Video: The Problem of Evil by Peter van Inwagen (1 of 2)

This video is part one of my series on Peter van Inwagen’s book, The Problem of Evil.

Contents:

0:00 Introduction

0:37 Some Definitions

1:33 The Global Argument from Evil

1:59 What is a Defense?

4:18 The Free Will Defense

5:17 Free Will vs. Determinism

7:19 Are Free Will & Determinism Compatible?

9:02 Free Will Defense Narrative Reading

17:42 Natural Evil

18:41 Conclusion

If you’re interested in exploring these ideas further, here are some other of van Inwagen’s relevant works:

Three Essays on the Problem of Evil:

The Magnitude, Duration, and Distribution of Evil: A Theodicy

The Place of Chance in a World Sustained by God

The Problem of Evil, the Problem of Air, and the Problem of Silence

Video clips:

Does Evil Disprove God?

Big Questions in Free Will

Does God’s Knowledge Quash Free Will?

Sexual Ethics: An Exegetical Argument

As far as I can tell, the traditional view of the church on homosexuality goes something like this:

“Homosexuality refers to relations between men or between women who experience an exclusive or predominant sexual attraction toward persons of the same sex. It has taken a great variety of forms through the centuries and in different cultures… Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.” They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved.” (emphasis mine)

Catechism of the Catholic Church, p. 625, section 2358.

I’m not going to argue that this view of homosexuality is true; rather, I’m going to argue that one argument against it is a failure.

The argument runs like this:

  1. If specific practices were unknown to the writers of the Bible, the text can’t be properly understood as prohibiting them.
  2. Monogamous homosexual relationships were unknown to the writers of the Bible.
  3. Therefore, the Bible can’t be properly understood as prohibiting monogamous homosexual relationships.

At first glance, premise 1 seems fairly plausible. After all, the Bible, like any book, was written at a particular time, in a particular culture, by an author with particular ends in mind. The authors of the Bible were no different, and so stretching the meaning of particular verses beyond their historical context is a faulty hermeneutic.

However, if the Bible is divinely inspired, premise 1 loses much of its initial plausibility. By inspiration I mean God is the primary author of scripture – he guided the human authors of the Bible to write what he wanted them to write, but in their own languages, styles and cultural contexts. So, if the Bible is divinely inspired, it’s very plausible that God would have worded the commands so as to apply to situations and actions unknown to the human authors and recipients of the Bible. After all, God in his omniscience would know the possibility of new ethical dilemmas arising, or new sexual lifestyles becoming prevalent.

Even if the Bible is not inspired, but is just a collection of ordinary human texts, premise 1 is still not necessarily true. For instance, it is possible that the writers of the Bible had a very specific vision for virtuous sexuality, and viewed anything outside that vision as immoral. In other words, suppose the biblical writers believed sexual relationships were only legitimate in X context, and therefore sexual relationships in Y and Z contexts would be considered immoral under the ethics of the biblical writers, even if they were unknown to the authors at the time of their writing the Bible. So, if it’s possible that the Bible can be legitimately interpreted as prohibiting sexual relationships in some contexts unknown to the original authors of the text, then premise 1 isn’t necessarily true.

What about premise 2: “Monogamous homosexual relationships were unknown to the writers of the Bible.”?

This statement is not self-evident. It’s an assertion about the past whose truth or falsity is an open question. Therefore, whoever makes this argument should produce some reason to think it’s true. In the original discussion that was the catalyst for my writing this post, premise 2 was simply asserted, not argued. There may be reasons to believe it is true, but I’m not aware of them.

Strictly speaking, premise 2 is almost impossible to verify, because we can’t get inside the minds of the biblical authors other than through their writings. What we can do, however, is look at other ancient sources to see what they say about monogamous homosexual relationships. If other ancient authors wrote about them, that should severely undermine confidence in premise 2. I will quote several such sources.

The first source is Plato’s Symposium, written in the intertestamental period, c. 385 – 370 BC. The dialogue is primarily a discourse on love, particularly male to male eros.

Pausanias, one of Plato’s characters, gives the following speech:

“But the Eros of the Heavenly Aphrodite, first, does not partake of female but only of male – it is the eros for boys – and next is elder, and without share of outrage or wantonness. This is why those inspired by this Eros turn to the male, delighting in what is by nature stronger and possessed of more intelligence. One might recognize those moved purely by this Eros even in the love of boys itself: for they do not love boys except when they begin to get intelligence, that is, when they are on the verge of getting a beard.

Those who begin to love them at this point, I think, are prepared to be with them through the whole of life and pass their lives in common, rather than deceiving them by catching them in the thoughtlessness of youth and then contemptuously abandoning them and running off to someone else.” (122, emphasis mine)

As you can see, Pausanias is clearly discussing monogamous homosexual relationships. He cites the lifelong duration of these relationships – “the whole of life” – as well as their exclusivity, contrasting them with relationships in which one lover “abandon[s]” the other and “run[s] off to someone else.”

Later in the dialogue, another participant, Aristophanes, narrates a Greek creation myth. In this story, humans were originally genderless, but Zeus split them into men, women and an androgynous gender in order to keep them distracted and less able to rebel against the gods. Aristophanes says:

Each of us then is but the token of a human being, sliced like a flatfish, two from one; each then ever seeks his matching token. Men sectioned from the common sex, then called androgynous, are woman-lovers; the majority of adulterers are from this sex, while on the other hand women from this sex are man-lovers and adulteresses. Women sectioned from a woman pay scant heed to men, but are turned rather toward women, and lesbians come from this sex.

Those sectioned from a male pursue the masculine; because they are slices of the male, they like men while still boys, delighting to lie with men and be embraced by them… When they reach manhood they love boys and by nature pay no heed to marriage and the getting of children; it suffices them to live out their lives unmarried, with one another. So this sort becomes wholly a lover of boys or a boy who loves having lovers, ever cleaving to what is akin.

When the lover of boys and any every other lover meets his own particular half, they are then marvelously struck by friendship and kinship and Eros, and scarcely willing to be separated from each other even for a little time. These are the people who pass their whole lives with each other, but who can’t even say what they wish for themselves by being with each other. No one can think it is for the sake of sexual intercourse that the one so eagerly delights in being with the other. Instead, the soul of each clearly wishes for something else it can’t put into words; it divines what it wishes and obscurely hints at it.  (133, emphasis mine)

In the same vein as Pausanias, Aristophanes describes the lifelong nature of these relationships, referring to “people who pass their whole lives with each other.” Additionally, these unions are not simply carnal, but deeply meaningful, with each lover’s soul “clearly wish[ing] for something else it can’t put into words.”

The second source is a journal article that quotes many primary sources: “A History of Same-Sex Marriage” by William N. Eskridge of Georgetown University Law Center. 

A key document Eskridge cites is Sifra, “an exegetic midrash interpreting the book of Leviticus.” Finding estimates on the time of Sifra’s composition is difficult; however, one Jewish educational institution dates the text to c. AD 250 – 350. This puts it significantly after the composition of the canon of Scripture. However, given that Sifra cites events occurring many hundreds of years earlier in Israel’s history, it is plausible that the ideas contained in this passage go back much further than when they were written down. It would be odd if the writer of this midrash simply invented the idea of homosexual marriages in the land of Canaan hundreds of years after Israel’s interactions with the inhabitants of the land.

The midrash takes the form of question and answer:

If “You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt… or of the land of Canaan,”

Might one think that they are not to build their buildings or plant vineyards as they did?

Scripture says, “nor shall you follow their laws”:

I have referred only to the rules that were made for them and for their fathers and their fathers’ fathers.”

And what would they do?

A man would marry a man, and a woman would marry a woman, a man would marry a woman and her daughter, a woman would be married to two men.

That is why it is said, “nor shall you follow their laws.” (1438, emphasis mine)          

The wording here is unambiguous: men married men, and women married women.

Later in his article Eskridge argues that:

The evidence of marital practices – whether for different – or same sex unions – is particularly sparse for Egypt; few records illuminate the intimate practices of the region, and no authoritative legal texts survive. Yet some artifacts have depicted same-sex couples in familiar poses, perhaps providing evidence that Egyptian society at some points in its history was accepting of same-sex relationships.

For example, a tomb for two male courtiers of the Fifth Dynasty (circa 2600 B.C.) includes bas-reliefs of the “two men in intimate poses, holding hands, embracing, noses touching, poses that are strikingly more erotic than those depicting different-sex couples in Egyptian tombs. Social historian David Greenberg argues that the men were lovers whose same-sex relationship was apparently accepted by the state, because the Pharaoh provided their tomb. Indeed, the tomb of at least one Pharaoh, the renowned Ikhnaton, contains figures of the Pharaoh and his male consort posed even more intimately. (1437 -1438, emphasis mine)

If Greenberg is right, and these relationships were sanctioned by the state, they were likely of a long-term nature. After all, what interest would the state have in recognizing casual sex?

This is obviously a very limited historical survey. However, I believe the documents I’ve quoted cast significant doubt on premise 2. At minimum, they show that the idea of monogamous homosexual relationships is not a modern invention, but rather dates back to at least within several centuries of the composition of the Bible, and probably earlier.

In conclusion, because both of the premises are dubious at best, this argument against the church’s traditional understanding of homosexuality is a failure.

Racism: A Definitional Issue

It’s a common idea that racism = racial prejudice + power (here’s an example). I find this definition deeply flawed for two reasons.

1. The definition implies an absurd conclusion. If racism = racial prejudice + power, then if a group or individual doesn’t have power, they can’t be racist. However, as Thomas Sowell has pointed out, to say racism requires power implies that the Nazis weren’t racist in the early 1920s when they were a small political party with no power. It’s intuitively obvious that any definition of racism whereby the Nazis weren’t racist is absurd.

2. The definition leads to using different terms for two practically identical actions. Let me use a thought experiment: Imagine a black man and a white man who each go out and beat up an innocent person. The black man beats up a white person, and the white man beats up a black person. Each of them does so because they have severe racial prejudice against the other race.

Now, because both of these individuals committed the same type of action based on the same motivation, it seems like the same word should describe both. However, people who use the prejudice + power definition of racism, are typically committed to the idea that black people can’t be racist. According to them, in the above scenario the white man would be racist, while the black man would be merely acting out of racial prejudice. The black man wouldn’t be racist, because he wouldn’t have the institutional power to sanction his actions. This view seems semantically unhelpful at best because it uses different terms for the same type of action flowing from the same motivation.

Let me address an objection:

“You are a white man, who hasn’t experienced racism. Therefore you should leave the definition of racism up to the people of color who have actually experienced it.”

This is a classic example of the red herring fallacy: “This fallacy consists in diverting attention from the real issue by focusing instead on an issue having only a surface relevance to the first.”

This objection is a red herring because none of my points depend on personal experience. They are based on reasoning ideas to their logical conclusions and evaluating the consequences. If this exact post was written by someone of a different race, it would be neither more nor less true. Logic is colorblind.

For a humorous exploration of these ideas, watch FreedomToons’ video Racism Explained.

Philosophical Survey of Hell #2: William Lane Craig

If you’re new to this series, I recommend reading part one, because it provides background information.  

For my second entry in this series, I chose to research Dr. William Lane Craig’s perspective on hell. He is a prominent Christian philosopher, theologian and author of over 40 books. This post is a selective summary of Craig’s published material on hell.

Definition of Hell

Craig bases his understanding of hell on 2nd Thessalonians 1:9: “These people [those who reject God] will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his power…” Craig argues this verse implies hell is separation from God: “I think…. the anguish of hell is separation from God, from all that is good and beautiful and lovely and to be left with one’s own crabbed and selfish heart forever.”

He differentiates this idea of hell from the torture chamber depicted in medieval paintings. According to Craig, the Bible never says hell is a torture chamber. It’s true that the Bible uses images of fire to describe hell, but Craig thinks these are metaphors: “It’s not clear, I would say, that [hell] involves… flames of fire that burn a person up. I think that is meant to express in a pictorial way the horror and the anguish of the essence of hell, which is separation from God.”

Craig also claims that the existence of hell is contrary to God’s will. God desires that everyone be saved, and implores people to repent and turn to him. Craig cites several passages:

  • 2 Peter 3:9: “The Lord is… not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.”
  • 1 Timothy 2:4: “[God] desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” ­­
  • Ezekiel 18:23, 32, 33:11: “Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, says the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?… For I have no pleasure in the death of any one, says the Lord God; so turn and live!… Say to them, as I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways; for why will you die?”

In this context Craig says, “It’s quite a misnomer to say that God sends people to hell. People send themselves.” He elaborates, “The only reason that anyone goes to hell is that they reject God and his purposes for their life, and thus thrusts God from themselves.” The responsibility for going to hell is placed at the feet of those who freely reject God:

“Our eternal destiny thus lies in our own hands. It’s a matter of our free choice where we shall spend eternity. Those who are lost, therefore, are self-condemned; they separate themselves from God despite God’s will and every effort to save them, and God grieves over their loss.”

While God doesn’t want anyone to be in hell, his justice demands punishment for unrepentant sinners. Craig says, “If God simply blinked at sin, then he wouldn’t be perfectly just… hell is a manifestation of the perfect justice of God.”

Answering an Objection

Now, a critic might agree that God must punish wrongdoing, but do finite sins deserve eternal punishment? Craig gives two answers to this question:

First, if the damned in hell continue to reject God through eternity, then this makes eternal punishment more reasonable than if it was just for sins committed during our time on earth,

Insofar as the inhabitants of hell continue to hate God and reject Him, they continue to sin and so accrue to themselves more guilt and more punishment. In a real sense, then, hell is self-perpetuating. In such a case, every sin has a finite punishment, but because sinning goes on forever, so does the punishment.

Second, while Craig agrees that finite sins probably do merit only finite punishment, in an ultimate sense it isn’t finite sins, but the rejection of God that damns unrepentant sinners. Craig expounds,

[Finite sins] aren’t what separates someone from God. For Christ has died for those sins; the penalty for those sins has been paid. One only has to accept Christ as Savior to be completely free and cleansed of those sins.

… the refusal to accept Christ and His sacrifice seems to be a sin of a different order altogether. For this sin repudiates God’s provision for sin and so decisively separates someone from God and His salvation. To reject Christ is to reject God Himself. And in light of who God is, this is a sin of infinite gravity and proportion and therefore plausibly deserves infinite punishment.

We should not, therefore, think of hell primarily as punishment for the array of sins of finite consequence that we’ve committed, but as the just penalty for a sin of infinite consequence that we’ve committed, namely the rejection of God Himself.

Conclusion

Craig’s conception of hell is grounded in the God’s justice, his love, and mankind’s freewill. God is always trying to reconcile people to himself. However, when people reject God’s offer of forgiveness of sins and thrust him away, they send themselves to hell.

Sources:

Two Suggestions for Better Political Discussions

Political discussions are often a circus of fallacies, intense emotions, and blatant bias. However, they still need to happen, so here’s a couple ideas on how to improve them.   

1. Avoid reflexively defending people. 

It’s easy to get caught up in the heat of the moment, and reflexively defend people when they shouldn’t be defended. 

For example, I was once involved in a conversation that went like this: 

Person A:  “[X person’s] tweets are too much.” 

Person B:  “[X person’s] tweets aren’t the issue, [Y political group] is the issue.”

If person B had stopped to reflect, he probably would have seen the flaw in what he was saying: there isn’t one issue, but many issues in the political landscape. It would have been better if person B hadn’t said anything, or had admitted the tweets were problematic. 

Reflexively defending people is misguided because everyone is wrong sometimes. When your favorite politician is wrong, just admit it. This concession will make you seem more rational and open-minded, which will make you more persuasive. 

The issue isn’t defending people per se, but doing so reflexively, i.e. letting your biases trick you into arguing points without proper reflection. 

In my experience, this phenomenon is common. We probably all know someone who jumps at any chance to defend his favorite politician, no matter what they did. I’ve been guilty of this, and it’s a serious inhibitor to clear thinking.  

2. Avoid asking: “If you like [X] so much, why don’t you move to [a country with X]?” 

Libertarians get asked this question all the time, typically in the form: “If you hate the government so much, why don’t you move to Somalia?” 

A lot could be said here, but in brief, where I choose to live is influenced by many factors, and economics is only one. Even if Somalia was a libertarian paradise (which it isn’t), the moving costs would be high, and there would be other barriers including language, employment, separation from family, etc. Similar replies could be made to any why-don’t-you-move-there question. 

Also, even if you could prove that my views require me to move to Somalia, that would only show that I don’t live consistently with my worldview. That wouldn’t show my beliefs are false.

On a personal note, I’m irked when conversations about important issues are derailed by jabs at my personal life. Perhaps this is just a subjective preference, but I’d much rather debate economics and political philosophy than personal inconsistency. Certainly, there’s a place for questioning how well people live up to their beliefs, but let’s keep the conversations separate. The more we can focus on one thing at a time, the more productive discussions will be. 

Philosophical Survey of Hell #1: Peter Kreeft

There is one very serious defect to my mind in Christ’s moral character, and that is that He believed in hell. I do not myself feel that any person who is really profoundly humane can believe in everlasting punishment. 

Bertrand Russell, Why I Am Not a Christian

For Bertrand Russell, hell is an odious doctrine of Christian theology. He isn’t alone: many people, Christian and non-Christian alike find the idea of hell repulsive. They ask, how can a loving God damn people for all eternity?

Because hell is so controversial and difficult, I’m writing a series of posts summarizing what Christian philosophers have written about it. I don’t necessarily agree with what is said in these posts; I’m summarizing, not critiquing.

The first philosopher whose views I’ve explored is Dr. Peter Kreeft. He is a prominent Catholic apologist and author of over 80 books. Freshman year of college, I read his Handbook of Christian Apologetics and found the chapter on hell insightful. What follows is a selective summary of that chapter. 

Kreeft opens by acknowledging the emotional and intellectual difficulties of hell: “[Hell is] the most difficult [doctrine] to defend, the most burdensome to believe and the first to be abandoned.” However, he says we still need to defend it. Why? Because hell is clearly taught by Christ, Scripture, and the Church. If they are wrong, the foundations of Christianity crumble.

Kreeft articulates the concept of hell by examining several things hell is not. I’ve chosen three: 

One possibility is that hell exists, but only in this life. However this seems contradicted by Jesus in Mark 9:44-48. Perhaps it could be said that hell starts in this life, in the sense that our choices plant seeds that lead to eternal consequences. That seems plausible, but it’s very different from saying hell exists only in this life. 

Another misconception is the idea that hell exists but is empty. Kreeft finds this implausible because of Jesus’ warnings about those who are saved as few and his condemnation of Judas: “It would be better for that man if he had not been born.” (Matthew 26:24-25).

The third false idea is that the damned are thrown into hell against their will. Kreeft denies this: 

Some have taught or implied that hell is forced on the damned, that they are thrown into hell against their will. This would go contrary to the fundamental reason for hell’s existence: our free choice and God respecting it. 

The damned in hell do not enjoy hell, but they do will it, by willing egotism instead of love, self instead of God, sin instead of repentance. There can be no heaven without self-giving love. The thing the damned wish for – happiness on their own selfish terms – is impossible even for God to give. It does not exist, it cannot exist. 

If hell is chosen freely, the problem then becomes not one of reconciling hell with God’s love, but reconciling hell with human sanity. Who would freely prefer hell to heaven unless they were insane?

The answer is that all of us do at one time or another. Every sin reflects that preference. The skeptic objects that if we freely choose hell over heaven, we must be insane; the Christian replies that that is precisely what sin is: insanity, the deliberate refusal of joy and of truth. Perhaps the most shocking teaching in all of Christianity is this: not so much the doctrine of hell as the doctrine of sin. It means the human race is spiritually insane.

Having discussed what hell is not, Kreeft examines three things hell is: 

First and fundamentally, hell is the privation of God. Because he is the creator of everything, God is “the only game in town.” Thus everyone who rejects God seals themselves off from him and his effects. This privation of God is the cause of the other two realities of hell. 

Second, hell is punishment. However, it is a punishment that is necessary, like a natural law. Hell is not like your mother slapping your hand when you grab a cookie, but rather it’s like spoiling your appetite by eating cookies before dinner. It’s a necessary feature of reality rather than a purely volitional act. Kreeft explains: “The punishment of hell is inevitable, by natural law. Any human soul that freely refuses the one Source of all life and joy must find death and misery as its inevitable punishment.” If you reject the source of all goodness, you also reject all of the effects.

Third, hell is joyless and painful. Since the damned refuse the only source of joy, this must necessarily be the case: 

Since the God to whom we choose to open and love and obey is the sole source of all the joy in reality, our refusal of this God must necessarily be joyless and painful. Thus hell must have the aspect of pain as well as punishment. If God is joy, hell must be pain.

According to Kreeft, this extreme painfulness of hell makes the whole question of whether the fires are physical a moot point. Internal/spiritual sufferings worse than physical sufferings, so if we abandon the crude concept of hell as a physical torture chamber, it might be a worse place.   

So if hell is such a terrible place, how can those in heaven be happy if loved ones are in hell?  Kreeft answers by asking the question: can souls in hell impede God’s joy? Clearly not, so damned souls don’t necessarily stifle the joy of heaven. If God’s joy isn’t sullied by a populated hell, and we will be more like him and partake in his joy, then it seems like a populated hell won’t rob us of our joy either. How is this done exactly? We don’t know, but we can be assured that it will be done (Revelation 21:4). 

Later in the chapter, Kreeft lays out several arguments for hell’s existence. The one that most intrigues me is the argument from free will. If God respects our freedom, then there must be a way to reject him and that’s what hell is. There is no way around this. God is a gentleman, not a rapist. He won’t force us to spend eternity with him. 

In fact, Kreeft argues that if there is no hell and salvation is automatic, then there is no free will. If we aren’t free to reject God and choose to spend eternity separated from him, then we aren’t really free. Kreeft expounds, “Free will and hell go together; scratch the idea of free will and you will find underneath it the necessity of hell.”

He then turns to the objection that the punishment of hell doesn’t fit the crime: how can temporal sins merit eternal torment? The answer is that hell is not so much a punishment added to sin as it is sin grown to its mature, rancid fruit: 

If sin exists, hell can exist; for hell is only sin eternalized. Hell is not so much an external punishment added to sin, as it is sin come to full fruition…

Hell’s punishment fits sin’s crime because sin is a divorce from God. The punishment fits the crime because the punishment is the crime. Saying no to God means no God. The point is really very simple. Those who object to hell’s overseverity do not see what sin really is. They probably outlook at sin externally, sociologically, legalistically, as “behaving badly.” They fail to see the real horror of sin and the real greatness and goodness and joy of the God who is refused in every sin. We all fail to appreciate this. Who of us fully appreciates God’s beauty? The corollary immediately follows: who of us fully appreciates sin’s ugly horror?

In summation: Kreeft argues that hell is privation of God, punishment, and pain freely chosen by the damned. God’s love and forgiveness of sins is freely offered, and must be freely accepted. Unrepentant sinners don’t want God, and God gives them their choice for eternity.  

This post is a selective summary of chapter 12 of Kreeft’s Handbook of Christian Apologetics. If you’re interested in more depth on this topic, I recommend reading the whole chapter for yourself. He also has an FAQ on eternity that addresses some of these ideas.

Finding Motivation for Learning New Skills

A friend recently asked me how I motivate myself to learn new skills. It’s a good question. Typically, the first time we try things we’re bad at them, so how do we find the motivation to keep going? Here are a few ideas:

  1. Visualize being competent. Competence is intoxicating. The ability to create and get in the “flow” while performing a task is beautiful. Whether it’s an elegant chess gambit, a curving serve in ping-pong, or a cogent business presentation, there’s something intrinsically desirable about being good at a skill. When learning something difficult, I motivate myself by visualizing how enjoyable competence will be. It’s is not only enjoyable in itself, but competence is a large factor in your job satisfaction. Cal Newport argues that when it comes to enjoying your job, competence is far more important than having a preexisting passion (see his book So Good They Can’t Ignore You). 

  2. Bribe yourself. During college, one of my friends bought watches as a reward for achieving academic goals. Over the summer, I did something similar as motivation to study for a certification. I printed out a picture of a high quality microphone, hung it on my wall, and bought it after I completed the certification. Having a specific and tangible incentive for achievement is helpful for motivation.

  3. Think of the alternative. The thought of not progressing in skill and being stagnant is repulsive. The idea has a grayness to it that sounds like a slow death.

For further study, Jordan Peterson has an excellent perspective on this: https://youtu.be/D8NiOA78GwI.

Personal Experience and Rationality

In my previous post, I examined how people misuse the question, “Where is that in the Bible?” In this post, I’m going to discuss how people misuse their personal experiences. Let’s start with an example. 

Several years ago, Ann Coulter argued that single motherhood should be stigmatized because of its negative impact on children. I dislike her inflammatory rhetoric, and I don’t condone her recommendations. My interest is how irrationally the audience responded.

Early in the interview, Coulter says this:

A woman who gets pregnant out of wedlock, if she wants to do the best thing for the child – it is overwhelming she should give the child up for adoption because the statistics both from the left and the right are overwhelming on what happens to illegitimate children. About 70% of juvenile delinquents, teenage runaways, pregnancies out of wedlock are committed by the children of single mothers. 

If you were in the womb right now, and you could choose whether to be black, white, rich, poor, the one thing you should hope for… is that your parents are married. 

After some back and forth, the moderator responds: 

When you say things like that and you make these blanket statements based on statistics. I say to myself… I know so many good single mothers, so many heroic single mothers, I just can’t agree with you on that. I really can’t. 

Later in the dialogue, the audience gets involved: 

Woman: Do you have any children?

Coulter: Not relevant to statistics. 

Coulter’s response is excellent. The answer to the question is irrelevant to Coulter’s argument, and getting bogged down in facts about her personal life wouldn’t have furthered the dialogue. 

After explaining her positive experiences with single mothers, the woman concludes: 

You’re speaking about statistics, you have to live it to understand it.

There are at least two ways to understand single motherhood: the aggregate (studies and statistics) and personal experience. This woman seems to be saying that the aggregate aspect doesn’t capture the reality of single motherhood. She is correct in a sense. There is a first-person aspect of single motherhood that can’t be documented (at least not completely) by studies, but that isn’t relevant to the argument Coulter is making. She is talking about objective, statistically verifiable effects. So in the context of the discussion, the woman’s statement is a red herring. The other audience members commit this fallacy repeatedly in the rest of the interview.

I understand why people rely on personal experience. It’s easy and intuitive. Personal experience is crucial for evaluating a friend’s character or a client’s reliability, but it’s a poor choice for analyzing broad societal trends. It’s nonsensical to assert personal experience and think you’ve disproved a general pattern. That’s like a 6’3” woman using her height to dispute the claim, “Men are generally taller than women.” Her data point is incapable of disproving an average like the height of men and women. 

If you would like another example of irrational use of personal experience, watch Jordan Peterson’s interview with Kathy Newman. 

Why Willpower is Insufficient

If you’re trying to get work done, and but have a bad habit of checking Facebook every ten minutes, you might be tempted to think, “Oh well, I just won’t do that tomorrow.”

However, the “I just won’t do that” mindset is often ineffective because it relies solely on willpower.

Cal Newport, in his book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, describes the nature of willpower:

You have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as you use it.

Your will, in other words, is not a manifestation of your character that you can deploy without limit; it’s instead like a muscle that tires.

So willpower is not a viable long-term solution to improving our lives. So what is? The answer is: Forming habits that are conducive to our goals.

How do we do this?

Shawn Achor outlines two helpful techniques in his book, The Happiness Advantage: How a Positive Brain Fuels Success in Work and Life:

1. Put Beneficial Habits on the Path of Least Resistance

When trying to form a new habit, there is a certain amount of inertia that we have to overcome in order to get the ball rolling. Achor calls this “activation energy”  He says that in to make habits stick, we need to reduce the amount of activation energy it requires.

He provides an example from his own life. Achor wanted to practice guitar every night after work. However, after several weeks he had played only a few days.

Frustrated, Achor decided to try a new strategy, he put his guitar in the center of the living room instead of his closet. The difference was minimal, it saved him only about 20 seconds, but he found this reduction in required activation energy was enough to make him follow through with regularly playing his guitar.

Later in the chapter, he describes how he eliminated his habit of excessively watching TV.  Achor took the batteries out of his remote and put them in a drawer twenty seconds away. Sure enough, this small barrier to watching TV was enough to make him spend his leisure time in a more rewarding way.

I love these two stories because they demonstrate that improving our lives doesn’t necessarily require major changes, but rather if we can make good habits a little easier, and bad habits a little harder, our lives much better in the long run.

In my own life, I’ve installed a Chrome extension called BlockSite that blocks distracting websites. It takes under five seconds to disable it, but that is usually enough to keep me from getting distracted by YouTube.

Also, the block screen is hilarious:
block screen

2. Be Consistently Legalistic.

According to Achor, habits usually take around three weeks to form. During this period, sticking with the potential habit no matter what is essential to forming it:

At work, settings rules to reduce the volume of choice can be incredibly effective. For example, if we set rules to only check our e-mail once per hour, or to only have one coffee break per morning, we are less likley to succumb in the moment, which helps these rules to become habits we stick to by default.

After the habit is ingrained, then we can relax the legalism, but until then we should make it a rule never to deviate from the habit-setting course.