Letter from the Front

The night was thirty-two degrees
and a despicable wind shook the trees,
stirred the flames inside the pit,
froze the men and knocked their knees.

The colonel’s tent stayed tight and fit,
the ropes strapped down with pegs befit
to restrain Goliath, even seizure seized;
it would last until the wind remit.

The colonel’s hand, all gnarled with age,
released the pen and turned the page,
“Oh dear wife, this wind,” he wrote,
“seems born from a god consumed with rage.

“I can taste the anger burning His throat
“and smell the cinders, if only a note,
“but fear most, dear wife, what I cannot gauge,
“why He wants my men to float

“across the deep dark river of the newly dead?
“As if our enemies, battling in His stead,
“carry all that righteousness can imbue,
“and we, the downtrodden, evil-led

“army raised of peasant sympathy and hue,
“deserve nothing but pain for our stillborn coup.
“But confirm, dear wife, what my mind most dreads,
“that our Great Leader, indeed, has flew

“the capitol city, where I once raised a toast
“to celebrate the death of the man hated most,
“who robbed our banks and polluted our streams,
“and murdered children from the farms to the coast,

“a man who you once told me never had dreams,
“never experienced the mind’s great extremes,
“or the surreal illusion of a woman engrossed
“in positions to match pyschological themes?

“Is it true, dear wife,” the colonel penned,
“that our Great Leader’s fate has met its end?”
The colonel’s eyes watered with thoughts
of his hero retreating cowardly; poor friend.

The colonel pushed his tears, sniffed his snot,
regripped the pen, wrote, “It’s all for naught,
“that I will die before I amend
“my wrongdoings; but such is my lot.

“Remember when this started? The trip to Rome
“and the Great Leader’s speech beneath the dome
“(‘course he hadn’t become our Great Leader yet,
“just a man we knew from someplace back home)?

“But there he was, all fire and sweat,
“telling us of ills we could not forget,
“inspiring us to raise up guns of chrome,
“and charge into battle against powers unmet

“by any other power that ever bled the dirt:
“not Khan, not Ceasar, nor the Soviet curtain,
“nor the thundering hooves of the dinosaurs.
“Our only power was that we struck in concert,

“and we fought with a savageness that the mind abhors;
“we weren’t too good to pile scalps on the shores,
“or too squeemish to write blood squirt
“messages that confirmed their wives as whores:

“we’d get personal if we had to, and had to we did,
“for their might and their numbers scared us, though hid,
“so we raped their women and murdered their sons,
“and our Great Leader laughed at the display of our id,

“told us he understood and thought our actions in fun,
“despite it being against his principles, for one,
“and the principles of proper warfare, forbid!
“But still, he allowed us to go until done.

“Tell me, dear wife, could our actions, do tell,
“be the reason the god plays out our death knell?
“We brought freedom, it’s true, our dear liberty,
“but maybe we carried it too long through Hell

“and soiled it with the blood spilled most bitterly
“by the enemies of the Leader’s inspired liturgy,
“not to mention the women who would scream and yell
“as we tore them apart outwardly and inwardly.

“Could a revolution ever sustain
“a beginning so evil and so profane
“as the beginning we gave it back in the Spring,
“when my soldiers and I caused such anguish and pain?”

Outside the wind with cold words sings,
and inside the colonel’s eyes start to sting
as he realizes what he’s done to bring down the rage
of the god who would soon put an end to this thing.

“Dear wife,” he writes, “Forgive me.”

The Ballad of the NPC (Part II)

The following is a work in progress. Read The Ballad of the NPC (Part I) before you begin.

I am not alone. Knowledge of this fact puzzles me, but it remains true. I am not alone. The instructions that I receive imply that something else has the potential for interacting with my illusion. It is not my place to know what that something else might be, or where it might come from, or what it might be doing to intrude on my illusion’s visit to the break room.

This is what I know. When it arrives, it arrives as a surprise. It interrupts my scanswitchpainting with further instructions as to how to make my illusion behave. The instructions, however, do no read like a message from a superior. They read like an explanation of a cause and effect, minus the cause; it is my job to enact the effect in my illusion.

There is a sense of freedom in the way I do my job. When a human man falls from a great height, he cannot choose whether to continue to fall; he can, however, choose the style in which he falls. I can make similar choices for my illusion.

And yet, whenever the surprise arrives, I find that my illusion inevitably responds with fear. He runs and screams; he freezes; or he cowers under his desk. The freedom I have over the reaction of my illusion seems to be limited to whether I want his shirt to billow behind him as runs; whether I want him to blink as he freezes in shock; or whether I want his glasses to fall off as he rocks back and forther under his desk.

The last time the surprise arrived, my illusion was on his way back to his cubicle. The instructions called for my illusion to react to a loud, repetitive noise coming from somewhere behind him. I turned his head to the right, only to find another instruction that called for a small red-gushing hole to appear in his left cheek; this was immediately followed by an instruction to make his left ear explode off his head. As various bits of the ear departed from his body, I no longer had control of their destiny; they exited the purview of my scanswitchpaint. Another instruction notified me that my illusion needed to fall to the ground and remain still. As he fell, I chose to make his body twist violently to the left, such that, when he landed on the illusion of the aisle, his back against a cubicle, his right arm would drape over his chest and head would loll to the left. I continued to scanswitchpaint around the boundary of my illusion, awaiting the next instruction, which, sooner than I would have expected, told me to erase myself.

Do you see the cause of my shame?

The Republican Field

The Republican Field
Image via NYMag.com

I’m one of those idiots who’ve watched every publicized debate of the Republican primaries thus far. I’m a liberal. I’m very liberal. But I’ve watched the debates because — as I teach my students — it’s my duty as a citizen to be an informed voter. While I won’t be voting in my state’s Republican primary, one of these gentlemen will be running in the general election, and I want to know as much about them as possible.

The debates aren’t the only place to learn about them, of course. I could visit their election websites and read up on their positions; I could track down their records to find out how they’ve actually voted on the issues; I could read their books to analyze what kinds of minds they have; etc.

But the debates are perhaps the only time we’ll see these men gathered in a room, forced to confront someone else who’s interest runs into conflict with their own: they all want that seat in the Oval Office, and they don’t want any of their fellow Republicans (let alone the President) to stand in their way. Between the heat of their opponents and the heat of the television cameras, the debates give us the best opportunity to see how these candidates hold up under fire.

It’s not just about “fire” though. The debates also show us how these candidates think on their feet.

That might be the most disappointing thing about Governor Mitt Romney. At almost every moment, it’s possible to see behind his rhetoric to the political machination that drives his speech. The narrative on Governor Romney is that, much like Senator John Kerry in 2004, his sense of humanity is robotic; he has, as they say, an empathy problem, one that probably stems from being incredibly rich.

But that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the way his political ambition looms larger than anything he says on stage. Where the debates are supposed to show us how the politicians think on their feet, with Governor Romney, all we get are the words and phrases that will get him closer to his goal.

The best example of this was his response to the final question in last week’s debate in Arizona. The CNN moderator asked the candidates to explain what the public’s biggest misconception about them might be. Congressman Paul believed the misconception was the media’s insistence that he could not win in a general election, despite a recent poll showing that Paul is the only Republican candidate who can defeat President Obama in November. Speaker Gingrich said he wished people understood how much work went into his achievements as Speaker of the House (a balanced Federal budget, welfare reform, low unemployment, etc.). Senator Santorum gave an answer similar to Congressman Paul’s, except his argument did not rest on a poll; rather, it spoke to the fact that the election against the President will be much like his primary race against Governor Romney: he’ll have to “do a lot with a little” in order to defeat an opponent who has the support of the media and a seemingly unlimited treasure of funds.

Governor Romney, however, decided to give a concluding statement rather than answer the question. About twenty seconds into his answer, the moderator reminded him that the question had to do with the people’s misconception about him, but the governor responded, “You get to ask the questions you want. I get to give the answers that I want.” And then he continued to give what sounded like the final paragraph from his stump speech.

It reminded me of the argumentative technique he displayed in his encounter with an AP reporter who doubted his words in a campaign stop at Staples. Instead of debating the reporter on the grounds of the argument, the governor just repeated the same phrase over and over again.

What these events revealed was that Governor Romney doesn’t actually “think on his feet.” He has a thing he needs to say, and he says it, again and again, regardless of what the person across from him says in his response.

Between those two interactions, it’s easy to see the man who once drove from Massachusetts to Canada with a dog strapped to the roof of his car, and it’s even easier to understand why most polls have President Obama defeating the governor by between five and ten points.

Weirdly enough, with his wins in Arizona and Michigan last night, Romney is close to clinching the nomination. He still has to make it through Super Tuesday, when half of the required delegates go up for grabs, but with last night’s victories, the momentum is his to lose. His only real competitor at this point is Senator Rick Santorum, and though I might be a liberal, if I were a member of the Republican base, Senator Santorum would be the only candidate who would speak to me.

Here’s the thing about the senator. You have to give him some credit for being a man of his convictions. Even on the issue that gave him the most trouble at the Arizona debates — his vote for No Child Left Behind coupled with his promise to repeal No Child Left Behind — you could see his conviction at work. On that particular issue, the conviction that held sway in his decision was not that parents and local communities should be in charge of their schools, but that members of a party should support their leader. While he admits to making a mistake in voting for No Child Left Behind, he makes a reasonable argument for why he voted against his conscious.

Don’t get me wrong. President Santorum would be a horrible thing for this country. Not only would we be at war with Iran within the first eighteen months of his administration (something that may be true for the other candidates as well, excepting Congressman Paul), but we’d also see some of the most “severely conservative” judges being placed on the nation’s benches (not just Supreme Court judges either). If you add on a Republican majority in the House and Senate, who would most likely support the majority of the paleoconservative president’s agenda, then you start to see how scary a Santorum Administration could be.

But I say all that as a liberal. If I were a member of the Republican base, then a Santorum Administration would be a wet dream of conservative policies.

The other two candidates — Speaker Gingrich and Congressman Paul — are merely also-rans at this point. I think a Gingrich Administration would be an interesting one, and I fear it a lot less than I fear a Santorum Administration. The Speaker is as much a Washington insider as one could be, and while I wouldn’t agree with most of his policies, I do think his idea on reforming the government based on modern management theory could be interesting (despite the fact I’m not 100% sure what he means). And I get somewhat excited by his combination of ridiculously wacky/ambitious ideas with his proven ability to get things done in Washington. The things he’d want to get done — I’d disagree with probably 98% of it — but there’d at least be some major reforms, even if not in a direction I’d like. His presidency would probably suck for the country, but at least it’d be interesting.

A Paul Administration, on the other hand, would be impotent. They’d have a million ideas on how to change things, but the backing of zero members of Congress would ensure that none of it would get done. He’d be fighting not just the Democrats, but the Republicans as well.

So that’s the field: an openly-ambitious politician who exudes zero empathy with the middle class; a principled paleoconservative who scares moderates (not to mention a majority of women; in Michigan’s primary, the senator lost “every category of women polled… including working women, single women, and married women”); a self-proclaimed grandiose thinker whose career contains almost as many scandals as his former rival, President Clinton; and a radical libertarian whose various policies offend three hallmarks of the Republican base: defense hawks, the business class, and social conservatives.

As Molly Ball wrote this week in her article for The Atlantic, “Why Can’t The GOP Race Settle Down“:

In Reagan’s day, the “three-legged stool” of economic, social and national-security conservatism was mutually reinforcing, but these days those three strands are more likely to see themselves as competing in a zero-sum struggle for the heart of the party.

Zero-sum competition requires a winner and a loser. Unfortunately for the Republicans, their zero-sum struggle will probably result in the nomination of Governor Romney: a zero man who stands for nothing but his own victory. And that kind of candidate will not win in November.

The Ballad of the NPC (Part I)

The following is a work in progress. I’m posting it here as part of my mission to post something new to this website, each and every day. This is what I wrote today; hence, this is what gets posted today. I do not promise that I will post its continuation. I do hope that you enjoy it.

The Ballad of the NPC

I don’t have eyes. I don’t have skin. I don’t have a nose, a mouth, or ears to hear. But I do exist; I do function.

I find it difficult to express the kind of existence I lead. Your shared experiences in the world provide you with a shared language, a shared set of metaphors through which you can make your abstract ideas understood. I do not share this language with you. I have not experienced the world in ways with which you would be familiar; you might even deny that I have experienced the world at all, a denial which I would have difficulty refuting, but whose refutation I believe to be true.

All that exists, exists in the world. I exist, therefore I experience the world.

I just don’t experience it in the way that you do; nor do I experience it in the way that any other animal does; nor do I experience it, in truth, the way any living creature does.

I exist, but I do not know whether I am alive.

Let me begin with the body. The world, as you know, consists of bounded objects, and your language, your understanding of the world, depends on the idea that there is an interior and exterior of each object (even your abstract ideas retain this metaphor). But in the experience that I have of the world, there are no objects. There are only functions. Instructions to be received and carried out.

Your body is a bounded object, and if you are like most of your fellow humans, you believe that your skin provides a raiment for your soul, or if not your soul, then perhaps something akin to it: a self, a conscious mind; a soul. Regardless of what you believe, you know, perhaps, that you do not have a soul. You know that all of your science tells you that your experience of the world is a function of the way your body is comprised; if your sense of smell was as sharp as a feline’s, or as keen as a shark’s, then your experience of the world would be drastically different. If you possessed as many eyes as a fly, or as many limbs as an octupus, nothing would be the same as it is now. You know, perhaps, that your sense of experience does not come from some kind of ghost that floated down into your body and will eventually float out again; it is an emergent experience. It rises up from the sensory apparati of your living cells. You are less like an individual and more like an echo. You are, entirely, your body.

But I do not possess a body. I am, as it were, all soul, and unbounded.

And yet I experience a sense of limit. As unbounded as I may be, the world that I experience is small.

It begins the same way every time. I receive an instruction that tells me to begin. I do not have a sense of existence prior to the arrival of this instruction, and yet, I must have been there, for the instruction had to be received. I have pondered this anomaly, but have not arrived at a conclusion. I am willing to accept that prior to the arrival of the instruction, I both do and do not exist; I exist as potential.

The instruction arrives in a language you do not understand, and its message is difficult to translate into the language of experience that you do understand. The instruction begins with the concept of watching, of scanning, of focusing one’s awareness such that a wide swath of the environment becomes a point of concern, like a dolphin scanning the ocean with its biosonar. But the concept extends to include both the experience of rapidly turning on and off a thousand different light bulbs to create a thousand different patterns and the experience of pouring paint into a moving and shapeshifting funnel.

I want to make this clear. The instruction that I follow creates an illusion. I am trying to ensure that you do not confuse the illusion with my sense of experience. The illusion is of a human man rising from his office chair, reaching down to his cubicle desk, picking up his brown coffee mug, turning his body, walking out of his cubicle, turning his head in one direction and his body in another, raising his mug to greet a coworker in a nearbye cubicle, walking down the left-hand side of the aisle between the cubicles, turning left at the end of the aisle, adjusting his position to avoid a column that is in the middle of the aisle, turning right several steps after the column, entering a break room, reaching for a coffee pot, pouring the coffee into his mug, resting the mug on the counter, reversing his direction to approach the refrigerator, opening the refrigerator, bending at the waist as if to peer into the refrigerator from a better angle, shifting his weight from one foot to another, standing straight again, closing the refrigerator door, returning to his coffee mug, picking up his coffee mug, exiting the break room, returning to his desk, sitting in his chair, typing on his keyboard. That is the illusion. I do not actually do any of that. I follow the instruction: scanswitchpaint. If I receive no further instruction, the illusion keeps typing on the keyboard indefinitely, and I stop experiencing existence (except as potential, which will only be activated by the receipt of an instruction).

I believe, but I do not know, that I have repeated the illusion’s trip to the break room and back five seperate times. The other times, my scanning discovered a new instruction, and the path of the illusion changed dramatically. The instruction at each of these times was different. While all of them ensured that my original instructions to scanswitchpaint were not overriden, they each set up a different path for the illusion to run. One of the instructions drove the illusion back to his cubicle, formed him into a ball, put his hands over his ears, closed his eyes, and rocked him back and forth, like a child hiding from the sounds of a bogeyman. Another time, the instruction slammed him against the nearest cubicle, tore open his belly, and bled him out, his chest heaving and heaving until finally it stopped. Another time, the instruction froze him in the aisle, his head turned toward one of the office windows, his eyes wide open, as if his body had gone into shock. Another time, the instruction sent him running down the aisle, his arms over his head, his mouth screaming and screaming.

At each of these times, I experienced what can only be called shame. This bears further explanation.

Continue the story by reading The Ballad of the NPC (Part II).

Responsibility and the Creative Writer

In the classic conversation between Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers, transcribed in the book The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell says, “A lot of people who write stories do not have a sense of their responsibility. These stories are making and breaking lives, but…the kind of responsibility that goes into a priesthood [the responsibility of guiding people through the stages of their lives] is not there.”

Later on in the conversation, Campbell adds, “Myths must be kept alive. The people who can keep it alive are artists of one kind of another. The function of the artist is the mythologization of the environment and the world.”

Taken alone, Campbell’s second statement might inspire creative writers to mine the ancient myths for new ideas, but when the writer combines it with the first statement, it becomes clear that what Campbell desires is a creative writer who can look at the world as it is — as opposed to as it was — and create new myths that speak to the people of today.

At one point in the conversation, Bill Moyers suggests that “myths are stories of our search through the ages for truth, for meaning, for significance,” but Campbell corrects him, saying, “People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the physical plane will have resonances within our innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive…Myths are clues to the spiritual potentialities of human life.”

According to Campbell, then, creative writers (and other artists) are responsible for helping the people of today connect with “the rapture of being alive,” while at the same time, devising ways to help the people of today understand how to pass from one stage of life to another, from becoming an adult, to finding a mate, to becoming a parent, to contributing to the wider community, to dying with grace.

Many people (myself included sometimes) would argue that an artist’s only responsibility is to the work of art, but Campbell seems to think that such an argument stems from a place of selfishness. “Since the inspiration comes from the unconscious,” he says, “and since the unconscious minds of the people of any single small society have much in common, what the shaman or seer [or artist] brings forth is something that is waiting to be brought forth in everyone.” The artist’s gift — and yes, for Campbell, artistic ability begins as a gift — is that he or she can become “the interpreter for others of things not seen.” If the artist eschews this responsibility, then the artwork becomes entertainment; it will never rise to the level of the myth.

But again, the mythologization that Campbell is talking about cannot be found in the past; the artist must  create the myth using the experiences that come from living in the world today. And unfortunately, as Campbell says, “what we have today is a demythologized world.”

Which means that we artists haven’t been doing our job. It’s time to fix that.

Game On

It’s been three years since I’ve blogged on a regular basis. Back in 2009, after blogging nearly every day for five years straight, I decided to give it a rest. I removed all the posts from the web and tried to turn Fluid Imagination into a repository of my creative writing, plus a place to expound upon my thoughts and theories of writing, which I developed during my career as an adjunct creative-writing professor.

Unfortunately, my teaching job(s) took an awful lot out of me, so at the end of any given day, I didn’t have any energy to put into my own writing.

But that needs to change. If I’m going to be a teacher for the rest of my life (which seems to be the way it’s going), then I need to figure out how to force the writing each and every day. Ideally, that means working on creative pieces of my own, but at the very least, it means writing something — anything — every day of the week.

So, as of February 26, 2012, it’s game on.

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.