Passions: Natural or not?

The Passions

In Christian theology, the passions are the desires of the mind and body that often tempt people to sin. One of the big debates among ancient theologians and writers was over the passions: are they created by God or are they a deformation of character as the result of having sinned? I’m simplifying what follows by a lot, but not in a way that damages that debate.

Scripture

The Bible weighs in on this indirectly in James and Hebrews:

  1. In James 1:13-15 and James 4:1-3 we find that temptation is not the result of God trying to entice us to sin (this helps make sense of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil). Instead, temptation is the result of our desires [passions], reasoning, and choices.
  2. In Hebrews 4:15, we find that Christ was tempted in every way that we are.

If temptations came upon Jesus, he must have had the sorts of desires that could lead one to sin if managed with impropriety. And if Jesus is the “new Adam,” presumably his capacity to be tempted in analogous to our own.

The Passions: Crucified and Resurrected

This doesn’t end that debate, but it’s the summary of an argument that is convincing to me. One other way to put it is that for Paul the apostle, disciples are those who crucify the flesh with its passions and desires (Galatians 5:24), but for Paul crucifixion is always conceptually connected to resurrection. In other words, the flesh and it’s passions and desires are resurrected and reformed by the action of the Spirit. For instance, joy can be a sort of spiritual fruit (even though positive emotions could easily lead one to sin). Paul can also say to “put off all anger (Eph 4:31)” and “be angry, yet sin not (Eph 4:26.)”

On the other hand, Paul never once uses “passions” in a positive way. But he rarely uses the word flesh positively either, but that doesn’t mean that the basic principle of bodily existence is evil in his mind.

Now, the church fathers were split on this issue, some saw the passions as an unmitigated evil. I don’t accept that, but I’m open to the possibility. I think that the passions are like the will. They are a source of evil when estranged from God, but in themselves they are a good (like the mind, the will, or the body). Anger tells you that something seems off about the world, lust (which in the Bible  is always the word for sexual desire) is a driving force behind entrance into holy marriage, pleasure is a motivation for seeking God (Psalm 16:11), and greed is just an exaggerated desire for prestige and material security. All of these desires are commended in Scripture.

Gary North on Training to Lose

Gary North wrote an article in 1980: Training to Lose, in which he observed:

The athlete has to train before he enters the race. He must discipline his body and his will, in order to be fully prepared for the exertion of the contest. The contest has winners and losers, and the Christian is not supposed to be a loser. This means that he must enter into the contest with self-confidence, enthusiasm, and a strategy for victory. He is not to spend time looking over his shoulder to see how far he has come from the starting- point, or how well his competitors are doing. He is to look straight ahead at the finish line, pacing himself so that at the end he will have spent all of his reserves. He should give the race everything he has– emotionally, physically, and strategically.

 

If we look at modern Christianity, we find very little of this sort of training for life’s race. Christians act as though victory is achieved passively, as it the race were not worth training tor, as if the hope of victory were not part of the motivating factors in running. If we were to regard modern Christianity as a training program, and it lite were viewed as a race, how would we judge the success of the program? Would we conclude that modern preaching has raised up a generation of skilled athletes who are ready for the competition? Or would we have to conclude that the program has produced a lot of overweight, under-motivated weekend joggers who would collapse half way to the finish line?

I fear that North’s criticisms are right on.

 

Cro-magnon vs Cro-Ipod

Geoffrey Miller offers this thought experiment on the differences between ancient and modern life. While I enjoy the trappings of modern life, thought experiments like this make it easy to see how much of it is contrary to human nature (in an Aristotelian sense):

Consider the average Cro-Magnon of thirty thousand years ago. She is a healthy thirty-year-old mother of three, living in a close-knit clan of family and friends. She works only twenty hours a week gathering organic fruits and vegetables and flirting with guys who will give her free-range meat. She spends most of her day gossiping with friends, breast-feeding her newest baby, and watching her kids play with their cousins. Most evenings she enjoys storytelling, grooming, dancing, drumming, and singing with people she knows, likes, and trusts. Although she is only averagely intelligent, attractive, and interesting, most of her clan mates are too, so they get along just fine. Her boyfriend is also only average, but they often have great sex, since males have evolved wonderful new forms of foreplay: conversation, humor, creativity, and kindness. (About once a month, she hooks up secretly with her enigmatic lover, Serge, who has eleven confirmed Neanderthal kills, but whose touch is like warm rain on Alpine flowers.) Every morning she wakes gently to the sun rising over the six thousand acres of verdant French Riviera coast that her clan holds. It rejuvenates her. Since the mortality rate is very low after infancy, she can look forward to another forty years of life, during which she will grow ever more valued as a woman of wisdom and status.

 

Now consider the average American worker in the twenty-first century. She is a single thirty-year-old cashier, who drives a Ford Focus and lives in Rochester. She is averagely intelligent (IQ 100), having gotten Cs in a few classes before dropping out of the local community college. She now has this job in retail, working forty hours a week at the Piercing Pagoda in EastView Mall, fifty miles from her parents and siblings. She is just averagely attractive and interesting, so she has a few friends, but no steady boyfriend. She has to take Ortho Tri-Cyclen pills to avoid getting pregnant from her tipsy sexual encounters with strangers who rarely return her phone calls. Her emotional stability is only average, and because Rochester is dark all winter, she takes Prozac to avoid suicidal despair. Every evening she watches TV alone. Every night she fantasizes about being loved by Johnny Depp and being friends with Gwen Stefani. Every morning she awakens to the alarm clock next to the fake Chinese rubber plant in her six-hundred-square-foot apartment. It wears her out. Thanks to modern medicine, she can look forward to another forty-five years of life, during which she will become ever less valued as an obsolete health-care burden. At least she has an iPod.[1]

There’s a synthesis, but what is it? Miller’s account doesn’t reckon with the possibility of objective meaning in life from religion or with morality. But nevertheless, the apparent gulf between the two lives he describes is vast. And while it’s easy to claim that one is painted in a negative light intentionally or that we have no idea that any ancient woman lived the life he describes, both accounts are plausible. I’ve know of many people living the unhappy version of the modern life he describes. It’s not beautiful and from a purely naturalistic standpoint, has very little meaning.

References

[1] Geoffrey Miller, Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior (New York: Penguin Books, 2014), 20.9 / 758

Nobody’s Job: Civilization

A few weeks ago, I posted that civilization is everybody’s job.

Bruce Charlton claims the opposite in a remarkably pessimistic post:

However; ‘civilisation’ is (quite rightly) nobody’s priority to sustain – not least because it is a by-product rather than a strategy; and is anyway a very long-term and remote problem – so it will always be made a low priority in competition with so many others.

I think, on one level, my post and Charlton’s are reconcilable. For instance, I think it is true that happiness is man’s chief end, but I also think that ‘seeking happiness’ in itself is simply a bad idea. Happiness is found indirectly as it is an activity in accordance with virtue, a sort of combination of present experience, total quality of life, and committing oneself to one’s personal work in a virtuous way. But we still must acknowledge that it’s what we seek and define it well lest we indirectly foil our pursuit of it. Similarly, civilization isn’t built by the person growing a garden, living in doors, or being polite at the super market. But it isn’t unhelpful to have in mind that if the majority of people never do either, then civilization cannot exist.

Virtual Reality is dangerous?

While I’ve only used it once, the virtual reality revolution in gaming seems like an anti-civilization time bomb. The people who tend to use it will be young men with high openness to experience and intelligence. The more immersive it becomes, the less frequently men with those traits will reproduce, etc. I quipped in college that sex robots would be supremely dangerous for that very reason. Too much television may already have had some negative effects on American culture.

In the mean time, scientists may have found this problem with VR:

In Mehta’s studies, he and his colleagues built special setups with tiny treadmills that the animals could run on while exploring a virtual room. The rats appeared to behave normally in the setup, but when the researchers looked at the animals’ brains, they “found really surprising stuff,” Mehta said.

For example, in the hippocampus, a brain region involved in mapping an individual’s location in space (as well as many other functions, ­including memory, learning and dreaming), 60 percent of neurons simply “shut down” while the animals were in virtual reality, Mehta found.

And it gets worse. Many of the neurons that don’t shut down show abnormal patterns of activity. In the real world, these neurons create a map of space, but in the virtual world, “the map of space is totally destroyed,” Mehta said.

Mehta suspects that the part of the brain involved in keeping track of an animal’s location is so fine-tuned that it “expects” everything to be in sync. “I believe that’s why these neurons are shutting down” in virtual reality, he said.

But is it bad for the animals that the hippocampus shuts down in virtual reality? “We don’t know the long-term consequences,” Mehta said.

“When millions of us are using virtual reality 6 to 7 hours a day,” he said, “we may want to look [into] it, given that it’s such a big change.”

Now, there was a great deal of scaremongering amongst pundits in recent history over violence and sexism in video games leading to violence. Research has shown this link to be false. It could be the case the virtual reality is similarly innocuous in the final analysis. I’m not opposed to video games, nor to virtual reality. They’re less time consuming for casual users than sports television and probably less emotionally distressing.

Intellectual Weakness

Nobody wants to be weak. Weakness leads to losing.

Weakness leads to resentment.[1]

One of the most uncomfortable forms of weakness intellectual weakness.

There are many ways to overcome this problem, but the first is to read.

The abysmal truth is that few read before or during college:

“The desire to appeal to incoming students who have rarely if ever read an adult book on their own also leads selection committees to choose low-grade “accessible” works that are presumed to appeal to “book virgins” who will flee actual college-level reading. Since common reading programs are generally either voluntary or mandatory without an enforcement mechanism, such “book virgins” have to be wooed with simple, unchallenging works. This was our conclusion two years ago: the lay of the land is still much the same.”

If you want to get ahead in life, at least ahead of yourself, read. If you read you can:

  1. Get inside the head of somebody smarter than you. (Have you written a whole book?)
  2. You can empathize more effectively.
  3. You can learn new skills.
  4. You can acquire great examples for action, thought, and virtue.
  5. You can avoid the brain rot of emotional eating or over watching television.
  6. You can understand the foundations of your culture and rescue you father from the underworld.

Footnotes

[1] For the Christian, weakness can be a form of power, insofar as that weakness is one that the Christian has tried to overcome. In that sense, Paul the apostle can speak of his preference for weakness. This preference is not, even in context, an excuse for low-effort, shoddy thinking, or laziness in general.

Six cool tricks for sounding smart

People are always telling me, “Geoff, you’re such a smart guy.”

Lot’s of people think I’m a smart guy. It’s an empty compliment, but I enjoy it. Sherlock Holmes was the same way:

“I shall never do that,” I [Watson] answered; “you have brought detection as near an exact science as it ever will be brought in this world.” My companion flushed up with pleasure at my words, and the earnest way in which I uttered them. I had already observed that he was as sensitive to flattery on the score of his art as any girl could be of her beauty.

But the main reason to be smart, of course, is that it makes it easier to help people because they trust you. If you’re actually competent, then you’re smart persona is a net benefit to society.

How to do it:

I use these six steps to trick people into thinking I’m smart:

  1. First, pick a constellation of useful skills you can use to make money by helping others: lock smithing, cooking, computer programming, small engine repair, etc.
  2. Pick a few subjects interesting to you that seem important for understanding the world. A list might look like this: American History, Logic, Evolutionary Psychology, Exercise Science, and Economics.
  3. Read the most important books you can find about them and consult living experts to test your knowledge. Twitter, blogs, and email make this possible.
  4. Then, start bringing up the most important facts in conversation and discussing the ideas and difficulties in those fields with interested people.
  5. Use the most powerful ideas to improve your life, craft your destiny, and assist those around you.
  6. Finally, learn another language. I made the mistake of learning ancient languages. Learn modern ones first.

Once you do this, people will think you’re brilliant. Smile. You’ve got them fooled. All you did was read a bunch of books.

Winning: Fighting to Win in Ender’s Game and Life

On the value of winning

I think winning is a dirty word to some people. I used to think that way, but it’s simply not true. Competition in itself is not evil. Losing teaches lessons that can turn into positive experiences just as much as winning can. Similarly, winning a debate, a legal case, or writing an award-winning book can even be victories in the public consciousness of truth, goodness, and beauty.[1]

Christianity and Winning

I think that Christians should fight to win (see Proverbs 24:1-11). And I don’t mean simply using violence. I’m nearly a pacifist.[2] I fear that Christians frequently believe that effort and strategy are opposed to grace. They also believe that victory and winning are not valid goals.

I wanted to win all the next fights: Ender’s Game

One of the most poignant passages in all of literature about winning is in Ender’s Game. For context, bullies surround a younger bore to torment him when there was no surveillance to keep him safe. He was smaller than his assailants, but he destroyed the gang leader with frightening efficiency. Afterward, a military officer questions the boy in front of his parents to determine why he fought so ferociously:

“We’re willing to consider extenuating circumstances,” the officer said.

“But I must tell you it doesn’t look good. Kicking him in the groin, kicking him repeatedly in the face and body when he was down— it sounds like you really enjoyed it.”

“I didn’t,” Ender whispered.

“Then why did you do it?”

“He had his gang there,” Ender said.

“So? This excuses anything?”

“No.”

“Tell me why you kept on kicking him. You had already won.”

Knocking him down won the first fight. I wanted to win all the next ones, too. So they’d leave me alone.”

 

Orson Scott (2010-04-01). Ender’s Game (The Ender Quartet series Book 1) (p. 14). Tom Doherty Associates. Kindle Edition.

What do I mean by “fight to win”? I mean that you should look at your struggles and temptations as something to overcome if they do not kill you. If you struggle with addiction, for instance, half measures and focusing on your “weakness” as something through which Christ can show is strength is not appropriate.[3] If you’re addicted, have a terrible debt, need a promotion to feed your family, or whatever it is, I recommend fighting to win. The “nuke it from orbit” method of problem solving just makes sense, especially if you struggle with melancholy and a tendency to give up at any sign of resistance or difficulty. So, here’s what I mean by fight to win:

  1. Take extreme measures (eat nothing but beans, oatmeal, and boiled chicken until you’re out of debt, work 80 hours a week until you have an emergency fund, throw away your computer to stop looking at porn, exercise every day until your doctor says you’re not dying anymore, etc).
  2. Assume that nobody but God will help you (If you’re wise, you’re wise for yourself).
  3. Ask for advice from people who have been there and know how to win. Make sure you ask what they did, not what they think sounds wise.[4]
  4. Don’t quit until you win.

What do you do to win? Or am I wrong, is it evil to care about winning?

References

[1] I remember learning, probably from Moltmann, that a victorious mindset was fundamentally non-Christian because it didn’t focus enough on the cross. While I agree that a Christianity that does not look to the cross as God’s grace and take up the cross in self-denial is mistaken, I think Christians can have a great deal of victory this side of death. It’s just not victory for when we die or when Christ comes back.

[2] If you’re not a pacifist and you’re fighting to protect your family you had better try to win…if you’re a pacifist don’t be a sissy and give up on your principles when you actually get to test them out. Or you had better fight to protect your family because some principles are silly.

[3] Paul’s weakness, through which Christ shows perfect strength is not sin or a lack of drive. In 1 Corinthians 15:10, Paul observes that he works harder than the other apostles.

[4] Some people give advice based on what they think sounds good rather than on what they did. My wife and I have talked about this before, older successful Christians feel obligated to give pious sounding advice rather than actual advice to people who are struggling or who have hard questions like, “How do I find my calling?” You’ll hear things like, “Just rely on God” from somebody who actually switched careers like seven times until they found one that they excelled at and made them money.  Or “how can I find somebody to marry me?” This question is often answered with, “Just wait on the Lord to put somebody in your path.” Nobody says anything like, “Hit the gym, make more money, dress well, learn to be funny, and ask people on dates.”

Youth Science Projects and American Aspirations

I came across an archived usenet post linked on social media:

How come the heros of our movies are no longer Micky Rooney or Spencer Tracy playing Thomas Edison, or Paul Muni playing Erlich or Pasteur, instead Val Kilmer playing Jim Morrison and Woody Harrelson playing Larry Flint? And movies whose heros are lawyers.

 

Paperwork and lawyering. Fixing and improving and advancing society by talk-talk, not building. A lawyer president and his lawyer wife. Crises of power that don’t involve spy planes and sputniks, but incredibly complicated and desceptive word defintions and complicated tax frauds. You think we’re not preparing to go to Mars because SF is too optimistic? Sure. But it was optimistic about whether or not the can-do engineering of the 40’s and 50’s, done by the kids who’d grown up playing with radios and mechanics in the 20’s, was going to continue. Needless to say, it didn’t. I’ve seen a late 1950’s book of science fair projects for teenagers that include things like building your own X-ray machine and cyclotron (no, I’m not kidding– it can be done). There are rockets in there, and cloud chambers, and all kinds of wonderful electronics stuff. But we didn’t go that way. Instead, we turned our children into little Clintons, and our society into a bunch of people sitting at PCs, entering data about social  engineering, not mechanical engineering. So instead of going to Mars, we went instead to beaurocratic Hell. Enjoy, everybody. It really could have been different. Nature didn’t stop us– WE stopped us.

I’m not opposed to lawyers, we need them. I even that a few of them read this blog. But the idea that the aspirations of American culture were transformed by entertainment focusing on paperwork fields and the actual content of education are obvious. My wife and I intend to home school our children. And I suspect that we’ll be buying some of those old science books.

I think our young simply feel that the world handed to them is either good enough or impossible to bend toward their own success. So their aspirations end at “make enough money to chill.”

Effort Habit: Keep the Faculty of Effort Alive in You

William James on the Effort Habit

One of my favorite selections from James’ psychology text book is about developing an effort habit:

Keep the faculty of effort alive in you by a little gratuitous exercise every day. That is, be systematically ascetic or heroic in little unnecessary points, do every day or two something for no other reason than that you would rather not do it, so that when the hour of dire need draws nigh, it may find you not unnerved and untrained to stand the test. Asceticism of this sort is like the insurance which a man pays on his house and goods. The tax does him no good at the time, and possibly may never bring him a return. But if the fire does come, his having paid it will be his salvation from ruin. So it is with the man who has daily inured himself with habits of concentrated attention, energetic volition, and self-denial in unnecessary things. He will stand like a tower when everything rocks around him, and when his softer fellow-mortals are winnowed like chaff in the blast. – William James, The Principals of Psychology, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983), 130.

William James

William James, his self-mastery was developed by the effort habit of not shaving.

That little paragraph has been very helpful to me. James makes the excellent point that exercising yourself in self-denial until it becomes a habit for you to handle discomfort is an an incredible down payment on handling trials. I agree. Self-mastery of this sort is practically a super power.

Your Bad Habits are a Hell on Earth

He also notes later that “the physiological study of mental conditions is thus the most powerful ally in hortatory ethics. The hell to be endured hereafter, of which theology tells, is no worse than the hell we make for ourselves in this world by habitually fashioning our characters in the wrong way. Could the young but realize how soon they will become mere walking bundles of habits, they would give more heed to themselves while in the plastic state (James, 130).”

In the Christian conception hell is an experience in life and post-mortem. Even if you reject the existence of God and of eternal judgment, you cannot reject the existence of hell if you’ve seen the state people get into because of their own awful habits.

You must develop good, challenging, creative habits in for your mind, body, spirit, career, and relationships and you’ve got to do it little by little every day. And if you don’t want to, imagine for a moment the hell you’ll be in if you let yourself continue down the path of your worst possible self.

Develop Christian Habits

Thanks be to God that in Christ we have available forgiveness of sins. Not only so, but we have spiritual disciples, graciously given by the Lord: Lord’s supper, weekly worship, prayer, fasting, giving our possessions, memorizing Jesus’ teachings, meditating upon the Scripture, etc to transform us. And on top of that, we have help from God’s Spirit to supply what lacks in our character as we go.

A Parting Quote

As we become permanent drunkards by so many separate drinks, so we become saints in the moral, and authorities and experts in the scientific and practical spheres, by so many separate acts and hours of work. Let no youth have any anxiety about the upshot of his education…If he keep faithfully busy each hour of the working day, he may safely leave the result to itself. He can with perfect certainty count of waking up some fine morning, to find himself one of the competent ones of his generation in whatever pursuit he may have singled out ( James, 131).”