The Selfishness of the Giving Tree

True love is unselfish, right? It gives generously and asks for nothing in return. When I sense that myself or someone else is playing the martyr, I think jokingly of The Giving Tree, a poem written by Shel Silverstein. There is a legitimate point to explore here, though. For those unfamiliar with the story, a boy and a tree have a playful and symbiotic relationship that grows more and more one-sided as the boy ages into a man. The tree literally gives parts of herself to make the boy happy, first her apples, then her branches, then her trunk, until there is nothing left but a stump. When the boy returns as an old man needing nothing but to sit on the stump and rest his weary bones, the man and the tree returning to symbiosis.

Though a children’s poem, it expresses an issue of existential and social concern. There are many different ways the story can be read, and just in rereading it, I was both saddened and angered. We are intrigued by the poem because we want to be the tree, and we often style ourselves as the tree, but we think that more often, we are actually the little boy.

The poem gets off easy, though, painting love and selfishness in black and white. We should note that there is a vast gray area between selfish and selfless. The first definition of selfish in my dictionary is, “lacking consideration for others.” “Consideration” is deceptively subjective. It means, “careful not to cause inconvenience or to hurt others.” Although politeness is valuable, if you take any sort of a meaningful stance on anything, you will cause inconvenience, and just by living around others, you will be inconvenienced most days. If you’re like me, your first instinct may be to think how selfish those people are, although you have no way of judging if your concerns are any less important than theirs.

But put that on hold and let’s look at the second definition of selfish, which is “concerned chiefly with one’s own personal profit or pleasure.” How can this be judged? In the poem, the boy is certainly selfish according to the definition, and the tree selfless, but life never plays out in such a tidy narrative. Even if it did though, you will note that the tree doesn’t want nothing. The tree wants to be happy, and thinks it will be happy if the boy is happy. A psychologist might call the tree codependent, but that won’t really help us. The tree wants something, although it doesn’t know an efficient way to gain it. Is the tree less selfish than the boy? Do we respect the tree more?

I Googled “jesus giving tree” just to see how many people make that connection, and as I suspected, there are quite a few examples. I have no idea what Shel Silverstein intended with the poem, and it really doesn’t matter, but one can certainly map the evangelical Jesus onto the giving tree. He just wants to play and hang out and be buds, but you’re selfish. That’s okay, he’ll be there when you get back and give you a final place of rest. The problem with the poem, or the model of love supposedly given in the Christian portrait of Jesus, comes when we think we can apply it to our own lives. All our actions are concerned with self, and we establish a false ideal when we judge the actions of others and ourselves on the basis of a selfish/selfless dichotomy that can never be determined on the ground.

In debates with others I’ve suggested that all our actions are selfish, but that’s not quite right either. However, we don’t and can’t love without an element of self-calculation. A Christian response is to attack that head on and denounce it with some sort of penance or ascetic practice, or else attempt to ignore it and rationalize it away. These actions distort our understanding of self and cloud our understanding of others in a sort of Nietzschean ressentiment, a resentment that condemns self and other. If, however, we can approach our relationships with an honest assessment of what we want out of them, without stigmatizing our self-interest, we may be able to love more openly. It is better that we take control of what that is and the best way to achieve it rather than ceding our interests and desires to ready-made institutional categories.

This post is as much about notions of the self as it is love, but the presence or absence of self is a traditional defining factor of love that I’m arguing is misplaced. In a well-known passage, the apostle Paul notes that love is not self-seeking, but neither is it self-denying. It is self-identifying. In a gloss on the philosopher Martin Heidegger, one scholar explains that my love of another—and another’s love for me—is found in the shared possibility of a story that is ever exposed and always changing. The shared journey of love requires preference for the other in order to reveal the self to oneself.

So I am not saying we should give full reign to selfishness. The late David Foster Wallace has an excellent speech, This is Water, that expresses the perils of this beautifully. The first seven minutes or so of the second half are the best, but I’d highly recommend the whole thing. He’s giving a speech to Kenyon College about how if we go through life on our “default setting,” we will usually view other people as annoyances that are “in our way.” His point is that if we go to the effort to make a choice about how we will view the world, it can take on an entirely different meaning, the meaning that we give it. I think this can be applied to the way we think about love as well. Ordering our world requires a self-interest that then gives us the freedom to love.

13 thoughts on “The Selfishness of the Giving Tree

  1. Surprisingly, I find myself in almost total agreement with you, with the exception of possibly a couple things.

    It may be that you have only been exposed to the “Christian Portrait” of Jesus. Like you said if the portrait of Jesus is one portrayed as selfless than how can we Christians apply that model. I don’t see the Bible depicting God or Jesus as a “Giving Tree”. There is “self” involved with God. In fact, God’s self is his ultimate aim. We are told in Is. 43:25, “I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake.” Also in Eph. 1:6 that our adoption as sons and daughters is unto “the praise of his glorious grace.” And even the greatest expression of love was done so out of the hope of personal joy, “who for the joy set before him endured the cross.”

    All of this is to recognize that if you view God as being man-centered, then yes, this model of love doesn’t translate. But the bible is not man-centered. In fact, it is incredibly God-centered. God does everything for God’s own sake. God is the object of God’s worship and to take himself out of his own equation would not be a virtuous act–it would be an evil act.

    I think it is a huge philosophical assumption to define love only in the parameters of self-lessness (as you have also said). I immediately thought of Pascal in his Penses “All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of some going to war, and of others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different views. The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves.”

    Pascal is touching on the intrinsic self-interest of humanity (You’re right. “Selfish” is not the right term). Even if we were to play the martyr for a greater good, we would be doing it only as a means to find personal happiness in sacrifice. Absolute self-lessness is unavoidable.

    Even the late atheist Ayn Rand wrote, “An action is moral, said Kant, only if one has no desire to perform it, but performs it out of a sense of duty and derives no benefit from it of any sort, neither material nor spiritual. A benefit destroys the moral value of an action. (Thus if one has no desire to be evil, one cannot be good, if one has, one can.).” For The Intellectual

    She is absolutely right and Kant was wrong. It would be an absolute travesty if I brought flowers to my wife as a surprise and when asked, “Why did you do these for me?” I said, “Because it’s my moral duty.” What she delights in is my self-interested delight in her delighting of my flowers. So my response should be, “Because nothing makes me more happy than to make you happy.” This is the nature of true virtue and love, especially when applied vertically.

    No one said it better than C.S. Lewis, “If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and earnestly to hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I submit that this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith. Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” The Weight of Glory

    In this framework, I don’t see any applied inconsistency. God delights in God, and he delights in us delighting in God. And consequently we find our own delight in others finding their delight in God. We are all finding our own self-interested happiness in loving God and others. And this is the essence of perfect shalom!

    • Hi Aaron,

      Thanks for your thoughtful response. It is true that there are a variety of different Christian interpretations on love, and mine is primarily based on my own experience. I am curious as to whether you think the “selfless” model of Christ is completely without ground, and why. But that’s actually beside the point for me.

      I think that what you mention about our inability to actually apply selflessness in our own lives is correct. What is ingenious (or devious) about Christianity is that it maintains that selfless nature as an ideal in spite of our inability to attain it, both because that is a popular understanding of Jesus (as suffering servant) and because it keeps us forever indebted to the Christian system. The problem is that this model of guilt must be maintained through consistent inundation, and the Protestant tradition has freed many of us from the guilt associated with that indebtedness. Interestingly, though, the cultural model of selfless love has remained, and like in so many other areas, we perpetuate the rhetoric of “loving our neighbor” to the point where many think they are living up to this selfless standard, aside from the many caveats and “gimmes” we allow ourselves in day-to-day life. In short, it is because this model is unachievable that we have substituted a devotion to God for a devotion to man, which allows us to think we are serving both while doing little.

      A couple other brief points. First, in all honesty, citing passages of Scripture ultimately bears little weight with me because it is dependent on the assumptions that the Bible is both coherent and authoritative, neither of which I hold to be true in any objective sense. More specifically on your point though, if I grant that God is more concerned with himself than me, I don’t see what motivation to love I would gain from that. That connects to your quote from C.S. Lewis, which would be compelling if I had faith in the message to postpone living until eternity. It is quite common in the history of Christianity to deride earthly pleasures as lesser. If you look at it from a functional perspective, it makes sense to prevent those things that might prove a distraction from one’s dedication to Christianity. Even granting that those things can be harmful in excess, it does us no good to follow rules of prohibition for their own sake. In any case, I enjoy drink, sex, and ambition, and the glory of the intangible does little to tarnish the pleasure of the material.

      Outside of a belief in the Bible or social custom, would there be a selfish reason to profess allegiance to a deity who cares mostly about himself anyway?

      Anyway, thanks again for your response.

    • I had to skip to the end to just ask this, Aaron is giving your wife flowers a moral action?

      No, Kant was speaking to those decisions which require self examination and painful right actions, like speaking out when someone is being mistreated despite the fact that you may risk your job or your reputation to do so and- as far as you know at that moment- the action will not lead to benefits for you. Kant was really saying “live in the now, make decisions based on the best, most right thing to do, without regard”.

      When considering whether or not to buy your wife flowers, you are not making a decision that requires you to deeply consider what is Right. The answer is obvious. Get the flowers. No moral dilemma.

      Plus, Ayn Rand was trying to justify capitalism (as ever) as the ultimate in human worth. C.S. Lewis makes a stronger argument but I think he would also say that, while flowers are nice, a husband should spend more time simply delighting in his wife. Maybe take out the garbage without being asked once in a while.

      Of course, he was also able to spend a lot of time writing fairy tales so maybe the need for sex and drugs to escape the drudgery of life was less pressing for him…

  2. A lot of what is being discussed is contingent on our definition of “selfish”, “selfless” and “self-interest”. They are technical terms–nuanced. In my mind “selfish” is negative and antithetical to selfless–a black and white comparison. This is why I have chosen to use “self-interest”. Love is not selfish, as you noted with the example of the apostle Paul. But neither is it in complete disregard of self (selfless), as I showed in the Bible passages above. So I find it hard to respond to your inquiries about whether the selfless model of Christ has ground. But since it’s besides the point I’ll just leave it at that.

    Regarding why I use the Bible–and probably will continue to do so–is three-fold. I was/am aware that you give little credence to the Bible as reliable and/or authoritative. I think that is a safe assumption. I’m giving you Bible because:

    1) It is the authority and standard by which my whole worldview is built, just as philosophy, logic, or reason by human sensory faculties may be your ultimate authority. So even though you may disregard the bible, you must know that my position of argumentation comes from it just as your argumentation is ultimately built elsewhere. (This is why the questions “Who says?” and “By what standard?” are so important to me.)

    2) In addition, I wanted to show that the biblical portrait of love (as having self-benefit in joy, pleasure, and happiness) is not consistent with the portrait of the Christian model of love that you described and by your admission “is primarily based on my own experience.”

    3) And as long as we’re being honest, all jokes aside, I’m giving you Bible because I hope you would believe it.

    Lastly, the questions surrounding God’s God-centered-ness are good ones and how it translates into our self-interested outward love. I’m reminded of Brad Pitt in his interview with Parade.com. He said, “I didn’t understand this idea of a God who says, ‘You have to acknowledge me. You have to say that I’m the best, and then I’ll give you eternal happiness. If you won’t, then you don’t get it!’ It seemed to be about ego. I can’t see God operating from ego, so it made no sense to me.

    There is a natural knee-jerk reaction to God as being a megalomaniac. We see and know people–politicians, national leaders, celebrities, athletes–who act this way and its rightfully repulsive. The reason so is that they are demanding praise in what is not ultimately praise-worthy. But at the same time there is an inward faculty within all of us (sensus divinitatus) that delights to praise in the things that are truly praise-worthy. I compare it to the Oregon coast. There is a lighthouse on a small cliff just north of Florence about 10 miles. There have been times where I’ve stood on that cliff by myself and just looked. I looked at the power of the ocean, the seemingly endless horizon, the white foam formed upon the crest of the cliffs and felt so small–but a good small. Now, suppose the ocean could talk to me and it said to me, “Stop looking at me.” Would the oceans humility be a virtuous thing? I would say no. It would be a very un-loving thing because it would prohibit me from delighting in that which is truly delightful–the greatness and the grandeur of the ocean itself. It is similar with God’s ultimate aim of being himself.

    And so your words “God is more concerned with himself than me” or a god “who cares mostly about himself” don’t really capture the goodness that lies within God’s demand for absolute allegiance. God’s demand for worship–or to put it in other terms–his demand for us to delight in his manifold perfections, is the way in which he loves us. His demand for glory from us is his love for us. So the self-interested benefit of professing allegiance to a God who’s ultimate aim is the display of his manifold perfects is infinite joy. “In your presence there is fullness of joy. At your right hand are pleasures forevermore. (Ps. 16:11)” This is what Lewis is talking about. Not denying earthly pleasures for the benefit of the afterlife. It is enjoying earthly pleasures as a means of enjoying divine pleasures. He celebrates the tangible beauty as pointers to a greater reality in The Weight of Glory.

    “The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself, they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshipers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of the tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”

    Those tangible elements of sex, drink, and ambition are good things, but not ultimate things. They are pointers and when we treat them as such we don’t sacrifice pleasure for future pleasure, we use pleasure to magnify pleasure in the author of them. “Whether you eat, drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. 1 Cor. 10:31.

    So when this is applied horizontally, all forms of loving acts and words are also pointers to the vast ocean. A cup of cold water to the thirsty is done so to display the manifold perfections of God in our grace an mercy toward others. And when God is glorified through that cup of cold water, our self is satisfied (pleasures forevermore) in doing so.

    I know this is long, and if you’ve read this far indulge for one or two more sentences. My aim is to show that the biblical model for love toward God and others is motivated by personal joy and happiness. This does not tarnish the loving act, but enhances it all the more. And because of this, there is an absolute coherence with God’s ultimate aim, man’s ultimate aim, and the nature of true virtue. For a full treatment of this unity you would be most helped by 18th century philosopher/puritan Jonathan Edwards and his dissertation “The Nature of True Virtue”

    I hope we can one day speak face-to-face, revisiting our Mile 40 days. It would be good to converse over a nice IPA. And by the way, you write well.

    • Hi Aaron,

      I agree with your distinctions between selfish and selfless, at least as they are used in common parlance. I guess what I was asking is what you think about those Christians who see the model of Jesus’s love as selfless, meaning that the death of Jesus as a means to a right relationship with God was a selfless act, demonstrating a selfless love. I think that you answered my question throughout the rest of your response. You appear to hold that there is a correct way to understand God and to read the Bible, which would entail that the interpretation I gave from my experience (and that of many other Christians) is simply wrong.

      Running along the bluffs near my apartment in Santa Barbara, I have experienced the feelings of smallness you describe. Yet it is not a necessary leap to infer the existence of a God from that experience. I suggest that is the response to the initial feeling of inadequacy when gazing upon something so vast that we did not create and have little control over. It is anxiety, and positing a Creator helps mitigate that anxiety.

      Of course, that is my theory, because I have no more access to an ultimate reality than you do. I would also agree that the things of this world are not ultimate things, but that means little to me if there are no ultimate things, or if I have no way of proving or even knowing that there are “ultimate things” other than referencing a religious or cultural tradition that we, and so many others, cannot agree on.

      I appreciate the time you’ve spent thinking about this, and I’d encourage you to read outside the bounds of Christianity on some of the same topics. Having spent some time on both sides of the fence, it’s refreshing to get outsider perspectives on your tradition, even if you don’t agree with them. It can be dangerous though, as I have found.

      Looking forward to an opportunity to get together in the future.

  3. I apologize for my lack of clarity in my ocean example. I was trying to communicate that there is a faculty in all of humanity that delights in the adoration of greatness and this delight is in perfect harmony with God’s ultimate aim in demanding adoration. I was not trying to provide a proof for God’s existence in that experience.

    This will be my last comment on this particular blogpost for the very reason that I think we’ve come to the end of the epistemological rope. Because I believe the Bible is ultimate, I do believe that I have access to ultimate reality, just as you do. Your assertion that I don’t have access to it, just as you don’t, is based on your belief that your cognitive faculties and sensory experiences are reliable. This where we part ways–at the beginning.

    • Hey Aaron,

      Thanks for finishing us off. I’ll be talking more about issues of “access to ultimate reality” in the days coming up. I will clarify that I probably wouldn’t say that my cognitive faculties and sensory experiences are reliable in the sense that they don’t lead me astray. I would say they are reliable in the simplest sense of the word, that I do rely on them, even when they let me down, as I hope you do as well.

      • I found your post pretty stimulating. These types of issues are often neglected in academic discussions on religion. Which is a shame because there are many important and fascinating concepts, relations, issues, and connections here.

        It is ironic that you mentioned DFW, and especially This is Water. I have read that article roughly 50 times since I was first introduced to it in 2009. I am strongly inclined to believe that he came as close, as is humanly possible, to describing the ‘gospel’ in irreligous terms. The fact that HE did is not particularly surprising to me, as there is a real question whether he was perhaps a believer himself (He attended a number of different Christian churches through-out his life, and was quite sympathetic to religion in general). The really fascinating thing is his description of what he considers the fundamental/basic/primitive features of the human condition. For two reasons:
        1.) No one has ever mentioned the ‘default’ state he is talking about (the fact that it is impossible for a first-person perspective to exist in the world, without that perspective having the negative emotions and moral-springs of action that people refer to when they talk about selfishness). An ironic expression of this fact is that when people read This is Water, they don’t recognize that he was getting at something much deeper than selfishness.
        2.) The fact that his description of the default state is arguably the clearest expression of the concept of original sin. Furtheremore, his talk about the natural orientation of human persons as one of idol-making/idolatry, is arguably the best description of the doctrine of justification (jistification being the central point of the gospel) in secular/religous-neutral terminology.

        Also, if you are a coherentist when it comes to epistemology (Quine was), then the mere fact that there are conflicts within Christian thought ,regarding the proper conception of the gospel or the proper conception of what the central tenents of Christianity are, will not be a reason to discount the evidential support one view of the Christian faith lends to the faith as a whole. If you are a foundationalist when it comes to epistemology, then perhaps not. There are other epistemological frameworks of course.

        • Jordan,
          I appreciate you reading and responding. “This is Water” is one of my favorites as well, and I use it in most of my classes. I have not read of anyone else discussing the “default state” either, but it certainly is reminiscent of similar discussions of human nature. However, as you mention, Wallace’s usage is more complex than saying we have a selfish nature. Others have noted that the way he discusses the divine is influenced by the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous.
          I’m not entirely sure of your meaning in the last comment. I agree that conflict within a system, in and of itself, is not a reason to dismiss it entirely. It certainly would be an impetus for further exploration, however. If there are a vast number of conflicts, these conflicts suggest a system whose coherence is questionable, particularly when it is not open to either justification or change.
          Thanks again for your comment.

  4. Matt,

    I forgot to enable the e-mail notification of comments feature! Will enable it this time around.

    Yes, the ‘default’ state would seem to be a variation on views about human nature. That’s a natural reading of it because it is so closely connected to it, and because DFW doesn’t explicitly draw the relevant distinction when he talks about the negative sorts of things that arise from that state. The reason it is categorically distinct from human nature is the following:

    DFW, at the end of the following passage puts forth the clearest statement of the default setting (bolded is my own emphasis):

    “ Here is just one example of the total wrongness of something I tend to be
    automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience
    supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe; the
    realist, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think
    about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness because it’s so socially
    repulsive. But it’s pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default
    setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: there is no
    experience you have had that you are not the absolute center of. The
    world as you experience it is there in front of YOU or behind YOU, to
    the left or right of YOU, on YOUR TV or YOUR monitor. And so on.
    Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you
    somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real.”

    What he describes at the end of that paragraph is a fact about the first-person perspective or consciousness or … [fill-in with the relevant term that applies]. Namely, that to have a first-person perspective it is IMPOSSIBLE to not always be in a state where you relate to reality (or the world) in this way. For, in a sense, that just IS how a first-person perspective is built up or structured. You are in a technical sense the center of the universe, as long as “universe” = “everything you experience.” This is crucially different from the concept of human nature. The concept of human nature refers to desires, will, motivations, dispositions to act, dispositions to feel, and on and on. Consequently, people can be said to innately (given a specific view on human nature) be possessed of these attributes in a specific orientation. This is why it would makes sense to talk of human nature as good or bad, whereas it wouldn’t make sense to talk about the intrinsic structure of the first-person perspective as good or bad.

    The reason this is significant for the concept of original sin is that original sin can be seen as referring to the intrinsic structure of sentient (I hate this word because it reeks of cliché and cheesy stuff regarding SETI, etc…. but it is perhaps the easiest to use here) life. A conscious being or a mind or an entity with a first-person perspective (any number of ways of stating this) cannot metaphysically (perhaps logically???) exist without having this structure. Which is important for how we view the problem of evil, because it means that it is impossible for God (if he exists) to create anything with a first-person perspective or a mind or consciousness that does not have this fact about it (the entity with a mind or …):

    That it can only relate to the other beings and God from this place of (technical) self-centeredness (remember that this technical sense of self-centeredness is not something that could be said to be good or bad. It is a non-normative/non-moral/non-ethical phenomenon. However, it is clearly deeply RELATED – causally, conceptually, theoretically, etc. – to those features of persons that ARE normative/moral/ethical phenomenon.)

    Regardless of whether or not DFW had this sort of distinction in mind, his writing here helps us see a a distinction that often goes unnoticed (perhaps has never been mentioned in academic writings). One that has, I suggest, some interesting connections to the way one views religion (perhaps most especially mono-theism) and a number of other non-religious things.
    ————–

    Regarding religious epistemology:

    I’m going to utilize an elementary gloss on coherentist vs. foundationalist frameworks/theories (as an indirect result, also semi-conflating the categories of truth and justification that they apply to), but I’m running short on time. You can go to SEP or IEP for decent overviews of them. Think of coherentism as a web of belief where the truth or justification of each belief is dependent on its relationship to every other belief, and the farther inside (or centrally located) a belief is the lesser its degree of fungibility with regard to the effect of transforming the web of belief into something new. Even more crudely put: replacing a peripheral belief will not change the web as a whole, whereas the more centrally located a belief is the more it would seem to be the case that replacing it changes the web as a whole. Because each belief gets its relevant properties, meaning, and content from its relation to the whole web, most are going to be inclineded to denying that there is some most central (or colloquially, most basic) belief. Think of foundationalism as being non-trivially distinct from coherentism.

    Applying this to the issue at hand, given a foundationalist framework, belief differences between different members inside the set of system instances (say Christianity for instance) would seem to be epistemically more problematic than the exact same thing occurring when a coherentist framework is assumed.

    Now, on a separate, but related note, it is worth mentioning that the dis-unity of member’s webs of belief for the naturalist system (the system that is adhered for those who say they are “naturalists”) is going to end up having the same problems – though in a somewhat different way – that are suggested to occur for a religion system. For, there is currently no agreed on and non-problematic definition of “naturalism.” And, for a number of reasons, there doesn’t seem to be any hope of constructing one. So, for the collection of irreligious people who claim naturalism, there are a bloated plethora of differences (entailing the relevant inconsistencies, contradictions, etc.) between the beliefs of individual members. A counter-argument might be the following: that all is true, BUT while naturalists lack a non-problematic definition of naturalism, the closest non-problematic version – that what we all adhere to is whatever is currently what our best science claims AND whatever future science ends up showing is true (or most likely to be true or most justified, etc.). The problem with this is that everyone goes about the their daily lives thinking and acting on the basis of beliefs or commitments about things that future science will lay claim to regarding veracity. Indeed, it is impossible to be relevantly non-committal in the way that the counter-argument describes. And this holds for any meaningful definition of “belief.” What is more, this entire argument can be applied to ANY system of irreligious or non-religious belief and for any system of belief. The reason for this – most probably – is that this is the case for any set of persons who share relevantly similar belief-nets or sets of beliefs.

    • Hi Jordan,

      The distinction you make between the Wallace’s default setting and human nature is accurate. It does not make sense to me to speak of human nature or the default setting in any sort of moral terms, since our judgement comes after our existence. The default setting is a more compelling metaphor for me (than human nature) because it highlights our self-connectedness (as you point out) and implies that its choice requires the least effort. As a result we often favor it, but it is not inevitable.

      I can understand the idea of original sin being mapped onto the default state, or what Heidegger labels anxiety, but it is unsatisfying because it provides a ready-made solution in the Christian faith, one that seeks to avoid the struggle of being. Further, it makes a moral judgement, embedding a (negative) value directly onto the existential condition of human Being. Thus it “denies” (or “fulfills”) that condition in the supernatural language of salvation.

      This gets at your gloss on coherentist and foundationalist epistemologies (which was very succinct). I contend that it is a misunderstanding to view science as a faith or system in the manner of religious tradition. If there is a consistency to what we call science (and this would apply to reason as well), it is in its method and not its content. Any of its hypotheses are open to being disproven, and this opens the possibility for further advancements. Religious traditions, particularly monotheistic ones, start with ideas that are untestable, and thus can never be disproven. They stand beyond the limits of reason and respond to our fears of the unknown. But it is not necessary, and certainly stretches the bounds of reason, to pretend to know things we do not.

      Thanks again for your thoughtful responses.

  5. Matt,

    It’s been awhile! I visited your blog today and was reminded of this discussion.

    “I can understand the idea of original sin being mapped onto the default state, or what Heidegger labels anxiety, but it is unsatisfying because it provides a ready-made solution in the Christian faith, one that seeks to avoid the struggle of being.”

    I’d like to know more about what you mean by this. Also, it’s interesting to me that under Christianity one’s thoughts and actions can improve (i.e. more Christlike) in the default state. Christian’s would just call this Sanctification.

    “Further, it makes a moral judgement, embedding a (negative) value directly onto the existential condition of human Being. Thus it “denies” (or “fulfills”) that condition in the supernatural language of salvation.”

    The default state (existential condition) is inherently valueless. This can be seen in that heaven will consist of perfect persons that operate out of the default state since they are still sentient and still not God. This response only puts off the evidential difficulty to a later point, so I’ll provide a response to what I take is a natural extension of your argument.

    ‘Original Sin’ is only a problem if at least one person goes to hell. The problem of God instantiating some beings that will necessarily be against Christ is only problematic if God lacks a sufficient justification for creating such beings. Under ‘Orthodox’ Christianity, one can argue that God’s primary purpose was to display grace, and this requires saving people from something negative. The greater the negativity and the greater the undeservedness of being saved from it, the greater the display of grace. If hell were not a real place where real people go, then grace couldn’t be maximally displayed. This response is also a great rebuttal to Stephen Law’s clever “Evil God Challange” since the concept of grace functions asymmetrically by having no natural opposite, whereas ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are natural opposites and thus function symmetrically.

    To me, the best response one can make to this argument is that either (1) grace is not a good that is worth creating a world for or (2) there is something better than grace – perhaps love – that is worth creating a world for. (1) seems prima facie implausible. (2) is much better, but it isn’t clear how the argument would go.

    “Any of its hypotheses are open to being disproven, and this opens the possibility for further advancements. Religious traditions, particularly monotheistic ones, start with ideas that are untestable, and thus can never be disproven. They stand beyond the limits of reason and respond to our fears of the unknown.”

    (1) There are a number of fundamental assumptions that science requires for it to continue to exist (e.g. regularity), so it isn’t true that any hypothesis is open. This is similar to Christianity in that really only a few assumptions are required for the system to exist. If Christianity is true, then those in heaven will have had tons of false beliefs (which isn’t a problem at all) just like everyone alive today – were they transported 10,000 years into the future – would have tons of false beliefs.

    (2) The issue isn’t whether religions have a dubious, unscientific belief structure, but whether the most plausible version of the most plausible religion is still dubious and unscientific. I whole-hardheartedly endorse the former (especially even for tons of different versions of Christianity), while enthusiastically denying the latter.

    (3) Certainly plenty of religious people hold many of their beliefs outside the bounds of reason and also for reasons based on fears of the unknown. It’s quite a stretch to think that all do. Moreover, the same holds true for tens of millions of irreligious people (i.e. plenty of beliefs outside the bounds of reason and many beliefs based on fear).

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