After Altruism (A Book Recommendation–Sort Of)

by Jason Peters on July 4, 2012 · 5 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Writers & Poets


Rock Island, IL

North of I-80 the heat indices have surpassed the century mark the last few days, and today the temperature itself will. This weather is what in local parlance we call “hotter than a five-peckered billy goat.” (There are cruder expressions, like “hotter than a whore in the attic under six wool blankets,” or “hotter than a June bride riding bareback on a depot stove,” but I’m not going to mention them.)

It would appear that the damned groundhog is desperate for windfalls under my apple tree. No doubt the poor fat bastard doesn’t have many other ways in this waterless land to get hydrated. I honestly feel sorry for the guy, until I remember my sociobiology.

And the squirrels, those cocky S.O.B.s who think their athleticism can outmatch my engineering at the birdfeeder, they aren’t faring any better. A fox squirrel dug out a quarter of the impatiens in one of my long narrow flower boxes, burrowed down into the cool soil, where now he sits with a forearm slung over the box as if it were a floatation device bobbing on a spring-fed lake. I have no deep love for the squirrels (though I’m not about to convert them into stew or mittens), but I have seen their affliction; I have heard their cries, and I know their sorrow. They’re evil, but they appear, nevertheless, like Belial, to suffer. Were they capable of speech, they’d say that it’s hotter than the fourth of July.

So too the birds. With my field glasses I look into a birdhouse and see the open mouths of three house sparrows who must surely be longing for the cool fleshpots of incubation. I get thirsty just turning the focus knob. I see their mother making food deliveries—she makes direct non-stop flights from my feeder to the birdhouse—but I see no evidence that she’s bringing them water from my birdbath. The egg must have seemed a perpetual arctic blast compared to this twig-stuffed sun-baked cedar-sided domicile.

I consider how the sparrow’s parenting puts mine to shame until I remember how self-interested we all are. She’s only trying to perpetuate her genes, same as me. Same as me, she doesn’t give a damn about her chicks. The last few days I’ve risked heatstroke to help students get the weeds in the campus garden under control. It took me three hours to thin a 5’ x 50’ forest of volunteer tomato plants—and weeds—that had gone long-unattended, and there are two more swaths just like it awaiting my unsentimental hands today. I probably tossed twenty-five plants for every one that was lucky enough to be selected for survival. Three rabbits didn’t fare so well. After ten minutes of this self-serving service I was sweating like a circus lady, my shirt fully drenched. After twenty it looked for all the world like I had yet to be house-broken.

Why I should suffer so just for the sake of propagating my own selfish genes is, I guess, anyone’s guess, but there I was nonetheless, as fully deluded as anyone deceived by the clever trick of altruism. We must keep reminding ourselves that, with the application of the heat and force of enough logic, this annoying selfless virtue can easily be made over and over again to fit into the presiding theories.

After a shower and several tall glasses of water I felt much better. My body temperature was cooler; I was no longer thirsty, and I seemed to be entertaining satisfaction as a veritable kind of self-experience. I had the sense that I felt satisfied, that I was satisfied, and that I was capable of reflecting on the mind’s experience of that satisfaction. All that was very satisfying. I could even remember feeling satisfaction as I labored under the heat of an indifferent sun.

But all of that is, of course, a delusion–a delusion called “subjectivity.” The mind, though it has the sense of self-experience in the act of thinking, enjoys nothing of the sort—does not, in fact, exist at all, has no such experience as it seems to present to itself, is not the “I” it thinks it is as it thinks, experiences, and presents itself to others or to itself.

Rather, by somewhat occult but soon-to-be-mapped-out processes, not the mind but the material brain presents us with what seem to be immaterial experiences or realities. But because the brain is merely material, and because the gray matter has an exclusively material origin, it can offer us nothing more than brain states that we may, if we wish, mistake for such self-experiences as satisfaction.

I won’t belabor the point, but let us consider the grand hoax of metaphor. Metaphor, as we all know, is a trope. When we say A is B, we have made a metaphor. My love is a red, red rose. Time is a river. The heart is a pump. Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting. I am a little world made cunningly.

Love is the fart
Of every heart:
It pains a man when ’tis kept close,
And others doth offend when ’tis let loose.

In each instance above we may be tempted to think that by metaphor new meaning is introduced into the world. No one can think of A in terms of B, of love as a fart, until someone (Sir John Suckling, in the case of gaseous love) sees the relation and, by a trope, calls it into being. We may be tempted to say that there’s no thinking of the heart as a pump until the pump has been invented, and still no thinking of it as a pump until someone notes the similarity and utters the metaphor–whereupon, suddenly, the heart becomes a pump, and we have the science of cardiology–but all that is to confuse the facts of science with the fancies of poetry.

The heart is a pump, cardiology enjoys an existence aloof from the original poetic act, and there you have it.

So let us not suppose that the trope heart:pump, when first uttered, introduced new meaning into the world, for there is no such thing as meaning. Facts there are, and information we have aplenty, but meaning none at all. It is mere chimera.

Meaning is a trick on folks who would have us believe that the “I” stands in a special relation to the rest of the world—a relation that (they say) is in a sense both immanent and transcendent.

They tell us that the “I” inhabits but also transcends the world of hearts and pumps and from these two vantage points–or by these two presences, if you will—sees relation.

Or (to switch tropes) they tell us that to see that the “I” is also a little world made cunningly requires a kind of transcendence that permits the “I” to see itself (A) and the world (B) from a vantage point outside both the “I” and the world. And that outsideness—they actually believe this!—is indicated by the coupler “is,” which they think only homo sapiens capable of! That coupling is the transcendent—they sometimes call it the transcendental—move. And then they start talking about “mind” again. They expect us to believe that we know the “I” and the world from without, from our hovering above both of them.

But to ratify the relation “I”:world (or A:B), they say, you must also have a position of immanence: you must know the “I” and the world from within. You must know something about both, and know them proximately, to verify the act of coupling. First you must look down from above, and then up from below—or first up from below and then down from above. (Whatever.)

But, as any sensible person knows, being both transcendent and immanent would be a little too God-like. In fact the whole creative act by which meaning enters human consciousness would, on this nutty account, be far too God-like.

Speaking something into being!

Too soon everyone’s using words like “transcendent,” “immanent,” “creative,” “consciousness,” “I,” and before you know it you find yourself surprised by sympathetic gestures toward groundhogs and squirrels and deceived by such satisfactions as those that come by way of non-self-serving altruistic acts—and taking them seriously. It all ends, as we know too well, with a bunch of imago dei mumbo-jumbo and the delusions of the mind’s self-experience in the act of thinking and self-consciousness and, sooner or later, religion. And none of this helps preserve the selfish gene, which, if not the summum bonum, is nevertheless an explanatory razor sharper than Occam ever imagined.


I have read two reviews of Marilynne Robinson’s Absence of Mind, one tepid but approbative, the other nearly doxological. Many approving readers will wish it longer–so that it could include what they would add (this was my experience occasionally)–but, as it is a collection of lectures, I am content to recommend this fine book as it is. Robinson’s The Death of Adam is also very good. The bit on metaphor here is my own concoction, not Robinson’s (I wouldn’t have her blamed for it), but the rest of it is written with her careful treatment of subjectivity in mind. Sorry: on the brain.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar JJJ July 5, 2012 at 5:22 pm

I wish I had something to add, but others have done it much better. Walker Percy came to mind,

“What she didn’t understand, she being spiritual and seeing religion as spirit, was that it took religion to save me from the spirit world, from orbiting the earth like Lucifer and the angels, that it took nothing less than touching the thread off the misty interstates and eating Christ himself to make me mortal man again and let me inhabit my own flesh and love her in the morning.”

avatar dave walsh July 6, 2012 at 8:21 pm

I read it, being a holiday and time off. Sincerely, thank you. So you know, a good bit of time passed before I read Spooner. I was busy.
I am embarrassed to post comments after being exposed to such an orderly mind. My only hope is that time minimizes the effect.

So far, so good.

avatar James Matthew Wilson July 13, 2012 at 10:21 am

I was going to comment on this excellent screed, but then I thought, “what is ‘excellence’ anyway? I see no way in which this essay will prolong my life, but it is to the prolonging of life and the mastery and dominion of nature that I look for all my made up standards of excellence.” So, I’m sorry to say, I cannot call this essay excellent. That would be — naively — to pretend there was someone to name it according to a property that cleary does not exist.

avatar Joseph Stromberg July 16, 2012 at 9:45 am

Yes, a very good essay indeed.

On somewhat the same topic, here is John Cleese: .

(I hope there’s no rule here about not cluttering the place up with links; if so, I apologize, and won’t do it again.)

avatar D.W. Sabin July 18, 2012 at 3:54 pm

Your concentration upon the “fart” would seem to be some kind of capitulation to the more sordid fixations of Luther. Worse yet, you might have taken a turn into DeSade.
But, rest assured, Squirrel meat, properly amended and seared is as fine a thing as one can find, particularly when said squirrel inhabits the eastern -to-midwest woodland belt where mast crops are dominant.

Wilson is right, this essay is not excellent, it is just Petersonian, and so, unfortunately satisfying.

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