Month: June 2019

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“Pride is the first sin that ever entered into the universe, and it’s the last that is rooted out. It is God’s most stubborn enemy.” - Jonathan Edwards
Traditionally, Christians have been of the persuasion that sins are bad, and some sins are worse than others. What do you think is the worst sin? Murder? Rape? Idolatry? Blasphemy? For most of church history, there was little disagreement in the answer. From Augustine in the fourth century, to Edwards in the 18th century, to Dorothy Sayers in the 20th century, it was a one word answer: pride.
The commencement of all sin.[1] The root of all heresy.[2] The first sin.[3] The greatest sin.[4] The head and origin of all sin.[5]
On what grounds did they reach this conclusion? Did they just make it up? Did they value self-abasement? The answer lies in Scripture:
The fear of the Lord is to hate evil; Pride and arrogance and the evil way And the perverse mouth I hate.[6] Everyone proud in heart is an abomination to the Lord; Though they join forces, none will go unpunished.[7] Do you see a man wise in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him.[8]
So what’s pride? How can we not do it if we don’t know what “it” is? The ancients took care of that for us as well:
“The desire for inordinate exaltation” - Augustine “Inordinate desire of one’s own excellence” - Aquinas “The excessive love of one’s own excellence” - Catholic Encyclopedia “Pride is nothing else (as the learned say) but love of thy own excellency, that is, of thy own worship.” - Walter Hilton
But we can make this even simpler: pride is thinking too highly of ourselves. And for those passionate in the service of Christ, it is their greatest weakness. As Edwards wrote:
The first and worst cause of error that prevails in our day is spiritual pride. This is the main door by which the devil comes into the hearts of those who are zealous for the advancement of Christ. …. Pride is much more difficult to discern than any other corruption because, by nature, pride is a person having too high a thought of himself. Is it any surprise, then, that a person who has too high a thought of himself is unaware of it? He thinks the opinion he has of himself has just grounds and therefore is not too high.[9]
To visualize the concept, imagine a scale. Our self-perception should be in general balance with who we really are. Consider traits such as intelligence, skill, expertise, virtue, or any other matter of importance. When our self-perception in any area exceeds reality, that is pride. If the scale is heavily tipped on the reality side, other factors may be in play: exaggerated or false humility, lack of confidence, or poor self-image. In practice, a perfect balance may be unattainable. If we must err, let us err on the side of modesty. https://i1.wp.com/swilling.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/pride-scale.jpg?w=900 The first casualty of pride is self-awareness, so we don’t know ourselves well enough to recognize it. Often – perhaps most of the time – we are unaware of its presence. Tim Keller likened it to carbon monoxide: it kills you without your knowing it. Pride aimed inward is overconfidence, an unrealistically high opinion of oneself. It causes us to be overconfident of our abilities, our beliefs, our power, and our moral standing before God and each other. Pride directed outward is self-exaltation. It drives us relentlessly to compare ourselves to others, to get and have more than others, to take credit for what is good, and to blame others when we fail. Ultimately, it is a passion to grasp for ourselves the place reserved for God Almighty. After three thousand years in the realms of theology and philosophy, this truth has re-emerged in the realm of science. For example, the Book of Proverbs (Solomon, ca. 1000 BC) stated that by nature we are self-justifying and feel morally superior:
    Every way of a man is right in his own eyes, But the Lord weighs the hearts.[10]
In January 2017, Scientific American reported: “Most people consider themselves to be morally superior.”[11] The article noted that “decades of research confirm that we are all above average—at least in our own minds…. above all else we believe that we are more just, more trustworthy, more moral than others.” In other words, according to the latest research, Solomon nailed it. We don’t just think we’re more virtuous. We think we’re smarter. And better. And very, very important. But we’ve only scratched the surface. Stay tuned for future installments. Subscribe to this blog to be notified of future posts, and share it with others! Key points:
  • God hates pride
  • Sinful pride is having too high an opinion of oneself
  • Everyone is proud in some aspect of life

  1. St. Augustine: https://biblehub.com/library/augustine/anti-pelagian_writings/chapter_33_xxix_not_every_sin.htm
  2. Hilton, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/hilton/ladder.ii_1.i.iii.v.ii.html
  3. Aquinas, https://biblehub.com/library/aquinas/summa_theologica/whether_pride_is_the_first.htm
  4. http://www.newadvent.org/summa/3162.htm
  5. Dorothy Sayers. The other six deadly sins. 1941/
  6. Proverbs 8:13
  7. Proverbs 16:5
  8. Proverbs 26:12
  9. Thoughts on the revival of religion in New England, Part IV Section I: Spiritual Pride. Jonathan Edwards, 1740
  10. Proverbs 21:2 ( NKJV )
  11. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/most-people-consider-themselves-to-be-morally-superior/

Brave New World 2.0

June 19, 2019 | book reviews | 6 Comments

Oh, wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in ’t
                  -(William Shakespeare, The Tempest)

We yearn for a day when all disease is eradicated, human power and intelligence transcend our feeble frames, and death is vanquished.

The second coming of Christ? Or an attainable goal of technology? For some it is the latter.

In Humans 2.0, biochemist Fazale Rana and philosopher-theologian Kenneth Samples offer us a glimpse into the current state of human-enhancing technology with a balanced and thoughtful consideration of the philosophical and moral implications.

It is not a simple subject, and the authors do not oversimply. As they explore the idea of “transhumanism”, they focus on three broad areas of research: human genetic modification, neural enhancement, and lifespan extension. Each area is introduced with clear, authoritative technical explanations and an assessment of the current status. The future ramifications are then considered. In each of these areas, technology offers great hope for better health and relief of suffering. In all three domains, there is no barrier to prevent us passing beyond health to enhancement.

I approached the book somewhat doubtfully, wondering “Is transhumanism a paper tiger?” For example, intelligence is determined by not one gene but thousands, and environment still has a profound impact. Enhanced intelligence seems a long way off and may be impossible. Countless such technical obstacles threaten to nullify the transhumanist vision. I also wondered, “Is anyone really pushing this stuff?” I found both concerns satisfactorily addressed. The authors clearly understand the technological impediments to transhumanist visions, but also demonstrate these conversations are happening. They cite the work of ten influential advocates of transhumanist principles, most of them obscure except for 71-year-old futurist Ray Kurzweil.

Chapter 9, “The Problem with Progress”, I would single out as especially insightful and pertinent. Probably the greatest dangers lie in unintended consequences. Neil Postman warned long ago how technology doesn’t merely serve us but changes how we think.[1] Transhumanism would not simply make us better; it would change who we are. “What we end up saving won’t be us.”[2] Nassim Taleb directed our attention to “Black Swan” events – unpredictable disruptions in the course of history that have a profound lasting impact, either for good or bad.[3] Transhumanism looks like a fertile rookery for black swans.

Bringing their sound theological grounding to bear, the authors do an exemplary job of framing the ethical concerns within a solid Biblical framework in a style that is neither dogmatic nor polemical. Professing Christians across the theological spectrum, other than the most liberal or conservative extremes, should find themselves in comfortable agreement. They are unabashedly and consistently pro-life, but not insensitive to the ramifications of that position.

There was one minor point with which I would take issue. Twice[4] the authors warn that transhumanism can only develop with the resources of capitalism (certainly true), that capitalism leads to unequal outcomes (certainly true), and that the technology would only benefit investors and the wealthy (probably not true). They don’t seem to appreciate that most profits in capitalism come from the mass market, or that Henry Ford, Sam Walton, Ray Kroc, and Steve Jobs did not become fabulously wealthy by catering to the rich. We should be far more concerned with this technology in the hands of totalitarian regimes. Far from extending the benefits of freedom, new technology finds increasing use in the service of repression. With human enhancement we might fear more of the same.

Is this book for everyone? Will it change your life? Probably not. Nor is it an apologetic for the Christian faith; anti-theists will take issue with much of the analysis. Non-scientists may wish to skip the more technical sections (the authors even tell you how!) Nonetheless, Kenneth Samples and Fazale Rana have delivered once again with a well-executed analysis of a timely topic. I recommend it highly to scientists, physicians, policymakers, authors, pastors, and anyone in a position of leadership or influence who will be facing these issues, like it or not.

[1] Neil Postman. Amusing Ourselves to Death. Penguin Books: 1985

[2] Fazale Rana and Kenneth Samples. Humans 2.0: Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Perspectives on Transhumanism. Reasons to Believe: 2019. P. 217

[3] Nasim Taleb. The Black Swan: the Impact of the Highly Improbable. Random House: 2007

[4] Rana and Samples, p. 146, p. 215

The Intelligence Trap: why smart people make dumb mistakes. David Robson, W. W. Norton, 2019

Western society reveres intelligence, or at least pretends to. A leading political figure boasts he's "a very stable genius” - which, presumably, is superior to an unstable one. Yet no one stops to ask, “does it matter?" According to this fresh and fascinating analysis from British science writer David Robson, probably not. In fact, it could be a liability.

Anecdotal examples abound of brilliant people who believe crazy things. Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the ruthlessly logical Sherlock Holmes, clung to a naive but unshakeable faith in spiritualism and fairies. Nobel prize winner Kary Mullis recounts his abduction by a glowing alien raccoon, when not engaged promoting astrology and AIDS denialism. The name most synonymous with genius - Albert Einstein - saw the hope of mankind in Vladimir Lenin and frittered away the final decades of his life stubbornly rejecting quantum theory. The tendency of Nobel prize winners to go of the rails is so commonplace that science writers coined "Nobel disease" as a term of derision.

Among the lower ranks of intelligentsia, we learn that:

  • College graduates are more likely to believe in ESP and "psychic healing."
  • People with IQ's over 140 are more likely to max out on their credit.
  • High IQ individuals consume more alcohol and are more likely to smoke or take illegal drugs.

By way of explanation, research has found that highly intelligent and educated people are much more confident, and this confidence makes them less likely to doubt their opinions or change their minds. Rather than pursuing truth wherever it may be found, smarter people channel their energy toward arguing and reinforcing their preexisting opinions.

Is there hope for the genius? After reviewing current evidence and theories concerning human cognition, particularly the influence of emotions and effects of overconfidence, Robson identifies a series of empirically validated practices by which one can mature beyond mere intelligence to wisdom. These include:

  • Emotional awareness and regulation - learning to recognize when emotions influence opinions, and how to override them when necessary.
  • Cognitive reflection - the ability to question one's own intuitions and assumptions.
  • Actively open-minded thinking - allowing for other possibilities, and seriously considering opposing viewpoints.
  • Having a growth mindset - never resting on one's credentials but committing to a lifetime of learning and improvement.
  • Intellectual humility - accepting that one's knowledge and abilities are limited.

The third section of the book zeroes in on sound practices of learning and how principles like curiosity, conscientiousness, and emotional intelligence are at least as, if not more, important than intellectual intelligence. Robson relates a number of evidence-based practices shown to facilitate learning - material that should be of keen interest to teachers and learners alike.

A final section extends beyond the individual to apply these principles to group dynamics and the means of avoiding catastrophic group decisions.

This work should be of profound interest to Christians. Without ever quoting the Bible, Robson lays out an elegant model for the Biblical principle of wisdom. His explanations account for why both brilliant believers and brilliant skeptics are prone to overconfidence and equally capable of tremendous self-deceit.

In summary, David Robson has delivered a provocative, entertaining, and timely contribution to the public square. This book could serve as a life manual for those afflicted with a very high IQ. It should be an eye-opener for anyone whose life or profession concerns issues of intelligence. For the average person, it offers two benefits worth the price of the book. First, do not be intimidated by intelligence. Outside their own narrow area of expertise, geniuses are no more trustworthy than anyone else. Second, what matters is not intelligence, but wisdom. And wisdom is within reach of anyone. However, wisdom does not emerge from a vacuum. It matures over time through consistent practice of the principles described within.

Five stars. Buy or borrow it, read it, then live it. You will be much the wiser.

Review of the UK edition. The US edition will be released on August 6, 2019 by WW Norton.

 

 

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Late in life, atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell received this challenge: if, after death, he found himself face to face with God, what would he say? Russell replied, “I probably would ask, ‘Sir, why did you not give me better evidence?’”¹

Theists contend that though evidence for God is both present and sufficient, bias can fog even brilliant minds like Russell’s. It’s possible that bias could explain Russell’s atheism, but is the accusation of bias merely an ad hominem counter argument? We often assume that human beliefs arise from the application of reason to facts and experience; that we are, in effect, Homo rationalis (rational man). If Russell were objectively rational after considering all the evidence, then his defense is valid. His unbelief would signify failure on God’s part.

Homo rationalis is widely embraced and resonates with our self-perception. We always think our own beliefs are based on facts, reason, and experience.

Social scientists in the 1970s broadly accepted two ideas about human nature. First, people are generally rational, and their thinking is normally sound. Second, emotions such as fear, affection, and hatred explain most of the occasions on which people depart from rationality.²

However, the Christian Scriptures reject the doctrine of Homo rationalis, instead predicting that people would refuse to believe in the face of overwhelming evidence. In a parable recorded in Luke 16, Jesus says, “If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead.” And in Romans 1:21, Paul writes, “Because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened.”

In recent decades, researchers from a range of disciplines have investigated the nature of human belief. The results of this research enable us to test which is more correct, Homo rationalis or the biblical perspective.

Finding #1: Relying on Heuristics

Humans routinely sift through mountains of information to make even simple decisions. Ideally, a person one would take accurate, complete data and apply reason to reach a logical and correct conclusion. Reality is not so cooperative; we often lack both time and desire for exhaustive analysis, even if perfect information were available. Instead, we make the best possible decisions based on imperfect, incomplete data.

Heuristics are those mental shortcuts people use for deciding as efficiently as possible given the information on hand. We all use them, several times a day. Heuristics are quite helpful, actually. If you encounter a shadowy figure in a dark alley with something shaped like a gun in his hand, the “representativeness” heuristic would recommend avoidance. Logic would be useless until you determined beyond all doubt that (1) yes, it was a gun, and (2) the bearer had malicious intent—which could be too late.

Unfortunately, heuristics are often wrong and used as a substitute for thoughtful reflection. In his book Thinking Fast and Slow, renowned psychologist Daniel Kahneman offers a comprehensive portrayal of how our minds work and how an expanding catalog of cognitive biases and faulty heuristics routinely and predictably lead us astray. Heuristics are automatic, quick, and effortless. Kahneman labels this “System 1” thinking. Thoughtful reflection (“System 2” thinking) yields better decisions at the cost of time and effort. What Kahneman and his collaborators found was that our minds are naturally lazy so we rely on System 1 as much as possible: “System 1 is gullible and biased to believe, System 2 is in charge of doubting and unbelieving, but System 2 is sometimes busy, and often lazy.”³

Cognitive biases are tendencies deeply embedded in our subconscious that lead us to err in predictable ways. Almost two hundred have been described in the literature. Many serve to enhance our own self-image or minimize emotional tension. For example, confirmation bias is the tendency to assign greater significance to evidence that supports our preexisting opinion. Heuristics and biases are closely intertwined. One way to understand the connection is that heuristics represent a shortcut to decision making, but are neutral regarding outcome. Biases push those decisions in certain (somewhat) predictable directions. Having invested a lifetime researching heuristics and biases, Kahneman concluded that “the human mind is not bound to reality.”4

Finding #2: Emotional Influences

It would be a sorry state of affairs if we regarded tragedy and suffering with cold indifference. But to what extent do emotions determine our beliefs? Is it merely an occasional exception or do emotions undermine the validity of Homo rationalis? In recent decades, a clear picture has emerged. It began with the observation that patients with specific brain injuries lost all capacity for emotion. The surprising consequence, though, was that such patients also lost the ability to make decisions. They could analyze a problem all day long without ever forming a conclusion. Dr. Antoine Bechara summarized the outcome of this research in 2004: 5

"The studies of decision-making in neurological patients who can no longer process emotional information normally suggest that people make judgments not only by evaluating the consequences and their probability of occurring, but also and even sometimes primarily at a gut or emotional level." (emphasis added)

Now, this is far from saying that every decision is purely or primarily emotional nor that emotions inevitably lead to flawed conclusions. But when it comes to objective analysis or honest truth-seeking, emotions may not merely impede our progress; they can propel us right off the cliff. Consider the emotional fervor over certain political, social, religious, and even scientific issues. It is easy to believe the issues inflame our passion; more often it is our passions that inflame the issue. Despite the evidence, few will admit to thinking emotionally rather than logically. Most likely we don’t even know we’re doing it.

In 2015, Jennifer Lerner of Harvard University reviewed 35 years of research on the role of emotions in judgment and decision making:6

"The research reveals that emotions constitute potent, pervasive, predictable, sometimes harmful and sometimes beneficial drivers of decision making. Across different domains, important regularities appear in the mechanisms through which emotions influence judgments and choices."

Finding #3: Social influences

If Homo rationalis existed, then we could completely trust expert opinions. But there are two obvious problems. First, experts often disagree. Second, recent history shows that experts sometimes fail spectacularly. The bandwagon effect inclines people to conform their opinions to the perceived majority position. This may occur either to enhance one’s own conformity and social acceptance, or because one sincerely (perhaps naively) trusts the wisdom of the majority.

When formulating an opinion on a complex subject, rarely do people rely on their own analysis. For example, on initial consideration, Professor B may consider Professor A’s opinion. The opinion of Professor A will be treated as additional data, sometimes prompting Professor B to reach the opposite conclusion from what he might have reached independently. Professor C then comes along and, rather than seeing disagreement between Professors A and B, she sees unanimity. If she trusts her colleagues, the inclination toward agreement becomes ever greater. This is the mechanism by which information cascades develop. In an information cascade, the early deciders have a disproportionate impact over equally qualified experts who arrive later. When a cascade has occurred, the majority viewpoint of 100 experts may be completely opposite to the opinion of the same 100 experts analyzing the data independently, blinded to the opinions of their colleagues.

Finding #4: Intelligence and Religiosity

There is no evidence that more intelligent or better educated individuals transcend their own emotions and biases or are less susceptible to peer pressure. In Kahneman’s collaborative research, it didn’t matter whether the subjects were average high school students or Ivy League undergrads. Highly intelligent and educated people are more confident,7 making them less likely to doubt their opinions or change their minds. Rather than pursuing truth wherever it may be found, smarter people channel their energy toward arguing and reinforcing their preexisting opinions.8

Belief Formation Research Supports Scripture

While Bertrand Russell, and many others, may attribute unbelief to lack of evidence, the Bible declares that belief is a choice. Research on human decision making has demonstrated that we are heavily influenced by nonrational factors that can lead to faulty decisions and incorrect belief (or unbelief). It seems the Bible’s view is well supported. To paraphrase Solzhenitsyn, the dividing line between fact and fancy cuts through the mind of every person, believer and skeptic alike.

(Jointly posted at Reasons to Believe on June 14, 2019

Endnotes
  1. Leo Rosten, “Bertrand Russell and God: A Memoir,” The Saturday Review, February 23, 1974, 26.
  2. Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2011), 8.
  3. Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow, 81.
  4. Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow, 365.
  5. Antoine Bechara, “The Role of Emotion in Decision-Making: Evidence from Neurological Patients with Orbitofrontal Damage,” Brain and Cognition 55, no. 1 (June 2004): 30–40, doi:10.1016/j.bandc.2003.04.001.
  6. Jennifer Lerner et al., “Emotion and Decision Making,” Annual Review of Psychology 66 (January 2015): 799–823, doi:10.1146/annurev-psych-010213-115043.
  7. David G. Robson, The Intelligence Trap: Why Smart People Make Dumb Mistakes (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2019).
  8. Dan M. Kahan, , “Ideology, Motivated Reasoning, and Cognitive Reflection: An Experimental Study,” Judgment and Decision Making 8, no. 4 (July 2013): 407–24.