Science, apparent nonsense, and the gift of conciousness.

I apologize to the authors of the journal article interacted with in case I have characterized their work falsely in anyway.

The Science
Roy Baumeister, a social psychologist, has written a great deal about several topics (social exclusion, masculinity, eros, will power, etc). He co-wrote an article about consciousness titled, “Conscious thought does not guide moment-to-moment actions–it serves social and cultural functions.”* The title is essentially the conclusion, which I have included below:

The findings suggest that conscious thought affects behavior indirectly, by integrating information across time and from culture, so that multiple alternative behaviors—particularly socially adaptive ones—can be considered and an optimal action selected.

We conclude that most or all of human behavior is likely a product of conscious and unconscious processes working together. The private daydreams, fantasies, and counterfactual thoughts that pervade everyday life are far from being a feckless epiphenomenon. We see these processes as the place where the unconscious mind assembles ideas so as to reach new conclusions about how best to behave, or what outcomes to pursue or avoid. Rather than directly controlling action, conscious thought provides the input from these kinds of mental simulations to the executive. Conscious thought offers insights about the past and future, socially shared information, and cultural rules. Without it, the complex forms of social and cultural coordination that define human life would not be possible. (p, 45)

The Apparent Nonsense

What this means is that, rather than being a mechanism for governing what I am doing right now, my consciousness is actually a mechanism for helping me determine how to act within my culture and without it, I would not only not be able to take part in my culture, but there would be no human culture. The problem with this conclusion is that it is precisely a restatement of what consciousness is in everybody’s experience. In this respect it is like saying, “after our research, we determined that rain is not so much water falling from the sky as it is the result of water evaporating and then condensing in the presence of specific pressure, vapor density, and temperature.” Most people do, indeed consciously sort out human culture. Defining consciousness solely in these terms though requires that culture be logically prior to consciousness. But, as far as I can tell, culture is created by consciousness except in the most basic forms (ant colonies).

Here’s why I only called the conclusion apparent nonsense. In the context of modern social psychology, such obvious conclusions probably do need to be argued for, explained, and repeated. We do live in an age when consciousness is thought to be explained thoroughly by Daniel Dennett, after all.

The Gift of Consciousness

One of the most bizarre things if you would just take a moment to think about it is this: the majority of the matter around you right now is not conscious. It has no idea what is happening and neither do you. I remember when Richard Dawkins would  talk about the “ubiquitous weirdness of the Bible.” Sure, any ancient collection of books will be weird. But, it is perhaps weirder that I, or you for that matter, are thinking about and experiencing anything at all. Even in the context of Freudian thought, the Ego, Super Ego, and Id are still part of the one experience of consciousness. This is so strange.

I can think about, not only of the thoughts of Baumeister (who wrote the article I read), but I can think about my thinking about them as I write about my thinking about them. You can too! But, weirdly enough, my thoughts are still not reducible to your own or his own. Just because I read those letters does not mean I understood  them aright (I think I did) or that I had the same brain states as the author(s) or other readers.

The conscious mind is, despite metaphors to the contrary, utterly unlike a computer (which runs off of software created by conscious minds and does so in the exact same way under the same conditions every, single, time). Consciousness, in an undeveloped Christian view, is a gift. In this respect, you are not only utterly unlike a computer but you are, because your consciousness is unique to you, utterly distinct from every other human (though you’re exactly human just like they are).  Two computers with the same software and the same input are distinct computers, but they are running exactly the same way. Twin humans, as similar as they are, despite nearly identical upbringing, have entirely unique consciousnesses. Changing out the hard drives of the two computers would change nothing except serial numbers. Changing out the consciousnesses of two twins is inconceivable precisely because their conscious experience is utterly distinct.

We possess the gift of consciousness. From a Christian perspective, God is, in a manner of speaking an infinite act of consciousness. Any matter which has consciousness, in that respect, participates in God (just like matter which has beauty, being, knowledge, or goodness).** That being said, Baumeister’s comments on what functions consciousness has in human well being are telling (numeration of paragraphs is my own):

  1. We propose that conscious thought is particularly useful for allowing people to consider multiple possible actions or outcomes. This is evident in counterfactual thinking. People often cannot help but reflect on how they might have behaved differently in the past. Such thinking can inspire new, improved strategies for later behavior (Epstude and Roese, 2008).
  2. Consideration of alternative actions is also apparent in self-regulation and decision making. Hofmann et al. (2009) noted that explicit preferences and automatic impulses are often in conflict, and that explicit preferences are likely to guide behavior when people are free to reflect. In contrast, when conscious reflection is hindered, people are more impulsive ( Ward and Mann, 2000 )and more likely to yield to external influences ( Westling et al., 2006 ). Conscious thought thus promotes adopting non-automatic forms of responding.
  3. Pursuit of alternative responses is evident as well in sports. In almost every popular sport, researchers have found that the mental rehearsal of motor skills is nearly as beneficial for performance as physical practice (Druckman and Swets, 1988; Driskellet al., 1994). Thus, conscious mental practice improves skilled performance. (pp 45)

I invite you to consider that what you see in those three paragraphs is so obvious that we often fail to marvel at it. You’re made of the same stuff as rocks and rivers (people like to feel good that they’re made of star dust, but stars experience nothing they are just as mentally inert as fossilized piece of dinosaur toenail or an earth worm pod). Yet, you can consider what might have been, what could be, and what you would rather experience right now! I’m sure you can consider such a large amount of could-have-been circumstances that they would be infinite if you had the time to keep thinking.

Look at paragraph 2! When conscious reflection is hindered, people become more impulsive. But that does not just mean when they become distracted. In this article, it is argued that consciousness often does not help do things in the moment (so much of life is reflexive). Consciousness and moments of reflection help you to plan not to be a fool in the future. We live in a culture of nearly infinite distraction. We waste our consciousness, (with which we can imagine things like infinite lines, wizards with magic dragons, obsess over a crush we just developed, like when I first met my wife,  perform differential equations with extreme rigor, or contemplate God), on so many intrusions that we become unable to be responsible agents at all.

I hope that this fairly obvious conclusion of a great deal of research is able to restore some wonder to your life. If it happens to also give you a more rigorous understanding of the biological function of consciousness, I suppose that’s cool too. But most importantly, be conscious. We were created to be awake to the creation as well as to God. It is foolishness to let cultivated creation so distract us from the brute facts of our own awakeness, the strangeness of everything, and the even greater strangeness of other minds that we just become automatons tossed to and fro by every machination of invention and technology.

*Masicampo, E. J., Baumeister, R. F., Morsella, E., & Poehlman, T. (2013). Conscious thought does not guide moment-to-moment actions–it serves social and cultural functions. Frontiers In Psychology, 41-5.

**On a side note: not all things participate in God in equal ways. Paul notes that all living things live, and move, and have their being in God, just before telling his audience to repent because they are, apparently, not participating in the moral life of God.

Bishop Jeremy Taylor and Time Management

One of the things in life that is often most difficult for people is using their 24 hours well. I’ve been trying to learn to use my time more wisely. One of my biggest distractions is a sense of listlessness. I just sit and idle because I’m “bored.” Boredom is an interesting topic in itself. Is it a result of being physical bodies, but with minds that are irreducible to physical processes? Is it because we’re in an industrial/technological era, therefore so much of our time is spent on things that do not contribute to our survival? Who knows? The point of this is time management in the context of the kingdom of God. Bishop Jeremy Taylor wrote a book entitled, “Holy Living” in the 1600s. He states that there are three means to be employed in learning to live as a Christian: management of time, practicing God’s presence, and holy intentions (or planning in advance to do good). His 23 rules for care of the time are fairly standard for Christian cases of conscience in his era, but they are exceptional today:

1. In the morning, when you awake, accustom yourself to think first upon God, or something in order to his service; and at night, also let him close thine eyes: and let your sleep be necessary and healthful, not idle and expensive of time beyond the needs and conveniences of nature; and sometimes be curious to see the preparation which the sun makes, when he is coming forth from his chambers of the east.

3. Let all the intervals or void spaces of time be employed in prayers, reading, meditating, works of nature, recreation, charity, friendliness and neighbourhood, and means of spiritual and corporal health; ever remembering so to work in our calling, as not to neglect the work of our high calling; but to begin and end the day with God, with such forms of devotion as shall be proper to our necessities.

17. Set apart some portions of every day for more solemn devotion and religious employment, which be severe in observing: and if variety of employment, or prudent affairs, or civil society, press upon you, yet so order thy rule, that the necessary parts of it be not omitted; and though just occasions may make our prayers shorter, yet let nothing but a violent, sudden, and impatient necessity, make thee, upon any one day, wholly to omit thy morning and evening devotions; which if you be forced to make very short, you may supply and lengthen with ejaculations and short retirements in the day-time, in the midst of your employment or of your company.


These are only 3 of his quite helpful counsels. It is especially important to note that he does not recommend going full-desert father and abusing the body by sleep deprivation. He also recommends physical exercise as an appropriate way to spend time. It should be noted though that he does say that spending too much time at sport is like eating a meal of sauces or having clothes made only of fringes. I think he’s right, but most disagree with me. Rule 17 is interesting. He says that no matter ones employment, time should be set aside for prayer. He even recommends being severe on oneself to make it happen. This makes sense. If prayer has any efficacy in the Christian life (or if it doesn’t but Christianity is true and Jesus says to pray), then it is a moral imperative to spend time in daily prayer. The fact is that many of us consider everything else to be more urgent and more important than prayer. Thus, we skip it. I hope that Taylor’s rules have a useful effect upon you.


More on Weights and Training

As my previous post indicated 1 Rep Max indicators seem to produce fishy results as far as I’m concerned. This week I managed 265 for 20 reps in one set. According to a 1-RM calculator, I should be able to squat 441 for a single rep. By next week, if I can do 275 for 20 reps, I’ll be able, purportedly, to do 458. The evidence against this level of strength is clear. I can only squat 315 for a few sets of 3. Now, I don’t use a belt or squat shoes. I also have a genetic bone disorder that puts me at certain disadvantages in the weight room.

As a theorized, my body seems to be geared towards a form of endurance at high levels of effort and very quick recovery up to a point. For instance, I can do a set of fifty squat jumps, rest a couple of minutes and do a second set. Similarly, running a mile is an awful chore. But I can run several 40 yard dashes with a few seconds in between without feeling particularly tired. On a similar note,bike ride to work always has my legs burning when I’m only half-way there (it isn’t far). I suppose the explanation for this is in the fiber type distribution in my body. I’d attribute it to my training, but for months I’ve been training in low rep ranges (though I was injured) and making snail pace progress. By contrast, I decreased the weight, increased the reps to 20 reps per set and have made progress up to a weight that was challenging for me in low rep ranges in recent history. Perhaps as I end this brief foray into 20 rep squats to give myself a break from going heavy every work out, I’ll discover how much progress I can make at low rep ranges without an injury.

The Didache, a Book Review, and the Christian Life

There is an early Christian document called known as, “The Didache. (did-ah-kay)” I read about it in high school and read it and discussed with my Roman Catholic friend Gilbert all those years ago. It has intrigued me ever since. My interest in it back then was arguing with Gilbert about baptism. My interest in it now is two fold:

  1. it gives insight into how we should understand the four gospels (as well as the rest of the New Testament)
  2. and it thus gives insight into how the early Christians understood how to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.

I recently came across a book at Half-Price titled, The Didache: Text, Translation, Analysis, and Commentary. The author is Aaron Milavec, an apparent polymath. He’s a computer programmer, professor, SBL chair, and more obviously author. Any how the book review is below

The Good

The book does not really have a specific argument to outline, but there is one overriding concern throughout. Milavec takes as a working hypothesis (based upon the best translation of the Greek word διδαχη) that the Didache was written (and orally transmitted), not just as a series of rules, but as a balanced book of pastoral guidance for early Christian disciple-makers. He recommends translating the word διδαχη as “training” or “apprenticing.” Dallas Willard would be pleased. I certainly am. This has implications for how we read the gospels, of course. The commands of Jesus are something that people had to be taught, over time, how to do. Not just memorized and tried and failed at a few times (the resultative infinitive in Matthew 28:19 shows that the gospels wanted people to be ‘trained how to do everything which I [Jesus] have commanded you’).

Milavec tests the pastoral hypothesis by treating it as an assumption in various interpretive situations throughout pages 39-88. The hypothesis is pretty much proven by the coherence it gives to the text.

Milavec’s translation, which stands alongside the Greek text is also an excellent resource for devotional reading (there is no textual apparatus).

Milavec also notes that regardless of the date writing, the emphasis on orality in the Didache indicates that it was originally a memorized oral tradition. Keeping this in mind, the material in the Didache, antedates the gospels and the letters of Paul. I personally would say that Robinson’s arguments about a 40-60ad date for the writing of the Didache make the most sense.

The Bad

The book is meant to be an introduction to non-specialists. I’m not sure that it could be. Maybe if non-specialists means, “people who went to a Bible college and majored in whatever and minored in Bible.”

Milavec also makes some decent arguments that Didache 16:5 (“they will be saved by the Accursed One himself”) is referring, not to Jesus as the one who was hung upon a tree, but to the judgment of God, as an accursed event. I disagree. I think that the early Christian milieu had a greater focus on the atonement and the salvific nature of Jesus than Milavec’s argument presupposes (see McKnight Jesus and His Death). Refusing to capture the significance of The Didache’s obsession with relaying the training from Jesus correctly (the way of life rather than of death) allows one to see the rest of the book without reference to the early Christian impression of Jesus’ significance as a unique representative of God whose death effected atonement.


I recommend the book for anybody interested in the Didache. I also recommend the book to those who know a bit about first century history and who are interested in being a disciple of Jesus. It will help them to see how and why early Christian literature was written and collected. Particularly it will help the read to see that by and large the purpose of much early Christian literature was training people to live a certain way. Christianity has gotten more and more away from the notion that theology (the right understanding of God) was meant to support the lifestyle which is based upon the will of the God who is known through Jesus Christ.

This worldly hope and the gospel of Jesus

Dallas Willard, in Renovation of the Heart, noted that human character is both formed over time, but that it can also be transformed. These are very mundane observations (p 14). Mundane though they be, many people do not consider either fact. If you make a plan for improving your character, it is, at least, your plan. If you do not, then your character is being formed/transformed, but into what? I submit that Christian repentance is (though the Spirit of God enables it) a decision to plan one’s life based upon the gospel of Jesus rather than on whatever program you had previously been using. So, you character is formed (that’s how you got to be yourself) and it can be transformed. Willard goes on

And on these two points lies the inescapable relevance of Jesus to human life. About two thousand years ago he gathered his little group of friends and trainees on the Galilean hillsides and sent them out to “teach all nations” – that is, to make students (apprentices) to him from all ethnic groups. His objective is to eventually bring all of human life on earth under the direction of his wisdom, goodness, and power, as a part of God’s eternal plan for the universe.

We must make no mistake about it. In thus sending out his trainees, he set afoot a perpetual world revolution: one that is still in process and will continue until God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven. As this revolution culminates, all the forces of evil known to mankind will be defeated and the goodness of God will be known, accepted, and joyously conformed to in every aspect of human life. He has chosen to accomplish this with and, in part, through his students. (p 14-15)

Christianity is more than a moral revolution for those who conform their lives to the teachings of Jesus in history, but it is not less. Christianity and the gospel thereof certainly includes the atonement, heaven, a future resurrection and judgement, etc. But it is also what Willard has described. For me that creates tremendous hope. When you invest time in somebody who really wants to change, but really doesn’t seem to make much progress you have to remember that Jesus’ revolution is in space time. It, therefore, takes time. We cannot control that time, we can only respond to his teachings and to his creation with care and attention. But, that was, as Willard notes, Jesus’ plan all along. He wants students, not simply people who sign dotted lines. He wants people who know, accept, and conform themselves to God’s goodness not simply people who talk about it. This is what the monks who basically invented the modern hospital believed as well as the martyrs, political revolutionaries, reformers of various stripes, and hopefully many Christians today believed and continue to believe.

This passage of Willard’s work summarizes important themes in the four gospels, 1 Corinthians 15, Romans 5-12, 1 Thessalonians 1, Isaiah 40-66, all of Ephesians, and Revelation 20-21. Caring for people can be tiresome, burdensome, and down right awful. In some cases it involves getting in the face of people who want you dead. Sometimes it means spending time with a boor. Sometimes it means going without. Sometimes it means going about business as usual. But, there is hope. Jesus is on the move.

Synder on Gospel Distortions

Howard Synder posted fourteen ways that we can distort the gospel. h/t to Jim West. Number 10 was particularly striking to me:

10. “Believers” instead of disciples.

Jesus calls and forms disciples so that the body of Christ becomes a community of kingdom-of-God disciples. The New Testament rarely uses the word “believers.” Today this fact is distorted by the tendency in modern translations to use “believers” in place of “brothers” (in order to be more inclusive) or in place of pronouns such as “them.”

What counts is not the number of believers but the number of disciples, and thus the ministry of disciple-making.

Though Paul and Jesus (in John’s gospel) teach a great deal about salvation by means of faith, the question is still, “What does that faith look like?” We often take words like “believe” and “faith” and insert modernized meanings into the words. But Paul, nor Jesus really let us do that. For instance, Jesus tells a group of believers this, “If you continue in my word, you are really my disciples.  (32)  And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.(Joh 8:31-32)” He wants the group of people who trust in him to be synonymous with people who do what he says. Similarly, Paul who says over and over again that we are justified by faith, notes what kind of faith this is in Romans 1:5, “Through him we received grace and a commission as an apostle to bring about faithful obedience among all the gentiles for the sake of his name.” Thus, for Paul, the very faith he later says justifies, is a faith that is obedient to Jesus. Not just Jesus as cipher for this or that theological position or political hobby horse, but the Jesus who says to do difficult things, “take up your cross,” “when you fast,” “make disciples of the nations,” “when you give alms,” “whoever wishes to be first must be the servant of all,” etc.

*Note: Bible translation used is ISV. I normally use my own, but was in a hurry today.

Melting Asphalt and God as a cipher

An atheist writer over at Melting Asphalt wrote this:

In light of this view of religion (as a tribal strategy), I’d like to share a little hack I sometimes use to make sense of religious practices. Whenever I hear someone say “God,” I try substituting “society” in its place. E.g.:

  • God is great becomes society is great.
  • When someone says, praying before a meal, “We give thanks to God for this food,” I hear praise of society, of civilization
  • When a Muslim says that Islam is all about submission to Allah, I understand this as submission to society.

Though that’s a neat little mind hack, he’s missing some things. Many religious people often, after they come to believe in a deity, find themselves living lifestyles that are in stark contrast to society and thus in conflict with its mores and its most powerful members. To adhere to a religion in a serious fashion often puts an individual at odds with society. So though it is a nice hack for an atheist trying to play nice with religious doofuses (make no mistake the irenic author calls religious beliefs crazy, in a sense that either means obviously untrue, therefore being held delusionally or perhaps in the sense of outrageously unintelligent to hold), it does not work as a descriptor of actual religious belief. A central piece, for instance, of the New Testament message is that:

If anyone thinks that he is religious and does not bridle his tongue, but instead deceives himself, his religion is worthless.  (27)  A religion that is pure and stainless according to God the Father is this: to take care of orphans and widows who are suffering, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. (James 1:26-27)

It is precisely that there is a society that makes widows and orphans into a group of undesirables that makes the message of Jesus necessary. Incidentally, God, in the book of James is precisely not anthropomorphic (a claim the aforementioned blog makes several times). God is rather, unchanging. God sustains the universe, free agents therein do evil.

Every generous act of giving and every perfect gift is from above and comes down from the Father who made the heavenly lights, in whom there is no inconsistency or shifting shadow. (James 1:17)

Many theistic religions would claim that, for whatever reason (some have explanations and accounts of how/why this is and some do not) there is evil in the world, but ultimately God is goodness as such. Thus, God is for the well being of the cosmos and of discrete creatures but not discrete creatures at the cost of the whole cosmos. This is a vast oversimplification, but God is not a substitute for society. When a society is evil, God, being goodness as such, is then manifestly opposed to that society’s actions and ideologies.

For people who have trouble with the concept that God is goodness, I recommend reading the posts here at Ed Feser’s blog. God’s existence is a matter of metaphysical demonstration, not a matter of symbolically replacing society with a super-person. Religious people claim either to be trying to live good lives because it is morally appropriate in light of God’s existence or they are a part of a community which claims to have revelation from God (or a combination of the two). That can lead to beliefs that seem crazy but that remains to be demonstrated based on the logic of the claims that the best representatives of the group make, not based on “obviousness.” It’s obvious that humans are internally symmetrical based on their exterior until you dissect one.

When a journalist writes about a scientific theory he/she accepts, its explication will usually not touch its technical nuances and difficulties. The same with religious folk. A Thomas Aquinas or Samuel Clarke would be considered better representatives than a pious shop-keeper just like a laboratory researcher is a better representative than a science-y journalist.

By and large I do find the asphalt article to be thoughtful. But there’s a massive misunderstanding of what makes people religious. Pointing out that religious beliefs are clearly false, therefore religious people must subconsciously mean something else by them isn’t going to cut it for most people who sincerely practice there faith (a Buddhist will not agree that nirvana is a cipher for society).

I may have totally misunderstood this fellow’s post, but those are my thoughts. It is interesting stuff to read. Have a look.


Samuel Johnson, in his 1755 dictionary of the English language said thus about Oats:

‘a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.’

All the athletes I know who eat oatmeal would perhaps concur that oatmeal helps them to run, lift, and jump like horses. I’ve elsewhere heard it jokingly described as Oatanobol (reference to a steroid that increases protein synthesis and aggression and thus muscle size and strength).

Anyhow, I suddenly remembered that fact about that dictionary. A co-worker of mine loves Scotsmen (he is one and so was Adam Smith) but he hates oatmeal and he often recounts that quote.