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The Altruists Paradox

A few days ago, I came across this piece on the nature of altruism from John Tierney in the New York Times. Apparently brain scans conducted at the University of Oregon found that “pleasure areas” of the brain are activated in experiments where participants performed a charitable act, thus demonstrating that there is a biological basis for altruism. Typically results such as this are thought to bolster arguments against theistic belief—if some human behaviour can be shown to produce pleasure its origins must clearly be explained without remainder by evolutionary biology.

So what is the proper relationship between pleasure and altruism. Must altruism be painful in order to be designated as such? Often times those slugging it out in the religion vs. science trenches cling to the existence of altruism as providing strong evidence for the claims of some form of theism. If science can’t explain why we would act in ways that seem, on the surface, to have no survival value, then surely it must be down to God (the “God-of-the-gaps” approach). Extraordinary effort on both sides of the debate is devoted to proving that altruism either a) has exclusively religious origins and thus refutes scientific materialism, or b) can be shown to have survival value and thus renders God superfluous.

This approach seems wrong-headed to me. From a theological perspective it seems perfectly reasonable that doing good should feel good and that this ought to be reflected in analysis of our brain-states. If we believe that God has made us in his image and created us to do good works (Eph. 2:10), then we ought to expect the results of the experiments at the University of Oregon. There will, obviously, be times when doing the right thing is difficult, but I see no reason why we shouldn’t take pleasure in conquering our selfish tendencies, helping those in need, promoting shalom even at personal cost

(Of course it’s highly debatable how much “personal cost” was involved in the experiment conducted; participants exhibited pleasure when charities “received” money, but there is no indication that the money came from the participants themselves. From my perspective, there remains a substantial gap between noticing a certain set of neurons firing in someone’s brain when they observe good being done and some of the truly extraordinary examples of self-sacrifice motivated by religion.).

At the same time, the fact that something can be shown to have some benefit for the propagation of the species does not thereby eliminate the possibility of God as its source. It’s not as though our choices are between altruism providing absolutely no survival benefit and being such a peculiar and unnecessary thing that it could only come from God (as if God’s interests lie exclusively in things that have no survival value!), or altruism being reduced to nothing but a selfish interest in survival thus ruling God out of the equation entirely. This is a false, and unhelpful, dichotomy, but one which pops up now and then in discussions of this sort.

At the end of the day, if we start defining altruism as something which ought to make us miserable—as some kind of a grim exercising of our Kantian duty, which ought to exhibit no evidence of pleasure—then we’re not really talking about anything like a biblical view of love-of-neighbour anyway. We do good because we were created by God to love good and to find fulfillment and meaning in participating in his plan for the world. I see no reason why a close look at our brains ought not to reflect this.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. The Imugi #

    That’s a very insightful comment! 😀

    Personally, I find people who think altruism must be painful are a little too Kantian for my tastes. 😉

    I also think the “God of the Gaps” appraoch reflects either weak faith or weak theology; people who employ it are on the defensive, whether they realize it or not.

    June 21, 2007
  2. I think you’re bang on about the “God-of the-Gaps” approach – it’s a very defensive posture to take, and it doesn’t even come close to an adequate theology of creation or human nature.

    June 21, 2007

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