Another Week Ends

1. Lots of interesting links this week! First up, The New Yorker published “Why Facts Don’t Change Our […]

CJ Green / 2.24.17

1. Lots of interesting links this week! First up, The New Yorker published “Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds,” a fascinating piece by Elizabeth Kolbert. Discussing at length the phenomenon of ‘confirmation bias’ — which suggests that we believe those facts that support our beliefs and reject those that challenge our beliefs — Kolbert ultimately confirms (bada bing!) much of what our own pop psych. archives have been saying for quite some time. Drawing from the work of cognitive scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber, and their upcoming book The Enigma of ReasonKolbert argues that “reason” is a tool we have developed to help ourselves convincingly navigate our biases without giving away our truer, more vulnerable positions.

Imagine, Mercier and Sperber suggest, a mouse that thinks the way we do. Such a mouse, “bent on confirming its belief that there are no cats around,” would soon be dinner. To the extent that confirmation bias leads people to dismiss evidence of new or underappreciated threats—the human equivalent of the cat around the corner—it’s a trait that should have been selected against. The fact that both we and it survive, Mercier and Sperber argue, proves that it must have some adaptive function, and that function, they maintain, is related to our “hypersociability.”

Mercier and Sperber prefer the term “myside bias.” Humans, they point out, aren’t randomly credulous. Presented with someone else’s argument, we’re quite adept at spotting the weaknesses. Almost invariably, the positions we’re blind about are our own.

Because the human race has long valued bragging rights over getting our facts straight, we tend to use “reason” to win arguments and protect our standing on the social ladder.

Among the many, many issues our forebears didn’t worry about were the deterrent effects of capital punishment and the ideal attributes of a firefighter. Nor did they have to contend with fabricated studies, or fake news, or Twitter. It’s no wonder, then, that today reason often seems to fail us. As Mercier and Sperber write, “This is one of many cases in which the environment changed too quickly for natural selection to catch up.”

Kolbert’s article is a provocative — albeit political — treatise on biases; however, in remaining staunchly sold out to the Science God, it’s not without its own blind spots. The studies cited are helpful in understanding the sorry state of the human condition, but they remain unable to engender change. Towards the end, Kolbert begrudgingly admits: “Providing people with accurate information doesn’t seem to help; they simply discount it. Appealing to their emotions may work better, but doing so is obviously antithetical to the goal of promoting sound science.” This may have something to do with why reception of the gospel is often such an emotional experience, why relief and truth seem — for many of us — inextricably bound up.

2. If we maintain any pretenses that technological innovations might fix the human error diagnosed in Kolbert’s article, then Ian Bogost, over at The Atlantic, has something to say to us. In his wonderful think-piece, “Nothing Works Anymore,” Bogost argues that we have begun working for technology — though technology should be working for us. In Bible-lingo, this means we can’t out-tech the curse of Genesis 3; though we spend all our time inside, we haven’t stopped tilling the land.

Technology’s role has begun to shift, from serving human users to pushing them out of the way so that the technologized world can service its own ends. And so, with increasing frequency, technology will exist not to serve human goals, but to facilitate its own expansion…

This truth has been obvious for some time. Facebook and Google, so the saying goes, make their users into their products—the real customer is the advertiser or data speculator preying on the information generated by the companies’ free services. But things are bound to get even weirder than that. When automobiles drive themselves, for example, their human passengers will not become masters of a new form of urban freedom, but rather a fuel to drive the expansion of connected cities, in order to spread further the gospel of computerized automation. If artificial intelligence ends up running the news, it will not do so in order to improve citizen’s access to information necessary to make choices in a democracy, but to further cement the supremacy of machine automation over human editorial in establishing what is relevant.

There is a dream of computer technology’s end, in which machines become powerful enough that human consciousness can be uploaded into them, facilitating immortality. And there is a corresponding nightmare in which the evil robot of a forthcoming, computerized mesh overpowers and destroys human civilization. But there is also a weirder, more ordinary, and more likely future—and it is the one most similar to the present. In that future…technology is becoming a force that surrounds humans, that intersects with humans, that makes use of humans—but not necessarily in the service of human ends.

More specifically, you gotta serve somebody.

3. This documentary on addiction looks incredible. Screening in Dallas on March 4—tickets are free but required for admission.

4. On this site, we’ve been getting a lot of mileage from Fleming Rutledge’s The Crucifixion (and we are honored that she will be one of our special guest speakers in NYC this April!). This week, over at THINK, Andrew Wilson drew our attention to Rutledge’s take on a hot-button topic of much churchy debate: substitutionary atonement. Rutledge cites where in the writings of so many pre-Reformation church fathers, the substitution of Jesus — his taking the judgment of God in our place — is central to the good news of our freedom before God. (From what I can gather, this has become a real theological sand rash in Anglo-Episco-Luthero swimsuits — thankfully not in the southern Charismatic denominations, from where I trace my personal spiritual lineage. But, skeptics, see for yourself!)

5. For lighter fare, this week brought us a couple, uh, breathtaking stories. Here’s a humorous (but all too real) story about a “militant vegan” who was sued after veganizing her entire store and alienating her paleo faithfuls.

While most would take this failure as a sign from the meat gods, Adami ran the other way: “I just said, ‘You know what? Screw you guys — I’m going to veganize another restaurant.’”

Is it confirmation bias or the classic rebellion from the law (Rm 5:20) that radicalized Adami? Though her agenda was and is clearly unwelcome, Adami the Militant Vegan spends her time fruitlessly proselytizing to meat-dispensing restaurants. She says, “I have no doubt in my mind that the seed has been planted!” Isn’t that what you’re supposed to say after you’ve evaluated a stranger on the Engel scale?

Weirder still is this story about French artist Abraham Poincheval, who is currently inside a rock? He’ll be self-trapped for a week in the Name of Art.

Poincheval said his new performance, which he calls “Stone”, was “a voyage through geological time” where he would become the “beating heart” of the rock…His next performance Egg will begin on March 29, with Poincheval sitting on a dozen chicken eggs for between three and four weeks until they hatch.

6. Here’s a great one by Anthony Esolen from The Wall Street Journal, excitingly titled, “Free Our Churches From the Ugly and Stupid.” Frustrated with outdated church aesthetics (and the people-pleasing that seems to go along with them), Esolen calls for an extreme makeover, church edition.

I have heard for decades effeminate “hymns” with the structure and melody of off-Broadway show tunes. I have read hymn texts altered so as to obliterate references to God with the personal pronoun “He.” This music would not be acceptable for a jingle to sell jelly doughnuts on television.

I have seen and heard enough. We must get rid of everything ugly and stupid from our churches, most of it visited upon them since the great iconoclasm of the 1960s. What’s needed is genuine art that stirs the imagination and pleases the eye, that entices the soul with beauty before a single word of a sermon is uttered.

I love this. Certainly applying the message to everyday life is of utmost imporance (he typed with self-congratulatory smirk). But in many ways the counter arguments are equally valid: Does the gospel rely on aesthetics? Does a church need to look good in order to preach well? (And what if, for example, my grandparents like those unworthy donut hymns?) (Lastly, I have to say, I am so grateful for the message of relief and truth that comes from my church’s pulpit, I couldn’t care less what kind of tile the floor is made of.)

7. Over at The New York Times, Eilene Zimmerman wrote a remarkable essay entitled, “Who Will Listen to a Billionaire’s Troubles?” Not me, I thought (and still have trouble not to think). In a society scarred by the likes of Dr. Evil and Rich Uncle Pennybags, how can anyone have sympathy for any kind of “ionaire”? Very hard to do. In spite of this, psychologist Brad Klontz seeks to minister to these obscenely rich poor-in-spirits:

As a society, he said, we believe the wealthy have no right to complain about their lives. “We have little patience for that,” he said. “But the truth is, the ultrarich suffer from the same existential angst as anyone else.”

The difference between their angst and ours is that a billionaire can’t indulge in the fantasy that money would make everything better. “Billionaires can look behind the curtain and see the wizard doesn’t exist…Although they know money is not the key to happiness, they can’t stop counting it,” Mr. Klontz said. It’s especially challenging for those who are self-made, as opposed to those who inherit a fortune. For self-made billionaires, he said, “Their entire self-image and all their self-esteem is wrapped up in the pursuit of money.”

Billionaires often feel isolated, Mr. Klontz said, and find it difficult to trust people or have authentic relationships that are not about money. On top of that, they have a hard time finding a sympathetic ear. “There is a sense they can’t really tell anyone what they are dealing with, because no one wants to hear about their struggles,” he said. “As a society, we don’t have the head space to entertain the notion of a billionaire having a bad day.”

8. In addition to HBO’s newest Crashing (the premiere of which was fantastic), this week’s episode of Girls is definitely worth mentioning. We find Marnie in the midst of yet another affair, and her lover, Desi, says, “If you don’t believe in your own goodness, you can’t expect anyone else to.” “Do you?” she responds. “Do you believe in my goodness?” This question (with echoes of “Who is good but God alone?”) is central to the episode, titled “Hostage Situation,” which finds its characters definitively beyond the bounds of illusory sexual freedom and into the territory of addiction — very much in need of help resolving compulsive psychosexual behaviors.

There’s really no justifying this show’s brutal amounts of nudity; though, relatively speaking, this episode bares less skin. (Spoilers here:) “Hostage Situation” brilliantly transforms into a horror show when Marnie learns that Desi is addicted to OxyContin and that he’s been high for the past year. Which begs the question, how did she not notice? Hannah consoles her:

“It can be pretty hard to have observations about other people when you’re only thinking of yourself…I would know. And I’m not judging you, ok, I promise. I’m done with that. I’m done judging, I’m done being superior, I’m done acting like I know anything at all.”

Even if we can be sure Hannah will not keep her promise, still, this is a huge development in a very slowly developing character. Which may have something to do with the fact that she, in the last episode, found herself in a very Marnie-like situation. Perhaps being at the bottom is the only way to rouse any real compassion and growth.

9. Hannah’s abandoning of moral superiority is perhaps the most wild thing she’s done over the course of six wild seasons — but that tight grip of superiority may be what rings most true about her character. Like Hannah, we often cling to our moral high ground like a safety blanket, and it may come as no surprise to find this at the beating heart of so much of our current political debacle.

This week, The New York Times ran a surprisingly sympathetic article by Sabrina Tavernise titled, “Are Liberals Helping Trump?” It’s about a conservative-leaning moderate feeling bullied by moralistic opponents.

“There are at least some things about Trump I find to be defensible. But they are saying: ‘Agree with us 100 percent or you are morally bankrupt. You’re an idiot if you support any part of Trump.’ ”

He added: “I didn’t choose a side. They put me on one.”

Liberals may feel energized by a surge in political activism, and a unified stance against a president they see as irresponsible and even dangerous. But that momentum is provoking an equal and opposite reaction on the right. In recent interviews, conservative voters said they felt assaulted by what they said was a kind of moral Bolshevism — the belief that the liberal vision for the country was the only right one. Disagreeing meant being publicly shamed.

As is so often the case for our interpretation of politics — a world of laws and reactions to reactions — rebellion is part and parcel of the above rhetoric. If I push someone, he’ll push back. As this article points out, recovery can happen when the opponents are too tired to fight back.

“I love Meryl Streep, but you know, she robbed me of that wonderful feeling when I go to the movies to be entertained,” [Ann O’Connell, a 72-year-old registered Democrat] said. “I told my husband, I said, ‘Ed, we have to be a little more flexible, or we’re going to run out of movies!’”

As for the country, she is worried.

“Change doesn’t occur until you hit rock bottom, like an alcoholic, on his knees, begging for help,” she said. “I think we still have farther to go.”


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5 responses to “Another Week Ends: The Shortcomings of Reason, La La Land Parodies, Technological Glitches, Militant Veganization, Performance Art, Existential Billionaires, Extreme Church Makeovers, and a “Hostage Situation””

  1. jc says:

    I’m surprised no one at Mbird ever has written about Netflix’s Flaked. Considering a 2nd Season is up and coming, it’d be worth while.

  2. Phil Wold says:

    re: Rutledge and Substitutionary Atonement:
    I cannot recommend highly enough, Gerhard Forde’s article, “Caught in the Act: Reflections on the Work of Christ”
    A must read. here’s the link –
    (This article has informed most every sermon I’ve preached in 30 years of this endeavor.)

    One quote from Rutledge in the linked article: “A good deal of the opposition to the substitution motif is rooted in an aversion to its fundamental recognition of the rule of Sin and God’s judgment upon it.”
    A good part of what Forde says is that any “theory” moves the conversation from God’s loving work in Christ, into an abstraction. My “opposition” to the substitution motif is that it is reductionistic, and mechanistic.
    This is the one shortcoming I find in a number of things I read on Mbird. (A site which gives much life and insight for me!) To reference substitution – a price paid – rarely connects with life as it is lived day to day…
    Forde does not (entirely) toss out substitution, but insists on a more wholistic and biblical reading, that in the end speaks to God actually working faith and forgiveness in the sinner (me) (you) through the cross and resurrection.
    I will close with this compelling line in Forde’s piece, (an article I have shared with most everyone I can over the years). . .
    “God’s “problem” is not that he can’t be merciful until he has been satisfied, but that he won’t be satisfied until he succeeds in actually having mercy on whom he will have mercy.”
    Thanks Mbird, for so much thought provoking, faith encouraging, great stuff!

    • Will McDavid says:

      Phil – agreed! If I can defend the substitutionary model for a moment, though –

      -God gets angry in the Bible, and he has to be talked down from wiping out the Israelites after the Golden Calf fiasco. But God technically does not have emotion or change God’s mind, since immutability is a necessary attribute of God’s (Augustine in DT goes into this sort of speech about God which is technically wrong, but still properly used).
      -God is often called “Father” in the Bible and in theology, but Barth counsels us that God is more unlike than like even the best of human fathers.

      What I think those two examples show is that models of God break down at a certain point, and any of our images, metaphors, and models for what God does need be tempered with apophasis lest they become mechanistic or confining. But the models are still proper to a point. So I think substitution and, to me, participation too are good models, and I read Paul as leaning on both of them at times. But Forde’s caution applies to the extent that (i) they are only models and (ii) that the human heart will misuse theological images. Them be deep waters, but I think at least one issue is precisely where to draw the line between kataphasis and apophasis, so to speak. And perhaps it’s a matter of particular circumstance, rather than some timeless systematic picture, that motivates in part where that line is drawn (it certainly did for Barth, and the line seems to shift in his later work). Anyway, I love the Forde article, too, and think it’s immensely valuable. Any of our theories do risk covering over the brute event of the Cross itself.

  3. Phil Wold says:

    Thanks Will.
    Yes, Forde points to the event itself, and our participation and responsibility in the brute reality of Jesus’ crucifixion.
    Yet he also points out that the image of substitution falls apart (or maybe caves in on itself) when one portrays the event of the cross as a price paid to God to satisfy God’s wrath. . .
    Yes, Christ dies in our place, but not to settle some bank account in heaven. Christ dies to save you.
    One of the key points Forde makes, is that the Church in her wisdom has never settled on a SINGLE “doctrine” of the atonement.
    Rather than a doctrine, we have the event itself.
    The Cross.
    The resurrection.
    Which works its work when you die with Christ, and are raised with him to “live before God in righteousness and purity forever” to quote Luther’s Small Catechism.
    So, (I would suggest) rather than theories of atonement, or even worse, a doctrine of atonement, what we need, is 40 days of Lent, Holy Week, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter. . .

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