Category Archives: Pragmatism

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).

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?”

and

“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.

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).

Scott Adams and prayer

In giving a guess on why certain of his affirmations seem to have been successful, Scott Adams says (How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, 2013)

I think a deep and consistent focus on what you want is all that is required.

The idea is that affirmations – repeatedly focusing on a sentence such as ‘I am a world famous cartoonist’ (one of Adams’ own examples) – causes or is correlated with a deep and consistent focus thereof, which in turn helps to create the outcome.

One thing I find interesting about this is that a deep and consistent focus is in this context more-or-less a deep and consistent belief, which is a key part of faith-in-prayer. The point isn’t to ‘repeat words vainly’, but to go into your ‘inner chamber’ and pray there.

In this sense, it seems things like affirmations are a kind of secular prayer. Like certain kinds of prayer, they are used because they seem to work, whatever mechanisms might be in operation.

Indeed, affirmations seem to have entered secular culture from Christianity (in particular, New Thought Christianity).

Coherence and prediction

Theologians seek to find a coherent account of things. That is well and good (although sometimes breakthroughs come from actively disregarding certain things – what we think we know isn’t always right, and anyone can sometimes get a breakthrough in trying to solve a problem by saying ‘what if this particular ‘fact’ is actually not the case, even though people tend to take it to be the case?’). That is to say, theologians look to figure out how certain ideas and observations can cohere.

The next step is to find relatively independent confirmation. One might have a nice theory that seems to comport with the observations – which in itself might be a significant breakthrough. Yet, it’s just the first step. Now go out and figure out how to test it, beyond the coherence.

In a nutshell, this figuring-out-how-to-test is the essence of the scientific method, to the extent there is one. To the extent theologians adopt this, they become scientists. To the extent someone does not – especially if they set up a theoretical model that seems to be able to account for any and all new observations – they are just blowing smoke.

Context matters

What is the basic perspective in Christianity, when it comes to one’s actions?

First, learning and growing both for what we are doing in this life and what we will do in the next. In Christian terms, the learning is primarily understood as part of the process of ‘theosis’ – i.e., becoming more like God. Ascetics, similarly, is about training, i.e., learning and growing (from a root word meaning bodily training, from which we also get ‘athletics’).

But that leads to what we are doing – you don’t just practice making a building, you make buildings. So second, doing things that matter. These are things that matter in and of themselves here and now, and that will build things in the next life. In Christian terms, this is called ‘building the Kingdom of Heaven’.

This dual vision – training and doing – is compatible with a typical secular viewpoint, and for this reason much of Christian reasoning or practices are shared by secularists. The difference comes in the context – Christians believe the training or doing applies not just to this life, but the next. I.e., there is meaningful continued personal existence. This does two things.

First, it amplifies the importance – we are no longer just talking about the next 50 years, but the next (eternity). This is one of the reasons that Christianity has greater motivational potential. Second, it means there might be consequences to things that we cannot see by considering only this life. This allows Christianity to answer certain moral questions that secularists seemingly cannot (such as why do good things if they don’t benefit oneself – the answer is that by doing good things you are in part creating a state of affairs in the next life). Similarly, because it coincides self-interest and actions that aren’t self-interested in this life, it also gains motivational potential when considering things that are good for people here and now.

How does God act?

How does the Christian God act?

I want to suggest an hypothesis, which is summarized as follows.

1. Miracles are marked out by (as the name suggests – ‘miraculum’ meaning wonder) their tendency to cause wonder.

2. They cause wonder because the observer notices the event seems highly unlikely to have occurred in the way it did, even though, for example, they witnessed it (hence, wonder at how it occurred).

3. What is unlikely is the coordination of things in the world.

4. These sorts of events are on-going and widespread.

Before discussing the advantages of this hypothesis, a brief aside on the supernatural-natural notion.

Supernatural vs. natural causes

Consider if someone claimed electromagnetic phenomena were ‘supernatural’ and contact mechanics was ‘natural’. OK, but in what way does that distinction make a difference in the cause-and-effect world? For the people drawing up equations and models of electromagnetic activity, it’s not clear why this kind of distinction would matter. Electromagnetic phenomena operates in a very different way from contact mechanics, but so what?

What I’m interested in here is how God (supposedly) acts, not in theological speculation about what ‘kind’ God’s acts are. Instead of theology -> theory of how God acts, I rather observation -> theory of how God acts.

Consider. The idea of supernatural causation is about a creator ‘outside’ of nature. Nature (the universe) is a creation of God. Involved in this notion of God being the creator of nature are theological ideas, such as God being necessary, unchanging, outside of time, and so on. These are all important theological topics.

That the Christian God is such a being is debatable. Christians need not look to the Old Testament to figure out how the universe came into being, but if a Christian is looking to the Old Testament, the accounts of what God did don’t seem to be a creation ex nihilo (out of nothing), even though creation ex nihilo is the standard Christian theological view nowadays. Rather, God is portrayed as shaping or ordering something – perhaps as a potter crafts clay to form pottery.

Yet, to what extent does the idea of a God existing outside of the universe impact our understanding of how God acts? For example, if Jesus healed someone, was this a natural or supernatural event? Well, it was unusual, and no one knows how it would have happened, but for all that it could have occurred within creation, i.e., without any kind of (special) outside-of-nature activity. That it’s unusual, or because we don’t have a well worked out model of how it works, doesn’t mean it’s supernatural. This is an old point, and I hope it’s obvious.

Now consider 3. If it’s right, then when looking at miracles, the ‘efficient causes’, so to speak, at least in most cases, should be findable. Yet, you don’t explain the miracle of the donkey Jesus rode into Jerusalem on, say, by saying ‘there was a donkey, and someone found it’. Instead, you have to explain the likelihood of it. It is the unlikeliness that points to God’s activity, i.e., a miracle.

This is why the Catholic church’s attempts to discern if something is a miracle are misled (and this mistake is based on their theology, and in particular the supernatural-natural distinction about God’s activity originating ‘outside’ of nature). They attempt to see if any known natural cause could account for the miracle. Being unable to find one, they conclude it is a miracle. This leads to ignoring large amounts of what Christians take to be everyday miracles, and excludes ascribing to God these miracles by definition.

Yet, when Christians talk about everyday miracles, they are almost always talking about natural causes that have been coordinated in an unlikely way. What’s key (under the theory I am here expounding) isn’t natural causes but how likely it is that those causes came together in the way they did. We can say God’s activity can be found in the ‘final’ cause, not a lack of natural ‘efficient’ causes.

Advantages of this characterization of miracles

1. It describes a large number of miracles Christians report, where there are conventional operators but unconventional coordination of them.

2. For miracles where it is not clear if it’s just the coordination of conventional operators, this is a matter of our knowledge. We don’t know what’s going on, and so it could be just a coordination.

3. It is compatible with either supernaturalism or naturalism – God can be conceived as the creator in the sense of being ‘outside’ of the universe and creating all things ex nihilo, or a creator in the sense of being ‘inside’ of the universe and creating all things as a ‘shaper’ of pre-existing aspects of the universe.

 

Analogy for understanding a few basic Christian ideas

Often, Jesus Christ (‘the Christ’ – not the historical person alone but rather an aspect of God) is considered as the ‘head’, while individual Christians make up the Church, which is the ‘body’ of Christ.

The basic analogy here is pretty simple. There is a head (‘brain’ in contemporary, secular discourse), and then there is the body.

Yet, that is not all there is to say, for if we are to push the analogy we should expect there is also a nervous system, which connects the head to the rest of the body.

It is perhaps useful to think of angels (‘messengers’) as part of the nervous system, connecting the head (God) with the rest of the body (i.e., you and me), and then various parts of the body with other parts (i.e., you and me with each other).

Overthinking things

The idea of the eucharistic meal comes from the New Testament Gospels, where Jesus has a meal with his disciples before he is executed.

Jesus says to break bread and drink wine in memory of him. The bread stands for his body, the wine for his blood – he was about to be executed by crucifixion.

So, create a ritual of a meal where the bread and wine stand for what happens to Jesus, so as to remember the events and him.

Pretty straightforward, right? Not when theologians get their hands on something. The basic error of theology is in linking together lines of reasoning (even if any one line seems arguable or reasonable) without an ability to robustly test the claims.

In Catholicism, what was a straightforward, completely understandable, and not very contentious idea (that by having a ritual meal, you can bring into one’s thoughts and therefore actions, Jesus’ teachings and actions) becomes something that seems almost un-understandable – that the ‘essence’ (something that cannot be tested through conventional empirical means) of the bread and wine is ‘transubstantiated’, and that this can only be done by a blessing of a specialized priestly class.

There are lots of cases in contemporary Christianity where it seems theologians have been given too much reign.