Thursday, April 7, 2016

Where Does Altruism Come From?

Damon Linker argues at The Week that self-sacrifice is inexplicable on naturalism. Naturalism rests heavily upon evolutionary explanations of behavior, but cases like that of Thomas Vander Woude simply don't fit that narrative. Here's Vander Woude's story:
[C]onsider Thomas S. Vander Woude, the subject of an unforgettable 2011 article by the journalist Jeffrey Goldberg. One day in September 2008, Vander Woude's 20-year-old son Josie, who has Down syndrome, fell through a broken septic tank cover in their yard. The tank was eight feet deep and filled with sewage. After trying and failing to rescue his son by pulling on his arm from above, Vander Woude jumped into the tank, held his breath, dove under the surface of the waste, and hoisted his son onto his shoulders. Josie was rescued a few minutes later. By then his 66-year-old father was dead.

This is something that any father, atheist or believer, might do for his son. But only the believer can make sense of the deed.

Pick your favorite non-theistic theory: Rational choice and other economically-based accounts hold that people act to benefit themselves in everything they do. From that standpoint, Vander Woude — like the self-sacrificing soldier or firefighter — was a fool who incomprehensibly placed the good of another ahead of his own.

Other atheistic theories similarly deny the possibility of genuine altruism, reject the possibility of free will, or else, like some forms of evolutionary psychology, posit that when people sacrifice themselves for others (especially, as in the Vander Woude case, for their offspring) they do so in order to strengthen kinship ties, and in so doing maximize the spread of their genes throughout the gene pool.

But of course, as someone with Down syndrome, Vander Woude's son is probably sterile and possesses defective genes that, judged from a purely evolutionary standpoint, deserve to die off anyway. So Vander Woude's sacrifice of himself seems to make him, once again, a fool.

Things are no better in less extreme cases. If Josie were a genius, his father's sacrifice might be partially explicable in evolutionary terms — as an act designed to ensure that his own and his son's genes survive and live on beyond them both. But this egoistic explanation would drain the act of its nobility, which is precisely what needs to be explained.

We feel moved by Vander Woude's sacrifice precisely because it seems selfless — the antithesis of evolutionary self-interestedness.

But why is that? What is it about the story of a man who willingly embraces a revolting, horrifying death in order to save his son that moves us to tears? Why does it seem somehow, like a beautiful painting or piece of music, a fleeting glimpse of perfection in an imperfect world?
It's an interesting question that Linker raises. Even if we can account for what Vander Woude did in evolutionary terms it's harder to account for why we who read about it think he did something noble and wonderful. Most evolutionists deny that there is such a thing as true altruism, that everything we do has a self-interested motive buried somewhere, but it's hard to see what that would be in the case of Thomas Vander Woude.

Linker believes that such acts of radical altruism give us a fleeting glimpse of something transcendent. Whether one agrees with that conclusion or not it certainly seems that altruism, unlike egoism, is very difficult to account for in a naturalistic worldview.