Charles Foster | Inhabit the World

Charles Foster tells the story of a journey from a curious, wandering child and the constant pull toward conformity and indifference to the wonders of the world around us. In his attempt to understand what it’s like to be other than himself, he better understands the creator of all things.

“So the universe seems to be a place which has been conceived in the way that it is, because it facilitates relationships; because love is at the heart of it. So you move from an observation of personality in the eyes of a dog or a fox, to a conviction that love is one of the basic substrates of the universe. And therefore, the creator of the universe is probably to be characterized by the label love.”

Or utterly unthinkable to think of God as a God that is alone.

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Thank you for this podcast. I am really struggling to understand it, though. I don’t see how the proposition of love as the foundation bears out, with the problem of evil (rather, the lack of caring of the universe that leads to suffering)… I learned of Rupert Sheldrake for the first time in this podcast (he defended Sheldrake), and I am rather confused at the idea of telepathy-like connections between organisms.
Rupert Sheldrake - Wikipedia

A frequent reference to “Darwinism” also confuses me. I don’t see any clear strawmanning evidence. However, I have a hard time following his reasoning… It seems at times to sound like ID, but I don’t want to label it that way without understanding better.

I appreciated his talking of the “gift of dyslexia” in his son.

Can anyone else explain to me? Thank you!


I’m not sure I understand. Why is that? The Shemah seems to emphasize that, though as Christians we understand the One in 3 parts. Thanks.

I don’t mean to be too facetious but it seems that Foster might be choosing to look at examples in nature only through the rose-coloured glasses of the love he wishes to promote. Yes, there are certainly examples of animals behaving “nicely” to each other. And I suppose that someone prone to anthropomorphic sentimentality might gaze into the eyes of a fox and see another “person” there. But this doesn’t negate all the examples of classic “brutality”, e.g. of parasites and predators that we also see. To me, examples in nature are equivocal for supporting “love” as the driving force.
I too am confused about the term “Darwinism” and the idea that this has somehow been “overthrown” now that we know that animals can also cooperate. I gather “Darwinism” is supposed to mean “violent competition, red-in-tooth-and-claw”? But of course setting it up as if even Darwin didn’t recognize the existence of cooperation in groups already in the 1800s is simply wrong, anachronistic, and creating a straw man.

The viewpoint suffers, as such conversations typically do, from a lack of clarity over the biological definition of “cooperation” versus “true altruism”. There is simply no logical way that natural selection (or even the New Synthesis version of evolution) can explain a mechanism by which self-sacrificial love (altruism) will be selected for. Evolution can’t select for effective suicide for the sake of another’s benefit. Underneath the “niceness” of cooperation must always be a net payback to the individual, for it to be biologically adaptive… so there is no escaping that the evolutionarily selected “cooperation” in nature is still driven, ultimately, by individualism and the competition against others of the same species for passing one’s genes to the next generation. As I’ve said elsewhere, this doesn’t negate the fact that humans have the free will to override evolutionary traits and act with true altruism if they so choose.


It’s unthinkable when you are faced with the possibility that this world is a dream and you are the One who is absolutely alone. To feel that kind of loneliness and to then hear a rumor about a God that would not know what it is to be alone, that is until in the person of Jesus he became that in order to save us from our sin.


I am not trying to nit pick; I have been thinking of this seriously, as when I talked with Jewish classmates at med school about the Shemah. I think, from what I understand you’re saying, nothing of this would contradict what Abraham and Moses (God’s “friend”), would consider. Thanks. It’s something I really have been wondering about.

One nature and three persons. The only thing that may be considered unorthodox is saying that God experienced loneliness in the death of Jesus. I get where reformed theologians are coming from. I even taught once on the humiliation of Jesus, and explained how the human nature was what was tempted, because God cannot be tempted.

Nowadays, I simply say that because Jesus was God and man, he could do things that only God can do, and he could do things that only a man can do.

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I’m sure you know more about this than I do. I am not sure what Reformed theologians think. I grew up nondenominational as a missionary kid in a Muslim country… The Christians and Muslim background believers did have some interesting ways to talk to Muslims about their preconceived notions.

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Thanks. I’m interested in what the “New Synthesis” is.

I found this article interesting, too. I am sure it could expand to Christian monks. I wonder if it would apply to self sacrifice for one’s group; or even for people in general. I also wonder how adoption would fit into evolution. Study of Buddhist monks suggests celibacy can have surprising evolutionary advantages (


Hi, I’m probably using terms a little loosely here but by the “new synthesis” I meant the “Extended Evolutionary Synthesis” which some are promoting these days—a synthesis that emphasizes some different ways of generating evolutionary change besides classic “allele selection” such as epigenetics and extended phenotypes. Biologists generally think that the EES builds on the existing mechanisms of classic natural selection, refines our understanding, but doesn’t overturn the fundamental importance of natural selection as the driver of adaptation.

You hit on a very interesting article of celibacy. The natural selection of celibacy of monks was actually proposed decades ago—essentially it is arguing that monks benefit by Kin Selection (their relatives become richer and have more offspring). So, such celibacy does not violate the rule of “genetic selfishness” after all, because one’s DNA gets passed on indirectly through the increased success your relatives (which share some of your DNA).

With respect to adoption—likewise, because of kin selection, it pays to adopt an orphan of a relative (you are raising an offspring that still shares some of your own DNA). According to natural selection, it should normally not pay to adopt a non-relative. However, one can think of scenarios where adoptions of non-relatives might bring indirect benefits. e.g., Perhaps an adoption helps out the family unit as a whole, brings an extra pair of hands to help the parents raise and care for the true biological offspring of the parents. Humans traditionally lived in small tribal/family groups in which most individuals were related, so we are probably “emotionally triggered” to want to adopt helpless infants rather indiscriminantly… Some sad statistics show, however, that parental abuse of non-related foster children is higher than that of related children so there might be some unconscious tracking of relatedness to other individuals that determine the degree of cooperation or altruism one is willing to give.

Theoretically, an individual should never “self-sacrifice” for the good of the group unless it gets an indirect (individual) payback for doing so. This might occur among warring tribes, for example. It might seem that you are risking your life in war to save “your tribe” but actually you are getting individual genetic benefits by saving your own offspring in the group, and other relatives in the tribe. So, in reality are still behaving for the benefit of your own DNA being passed on to the next generation. Its just that you want the group to survive because the survival of your own offspring is enhanced by being in the group…

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Thanks–“kin selection”–yes, I do recall that now! That goes back to my evolutionary biology capstone course in 1995 (cough) based on Gould’s text. Thanks for bringing me back.

I’ll try to get back to the OP–my mistake, but thanks for the diversion and discussion.

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Soldiers throwing themselves on grenades isn’t due to some supernatural stimulus though is it? And how doesn’t evolution explain it? As you know kinship and our hard wired moral taste receptors do.

Yes, I never suggested otherwise. Evolution could explain an impulse for soldiers throwing themselves on grenades for the sake of their fellow fighters, given that, if their fellows win the battle, it is more likely that the “sacrificee’s” own offspring and relatives back home will survive.

Also one can consider that during most of our evolutionary past in small tribes of relatives, one’s fellow-fighters were most likely kin.

I guess what would be considered altruistic would be soldiers throwing themselves on grenades to protect “the enemy” fighters. To risk oneself for the sake of the enemy. Sort of what Jesus’s ethic tells us to do. Anti-evolutionary, that…


The idea of an expanding moral circle where we begin to consider non-human creatures with the same dignity and empathy that we ascribe to other humans is compelling and exciting. Seeing non-human creatures as ends in themselves and not simply automatons or objects that can be used as a source of raw materials seems to be a logical extension of what we have done with humans outside of our concentric in-groups. At one time, even other humans outside of our cultural in-group were not considered to be “human” in the sense of deserving equal empathy and dignity to those within our in-group. On the other hand, embracing the natural world in this way seems to be very peripheral to the concerns that humans in most cultures have. I have not heard much about this idea outside of a specifically Western and modern context, although I have encountered similar ideas in indigenous circles. How much is this extension of the idea of rights and dignity to the animal world a genuine moral advancement and how much of it is just a fad arising out of us projecting our Western individualistic conception of “rights” onto non-human creatures? How much of our newfound appreciation of nature is a genuine ethical insight into how we should relate to nature and how much of it is just a byproduct of city-dwellers wanting to get out into nature in order to experience something other than a human constructed world? Is this emerging ecological ethic merely a romanticization of nature that is the result of a modern weariness of urban life and a world dominated by technology? I certainly hope not. Developing a healthier relationship with the natural world is obviously a human need and not just for Westerners. I should also add that I realize that non-Westerners certainly recognize this as well. On the other hand, how can we make sure that we actually develop a healthier relationship with nature and don’t just pursue a fad which has more to do with cultural neuroses within our own society than actually relating with nature?

Well, interesting point–can I vote my opinion as yes and no? If we notice that peace in general is helpful for wellbeing–and maybe even use evolutionary abstract reasoning to think that God might exist, and hold us accountable for a standard or right and wrong–could it follow through that we would do things for our enemies, or even for a standard that we posit? The higher brain function may change our understanding so that we act in this way?

Thanks for the discussion.


I think humans can certainly choose to act altruistically (irrespective of whether or not they may base such a decision on an intellectual belief in God). But true altruism (or a higher brain function inclining us to such a behaviour) can never be selected for by natural selection because it is always vulnerable to a “cheater” of the system. In other words, alleles that incline one to “enlightened self-interest” will always outcompete alleles that incline one to self-sacrifice for an enemy because the former behaviour will leave more offspring in the next generation…and so the “self-interest” alleles will overtake any “altruistic” alleles…
For a completely stable altruistic society, I think we must wait for the New Kingdomto fully break in.

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Thanks–you’re right–it’s not just by God that one comes to those sorts of decisions–definitely not–especially when we see many atheists do way better than believers! I was just making a “for instance.” Sorry!
Thanks :slight_smile:

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Hebrews 12:2 provides evidence that’s what Jesus’ motivation on our behalf was, wasn’t it?

Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” -Colossians 4:6

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