God and learning

God said: I send people adversity in this life to teach them that this imperfect world is passing away, and this life is not their goal. I am their goal. – St. Catherine of Siena

If spiritual mastery (‘theosis’) is one of the main goals, then there are going to be experiences in life that can move us towards that mastery. If spiritual mastery is roughly cumulative (you have to learn a before moving on to b, as in many domains), then it would make sense that you keep getting a similar opportunity to learn something, until you gain the relevant skills. (Think Groundhog Day, where Phil experiences the same day over and over until he transforms, or moves towards theosis.)

Now consider this talk from Sal Khan, in which he discusses mastery-based learning. His basic point, using mathematics as the main example, is that in certain domains learning is cumulative, and if you want to master it, you can’t just get 75% of the material at level 1, and so on. If that happens, you will soon reach a block before you achieve mastery. Instead, you need to get near 100% at each level. The basic idea is in cumulative domains, you are greatly benefited by going again and again until you get near 100%, then moving to the next level. (Therefore, the main method of learning in most schools is basically flawed.)

If spiritual mastery is similar in ways to mathematics, and God is indeed sending situations to help in theosis (as St. Catherine of Siena claims), then you would expect that people will experience a certain situation until they get the relevant spiritual skills, just as a wise teacher would do when it comes to any cumulative domain.

So, the basic question when encountering a situation is ‘What can I learn from this?’ and ‘What transformation can I make on the inside, that will make me better?’ Often, once you change, things change.

Spiritual warfare and secularism

Christians typically are familiar with the concept of spiritual warfare, but to a secular modern, the term might sound like gibberish. It is presumed false at best and nonsense at worst, because it probably refers to nothing.

The thinking goes like this. ‘Spiritual warfare’ refers to the devil or demons (fallen angels, purely intellectual beings who have disobeyed God, triggered by the sin of pride) acting to persuade humans to disconnect themselves from God. Yet, the devil or demons don’t exist. Therefore, spiritual warfare doesn’t exist.

The error here is in focusing on the theoretic instead of the practical. Since spiritual warfare is all about the practical, what ought to be of interest is how Christian strategies on this impact day-to-day life – does it help people to get better at or respond better to things? If so, there’s something important about the concept of spiritual warfare in the Christian tradition, even if the theory is ultimately in some way significantly mistaken.

To begin to show why ‘spiritual warfare’ is a relevant and interesting concept, even to a secular modern, I want here to map the term onto a term that modern seculars will understand. It is probably the best equivalent in the secular lexicon to ‘spiritual warfare’. To begin to understand it, we can think about psychological warfare.

Psychological warfare, from psyche (‘soul’ or ‘spirit’), is something most people can easily see is regularly occurring around them. For example, different countries have different interests, and will try to persuade people to take this or that position on some issue. Similarly with political parties, or companies.

The main tool with which these organizations fight is the media. Obviously, the extent and duration of media exposure is increasing. This means there is more potential for those organizations to engage in psychological warfare.

Many Christians believe there is unprecedented spiritual warfare occurring now. To see how this might map onto something important, consider that many Christians also believe that the main conduit of much of this is the media.

So, recognizing spiritual warfare or psychological warfare being conducted through the media is a point of contact for both Christians and critical-thinking secular moderns. It also opens a way for secular moderns to understand what Christians are talking about, without merely dismissing it as gibberish.

Simulation theory is a new theism

This article titled ‘Is our world a simulation? Why some scientists say it’s more likely than not’ describes an intellectual movement, including Elon Musk, which holds that we live in a computer simulation.

I’ll leave to the side the arguments for such a position (including arguments about the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness), and focus on what the position is. They are positing that the universe was created by an intelligence (or intelligences). It’s a kind of theism (my impression is that many advocates seem unaware of this – it is irrelevant that the creator is a ‘posthuman civilization’ or what have you), and generates similar problems to ones Judaism or Christianity attempt to answer (do we get an insight into the creator’s mind or purposes in seeing the universe? how does the creator effect the universe? can we interact with the creator? is the creator something like omniscient in this universe? omnipotent? and so on).

It is not surprising that a powerful aspect of technology (computer simulations) would be applied to create a new form of theism. It is similar to the historical movement to think of the universe as a precisely tuned machine (such as a clock), when machines like that became common several hundred years ago (often, this form of theism emphasized something like a form of deism – the machine maker set up the universe and then let it work away).

So, developments in technology cause developments in theology.

What is the Kingdom?

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, in earth as it is in Heaven. (Matthew 6:10, King James Bible)

And when he was demanded of the Pharisees, when the kingdom of God should come, he answered them and said, The kingdom of God cometh not with observation: Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you. (Luke 17:21-22, King James Bible)

What is the ‘Kingdom’? In contemporary terms, it is a grass-roots, metapolitical movement, which comes out of the theosis (spiritual development) of individuals and then the actions they take.


Antifragile processes

Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking (1952) is largely a collection of practical tricks for changing how one thinks on an habitual basis and therefore acts (i.e., theosis).

These practical tricks are part-and-parcel of kinds of Christianity, and Peale (a pastor) explicitly couches them in the Christian Gospel. The Gospel isn’t incidental to many of the practices – rather, the practices are closely connected to parts of the Bible, and probably generated in part by reflection on those texts (so, the texts acted as a kind of heuristic).

In light of work by Nassim Taleb on antifragility, the following one in particular I found interesting

6. Avoid argument, but whenever a negative attitude is expressed, counter with a positive and optimistic opinion. (p. 172)

The trick here is to create an ‘antifragile’ process (something that gets stronger when exposed to intermittent stresses, such as a muscle gets stronger when lifting weights, say). A negative attitude, which ordinarily might damage a positive attitude, is used as a stimulus to create a stronger habit of focusing on positive or optimistic ways of thinking. A nice trick.

Many antifragile processes are part of Christian practice, just as they are with certain kinds of Stoic thought and practice. For example, detachment from material wealth means low downside to lack of material wealth, but upside to having material wealth (as with Seneca).

Antifragility and Heaven

It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God. (Matthew 19:23)

An often erroneous conclusion is that, therefore, it is easy for poor people to enter Heaven. Yet, this is an error, as the answer Jesus gives to the follow-up question ‘Who, then, can enter Heaven’ isn’t ‘Poor people’ but rather

With God, all things are possible.

What is often missed in discussions of these passages is the concept of ‘Heaven’ (‘kingdom of God’). Quite often, people think of Heaven as a ‘place’ you are ‘transported to’ after bodily death.

If, however, Heaven is understood along the lines of Benedict XVI’s definition – wherever God’s will is being done (see his discussion of ‘Our Father who art in Heaven’ from Jesus of Nazareth) – then the significance of the passage changes.

If this is our understanding, then the passage becomes ‘… than for a rich man to actively align himself with God’s will.’ This comports nicely with Jesus’ teaching that a man cannot ‘serve two masters, God and Mammon’ (Mammon being a personification of material possessions). To serve is to carry out the will of, i.e., we are talking about something active.

Why can’t a man serve material possessions and God at the same time? I think Nassim Taleb’s discussion of Seneca – a Stoic – and antifragility is relevant here (Antifragile, p. 151). Seneca is a very wealthy man, one of the most wealthy in the Roman Empire. Yet he recognizes that material possessions tend to possess their owner, rather than the other way around (this is a great theme in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, where the ring of power comes to control its owner).

Yet, Seneca also recognizes that wealth can be a good (otherwise, as Taleb points out, why wouldn’t he have gotten rid of it?). Therefore, he cultivates practices which reduce the ‘fragility’ of owning a large number of material things. In particular, he writes them off in his mind. Therefore, the thought of losing them no longer bothers him, and so they lose part of their grip on him, while still retaining the good they can do for him, his family, and so on.

To connect this with the passage from the Gospel of Matthew, men who have great material wealth tend to be owned by their possessions instead of owning them, and this leads to an inability to follow God’s will. Therefore, these men can’t really ‘enter Heaven’, i.e., be part of the communion of Saints who are aligned with God’s will. Heaven is not a place you are passively transported to (a popular and erroneous conception), but a place you actively ‘go’ to, and which begins in this life (‘thy will be done’ – when? now. by whom? you.).

When Jesus tells a wealthy man to give away all he owns, and come, follow me, the man refuses, demonstrating he is, in fact, owned by his possessions instead of owning them. The proper response would be to cheerily cast off one’s possessions at that moment!

It is only if a man can do so, and is willing to do so if the right circumstances arise, that he can truly make use of material wealth for the Good – i.e., align those material resources with the will of God, which is to say that he can ‘enter into Heaven’.

Christianity as heuristic

In his 2012 book Antifragile, Nassim Taleb distinguishes between three main categories: ‘fragile’, ‘robust’, and ‘antifragile’.

To illustrate the concept of ‘antifragility’, Taleb uses the hydra. If you chop off one of its heads, two grow in its place. Similarly, if you damage your muscles while lifting a heavy object then, given enough time, they will repair with more strength than before. These are not just robust, but ‘antifragile’.

In a table listing various kinds of fragile-robust-antifragile types, Nassim Taleb has under ‘science’

Theory (fragile). Phenomenology (robust). Heuristics, practical tricks (antifragile).

This seems right. A reliance on theories in science leads to epistemic fragility. In particular, when people start conceiving of science as a group of specific theories, their worldview becomes highly fragile, because it is open to being undermined whenever evidence suggests one of those theories is wrong.

Science’s real strength (its antifragility) is in science-as-process. This is why you can keep disproving various theories within science, and yet science as a whole becomes stronger. It is this basic ‘antifragile’ conception which is the main source of science’s great successes. That is to say, science is essentially a heuristic – a way of generating ideas that are then tested, and so on, ad infinitum. It embraces uncertainty – there is much we don’t know.

When people conceive Christianity as a collection of theological theories, this tends to develop into a fragile worldview. A better conception is of Christianity as essentially a heuristic – a way of generating practices that are then tested. Christianity isn’t essentially this-or-that-set-of-theological-theories (trinitarianism, penal substitionary atonement, and so on), but a more basic approach to living (a trusting, lived relationship with God). The latter not only contains practical tricks (discernment, and so on), but is a heuristic – a way of generating ideas that are then tested, and so on, ad infinitum. It embraces theological uncertainty – there is much we don’t know.

When either science or Christianity set into fragile theory-centric conceptions, they lose their vigour. When, instead, the focus is essentially on heuristics and practical tricks, they become ‘antifragile’.

Heuristic questions

Two useful questions to ask habitually are

“What can I learn from this?”


“How can I use this?”

To use Nassim Taleb’s neologism, these are ‘antifragile’ heuristics.

Christianity lends itself naturally to these questions, because it views the universe as essentially purposive. God has a plan for the universe -> that plan can (if we so choose) involve us -> therefore, events that occur (can) fit into this plan.

Therefore, it’s a natural question for a Christian to ask

“What purpose can God have for this?”

which leads fairly naturally to the two above questions.

If you think of God as a creative, on-going God, then you also can think of God as consistently asking himself the two above questions, and then coordinating people and things (to the extent they are willing – see process theology) in creative solutions.

The ‘Our Father’ as scriptural core of Christianity

Our Father

Who art in Heaven

Hallowed be thy name.

Thy Kingdom come,

Thy will be done,

In earth as it is in Heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread,

and forgive us our trespasses,

as we forgive those who trespass against us,

and lead us not into temptation,

but deliver us from evil. Amen.

My sense is that many repeat this prayer without thinking about what it means.

This prayer is probably the most important in Christianity.

‘Our Father

The whole prayer can be reduced to this line. The key word here is ‘Father’, which is the key metaphor Jesus uses to understand God. God is like a loving, wise Father. This leads to the central part of Christianity – a trusting relationship with God. Without this conception, much of the rest of the prayer doesn’t make sense.

‘who art in Heaven

Taken at its most basic, this is a disambiguator. We are talking of a spiritual Father, not a biological one.

Hallowed be thy name’

This doesn’t just mean that the name of God is holy, but that it shall be made so. This applies at both the individual and societal level. Hallowed means holy (which is to say, harmoniously good), and in this context means ‘recognized as such’. Recognition enables action, ultimately on an individual level (the concept is an anchor, which enables us to act).

‘Thy Kingdom come’

Key here is the nature of the Kingdom. The Kingdom will not appear in signs with ‘lo, there it is’, but rather it is ‘in the midst of you’. Which is to say, this is a Kingdom which develops out of people’s mental habits and actions. The Kingdom is the development of a good (harmonious, loving, just) society. Which leads to the next section.

‘Thy will be done’

One of the most basic practices in Christianity is ‘discernment’, i.e., figuring out what God’s will is in a particular situation. This is the way that the Kingdom comes about (us doing God’s will, where God = the Good).

In earth as it is in Heaven’

The point here is that we ought to do good things to make earth more like Heaven, i.e., to bring earth (the universe) into goodness. The point is not to wait around until one dies to ‘go to’ Heaven, but to do things here and now so as to make earth more like Heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread’

This has connections to ‘Ask and you shall receive, seek and you shall find, knock and the door will be opened unto you’. The point is that we ask. The term ‘bread’ can be misleading, as it is a richly adorned concept in the Gospels. It does not mean ‘bread’, or even ‘food’, but rather that which nourishes us (body and spirit). Nourishment is tied to growth or learning, and in particular theosis, or growing to be more like God. Daily nourishment has as its main objective spiritual growth, which in turn is one of the main objectives of Christian practice.

‘and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us’

The story of the prodigal son is apt here. God will forgive you your trespasses (alternatively translated as ‘debts’). This relates to the concept of ‘sin’, which in its essence means things which separate us from God (the good). The prodigal son becomes separated from his father (literally), but as soon as he chooses to return home his father ‘runs out to meet him’, celebrates, and forgives him.

In turn, we ought to forgive those who trespass against us. Forgiveness – in particular, letting go of negative emotions towards other – helps us. Not letting go of negative emotions gets in the way of us connecting to God. Holding on to negative emotions first and foremost negatively affects the one holding on to the emotions, as they stew in negative emotions.

‘and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil’

Evil = sin = that which obstructs our connection to God (= the good). A connection to God isn’t theoretical, it is a lived connection. Almost routinely, there are ‘temptations’, typically in the form of short-term thinking combined with wishful thinking, harsh words for loved ones, and so on. We ought to be on the look-out, in a sense, for these, and use our connection to the good to call their bluff, so to speak.

It is important to remember this isn’t so much a set of doctrines as a practice (‘How am I to pray?’) – a mnemonic for remembering and then focusing on key aspects of how one is living day-to-day and thinking it through, so as to change one’s habitual actions.

Are humans truth-seeking organisms?

There is an argument you get both from theists (such as Alvin Plantinga) and atheists (I have seen this recently in the writings of Scott Adams), to the effect that if something like standard evolutionary theory (SET) is true, then humans aren’t capable of detecting truth.

Plantinga uses it as a reductio ad absurdem of SET itself. If SET is true, then there’s no reason to think that humans are good at figuring out theories that are true, because our cognitive architecture has been selected for reproduction, not truth. SET dissolves its own epistemic basis.

Adams uses it as a lens for understanding human society. SET says humans are as-if-designed to reproduce, not find the truth. Therefore, we should expect that humans will be persuaded not by good reasons related to the truth, but by things that make us feel good, improve our status, help us to reproduce, and so on.

(The difference being that Plantinga therefore rejects SET, Adams accepts it.)

How to respond to this line of thinking? Start with something fairly basic to animals, movement. In order for a human to navigate a complex terrain (say, a forest floor), it requires a relevantly accurate representation (i.e., ‘true belief’) of that terrain. We have a model (an ‘image’) of the floor, and we use that to navigate across it. If our cognitive ‘machinery’ weren’t so composed, we wouldn’t be able to navigate.

Since navigation is crucial for survival (we have to move from place to place to find food and so on), it is easy to see a link from survival -> accurate representations.

Similarly, look at kinds of reasoning used on a day-to-day basis. During the course of a day, there are various problems we solve using basic investigative ‘tools’ or techniques. For example, I heard a noise, where did it come from? There are nuts up there, how do I get up there? How do I capture this lady bug so I can put it outside?

What is important here is that, often in an everyday case, we care about the truth. That is because achieving some outcome is directly tied to us accurately understanding a situation (or how to solve a problem).

These everyday kinds of reasoning are actually the basis of science, which isn’t an esoteric specimen, but rather the application of everyday methods of problem solving to more-or-less novel subjects that wouldn’t typically be in our everyday purview.

The problem of science comes from a lack of a connection between truth and ‘intrinsic’ motivation towards truth (i.e., typically in an everyday sense, we care about truth because we want to solve a problem that depends on us getting it right). Put simply, scientific problem solving can easily be corrupted by extrinsic factors (status, money, and so on). It’s not that humans are incapable of truth-seeking and finding, and when doing so we seem to get significant progress (which can be seen by the technological accomplishments of, in particular, the last several hundred years).

So, Plantinga is wrong in that he doesn’t recognize the link between everyday reasoning, visualization, and so on – techniques which have a strong link to our survival – and scientific theories, such as SET. Adams is wrong in that he doesn’t recognize that, when motivated to actually get things right, humans can at least significantly increase their chances of doing so in at least certain domains (as witnessed by both everyday problem solving and technological breakthroughs related to science).