What is a good person?

Dallas Willard defines a morally good person:

The morally good person is a person who is devoted to advancing the various goods of human life with which they are effectively in contact, in a manner that respects their relative degrees of importance and the extent to which the actions of the person in question can actually promote the existence and maintenance of those goods. Thus, moral goodness is a matter of the organization of the human will called “character.”

This is a serviceable definition. It is a few words away from a definition of a mature Christian. I would alter it this way to make it Christ-centered:

The mature Christian is a person who is devoted to advancing the various goods of human life with which they are effectively in contact, in a manner that respects their relative degrees of importance and the extent to which the actions of the person in question can actually promote the existence and maintenance of those goods. The mature Christian recognizes that Jesus Christ’s teachings are the surest guide to the relative degrees of importance of those goods, especially Jesus’ focus on the kingdom of God and the righteousness thereof. They understand that God is the highest good and source of all good in the world, including any good in themselves. They also see that at any moment may reject the good and are therefore themselves in need of constant repentance and are necessarily in need of forgiveness and atonement. By treating Jesus’ words as the foundation of their lives, they thereby rely on God’s Spirit and receive transforming help from God himself. 

Willard also describes the morally bad person:

The person who is morally bad or evil is one who is intent upon the destruction of the various goods of human life with which they are effectively in contact, or who is indifferent to the existence and maintenance of those goods.

Of course, this is the person who is like Cain. Cain sees his brother Abel, wishes to have God’s approval just like him, and instead of sacrificing his own behavior and desires to achieve his ideal (to be like Abel) he slaughters his ideal. The morally bad person is similar. It’s not that they literally pursue evil. It’s that they take imprudent shortcuts to the good that destroy the good in the process or they pursue penultimate goods as the ultimate good (idolatry). Of course, the mature Christian sees the potential to become this person residing in their heart at all times. In fact, even an innocent person who has never sinned has the potential to become evil (see the Adam and Eve story).

Anything I’ve left out?

Rebuilding the Foundations

Bruce Charlton has a good post about the nature of the spiritual battle in the west:

Modern Man is sabotaged by an evil metaphysics – in other words, it is our fundamental assumptions that undermine and subvert good living for us.

We therefore need to discover, first that we actually do have a metaphysics; secondly what it is; and thirdly we need to reconstruct it so as to become true – insofar as we can discover true assumptions (which is a matter of intuition, revelation, direct knowing).

What are some of our evil metaphysical assumptions?

  1. That matter is primary reality.
  2. That meaning is imposed on the world by our minds rather than intrinsic to it.
  3. That life is therefore meaningless.
  4. That the scientific method is the only source for the only kind of knowledge.
  5. That cause and effect is only material.
  6. Truth is real.
  7. Truth is desirable enough to lose something to find it or say it.

It will generally be found (at least at first) that even when we have revised and improved our metaphysical assumptions; we nonetheless tend (partly by sheer habit, partly because of past social training and the prevalent surrounding culture); we nonetheless continue to use the old/ wrong metaphysics.

What he says here is one of the fundamental problems of most protestant forms of Christian discipleship. The protestant view is typically that belief leads to gratitude which leads to sincerely good works. But in reality, we get beliefs right on the level of intellectual assent or at least, pseudo assent for social acceptance. But we skip the fact that beliefs of that sort must be experienced to be true in practice. In other words, belief in doctrines not only leads to, but comes from practicing Christian practices. As an aside, the word translated “doctrine” in the King James Bible means, as far as I can tell, something closer to “apprenticeship.” It’s training in a whole way of life, not just transfer of beliefs.

One might observe that the metaphysical assumptions I mentioned above are not explicitly Christian, and that’s okay. In one sense, every true thing is Christian. But one need not be a Christian to hold to true metaphysical ideas. The gospel entails and assumes all of these ideas and one will have a hard time practicing the gospel without something like them in their minds. But many who do believe and live like those assumptions hold are not Christians.

What have I left out?

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.


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.


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

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).”

Abraham’s Virtues

Yoram Hazony makes the case that in Genesis, Abraham is painted as a paradigmatically virtuous character because while not perfect, God has confidence that Abraham will “command his children and his house after him, and they will keep the way of the Lord, to do justice and right.”[1] His case is bolstered by Genesis 24:1, “And the Lord had blessed Abraham in all things.”

Hazony gives a list of Abrahams most apparent virtues (paraphrased below):

  1. He can be generous to strangers.
  2. He is troubled by injustice to the point of taking great risks to obstruct it (he even argues with God).
  3. He insists on only taking what is his and paying for what he gets.
  4. He is pious.
  5. He is concerned to safeguard his own interests and his family’s.

Without looking at Hazony’s list, I made my own based on the Abraham story. It nearly matches:

  1. Abraham’s willingness to enter covenants is both altruistic (bless the earth) and self-interested (make a great name, you’ll be blessed, etc)
  2. Abraham rejects human sacrifice (see Genesis 22).[2]
  3. Abraham believes in right and wrong as absolute categories and challenges God’s actions on their basis.
  4. Abraham doesn’t fear conflict, or rather, shows great courage in the face of battle (when it comes to the power of giant cities, he has a harder time, but in his defense fighting tribal kings is a different animal that opposing the might of emperors in their walled megacities).
  5. Abraham insists on hospitality.
  6. Abraham trusts God (Genesis 15:6).

Anyway, the problem with virtues is that they are mean between extremes and can easily devolve without circumspection. And in Abraham’s story, we see time and again where his self-interest conflicts with the well-being of his wife (letting her into a royal harem!) and his trust in God (having a child with Hagar). Hazony makes these exact observations as well.[3]

I think that for many, particularly in academic Biblical studies, we tend so much to focus on the apparent evil committed by this or that Biblical character that we can fundamentally miss the idea that the authors are trying to paint portraits of the good life. Because of this, they highlight the necessarily difficult task of making wise and just decisions in light of a hierarchy of goods which are often in conflict.

The idea that Abraham was virtuous despite nearly killing his son and that he was deeply concerned with his family’s riches and reputation is intellectually difficult. While I take the story of Isaac as a rejection of human sacrifice, most people I know think Abraham was really going to do it. With those to caveats, I still anybody could read back through the Abrahamic narrative (Genesis 12:1-24:1) asking, “what does this say about being happy or blessed in the Biblical sense?” I think the food for thought that the story provides will be well worth it.


[1] This is Hazony’s translation of Genesis 18:19. The Philosophy of the Hebrew Bible, 112.

[2] In my mind, Genesis 22 makes it clear that Abraham, never for a second, was going to submit to the demand to kill Isaac. The New Testament has readings of the story implying that perhaps God could raise Isaac from the dead if Abraham did it. That may be true, but in the story, Abraham tells Isaac that God would provide an offering for the sacrifice.

[3] 113

A Medievalist’s Take on Milo

Over at Fencing Bear at Prayer, Dr. Rachel Brown comments on Milo Yiannopoulos:

But people like Sarsour’s supporters are not willing to debate Milo with facts, reason, and logic, as the protestors who showed up to protest his talk this afternoon proved by blowing whistles and yelling throughout his remarks. Milo is not going to change anybody’s mind with his arguments if his audiences are already provoked.

So what does he think he is doing? I think I know. He is embodying a myth. More precisely, he is embodying the myth at the heart of Western civilization: the myth by which, as Professor Peterson puts it, articulated truth brings the world into being. He is embodying the Word.

Milo describes his campus talks not just as speaking, but as doing something. Other conservatives, he insists, think that they can change people’s minds by writing a column or publishing a book, but that isn’t doing anything. And yet, it would seem, all Milo does is talk. (Or, occasionally, sing.)

Why give the talks on college campuses? Partly, because Milo cares about education. And partly, because college campuses are the place where students are introduced to the arguments Milo is trying to expose in their most articulated form. But mainly because college campuses are the one place in our contemporary culture (other than places of worship) where people come together to speak in person….

Milo understands this [that one must risk the attacks of chaos to speak into it and make order]. Seriously, it is why he wears a cross. Every word that we say matters because every word we speak either moves us closer to the truth or entangles us further in lies. Truths about the basis of our civilization, whether in the divinity of the individual or in the submission of the individual to God. Truths about the proper relations between women and men. Truths about speech and its effect on the world. We can choose not to speak and become, as Professor Peterson puts it, miserable worms. Or we can choose to speak, take the consequences, and bring a better world into being.

Now, Milo represents himself as a moral degenerate along several domains, he particularly enjoys attempting to trigger the disgust response of the very conservatives on whose behalf he argues. Nevertheless, viewing him as intentionally appropriating the archetype of Christ as one who speaks the truth or an approximation of it at personal risk is an interesting interpretation from a university professor, since most professors appear to endorse the violent student responses to him. In other words, professors view Milo as so dangerous as to justify the destruction of campus property to prevent his presence (look up the Berkeley riots).

Of course, I doubt that in the case of anybody who knows about Milo there is any chance of moving your picture of him from negative to positive or positive to negative. He’s an example of Scot Adamstwo movies theory of reality. It’s as if we were watching the Dark Knight and one group of individuals was primed to think of it as a movie in which a clown, disfigured by a totalitarian vigilante is seeking revenge through a series of games meant to psychologically break with narcissistic and megalomaniacal figure. And the others just heard it was a sequel to Batman Begins.  The contrast in analyses of the film would be stark.

But an important question is this, can a non-Christian figure with admittedly degenerate moral tendencies be an archetype of Christ for the world? I don’t know. Paul would seem to say, “No.” (Romans 1:31) But is that final or is it just generally true? Or does it matter if you’re approving of the person for his sins or for his virtues? And is Milo virtuous, self-serving, both, just a disagreeable jester who loves trouble?



Milton’s Psychology of Sin, Death, and Desire

One of the most horrifying depictions of the relationship of sin to death appears in Milton’s Paradise Lost. It carries with it all the archetypal horror that makes Ridley Scott’s Alien and Prometheus[1] so utterly frightening. In the excerpt below, Sin, personified as a gorgonesque creature explains to Satan how they came to know one another in Heaven: [2]


“Hast thou forgot me, then; and do I seem

Now in thine eyes so foul?—once deemed so fair

In Heaven, when at the assembly, and in sight

Of all the Seraphim with thee combined

In bold conspiracy against Heaven’s King,

All on a sudden miserable pain

Surprised thee, dim thine eyes, and dizzy swum

In darkness, while thy head flames thick and fast

Threw forth, till on the left side opening wide,

Likest to thee in shape and countenance bright,

Then shining heavenly fair, a goddess armed,

Out of thy head I sprung. Amazement seized

All the host of Heaven; back they recoiled afraid

At first, and called me Sin, and for a sign

Portentous held me; but, familiar grown,

I pleased, and with attractive graces won

The most averse—thee chiefly, who, full oft

Thyself in me thy perfect image viewing,

Becam’st enamoured; and such joy thou took’st

With me in secret that my womb conceived

A growing burden. Meanwhile war arose,

And fields were fought in Heaven: wherein remained

(For what could else?) to our Almighty Foe

Clear victory; to our part loss and rout

Through all the Empyrean. Down they fell,

Driven headlong from the pitch of Heaven, down

Into this Deep; and in the general fall

I also: at which time this powerful Key

Into my hands was given, with charge to keep

These gates for ever shut, which none can pass

Without my opening. Pensive here I sat

Alone; but long I sat not, till my womb,

Pregnant by thee, and now excessive grown,



Prodigious motion felt and rueful throes.

At last this odious offspring whom thou seest,

Thine own begotten, breaking violent way,

Tore through my entrails, that, with fear and pain

Distorted, all my nether shape thus grew

Transformed: but he my inbred enemy

Forth issued, brandishing his fatal dart,

Made to destroy. I fled, and cried out Death!

Hell trembled at the hideous name, and sighed

From all her caves, and back resounded Death!

I fled; but he pursued (though more, it seems,

Inflamed with lust than rage), and, swifter far,

Me overtook, his mother, all dismayed,

And, in embraces forcible and foul

Engendering with me, of that rape begot

These yelling monsters, that with ceaseless cry

Surround me, as thou saw’st—hourly conceived

And hourly born, with sorrow infinite

To me: for, when they list, into the womb

That bred them they return, and howl, and gnaw

My bowels, their repast; then, bursting forth

Afresh, with conscious terrors vex me round,

That rest or intermission none I find.

Before mine eyes in opposition sits

Grim Death, my son and foe, who sets them on,

And me, his parent, would full soon devour

For want of other prey, but that he knows

His end with mine involved, and knows that I

Should prove a bitter morsel, and his bane,

Whenever that shall be: so Fate pronounced.

But thou, O Father, I forewarn thee, shun

His deadly arrow: neither vainly hope

To be invulnerable in those bright arms,

Though tempered heavenly; for that mortal dint,

Save He who reigns above, none can resist.”


Milton plays on three of the deepest fears of humanity: death or malformity in childbirth, rape, and incest, followed by two more deeply unsettling images: being turned on by your own children and being forgotten by your own father.

In case you missed it (the archaic language makes it difficult), Milton essentially has Satan think of Sin so obsessively that his thoughts become personified as a beautiful woman otherwise utterly in his own image. He then, in his deep obsession with himself and with rebellion against God, rapes her (as he must both possess and destroy that which is most beautiful to him) and she conceives a child (Death). After the rebellion and angelic war, all are cast into hell, and Sin is left to guard the gate, but in the process gives birth to her monstrous kin as he tears himself from her womb (was Scott reading Milton?). Her angelic nature provides her with regenerative abilities which cause her to recover utterly deformed. Death, overcome by lust at what remains of her beauty, rapes her again (and again, etc). She then gives birth each time to hordes of hellish hounds.

Now, why does Milton play on such deep fears? I think he’s trying to help the reader see how horrible sin and its effects are. On one layer, Milton is trying to help people see how awful evil is and so he associates evil with some of our most fundamental drives, those associated with reproduction.

On another level, Milton is explaining psychology at a profound level. He points out that sin starts in the mind, is entertained until it becomes deeply attractive to us, then to such point it that it moves from fantasy to reality, then to such a point that we have to hide it for shame, then to such a point that it results in horrible consequences (which lead to death!), finally followed by numerous equally horrifying thoughts, actions, and desires which we use to defend ourselves from the death/hell of our own creation.

Biblically, this makes sense:

  1. In Genesis 4:7, sin’s desire is for Cain and the word for desire there is used for sexual desire elsewhere in the Bible.
  2. In Genesis 4:7, sin is also crouching at the door, like a hungry lion or tiger, waiting to devour Cain.
  3. In Genesis 4:8, Cain refuses to take mastery over sin as God recommends, and instead murders his brother (the very person whose blessing Cain wishes to obtain).
  4. In the Cain and Abel story, we also read that after Cain resentfully dishonors God by killing a man made in God’s image, Cain is forced to, for a time, roam the earth, thus becoming a nomad like his brother despite his vocation as a farmer and not a shepherd. In other words, he becomes deformed with respect to his nature (not his visage).
  5. In Hebrews, we discover that sin is often committed due to the fear of death, rather than the fear of God. (Hebrews 2:14-15)
  6. In James, we read:
    Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. (James 1:13-15 ESV)

Anyway, I hadn’t read Milton. I need to reread it. Attempting to “justify the ways of God to man” is a task perhaps no mind as great as his has undertaken.


[1] What I mean may not be entirely obvious, but the core is that Alien and Prometheus play on the fears men have of rape, pregnancy, and death by childbirth. In the first alien film, from an egg a creature attaches itself to a man, impregnates him, and bursts from his body. Then a cyborg, made in man’s image, becomes obsessed with the entire notion of violent reproduction and attempts to orally rape the protagonist utilizing a rolled up pornographic magazine. And so the progeny of man (machine) turns on man, and the progeny of man and the creature from the egg (the titular alien) turns on man as well. It’s a haunted house movie on the surface (people hiding from a scary creature in the shadows in a small space) but a disturbing psychological thriller at its core. Prometheus operates on the same level at its core, but is a sci-fi epic on the surface.

[2] John Milton, The Harvard Classics 4: The Complete Poems of John Milton, ed. Charles W. Eliot (New York: P. F. Collier & Son, 1909), 129–131.

The Tao of Bro-Science

When the gym is your lab: Bro-Science

If you go to any gym, you’ll find a great deal of unusually specific information about strength training. Strangely, you’ll find very little in-depth knowledge of anatomy, physiology, or scientific literature appended to it.

This information is Bro-Science. The problem with Bro-Science is that it differs from gym to gym based on a combination of the shared experience present and the amount of time people spend on the Internet and what lifting forums they frequent.

I used to make fun of Bro-Science. Truth be told, some Bro-Science could kill you and certainly injure you. But some of it has proved remarkably prescient. Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, occlusion training, increased protein for cutting fat, training to failure, and the rep-ranges for muscle growth all seem to have been discovered, not by bespectacled men in lab-coats but by oiled bros in sleeveless shirts!

Tradition is Antifragile

Nicholas Taleb describes how this could be so here:

Consider the role of heuristic (rule-of-thumb) knowledge embedded in traditions. Simply, just as evolution operates on individuals, so does it act on these tacit, unexplainable rules of thumb transmitted through generations— what Karl Popper has called evolutionary epistemology. But let me change Popper’s idea ever so slightly (actually quite a bit): my take is that this evolution is not a competition between ideas, but between humans and systems based on such ideas. An idea does not survive because it is better than the competition, but rather because the person who holds it has survived! Accordingly, wisdom you learn from your grandmother should be vastly superior (empirically, hence scientifically) to what you get from a class in business school (and, of course, considerably cheaper). My sadness is that we have been moving farther and farther away from grandmothers.


Taleb, Nassim Nicholas (2012-11-27). Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder (Kindle Locations 3841-3847). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

In other words, bro-science works because the people who practice these things and hold to the ideas are still in the gym. Sometimes this is because their genetics and luck helped them survive and thrive under dangerous training methodologies. Sometimes it’s precisely because the methods keep training interesting, help them get stronger, and keep them injury free.