being a Christian pantheon. The closest the Christians come to a trickster god is the Devil. In a monotheistic universe, where God is One and God is Good and God is Merciful and God is Great and God is a jealous God, there is no room for a trickster who would pull one over on God; there can only be defiance.

The problem with having this as a founding element of one’s worldview is that it disrespects chaos, and chaos is an essential element of our universe. Acceptance of chaos imparts an understanding that not everything can be controlled, and if you can accept that, then you hardly ever look at those who act out of control as acting defiant.  Instead, you respect that chaos is the nature of the universe and search for some kind of rationale to explain whatever behavior you don’t yet understand, some line of cause and effect that you can trace backwards until you’re able to find a situation where you can exert some influence and actually start to gain some element of real control.

I’m thinking of ISIS at the moment, and Donald Trump and the millions of people whose worldview he represents.

When we think of Loki, Coyote, or Pan, when we think of a trickster god, we generally think of someone who’s just a real pain is the ass. He may be charismatic in the moment, but in the long run, he causes nothing but trouble for everyone involved.

That doesn’t sound like ISIS.

But that’s because our concept of the trickster is wrapped up in personifications. What the concept of the trickster actually represents is the human experience of thinking one is right when one is actually wrong and then having the universe prove your mistake in some enthusiastic fashion.

The continued existence of ISIS demonstrates that, despite the military might its able to exert onto any surface of the planet, the United States still cannot completely control the world.

Donald Trump (and the millions of people whose worldview he represents) are angry at that fact. They cannot imagine a world where the United States is not completely in control. They saw the downfall of the Soviet Union as the end of history, the final victory of Western democracy over the Evil Empire. We now live in a mono-superpower world, where America is Good and America is Merciful and America is Great and America is a jealous Superpower, and there is no room for having any other country or entity get one over on us. To continue to exist when America tells you not to is defiance, and defiance must be met with swift and powerful violence: Loki being slammed into the wall by Thor, the Joker’s face being slammed into the table by Batman, Assad’s airbase being blasted with six dozen warheads by Donald Trump (and the millions of people whose worldview he represents).

In a worldview that equates chaos with negativity, defiance is not acceptable.

(And yes, I realize that I just conflated Assad with ISIS, but I feel comfortable equating a head of state who used chemical weapons on his own citizens with a Muslim military that primarily decapitates Muslims; I also have no problem equating both of them with a negative force in the world.)

But in a worldview where chaos is not only acknowledged as its own kind of force, but venerated to the point where it earns its own festivals and shares traits associated with the gods of the various arts, the actions of ISIS and Assad can be placed within a larger context, one with such complexity that our need to understand and control can only be met by the universe’s laughing contempt for our vanity.

There is a lot less action in a worldview that accepts the reality of chaos, not because it feels the need to exert less influence than a defiant worldview, but because it believes that one should only exert one’s influence where and when one is able to make a real difference.

If this was just a philosophical difference, then this would be merely academic. The problem comes when the person (and the worldview he represents) actually has real power and yet no understanding of how or when to use it.

The worldview that sees chaos as defiance uses its power (consciously or not) to smack down the defiant one. The other sees chaos as natural element of the system and so attempts to trace down its origin, biding its time until it knows its power will do the most good.

The first results in innocent bloodshed, as anger always does. The other results in feelings of helplessness; and yet, it also results in a commitment to put one’s best minds to the problem and to not give up until they discover a reasonable solution, and if such a thing never happens, it results in the guilt that comes from feeling that one might have saved someone if only one had been able to solve the problem sooner.

Both worldviews have negative consequences.

But that’s what it means to have a negative force in the world. It means to have disorder (in the sense of entropy and its negation of order) constantly chasing us down.

ISIS exists not because they are evil. They exist because the once-unified conception of Islam is breaking down into a variety of sects, each more atomistic, and hence more fundamental, than the whole from which it came. As an embodiment of Islam’s militaristic and world dominating underpinnings (rather than an embodiment of its merciful and peaceful underpinnings), ISIS necessarily confronts The Other with violence and negation.

The only rational response to such an entity is containment and education, the same as one would do to the outbreak of any disease. Yes, people will die because of ISIS, just as they die because of ebola and AIDS. We can influence the numbers, perhaps, as well as the timeline, but total and swift eradication is simply beyond our control.

Assad, for his part, exists not because he is evil. He exists because the world order created in the 20th century is falling apart, its march toward global unification fracturing into hundreds (if not thousands) of disparate ethnicities and nationalities, just as Syria itself is dissolving into dozens (if not hundreds) of disparate militias. “Syria” no longer represents a specific center of political power; the word “Syria” itself is an anachronistic relic of 20th century cartography whose signifier now marks a localized region of 21st century chaos.

The only rational response to the Syrian situation is to come to the aid of all those who have been tossed out of their homes by the whirling chaos of that all-encompassing war, to provide succor to its refugees and food and first aid to those still stuck inside. To join the battle with any larger mission is to find oneself caught in that swirl of chaos with no logical end or exit in sight.

To say that there is a negative force in the world is not to say that there is evil; it is, instead, to acknowledge that we do not, and cannot, live in utopia — and rest assured, if we don’t remember that, the universe will continue to teach us, again and again, and in enthusiastic fashion.

Losing the Soul

I’m currently reading Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari. I haven’t finished it yet, but I came across an argument in it the other night and I want to make sure I understand it.

Harari argues that there are three elements that universalize all of human culture. The first is money; the second is empire; and the third is the belief in a superhuman order:

Merchants, conquerors and prophets were the first people who managed to transcend the binary evolutionary division, ‘us vs. them’, and to foresee the potential unity of humankind. For the merchants, the entire world was a single market and all humans were potential customers. They tried to establish an economic order that would apply to all, everywhere. For the conquerors, the entire world was a single empire and all humans were potential subjects, and for the prophets, the entire world held a single truth and all humans were potential believers.

He then devotes the next three chapters to the elucidation of these assertions, and I highly recommend that you read them, but that’s not the part of his argument I want to explore.

In the chapter on the universal belief in a superhuman order, Harari categorizes natural-law ideologies as forms of religion, putting humanism  in the same category as Christianity and Zoroastrianism. He argues that humanism is the worship of humanity, much as Islam is the worship of God. According to Harari, humanists believe there is a “unique and sacred nature” to our humanity, and that this is the most important thing in the world, and that therefore, “the supreme good is the good of Homo Sapiens.”

He goes on to divide humanism into three main sects: liberal humanism, socialist humanism, and evolutionary humanism, with each sect differing on its definition of humanity.

For liberals, “humanity is a quality of individual humans, and that the liberty of humans is therefore sacrosanct.” For socialists, “humanity is collective rather than individualistic…[and therefore it] seeks equality between all humans.”

Both of these interpretations spring from faith in a kind of secular soul, with liberals defending the unique liberty of each soul and socialists defending the common essence shared by all souls.

But I want to explore Harari’s characterization of the third sect: evolutionary humanism. He writes that evolutionary humanism is “the only humanist sect that has actually broken loose from traditional monotheism.” He then concludes this assertion by writing that evolutionary humanism’s “most famous representatives are the Nazis.”

What distinguished the Nazis from other humanist sects was a different definition of ‘humanity’, one deeply influenced by the theory of evolution. In contrast to other humanists, the Nazis believed that humankind is not something universal and eternal, but rather a mutable species that can evolve or degenerate. Man can evolve into superman, or degenerate into a subhuman.

What’s interesting is that Harari seems most persuasive when he’s discussing this particular dogma. He goes on to characterize the Nazis’ arguments and actions as an attempt “to protect humankind from degeneration and encourage its progressive evolution.” He then shows that this mission was not outside of the mainstream in the early twentieth century, with white supremacy playing a significant and proudly proclaimed role in the governments of both the United States and Australia well into the 1960s and 70s.

“The Nazis,” Harari writes, “did not loathe humanity.” They just defined it differently from liberals and socialists. According to the Nazis, if the fates of the fittest examples of humanity were not defended and promoted, they “would inevitably drown in a sea of unfit degenerates.”

With the lessons of evolution guiding their way, the Nazis proclaimed that “the supreme law of nature is that all beings are locked in a remorseless struggle for survival,” which is why they educated their people to “steel [their] wills to live and fight according to these laws.”

Harari ends the chapter by making what I find to be a persuasive argument in favor of evolutionary humanism. If liberalism and communism require the sanctity of the human soul, and science continues to find no evidence of said soul, it seems clear that the only true laws are the ones we find in nature, the ones that show us more and more that what we think of as consciousness and free will can better be defined in terms of “hormones, genes, and synapses.” Homo Sapiens are no more immune to these laws than any other species evolving on Earth.

And if all of that is true, then, indeed, evolutionary humanism makes the most sense, and we must acknowledge that humans too are subjects to the laws of nature. This does not mean that we must all become Nazis. The science of genetics, which did not really exist when the Nazis formed their racist theories, debunks much of what they believed about the evolution of the species.

But that also doesn’t mean that people in the vanguard aren’t already using the science of genetics and the theory of evolution to improve the fitness of their offspring. People choose sperm donors based on their intelligence. They abort fetuses based on the clinical detection of a birth defect. They choose the sex of their baby to prevent the spread of a sex-linked genetic disorder. In addition, hundreds (if not thousands) of scientists are, at this very moment, developing lines of research that could lead to the creation of a species whose fitness for future environments may very well exceed our own.

In a world where all of this is true, evolutionary humanism does make the most sense, but agreeing to evolutionary humanism erases the human soul from existence and denies sanctity to pretty much everything.

This follows from what Harari argues about money and empires as well. The universalizing aspect of money denies sanctity to other systems of value — if something can’t be converted to money, its value will always remain suspect. The universalizing aspect of empires, meanwhile, denies sanctity to cultural difference, bridging the gap between “us” and “them” through military, economic, and cultural conquest, followed by years of subjugation, and concluding in a syncretic assimilation that channels parts of the conquered culture back into the culture of the conqueror, until even their myths entangle and encompass each other and the truth of what they might have been slips forever into the darkness of their history.

In the story of Homo Sapiens as told by Harari, our distinct values are denied, our distinct cultures are denied, and finally our distinct souls are denied. Until all we are left with is…

Unfortunately, I don’t have the answer to that one yet. As I said, I’m still reading the book.

They Can’t Revoke Your Soul For Tryin’

My students decided they wanted to know more about the soul.  They came up with a list of questions, including what is the soul?, how could the soul exist?, is the soul permanent?, and all sorts of other questions. One of my students even wanted to compare the concept of the soul to the more new-agey concept of energy (a brilliant question, I think, when asked in earnest).

They also agreed that we do not want to be multicultural tourists in the class; rather, we want to wrestle with the questions. But at the same time, we don’t just want to riff off the top of our heads about the definition of the soul. We actually — all of us — want to learn something.

The Hindu (Vedanta) Concept of the Soul

Yes, this is about to happen.

There is a thing called an atman and a thing called a brahman. That’s pretty much what I know about the Hindu concept of the soul.

Both the atman and the brahman make up the soul. The Hindus are not the only ones to have divided the soul into parts (St. Augustine does it, as does Freud, as do a lot of other people), but the Hindus are the ones who connect the individual soul to an infinite soul, not as one to an other, but as one and only. The soul we each have, the atman, is like our individual soul, our heart, but the soul we all share is the brahman, which is like the music made by all of our hearts beating together, not as one but as many, the music we make, the melody, bass line, and percussion, moving as one in song.

I read the Bhagavad Gita in college. In it, Krishna stops time just before a major battle to help Prince Arjuna make a decision. Arjuna is dithering because the men he is about to fight are his family members and loved ones. He knows it is his duty is to go into battle, but how can he kill people he loves?

I don’t remember a lot of the book.  But that’s not important. Sure, it’s one of the most sacred texts in all of Hindu literature, but by this point, there’s been so many thousands of years of dissection and analysis that anything I’d even be able to add to the discussion would always already be besides the point.

That’s okay. Because I’m not trying to teach the Bhagavad Gita right now.

What I’m trying to teach is that it says there is a sense of duty that each soul has — and by soul, I’m talking about the atman, the individual-ness of us. In some sense, the duty of every individual is to turn to face God (Krishna reveals himself to Arjuna as a god with faces on all sides, whose core shines with the light of a thousand suns; having faces on all sides allows all of us to face him individually), but each individual, as an individual, turns to God in a way that is unique to their atman; it is the duty of each of us to find and know and do our atman.

Are you a dancer? Then dance your way to God. A reader? Read your way to God. A warrior? A prince? A priest? A queen? Act as a queen should act, regardless of whether there’s a crown on your head.

But remember, you are not the queen (even if you do have a crown). You are a subject of God, with all of the gifts and rights of any subject worth their salt; we are to God as the roots are to their leaves, all as one.

The goal, however, is to cut down the tree and separate into the flowing robes of the infinite.

Reincarnation is a part of this, too. How (who, what) we get reincarnated (as) has to do with the way we live up to our duty. The Hindus call this dharma.

Dharma is what puts the ethics in our actions. It’s like the universal law, telling us exactly what we should do. But it’s also like a river: the more you move when and where you’re supposed to move, and how you’re supposed to, the better off you’ll be; the more you fight against dharma, the worse off you’ll be.

That’s one of the ways Hinduism differs from Taoism. Taoism wants you to surrender to the flow, while Hinduism wants you do more than that — it wants you to be more like a whitewater river guide who has been trained in the ways of the river and experienced it over and over again until you understand the best way to get yourself out of the river safely; Taoism, on the other hand, just wants you to close your eyes and jump in.

To use the tree metaphor again, dharma is the way the roots channel their energy up through the trunk of the tree and out onto the farthest reaches of the highest leaves, where it finally comes into contact with the sun. If you ignore your dharma and keep channeling your energy around and around near the base of the tree, you’ll grow stunted, ensuring that when the tree dies, all of your energy will just goes back into the ground, to try once again to go home.

Follow your dharma, and you’ll know exactly which way to go.

But that’s all argument from metaphor. How to philosophize that argument?

I’ll leave that one for my students.

Reading Christ Without Faith

I am an atheist, but I read a lot about Christianity. I don’t read a lot of books about Islam (though I have read some), nor do I read about Judaism (though, again, I have read some); nor about Buddhism or Hinduism or Taoism or Shinto (though again, I have read some).

Christianity. That’s mostly what I read about.

The reason seems simple: I was raised as a Catholic in the suburbs of Boston. How Catholic? Well, not only was I baptized and confirmed as a Catholic, but I volunteered as an altar boy, and on Saturdays, I worked as a receptionist for my parish’s monsignor. I also played basketball for and went on overnight field trips with my local Catholic Youth Organization. Parish priests came to my house for dinner on more than one occasion, and I considered them (and still consider them) my friends.

A Hindu pandit, on the other hand, has never passed me the green beans, nor has a Buddhist monk. I wasn’t raised on the banks of the Ganges or at the base of Mt. Fuji. Yes, I did grow up in a town that felt at least half Jewish, and yes, I attended several Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, and yes, I broke bread at least half a dozen times with a rabbi, and yes, I would argue that one can’t really read about Christianity without also taking in a fair share of Judaism, but even when I read about Judaism, I usually do so as one who is there to find Catholicism.

(Just as a side note: Maybe the best book I’ve ever read on religion and spirituality explores Judaism through a conversation with the Dalai Lama; it’s called The Jew in the Lotus, and I can’t recommend it enough.)

I guess what I’m wondering is, why? Why my fascination with Catholicism? Is it really as simple as, “Because that’s how I was raised?”

I hope not.

I mean, of course it is — it absolutely is — but I also want it to be more than that.

First, I’m fascinated by the politics of it all. Back in high school, I was introduced to the fact that after Jesus died, his brother James the Just became the leader of the apostles, sharing power with Peter and John (“James and Cephas [Peter] and John, who were acknowledged pillars [of the Jerusalem church]” {Galatians, 2:9}). Then along comes Paul, a former hunter of Christians who never met the living Jesus, proclaiming that he knows Christ’s message better than those men who walked beside Him during His ministry and witnessed Him in His resurrection (“And from those who were supposed to be acknowledged leaders (what they actually were makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality)—those leaders contributed nothing to me” {Galatians, 2:6}).

The difference between what Paul preached and what the Jerusalem church preached was wide. Paul preached what we now consider the Christian message: “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians, 13:13). But the Jerusalem church must have preached something entirely different.

Remember, the Jerusalem church was a recognized band of fundamentalist revolutionaries whose politically assassinated leader called for a new definition of all that was held holy. James, himself, was enough of a nuisance to be stoned to death by Jerusalem’s high priest, an act that came not only from the early church’s ministry but also from the newly appointed high priest’s desire to make a big splash early in his career (he failed; his rash decision to murder a man whose epithet was “the Just” didn’t play well with the crowd, and the priest was quickly removed from office).

While we don’t know exactly what the Jerusalem church called for, the epistle of James differs from the epistles of Paul in that a) James does not refer to Jesus as the Son of God (he barely refers to Jesus at all), while most of what Paul writes ultimately finds its reasoning in the divine nature of Jesus Christ; and b) Paul writes that a person can be saved by faith alone, while James argues forcefully that “faith without works is…dead” (James 2:26).

These are two major differences. For Paul, Christianity’s validity comes from its revelation via the divine Lord, and its saving grace comes from the believer’s faith in that divinity. For James, however, Christianity is not a faith, per se, but a way of life, revealed by the prophets and embodied in the Lord Jesus Christ. For Paul, Christ is the law. For James, Jesus demonstrated the law.

The history of that argument is fascinating to me, especially since Paul’s argument was victorious and yet James’ argument feels more sound. Add on history’s iconoclastic takedown of all that the layman believes about Yeshua ben Yosef, and it’s easy to understand my fascination with the politics and the history.

Second, I’m fascinated by the theology. Christianity is the only major religion that declares God’s descension to the mortal realm (“And the Word became flesh and lived among us,” John 1:14). Judaism and Islam both declare their truths through the Word of God, as revealed by the prophet(s), but God remains fundamentally separated from the human, an abstract notion when He’s not communicating through a burning bush or an angel.

Hinduism’s concepts of the Atman and Brahman might allow an interpretation that comes close to Christianity’s God in the flesh, but Hinduism (like Shinto) is fundamentally polytheistic, so even if we stretched the metaphor in friendship, it would ultimately have to collapse in foolishness.

Both Taoism and Buddhism are godless religions (in the best sense of that phrase), so while the wisdom of the universe may be obtained there, that wisdom itself is never embodied the way John and Paul tell us that Jesus embodied God’s Word.

So that’s pretty ballsy, from a theological perspective.

Third, I’m fascinated by the message of it. I don’t know what Yeshua ben Yosef actually preached in the backwaters of Galilee in the first century CE, but I know over the next two thousand years, his disciples developed a rich and wise account of how a human ought to live: with faith in the future, hope for those among us, and love in our heart. I can get on board with that.

Fourth, I’m fascinated by the contradictions of its most avid devotees. I’m not talking about right-wing Christians who proclaim that Jesus wanted us all to get wealthy and to hate fags and communists and to arm ourselves against Islamic jihad. I’m talking about actual saints and Popes, the individuals who seem to believe with all of their heart and yet who also seem to stray from the path their Lord revealed to them  (I’m a fiction writer and reader, and thus a sucker for complex characters).

So yes, the reason I read so much about Christianity is because — without a doubt — I was born and raised a Catholic; but it’s also more than that. It’s a fascination with history, theology, morality, and humanity.

And those are topics in which my lack of faith still feels justified.

Religion For Atheists

From Aengus Woods‘ review of Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion

It is utterly impossible to get any sort of consensus on what we poor secularists need from religion. The beauty and danger of organized religion has always been its authoritarian aspect: It tells us what is wrong and what is right, what is healthy and what is impure. Apply these edicts to the secular world, and they begin to look suspiciously like indoctrination. Where is the place of criticality here, and exactly whose values get to be promoted?

On “The Language of God” (Part I)

In The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, Francis Collins, the leader of the international Human Genome Project, recounts his journey from being an agnostic to an atheist to a Christian (thanks to the writings of C.S. Lewis), and then argues in favor of (on the one hand) belief in God and (on the other hand) trust in science.

In this post, I’d like to explore Collins’ evidence for belief, and then, in a later post, respond to his caricature of atheism.

The Moral Law

His evidence rests on what he calls, after Lewis, the Moral Law, which stands for “a concept of right and wrong [that] appears to be universal among all members of the human species (though its application may result in wildly different outcomes).” The Moral Law does not signify a list of rules similar to the Ten Commandments; rather, it signifies the phenomenon of morality, the internal awareness of there being, in fact, a right and wrong way to proceed (regardless of our ability to explicitly discern the two).

The Moral Law is the standard, the higher authority, by which we judge our behaviors, “and its existence,” writes Collins, “seems unquestioned.” Even when we disagree as to whether one action or another better corresponds to that standard, we rarely deny the existence of the standard. The Moral Law is what gives us universal concepts of fairness, kindness, honesty, impartiality, etc. Again, we may disagree as to what actions or behaviors are fair or kind or honest, but we all agree that such concepts are real.

In an attempt to pre-empt the “postmodern” criticism that all ethics are relative and that there is no absolute right or wrong, Collins throws postmodernism back in its face: “If there is no absolute truth, can postmodernism itself be true? Indeed, if there is no right or wrong, then there is no reason to argue for the discipline of ethics in the first place.”

A Postmodern Interruption

Let me interrupt my explication of his argument to say that Collins’ understanding of postmodernism seems, at best, juvenile. Since he already admitted to finding “the actual sacred texts” of the world’s religions to be “too difficult” (requiring him to explore the various religions via “the CliffsNotes versions”), I don’t think it’s unfair to assume that he has also not read/understood the “sacred texts” of postmodernist philosophy (which, by all admission, are often more opaque than the sacred texts of the various religions).

If Collins had read them, he might have learned that the recursive argument against postmodernism (if there’s no truth, then how is postmodernism true?) begins with a false premise. Postmodern philosophy does not argue the fact that there is no such thing as truth. What it argues is that your truth differs from my truth and that both of them must differ, by virtue of our subjectivity, from the absolute truth; and thanks to the way our language is constructed (including mathematics), we’ll never be able to access the absolute truth.

Postmodernism is a critique of the unstated assumptions that arose during the Enlightenment; it is not a constructive philosophy in its own right. It does not construct a logic that reveals the absolute truth; instead, it deconstructs your logic to reveal your unstated assumptions that will always already remain in play. It does not argue for its truth; it argues against your truth.

What Collins fails to grasp is the difference between destruction and deconstruction. He believes that postmodernism seeks to destroy the concept of the truth, but the reality is that postmodernism seeks to deconstruct the concept, not destroy it.

The process of deconstruction allows a postmodern critic to reveal the hidden assumptions that you’ve used to construct your argument, and more often than not, those assumptions originate in a subjective (and unargued) standpoint founded on a set of historic personal and/or cultural biases.

In other words, deconstruction (if done well) reveals the unsupported ground that your rational argument is based on, and it often (when done well) leads its listeners and readers into a feeling of intellectual vertigo.

Using the process of deconstruction, postmodernism doesn’t assert that there is no ground truth to our universe; it only demonstrates that your argument, despite your claims, does not rest on it.

With that being said, how might a postmodernist (this postmodernist) critique the concept of the Moral Law (as explained by Collins)?

The obvious answer might start with Collins’ assertion that the Moral Law is universal, but its supporting evidence (examining the diversity of moral codes across time and cultures) would take us in the wrong direction, since the argument in favor of the Moral Law is not about a prescription for behavior X over behavior Y, but rather, humanity’s universal sense of morality, the intuition that there is, irrespective of its cultural formulation, a right and wrong way to behave.

The postmodernist, then, should start the critique not with the cultural relativity of morality, but with the bodily relativity of it; that is, by demonstrating the Moral Law as the product of evolutionary pressures on the development of the human species.

If the Moral Law depends upon these evolutionary pressures, then morality would become (nothing more and nothing less) than a useful tool for genetic reproduction in the various environments that have been present during a small planet’s orbit of a minor star in a particular galaxy somewhere in the far reaches of the universe, a fact that would hardly support the Moral Law’s claim to universality.

The Inability for Morality to Evolve

But after discounting the postmodern critique using a (false) argument of recursion, Collins also attempts to cut off the evolutionary tack. He realizes that, “If this argument could be shown to hold up, the interpretation of many of the requirements of the Moral Law as a signpost to God would potentially be in trouble.”

He rests his argument on the existence of altruism, “the voice of conscience calling us to help others even if nothing is received in return…the truly selfless giving of oneself to others with absolutely no secondary motives.” The love that altruism demonstrates is called by Christians, “agape,” which differs from the love of affection, friendship, and romance.

Agape, Collins writes, “presents a major challenge to the evolutionist,” — and remember, Collins is the dude who led the Human Genome Project, so he is a firm believer in evolution. He continues, “It cannot be accounted for by the drive of individual selfish genes to perpetuate themselves. Quite the contrary: it may lead humans to make sacrifices that lead to great personal suffering, injury, or death, without evidence of benefit.”

He then takes on a few of the evolutionary responses to agape, such as the notion that it is recognized as a positive attribute in a potential mate, i.e., we want mates who are nicer, rather than meaner, so if we act nicer, we have a better chance of finding a mate with whom we can reproduce. Collins puts up against this argument the range of cruel behaviors that non-human primates use to reproduce, “such as the practice of infanticide by a newly dominant male monkey, in order to clear way for his own future off-spring” (there can hardly be more of a turn-off than murdering your potential mate’s previous children).

He then argues against the idea that agape leads to advantages over time (i.e., if you act nice now, without any clear benefit, chances are that you will be rewarded in the future — we can call this the “karmic” argument), but to this, Collins asks how it explains those “small acts of conscience that no one else knows about.”

Finally, he argues against the idea that altruistic practices by an individual benefit the group, and thus, aid in the continued evolution of the group’s related genes, if not the exact genes residing in the individual. The example here is the sterile worker-ants who “toil incessantly to create an environment where their mothers can have more children.” Collins responds to this argument by saying, first, “evolutionists now agree almost universally that selection operates on the individual, not the population,” and second, that “group-aided altruism” cannot account for those instances when we practice altruism outside of our group: “Shockingly,” Collins writes, “the Moral Law will ask me to save the drowning man even if he is an enemy.”

How does the unbelieving evolutionist respond to these arguments, which, again, are made by an individual who we have to assume by virtue of his role in Human Genome Project is among the world’s leading thinkers when it comes to evolution?

The Metaphorical Basis of Morality

One response might find its path through the cognitive-science-based philosophy of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, which holds that, “the mind is inherently embodied; thought is mostly unconscious; [and] abstract thoughts are largely metaphorical.”

The basic argument of their book is that “we understand our experience via conceptual metaphors, we reason according to their metaphorical logic, and we make judgements on the basis of the metaphors.” The metaphors arise from the ways our physical bodies exist in the world, and thus they are dependent not upon any absolute truths, but upon the historical development of humanity.

Lakoff and Johnson see their philosophy as bridging a middle path between rationalism and postmodernism. Our understanding of the world cannot be absolute (as extreme rationalists might like it), but nor is it arbitrary and unconstrained (as the extreme postmodernists’ might assert). Lakoff and Johnson argue for a philosophy that is grounded and situated in who we are and where we come from.

In one chapter of their book, Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Westen Thought, Lakoff and Johnson argue that the metaphors that govern our morality “are typically based on what people over history and across cultures have seen as contributing to their well-being.”

For example, it is better to be healthy rather than sick. It is better if the food you eat, the water you drink, and the air you breath are pure rather contaminated. It is better to be strong rather than weak. It is better to be in control rather out of control or dominated by others. People seek freedom rather than slavery…People would rather be socially connected, protected, cared about, and nurtured than be isolated, vulnerable, ignored, or neglected. [etc.]

Lakoff and Johnson then go on to show how these notions of our physical well-being become metaphors for our moral well-being:

Morality is fundamentally seen as the enhancing of well-being, especially of others. For this reason, these basic folk theories of what constitutes fundamental well-being form the grounding for systems of moral metaphors around the world. For example…, since it is better to be healthy than to be sick, it is not surprising to find immorality conceptualized as a disease. Immoral behavior is often seen as a contagion that can spread out of control.

They continue:

When we began to analyze the metaphoric structure of these ethical concepts, again and again the source domains were based on this simple list of elementary aspects of human well-being — health, wealth, strength, balance, protection, nurturance, and so on.

So what does this all mean for how agape might have evolved? How does our discovery that the world’s moral systems are fundamentally based on the well-being of our physical bodies discount the notion of a divinely inspired Moral Law?

It has to do with Lakoff and Johnson’s finding that “we all conceptualize well-being as wealth.”

We understand an increase in well-being as a gain and a decrease in well-being as a loss or cost. [This] is the basis for a massive metaphor system by which we understand our moral actions, obligations, and responsibilities….in terms of financial transaction….Increasing others’ well-being gives you a moral credit; doing them harm creates a moral debt to them; that is, you owe them an increase in their well-being-as-wealth.”

In this system, altruism is explained as an action that “builds up moral credit.” Any good action one person takes on behalf of another puts the other person in moral debt to the do-gooder; in altruism, the do-gooder cancels the debt, but they “nonetheless build up moral credit.”

Altruism, then, is how one grows wealthier at the expense of no one and nothing, and since our minds understand “wealth” as contributing to our own well-being, increasing our moral wealth increases our sense of well-being.

According to this argument, the evolutionary pressure that gives rise to altruism is the same evolutionary pressure that gives rise to our universal desire to increase our wealth: the understanding that an increase in wealth equals an increase in our well-being.

How does this explain, Collins might argue, an example of a man sacrificing himself (and his genes) in order to save a drowning enemy, since such an action does irreparable harm to one’s well-being?

Lakoff and Johnson argue that all of morality is ultimately based on some conception of the family and of family morality, and that this in turn is based on another metaphor “in which we understand all of humanity as part of one huge family…This metaphor entails a moral obligation, binding on all people, to treat each other as we ought to treat our family members.” If Lakoff and Johnson are right, then our embodied mind sees the enemy drowning in the river as our brother.

By revealing that morality is ultimately based on the metaphor of “The Family of Man,” Lakoff and Johnson account for instances of altruism that go beyond our group. The reality is that, to our embodied mind, all of humanity belongs to our group.

Of course, we still haven’t explained why we’d leap into the river in the first place: if altruism is understood as an increase in moral wealth that does not necessitate an increase in another’s moral debt, how would we evolve the notion of sacrificing our lives — and thus the totality of our wealth — for another person?

The answer lies in cognitive science’s discovery that “thought is largely unconscious.” The “selfish gene” conception of evolution argues that genes act in their own self-interest. Under the selfish gene model, altruism seems untenable because, obviously, altruism is defined as acting without (and sometimes despite) one’s self-interest.

But Lakoff and Johnson argue that, since most of our reasoning is unconscious, “we can now see that the moral problem of the apparent conflict between selfishness and altruism is ill-defined, because…we are not rational self-interest maximizers in the traditional sense.”

As human animals with the kinds of minds we have, we do not always act in our own self-interest, and we rarely have rationally consistent explanations for doing the things that we do. So when we jump into the river to save our enemy (or anyone else), it might be enough to realize that our embodied mind believes that we’re jumping into the river to save our brother.

Conclusion

In The Evolution of God, Robert Wright argues that moral evolution happens because “a people’s culture adapts to salient shifts in game-theoretical dynamics by changing its evaluation of the moral status of the people it is playing the games with.” In other words, the culture expands its understanding of who is in the group to those who previously stood outside of it. We can see this in the evolution of monotheism from the tribal exclusivity of Judaism’s worship of YHWH to the Pauline inclusion of the Gentile as also being worthy of God’s grace.

To argue that the Moral Law evolved here on Earth rather than being given to us by a divine and absolute God is not to assert that religion has never played a role in the development of morality or that humanity has not benefited from the roles religion has played. But it is to argue that the Moral Law does not serve as convincing evidence of God’s existence.

I believe the phenomenological existence of morality can be better explained through a conceptual model that connects the evolutionary pressure on the gene (to help a family member) with the evolutionary development of our embodied (and metaphorically reasoning) mind (which sees all of humanity as members of our family).

I also believe that we act morally because we unconsciously conceive of moral actions as increasing our wealth, and hence, our well-being, which metaphorically serves the self-interest of our genes.

I also believe, with Lakoff and Johnson, that the universality of the Moral Law originates in the common physical attributes of the human animal, which in turn gives rise to the metaphors that govern our embodied minds.

I don’t know if this argument would convince Collins to give up the divine origin of his Moral Law, but I do think it opens the door to an answer that is more satisfying that his recourse to the absolute.

In my next post, I’ll look at Collins’ unfair caricature of atheism and see if we can’t find a better way to imagine it.

How Religion Works for Me

I do not believe that Muhammad wrestled with the angel Gabriel on the outskirts of Mecca. Nor do I believe that a man named Joshua Ben Joseph arose from the dead after being interred for three days. Nor do I believe that Moses came down from the mountaintop carrying the 10 Commandments of YHWH. Nor do I believe that Zoroaster turned down a deal with Anra Mainyu that would have made the prophet the sovereign over the world. Nor do I believe that Krishna froze time in order to convince Arjuna to fight. Nor do I believe that the Aesir and Venir actually engaged in a war. Nor do I believe that an Athenian queen, on the evening of her wedding, slept with a sea-god and later gave birth to a hero who would go on to kill a monster who was half man and half bull.

Instead of believing in those things, I believe that some of humanity’s greatest storytellers and philosophers developed conceptual systems that aid in the communication of heart-salving wisdom and/or embody hard-won lessons learned through historical conflict.

To read or listen to the Koran, the Bible, the Torah, the Avesta, the Bhaggavad Gita, the Vedas, the Poetic and Prose Eddas, the poetry and plays of ancient Greece, etc. is the act of experiencing great literature, and in that, it helps develop our sense of compassion, love, obligation, beauty, etc.

And for this, we should be grateful.

But we should not make the mistake of seeing such literature as rigorous proofs for the existence of the gods or God.

I applaud Catholics and Muslims and Jews for dedicating hours, years, and lifetimes to interpreting the wisdom they find in their sacred texts, just as I applaud Joyceans for dedicating precious time to interpreting the intentionally coded messages found in their sacred text of Finnegans Wake.

But in the same way that I do not let the words of James Joyce dictate the choices I make, so I do not allow the world’s religions to dictate my path through this life. I have no problem going to these founts of wisdom for assistance and guidance, just as I do not have a problem going to Shakespeare, Homer, or David Foster Wallace for a similar kind of guidance.

Great literature is great for a reason.

But we need not make a religion out of it.