Integral World: Exploring Theories of Everything
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
Andrea Diem-LaneAndrea Diem-Lane is a tenured Professor of Philosophy at Mt. San Antonio College, where she has been teaching since 1991. Professor Diem has published several scholarly books and articles, including The Gnostic Mystery and When Gods Decay. She is married to Dr. David Lane, with whom she has two children, Shaun-Michael and Kelly-Joseph.

The Big Kahuna's Dilemma

How to Live in a Darwinian Universe

Andrea Diem-Lane
with assistance by David Lane

We evolved to believe nonsense, since such beliefs provide us with a way to avoid looking at the ultimate abyss—death and meaninglessness.

My husband David and I have been avid surfers most of our lives and we have had a long love affair with surf movies of all types, including Endless Summer, Beach Blanket Bingo, Point Break (the original version), and a slew of others. Ironically, we are not big fans of Big Wednesday, which though panned in its original release has enjoyed a growing cult following (including one of its most vocal champions, Quentin Tarentino). However, and this may stick the claw of our more core wave riding friends, we love the original Gidget movie starring Sandra Dee, James Darren, and Cliff Robertson.

Interestingly, the other day as I was re-watching Gidget from start to finish for the umpteenth time, I was wonderstruck by the real underlying theme of the movie which wasn't about surfing at all, but about how a normal, functioning adult in American society is expected to get a regular job and get in line with others in the day to day work force. Yes, it is okay to vacation (or loaf) during the summer perhaps (within limits, of course), but a male adult must earn his own living and be self-sufficient.

This is brought to dramatic effect in the movie when the Big Kahuna (Cliff Robertson) explains to Gidget (played by Sandra Dee) that he wants to be a beach bum and live off the land free from the cares of modern society. The look on Sandra Dee's face when she hears the Kahuna explain his existential philosophy on life is priceless. Gidget looks like she has encountered a deranged ghost, as if not getting a regular job was tantamount to be a Russian spy or worse!

Gidget, first edition dustjacket
Gidget, first edition dustjacket (1957)

The underlying moral arc in the movie Gidget isn't so much about the rapturous joy of being in the ocean and living a bohemian lifestyle as a beachcomber, but rather that surfers (of whatever stripe) must pay their societal dues or otherwise be regarded as useless outcastes. This same motif can also be seen in the overly sappy big wave movie of 1964, Ride the Wild Surf, starring Fabian, Tab Hunter, Shelly Fabares, James Mitchum and others, where a group of competitive young men around the world vie to ride the biggest waves at Waimea Bay on the famed north shore of Oahu. Yet, just like in Gidget, the moral underpinning is that surfers are perceived as bums. In one overly melodramatic scene Steamer Lane (played by Tab Hunter) confronts his girlfriend's mother over his passion for big waves, since she believes Steamer is like her no-good husband who left home and his responsibilities to follow the surf. Tab Hunter sets her straight by showing how hard he works year long and that this opportunity to surf Waimea is only a temporary one not his lifelong career. It isn't a particularly good movie or a convincing one, and certainly not as enjoyable as Gidget which is more playful and takes itself less seriously.

Nevertheless, both movies got me thinking about philosophy and Darwin. Why? Because this life is so short (and for too many quite brutal) that it raises a fundamental question: in a universe where the presiding dictum is “eat or be eaten” how should we live, given our brief sojourn on terra firma? Richard Dawkins once insightfully pointed out that even though he believed evolution by natural selection was an unassailable fact of nature we shouldn't let such guide how we want our societies to operate. The last thing we want in our day-to-day lives is an ironclad rule of “survival of the fittest.”

This brings in sharp relief the Big Kahuna's dilemma since what is wrong with being a surfer, living off the land, and avoiding the trials and tribulations of the typically overworked and underpaid American worker? In other words, given this horror show we call living, doesn't it make perfectly logical sense to live a life however we deem fit, given that no matter what we achieve we will at the end disappear from the proceedings?

These thoughts got me thinking about religion and why most of us, if not all, tend to believe in all sorts of nonsense that on closer inspection appears (at least to those not involved in our own personal cult) utterly bizarre or useless. Yet, if any one of these systems, regardless of how fantastical they may be, provide us with a buffer from the onslaughts of a cruel and mindless nature, then they have survival value. We evolved to believe nonsense, since such beliefs provide us with a way to avoid looking at the ultimate abyss—death and meaninglessness.

More to the point, it makes perfectly good sense to believe in nonsense provided that such allows us to get on with our lives and not succumb to premature implosion. Our brains evolved to lie to us, primarily because too much unmediated reality would overwhelm our ability to navigate the probability matrix that surrounds our day-to-day activities. This is why there are literally thousands of religions and millions of different beliefs systems—ranging from rabid sports fans to political zealots to automobile fanatics.

Sandra Dee as Gidget in the 1959 film, (VHS cover)
Sandra Dee as Gidget in
the 1959 film, (VHS cover)

Thus, the Big Kahuna's dilemma about whether to get a full-time job or follow the sun and surf is really our own existential dilemma since we live in a Darwinian universe of innumerable possibilities. But each of our choices (whether to put our noses to the grindstone or live like free spirits) is circumscribed by a most telling factoid: our lives are mercilessly short and we die.

How then shall we live when there is no objective datum by which to adjudicate our choices?

In the 21st century, particularly in those countries that enjoy relative freedom of expression, the vast majority has already made their decision and that is entertainment. Neil Postman, the acerbic media critic, suggested that Americans are prone to entertain themselves to death and Aldous Huxley echoed that same sentiment decades prior in his prophetic tome, Brave New World.

And instead of lamenting these keen and astute observations (as a sign of moral degradation) perhaps we should come to grips with why such ephemeral diversions (in whatever form) are wholly reasonable and sensible in this carnivore arena where no one gets out unscathed.

Provided that another person's enjoyment doesn't infringe on our own (and we allow others the fuller trajectories of their own short lifespan without unnecessary injury), then a powerful argument can be made for believing anything we so desire, since such believing can and does allow many of us to better navigate the ups and downs of this unremitting game of differential reproductive winners and losers.

This is why religion persists, even if we may think almost all of it is completely ridiculous and capricious because it provides a value system (even if fictional in origin) for the devotee that cushions him or her from the endless onslaughts of existence. Any schema that can ward off angst, dread, and suicidal tendencies, is welcome and will be passed on to future generations, even if such models are entirely imaginary creations.

Technology has become the world's newest and fastest growing religion, if we accept Paul Tillich's definition of such as “ultimate concern.”

The horror that Gidget feels about Kahuna not getting a job is in essence really a conflict over how to best live this life. What she fails to realize, of course, is that there is no “best” way to live since there are no absolute guidelines, save the ones that we indoctrinate ourselves with. Today, vast numbers of us (but more specifically the younger generation) have opted to spend hours each day interacting with increasingly sophisticated technology. We have immersed ourselves in virtual worlds, whether it obsessively tapping and swiping away at our smart phones, or donning headsets to correspond with others in simulated warfare games, or developing avatar like characters in cyber world correspondences.

Technology has become the world's newest and fastest growing religion, if we accept Paul Tillich's definition of such as “ultimate concern.” While many find our love affair with all things computational to be depressing or a sign of degeneracy, such love is nothing new given that we have always been fascinated with augmenting ourselves with a variety of materials. The difference now is that our electronic devices have become ubiquitous and progressively more powerful and cheaper. The church of technology isn't miles away but at our fingertips and with cloud computing it tracks our every movement.

Today's Internet is similar to an ocean full of waves, providing innumerable options. So much so, that the Big Kahuna of today is confronted with a new kind of predicament: whether to randomly surf the Net without any end goal or buckle down and find a real paying job doing something constructive in the cyber world.

Looking over at my fifteen year son, Shaun, playing away on his three monitors all sorts of interactive games (with no truly higher purpose in mind, save savoring the ups and downs of the battle), I see the Kahuna's dilemma anew. Will our total digital immersion be likened to a 1950s beach bum who would rather surf than get a “real” job? Would Sandra Dee looks just as horrified as she did when seeing the beatnik ways of Cliff Robertson?

The Big Kahuna's dilemma is ours and whatever choices we make, we may in turn reflect what Soren Kierkegaard opined nearly two centuries ago: “I see it all perfectly; there are two possible situations—one can either do this or that. My honest opinion and my friendly advice is this: do it or do not do it—you will regret both.”

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