Mark Reads ‘The Science of Discworld II’: Chapter 20, Part II

In the second half of the twentieth chapter of The Science of Discworld II, we discuss altruism and why we even bother to do good things. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read Discworld. 

Trigger Warning: For discussion of religious abuse, homophobia, child abuse.

As I said at the start of this video, the issue of altruism is one that was, rather quickly after I started identifying as an atheist, constantly thrust in my face. How could I possibly believe in nothing? If that was the case, then why do anything good? Why be nice? It didn’t matter in the end if there was no God or god or gods, so what was the point? (Which I think that says far more about the person who is asking the question than me, for the record. Is the after life the ultimate endgame? Is all we do here just to get us to that place? If so, no thanks. I’m good.) 

And early on, I didn’t have an answer. My rejection of spirituality was more rebellion than a nuanced philosophical opinion. As is so often the case, these conversations weren’t really made in good faith, either. They weren’t about trying to learn about someone else’s life or experiences; they were arguments to be “won,” and I’d end up feeling foolish and terrible because it was all nothing but a gotcha. It was an attempt to make the other person feel morally superior. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a deeply important question at the heart of this all, and I love that the second half of this chapter explores it in a context I didn’t have when I was younger. 

The concept as it is used here relates to the (sometimes) false notion that altruism is not evolutionary possible, that creatures in the natural world are all competing and it is our natural state to compete with one another. Even that is a simplification, of course, and the world is so much more complicated than this. We’re shown an example of how humans can imagine competition where none exists. (The UK vs. US driving tests, which I’m still curious about. Is there anyone here who has taken both? Are ours really so much easier?) But that isn’t intended to show that competition does not exist; it certainly does. The question, rather, is why altruism ever developed in the first place. How did humans come to “overcommit” to one another? Why would we do something like that? I got the sense that Cohen and Stewart weren’t trying to tell us that Randolph Nesse’s theory was correct, but more that it was incredibly compelling. And it felt that way to me, too! Perhaps that really was what separated us from the Neanderthals, and maybe our ability to occasionally cooperate with one another is what helped our survival. 

But even as I type this out, I know that overcommitment isn’t universal, and on a personal level, I am aware of the other end of the spectrum. I can’t divorce my feelings on God or Christianity from my experience. And how could I? The emptiness I feel inside might very well be because of what happened to me and how religion was used to abuse me. I know it’s a possibility, but I suppose I don’t really spend too much time thinking about that sort of thing. I’ve spoken to other people who were abused as kids, and it’s honestly eerie how many of us wonder the same thing: Did abuse make us who we are today? So is my disbelief in God always tied to that, or is it something I would have come to on my own? 

There’s a different gamble I’ve heard before, and I thought Cohen and Stewart were leading to it. In that gamble, you write out the pros and cons of believing in the Christian God. What happens if the atheist is right? Nothing. If they’re wrong? They go to Hell. What happens if the Christian is right? They go to Heaven. If they’re wrong? Nothing. And of those gambles, one seems less risky, and I’ve genuinely heard people say (to my face!) that they’d rather be Christian and wrong than an atheist and wrong. On a purely mathematical level, I could understand this, but it seems like such a massive undertaking for something without any real confirmation. To me, that’s still a statement of doubt: that person doesn’t know what happens after they die, so they’re spiritually hedging their bets. Is that a way to live? To believe? Because in the end, even if I followed that, I couldn’t believe. I couldn’t fake it. And that’s the main reason I ultimately gave up on it all: I couldn’t keep pretending that I felt like there was anyone listening to my prayers. Or anyone or anything out in the universe who cared about my eternal soul. Or that I even had an eternal soul. 

So, maybe I don’t have some spiritual justification for altruism on a personal level. I don’t base it on a God or a god or gods, but if I can return to something I said just a bit ago, I know how terrible it feels to have someone use religion to justify horrible things towards another person. I’m certain that my outlook on life is related to my desire to not ever perpetuate that feeling in anyone else. It doesn’t mean that I’m perfect or that I’ve avoided harming others, but I know what that loneliness and fear feels like, and I don’t want to another person to feel what I felt, if that makes sense.

Maybe that’s flimsy, but it’s mine.

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About Mark Oshiro

Perpetually unprepared since '09.
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