Selflessness or altruism means putting the interests of others above yourself. Just as “selfishness” has negative connotations in society of self-interest at the expense of others, “altruism” is often thought of as kind or generous acts for others. This view is wrong. It is wrong because the originator of the term himself, Auguste Comte, meant it to mean precisely what it implies: acting for the sake of others with no thought to oneself.
It is this true original definition of altruism that I am using here, and I will use altruism and selflessness interchangeably.
Selflessness is irrational. It is irrational because it demands that the beneficiary of your actions be others. Does it suggest who these others should be? That is a decision an individual would make for himself based on his personal values. But, since altruism dictates that we should hold our interests or values in no regard when acting, altruism actually states that the personal value of the beneficiary be irrelevant to our action! By this “logic” not only would giving money to a drug-dealing rapist be just as moral as giving money to an orphanage, it would be more moral!
Why is that? It comes down to personal values. To suggest that some people are more worthy than others to benefit from acts of generosity implies that one has made a value judgment oneself in such matters based on a personal evaluation of worth…
For those of you who can count past ten, and are fundamentalists, I invite you to play a little game with me. (In the figures below, I have actually taken the most conservative estimate on dates and numbers.)
Imagine that one second represents a thousand years. We’re about to count, and count back in time. As you count, the years fly by in reverse order.
That’s all for now. One second. In the blink of an eye we’ve just skipped past every football match ever played, the landing on the moon, the first and second world wars, the invention of the aeroplane, the advent of guns, the renaissance; the germ theory of disease by Pasteur, the discovery of the circulatory system by Harvey, the skeletal structure by Galen. The works of Mozart, Beethoven, Handel, Bach. The beauty of masterpieces by Michelangelo, da Vinci, and Monet. The Dark Ages, the Crusades, the Black Death.
We’ve come a long way haven’t we?
Let’s look at things from a biological point of view. Count with me…
When I first started to self-identify as an atheist, I held several positions that I have since rejected. An example of one of these was the notion that science answers “how” questions and religion answers “why” questions. Although I was unaware of him at the time, I would have agreed with Gould’s non-overlapping magisterium. Now I don’t. I don’t actually believe religion has anything worthwhile to say on anything.
Religion never shied away from making bold claims about the world when it was talking to an ignorant unscientific audience. If religion doesn’t overlap with science today it is only because the religious are rightly afraid to compete with science; a battle they have historically always lost.
Some fundamentalists aren’t happy to remain on their side of the playground however; they actively undermine legitimate science and try to have their view of reality supersede any other. Finally, religion makes numerous claims that are incompatible with scientific knowledge. Some theists rationalise these incongruities by appealing to symbolism or non-literalism. That’s their choice, but I don’t think you can justify every contradiction, and indeed if religion was true, why would you have to?…
“Something’s not right.”
That was what I thought as I read about hypnosis on the Skeptic’s Dictionary (SD). Wasn’t hypnosis putting somebody under a spell, a trance? It might have appeared fun when I was quite young watching Paul McKenna, but since then it had been explained to me that hypnosis was wrong, an unholy use of power, and ultimately could open a window to demons.
But the SD explained what hypnosis was and what it wasn’t, and how it worked by purely natural explanations. It didn’t reference anything supernatural. It just explained in common sense terms what was going on. After reading a lot of convoluted far-fetched explanations of hypnosis and coming across offers of “Buy this book and you will be hypnotising someone to forget their own name in 5 minutes!”, this explanation was quite refreshing.
I was raised a Jehovah’s Witness (JW). The view of hypnosis as dangerous and wrong was just one of the things I was told. But, if the SD was correct, and it certainly presented a better explanation that literally putting someone into a trance, didn’t the organisation know this?! Couldn’t they have really done the research themselves?! Wasn’t it a bit close-minded to give their own explanation, when, surely they weren’t actually scientists themselves? It just smacked of propaganda to me…