Wednesday, July 15, 2020

An Open Letter to My Fellow Christians Regarding Coronavirus

To My Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

I am a Christian. I believe the Bible is the Word of God. I am also a physician and believe that God has given humans intellect and wisdom to understand the natural world. I believe that a Christian conviction in the knowability of God and His Law was a major foundation in the Scientific Revolution and thus the healing that has come through modern medicine. Through natural means, we can understand the causes, spread, and treatment of disease.

We are currently in the midst of a pandemic. In the first wave of this plague, there were many questions and much uncertainty. Now, we know more, and can make more reasoned and prayerful decisions. I am writing to exhort you, my dear brothers and sisters.

It has become clear that this disease is lethal. Initial reports of just how lethal were exaggerated, but the infection fatality rate seem to be around ~0.5-1%. In other words, for every 100 people who contract the virus, 1 person dies and many more are very seriously ill. This is far worse than the flu or other common infections. It seems to be able to spread in asymptomatic people, primarily by breathing (i.e. but in droplets that rarely travel >6 feet) and is spreading fast.


First, I exhort you to wear masks. I understand that this has been a badge of political identification, and that people who are on the political Left have advocated strongly for them. Often, this “advocacy” has been derogatory and rude.

Regardless of their sin, I must tell you that as far as I can tell, masks are effective at reducing the spread of the virus. There was some question at the beginning of the pandemic about whether or not they worked. I, too, was skeptical, but the weight of the science has strongly persuaded me that they are effective.  All Truth is God’s Truth, even if delivered by an ass (Num 22:33) or an opposing political party.

God’s judgment sometimes falls on those who do or do not do a particular action. In Egypt, the destroying angel did not ask about doctrines or heritage; he looked for blood over the lintel (Exo 12:7). Later, healing came to those who looked to the bronze serpent (Num 21:9). Our current plague does not care whether a person is protesting with Black Lives Matter or going to church. Those who wear masks will have their physical lives spared more often than those that don’t.

It’s true that wearing a mask is more likely to prevent a person from spreading the virus to others than to protect themselves, but both things happen[1]. There are many good ways to visualize it, but the virus spreads in droplets that you breathe out, the same droplets that you breathe out and can see on a cold night. A mask will catch some of this. Another great demonstration comes from Richard Davis, a microbiology lab director:

Large Services

Second, I exhort you to forgo large, in-person services while the virus is still spreading.

It is clear from our best current scientific understanding as well as common-sense that an infected person will spread a virus to more people if he is around other people. The hypocrisy of Leftist politicians in excusing Black Lives Matter protests as not being risky does not change the underlying truth. Large gatherings are dangerous with a spreading virus regardless of the reason for the assembly. Some resist the straightforward response to this out of idolatry of church attendance and the church building.

Any good thing can become an idol. Gold is good but can be shaped into a golden calf (Exo 32:4). Sex is good but can we can also pervert it through fornication (1 Cor 6:9). A church building or even physical attendance at church can be mistaken for the Church itself. This, too, is idolatry. Biblically, of course, the ekklesia are people, not a building (e.g. Acts 5:11, Acts 15:3). The Church was able to thrive in the homes in the believers in Acts (1:13, 2:46), and were the groups that Paul was writing to in the Epistles (1 Cor 16:19, Rom 16:3,5, Phm 1:2). The Church in China is flourishing today in believers’ homes. It can flourish in homes in America. We are truly commanded against, “forsaking the assembling of ourselves together” (Heb 10:25), but God does not specify the group size or day of the week. First century Christians truly met on Sundays (Acts 20:7), but this is descriptive and not prescriptive. I believe that the human tradition of large, in-person Sunday services is good, and I personally eagerly await a return to them.

We know and even preach that the Church is not a building. God does not dwell in temples made by hands (Acts 7:48), but in our hearts (Eph 3:17). This is the time to live that out. This is the moment to test that doctrine. If we really believe that the Church is not a building, let us show the World that we believe this. Otherwise, the World will watch when the warnings are ignored, and many of us are killed for our idolatry. This will not be a good testimony. As Christians in America, our numbers will be thinned significantly if we cannot live out this doctrine. But if the doctrine of Christ living in our hearts is true, then we can forgo meeting together in large groups for a brief (in the scale of eternity) season.

There may be some resistance to having what is preached available on the internet for fear of some sort of governmental reprisal or loss of non-profit status. Firstly, this would be a blessing if it happened (Mat 5:11). Second, this can be prevented through use of better technologies (we can learn from our brothers who work in technology about how, and those in China about the spiritual aspects). Third, this raises concerns about the alliance with the World that we have already made in accepting non-profit status.

Lastly, if we are insistent on large, in-person meetings, then have them outside. Turn church from an indoor activity into a camp meeting. This is a safer option because it allows for easier spacing, the possible killing of the virus by the sun, and the improved ventilation. It is foolishness indeed to risk death because one cannot be parted from indoor air-conditioning for an hour or two.

Telling the Truth

Third, I’m advocating that you tell the truth about what is happening in your church and in your family.

Sharing information is a separate job than the job of deciding what to do about it. Decisions about mask-wearing and meeting in public are separate from the obligation to share information. Some of us have the role of the watchman: telling others information about threats as soon as that information is available. There is a related prophetic role which involves warning people of sins or spiritual danger, but the analogy was drawn from a person whose job was literally warning others of physical danger:

But if the watchman see the sword come, and blow not the trumpet, and the people be not warned; if the sword come, and take [any] person from among them, he is taken away in his iniquity; but his blood will I require at the watchman's hand. -Ezekiel 33:6

It is critically important that everyone know what is happening. The virus has a 1-2 week incubation time and the ability to spread prior to the development of symptoms. Knowing who was infected as soon as possible will help people avoid those exposed and quarantine themselves sooner, thus preventing further infection. In the hospital, if a person is infected, coworkers who have been in close contact are taken off the job and tested for the virus.

God commands: “Thou shalt not bear false witness.” We are to speak truthfully when we speak, and also to speak the truth in season. Though Abraham told no lie in saying that Sarah was his sister (Genesis 20:2-8), he was a poor representative of the God of all Truth. We cannot fail to mention when a person becomes sick in our congregation, especially when that information may be life-saving for others, especially the vulnerable. We worship the Logos (John 1:1), the truth (John 8:32), the one called Faithful and True (Rev 19:11); we need not fear discussing any fact about reality.

It may be that we believe fears of the virus are overblown. It may be that we think that media outlets are politically motivated. But some of us have the job of blowing the trumpet regardless of what others decide to do about it.


God sometimes winks at sin and allows humans to go on sinning (Acts 17:30, 2 Pe 3:8,9), but then there is a time when we are called to repent or face the consequences. If a city or a king or a person repents, then God is gracious. But if a person is warned and does not repent, then judgment surely comes.

Some have claimed that God will protect them from the virus because of their obedience. He certainly has the power to do this. But foolishness is not obedience: “The wise in heart will receive commandments: but a prating fool shall fall” (Pro 10:8). Idolatry is not obedience. God has given us intelligence and wisdom and expects us to use it. If there were no alternatives, or if God had truly commanded us to not wear masks or to assemble weekly in large groups in person, then I would say we must obey, come what may. But these are traditions of men, and truly good traditions indeed. They are not commandments of God.

There are Christians in hospitals right now, struggling for air, who will die tonight because of their idolatry and carelessness, who would have otherwise lived lives of service to the Lord. God will not hold guiltless those who throw their lives away. God will especially not hold guiltless any preacher whose preaching or carelessness causes the deaths of those in his flock. A buried talent (Mat 25:26) or hidden mina draws judgement (Luk 19:22). A shepherd who is heedless of wolves, even if they are mere physical wolves threatening earthly life, will be held accountable.

If we have made an idol of the church building and of church attendance, then God may be preparing a judgement with this virus. Those who have humility to turn away from the traditions of their political group and can accept the truth about masks will be spared; those people or churches that are prideful and stubborn about their habits, God will humble. Those who can forgo large meetings and meet in small groups in homes, or who avail themselves of technologies God has allowed us to make, will have their lives spared. Those who do not do this will have their members culled like the children of Israel in the wilderness (1Co 10:5).

I am not a prophet, but I am a doctor. I don’t have a Word from the Lord about what He has planned or whether or not this virus is a judgment. But it seems very clear to me that if certain actions are not immediately, more people will die.

God is setting before you life and death (Deu 30:15). Choose life.

David Carreon, MD

Saturday, February 28, 2015

MPPC: Champion of Teen Mental Health

Reflections on Menlo Park Presbyterian's "Parenting Teens Through the Challenges of Life" Conference 

Today I attended “Parenting Teens Through the Challenges of Life” at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church (the church where I'm a member, but not a leader). I wanted to get involved with mental health issues at my church for some time, but haven’t found the time until today. So I decided to go to the event.

Overview of the Day

The conference was a nice blend of expert opinion and personal experience. One child psychologist masterfully weaved in theory with his professional experience caring for teens, and his own experience and strategies in raising his own teens. The experts, by and large, were speaking both from professional and personal experience, which gave an authenticity to the advice. There was even a resource fair where local providers of services and organizations were able to talk to parents and professionals, from NAMI to AA, and both secular and Christian treatment centers.

The first keynote speaker was the Executive Director of Adolescent Counseling Services in Palo Alto, Philipe Rey. He gave a talk answering, “What’s wrong with kids these days?” with “Nothing: Society has changed.” He cited lack of social engagement, changes in the family structure, and technology as some of the contributing factors to the new problems. He engaged the audience well with personal anecdotes, exaggerated stories, and the occasional statistic from San Mateo and Santa Clara County; he got so into it at times, he seemed to forget his audience: his occasional use of profanity fell quite flat before the stained glass. While some of what he said was platitudes (we were frequently reminded that “Teenagers experiment” and “It’s normal”), most of the presentation was a good set of concrete tips for engaging with teens, from encouraging family dinner to going for long car rides.

The second keynote speaker, Amy Simpson, was an author at the flagship evangelical magazine, “Christianity Today”  delivered a powerful message. She told of the struggles of herself and her family as they struggled to wrestle with their mother’s schizophrenia. After her heart-wrenching story of being ostracized and stigmatized, she gave a set of great advice for taking care of those who are mentally ill and their families. I think the most memorable line was her description of mental illness as the “no casserole illness”; if you get cancer, or go to the hospital for surgery, members of the church bring you food, but not if it’s a mental illness. Her message was one of empowerment to help those who are sick: “Do what you’re already doing” (just don’t forget to do it to those who are mentally ill, too). She seemed nervous and unvarnished, but I think this added to the authenticity of her message. It was one of the heavier talks I’ve ever heard, effectively communicating the burden. I was used to stories of schizophrenia ending dramatically in suicide, as a warning to take it seriously. This one ended on a note of hope. With treatment, though still sick, “Mom is doing really well.”  

Overall, it was a very down-to-earth set of presentations. I must admit, it was somewhat jarring for me, who feels a sense of comfort when there’s journal references at the bottom of every slide. I was mostly able to suppress my priggishness in noting a minor statistical error here or there, or an improperly used psychiatric term, but overall, the presentations were informative and accurate. Most importantly, it seemed to be exactly what parents needed. In conversations I had, parents were grateful and found the lessons helpful.

The material was also very timely and specific to the issues faced by local parents. Cutting was discussed twice; in fact, this topic (not yet discussed in any of my formal training) was mentioned in a session on “risky behaviors,” and inspired three of the four questions, leading to a good discussion on this apparently very common behavior. Also, perhaps it’s inevitable in Silicon Valley, but one of the more commonly blamed factors for the new problems was technology and ways to limit it, from texting late into the night to pornography. One pediatrician giving a lecture on sexuality, while emphasizing that parents can continue to encourage children to wait until marriage, also stressed the importance of talking about contraception for those teens that choose differently, even modelling how to talk about contraception; a secular doctor could find little to object to.

It was shocking was what parents knew and what they learned. I am a psychiatrist who spends a good amount of my time doing intakes on, by and large, mostly suicidal patients. It wasn’t me but a parent who pointed out that 100% of Palo Alto Police are specially trained to manage mental health crises; another contributed that San Mateo county was making great strides in that direction as well. On the other hand, many parents found out (and were probably horrified) about “sexting,” Snapchat, Tinder, and “hooking up” in the same hour. Some things that were commonplace for me as a doctor and psychiatrist (e.g. talking to psychotic people, talking about sexual organs) I discovered were really intimidating to parents; one very good thing parents could walk away with was some context, and examples of places to start with these conversations.

One of the things that came through loud and clear was well-modeled examples of ways to talk to kids. Parents were encouraged, exhorted, chided, pleaded with, and instructed to talk to their kids about drugs, alcohol, sex, depression and even suicide. A multitude of example conversations were given, some of them even role-played by awkward, earnest, geeky parents.

My Impressions

I went to the conference with some apprehension. I had heard that the Church and mental health were opposed. Part of me was dreading that professional mental health would be maligned, and part of the reason I attended was to be able to speak to church leaders I know about these issues. But there was none of that. The only criticisms of the system were criticisms I make myself: critiques of the complexity and lack of access. Many churches discourage their members, implicitly or explicitly, from seeking help (according to statistics presented in the conference, such attitudes are much rarer than I expected). But MPPC does not have the “pray it off” attitude toward mental illness. Coming away from the conference, I found that my church puts enormous faith put into mental health professionals (or at least those who we invite to speak to our members). In fact, if I had to offer one very small criticism of the conference message, I would say that too much faith was placed in mental health professionals.

One member I talked to was going to join a support group at the church, but was told that he would need to get “clearance” from a professional before he participated in the group. One of the keynote speakers seemed to think that the support of friends and community had only the effect of making it more likely that patients see professionals: “Loving friendships are the best context for helping people get the help they need.” The belief that a person can be supported no matter what their diagnosis is, or that community support itself can be therapeutic seemed to not be considered. We heard that treatments of mental illness have “grown by leaps and bounds over the past decade” and that they are “90% effective” (perhaps the statistic where my desire for a reference was most salient).

I know what we can do and what we can’t do as mental health professionals. I know the effect size of SSRIs, and, though good, ain’t great. I know how a hospitalization can help, and how it can’t. I know how our diagnostic categories are useful, and how they arose by consensus. And for many of my VA patients, often isolated, lonely veterans, I am more hopeful about the effects of joining a strong community than of the drug that I prescribe.

Perhaps the biggest gap in the program was the lack of presence of psychiatry. Today, I heard from psychologists (including John Ortberg, our executive pastor), pastors, MFTs, a drug and addiction counselor, and even a pediatrician. But not a single psychiatrist. I was there with my co-resident, but we didn’t manage to shake hands with another psychiatrist. And when I introduced myself as a psychiatry resident at Stanford, the other clinicians immediately begged for a card, hoping I had some availability, crestfallen to discover that interns don’t take new outpatients.

There is a huge need. One of the biggest take-aways for me was this: kids are in big trouble. On the adult side, I’ve heard strong arguments on both sides: that depression incidence is higher now than it was decades ago, or just that our awareness has increased. With hundreds of parents and community members showing up for most of a Saturday to talk about teen mental health, there is clearly a big demand for this. The three recent suicides of Gunn High students have been on my mind, and correspond to the increased incidence of suicide in this age category nationally; perhaps this was one of the reasons why so many attended.

The other lesson from the conference is that we’re doing something about it. One of the things I love most about my church: we do things. As a small example that makes the point, I’ll tell you about a problem of handouts. One of the breakout speakers had a thick stack of handouts that people had not taken. Right before he started speaking, one of the audience members, stood up, grabbed his stack of papers, and started handing them out to the room. She had the boldness and even presumptuousness to see a problem, not ask permission, and solved it almost reflexively. And so with mental illness and teens: there are new problems and new challenges, from cutting to sexting; suicide is a clear and present danger in the Valley. But parents and providers showed up to do something. This was not a small event, nor a short one. The sanctuary was about two-thirds full at the keynote session, about 700 people, and went from 8:00am – 3:30pm. With the amount most of the parents in the area can bill for their time, it represents an enormous opportunity cost. I can make various complaints about polish or rigor. But the most important thing about this event is that it happened: a well-attended tactical briefing on the problems and what to do. Like soldiers fighting a war, hundreds of parents showed up, and were strengthened. I hope and pray that this would not be the last event of its kind.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Invictus: The Virtues of Secularism

One of the great privileges of the psychological perspective is being able to ponder people’s motivations. There exists in all of us a wild confluence of conscious and subconscious motivations, of thoughts and feelings, of belief and habit. We get to ask of a depressed man, “What positive thing does his depression say about him?” and see how the mood is a profound statement of the persons deepest values and aspirations. Perhaps he values excellence, and his unemployment proves to himself that he has failed to live up to his personal value: his resultant depressed mood is the consequence of his values and his circumstances. One of the ideas of therapy is to bring to conscious awareness this subconscious consequence, so the man can decide: Do I want to change what I value?

Subconscious valuations are, if you believe Freud (or reflect on your own live), are ubiquitous. While pathological states are explored by psychologists, the subconscious is right below the surface of the mundane as well as the profound. Contemporary psychologists have gone a long way to showing how irrational we are: cognitive heuristics, or how flashes of emotion will pull us one way or another. I’ve been interested in exploring these complex sets of motivation in non-pathological states. What does a person get out of being a Republican or a Democrat? What about being Vegetarian or Anti-Vegetarian? Driving a Prius[1]?

The psychology of belief is intriguing, but for various reasons, seems to have been applied only to one side of the divide of religion. Freud famously psychologized Theism by describing the heavenly father figure of God filling in the psychological void. This is simplified, satirized and then popularized by Atheists who mock at a sky-father, or more insultingly, at a sky-daddy. But beneath superficial immaturity, there is a very real truth: that Christianity satisfies a psychological need for emotional security in the person of the Father. 

The trouble comes when the argument is made (or more often, only implied) that a perspective is false because it provides some psychological benefit. It is the case that Andrew Carnegie’s belief in the reality of the Bessemer process made him a fortune in steel. But the fact that he benefited from a belief has nothing to do with the probability of its truth. But with Christianity, it's often assumed that if a belief doesn’t lead to suffering, it must be false. They committing the fallacy of argumentum ad suckum. The kernel of truth in these perspectives is that it may be the case that, while not logically impossible, it is personally possible that we believe something not because of reason but because of some other psychological reason. While not a logical necessity, perhaps a particular person believes in God because she lacked a loving father. It is useful for us as individuals to reflect on why we believe what we believe, and to the extent possible, know the truth about ourselves.

But what about secularism? What profound thing does it say about the values and motivations of a person who chooses to embrace or continue in secularism? I’ve had this conversation with many secular friends and have begun to get a gestalt of the psychological benefits of atheism, agnosticism and secularism [2]. There seem to me to be three major benefits that secularism provides: 1) Intellectual Maturity 2) Defiant Courage 3) Freedom.

Intellectual Maturity

The most conscious of these three is intellectual integrity. A payout of secularism, particularly when contrasted to far-too-common unthinking Christianity, is that the unbeliever gets to feel that he is really looking the truth in the face. Many secular people view themselves as those who are given a choice between happiness and lies vs sadness and truth, and they are those who chose the latter pair. Often, they will even express envy to those who live in more optimistic universes, wistfully wishing that they could give up the truth. Of course, there are other flavors of this sentiment that are more arrogant, but I’ve found these to be rare in real life (though, like most things, present on the internet in the simultaneous tragic and hilarious caricature of the now-infamous neckbeard atheists). The secular protagonist of Orange is the New Black captures the emotion well:

I think it's just bullshit, and on some level, I think we all know that, I mean, don't you?...[blank stares from her religious audience]…I understand that religion makes it easier to deal with all of the random shitty things that happen to us. And I wish I could get on that ride, I'm sure I would be happier. But I can't . Feeling aren't enough. I need it to be real

While few are as arrogant as reddit-dwelling neck-beard atheists, there often remains a faint air of superiority. But it is usually the respectful, almost deferential, superiority of adults on Christmas morning: they are more mature, but in no way wanting to ruin the children’s fun about Santa Claus. The cost of Santa Claus' death comes with the psychological benefit of being grown up and seeing the beautiful truth: that there is a homely beauty in parents buying gifts for children.

This intellectual maturity results in a pursuit of truth in the natural world. From the populist I F**king Love Science to the huge over-representation of secular people among science faculties, the wonder and curiosity of the natural world is strong among secular folk. They are living out Aristotle's first lines in Metaphysics where he describes human nature and immediately connects it to the foundation of all science, empirical observation: "All men by nature desire to know. An indication of this is the delight we take in our senses; for even apart from their usefulness they are loved for themselves..."

Secularism values intellectual maturity, the growing out of pleasant but fictional ideas into serious, adult thought and exploration of all that can be known.

Defiant Courage

Marx called religion the opiate of the masses. He could only do that because he lived in a Christian context. For the Norsemen, religion was definitely not an opiate; it was an amphetamine. The story arc for Norse religion was depressing. Manly, but depressing. After they died, heroic men would be taken by the Valkyries to Valhalla where they could do all the things they loved on earth: drink and feast and fight and kill. But anyone who died would wake up: no harm, no foul. Great! Right? While the content is a little strange, it’s the same sort of things-will-work-out-in-the-end comfort. But then you take into account the Frost Giants. Valhalla is more a rally point than a final destination. In the end, the gods (Thor et. al.) and heroes in Valhalla will fight the Frost Giants. But here’s the problem. They lose. It ends in chaos and death. That’s what every human soul has to look forward to. So then what’s the point? To fight anyways. The great virtue of the Norsemen was courage in the face of certain doom. They can look grim reality in the eye and not blink. It is a laudable virtue, and the one that made the Vikings the most significant military force in Europe for centuries after the fall of Rome.

Something like mindset this is alive in secular people. There is nobility in the silhouette of a man looking boldly into the Void. There is courage in the man who can look forward to his own personal demise without blinking. The sweetness of pie-in-the-sky will not satisfy someone who has grown accustomed to the black bitter beer of annihilation.

One of my favorite sculptures is of Jean de Aire by Rodin. It depicts a man who was one of the chief men of a French city that surrendered to an English king in the Hundred Years’ War. To appease his besieger and save the citizens of his town, he and his fellow town leaders had to walk out to the king with nooses tied around their necks, carrying the keys to the city, to be disposed of as the king would. In this incredible set of sculptures, Rodin depicts a variety of emotions in response to certain doom. Jean de Aire captures defiance. His jaw is tight, his mouth down-turned, and most clearly of all, his eyes set forward. Though elderly, he remains muscular, and every muscle is tense against the fate before him. The secular person is able to capture this emotion, and live it out.

But I think the ideal specimen with this motivation is rather rare. Nietzsche realized the implications of atheism more fully than most:

God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him…What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us?

A huge void remains in the human soul from the death of God; it’s no trivial matter. It’s not a trivial matter of believing in just one less god. It’s being adrift in a sea of objective purposelessness and hopelessness. The killing God and creating a void to be filled by the Overman are the ultimate uber-extreme masculine world of Nietzsche. In the fatherland of Germany, where Thor once travelled, and Nietzsche says the Overman soon will, this mindset is exemplified. But while few can follow Nietzsche completely to his utopia, he well describes this pole. It may be as stark and inhospitable as the North Pole, but certainly something to orient by.

The virtue that guided the Norsemen and that was captured by Nietzsche: the defiance of the inevitable chaos that creates a space for at least temporary and local meaning and purpose, this is a second great achievement of secularism.


The last of the psychological motivations for secularism is freedom. This is perhaps the most powerful reason for secularism. After a long conversation with a stranger about the rationality of Christianity, he conceded that Christianity was, in fact, more rational. But he didn’t want to be a Christian because, “I don’t want to give up the illusion that I’m in control of my life.”

Theism (i.e. Judaism, Christianity, Islam) demands obedience. Human will is subject to divine will. And this is in fundamental conflict with the spirit of our age, calling for ever greater liberty. Christianity in particular is seen as being terribly restrictive of humanity. There are Feminist critiques, that see it as an engine in the oppression of women. Marx saw it as an engine for the oppression of the proletariat. The New Atheists see religions in general as dangerous controllers of human behavior.

Religion is seen as something artificial, something restrictive that prevents the full expression and authentic development of a person. A secular perspective is felt to be liberation. One can command one’s own destiny for good or ill. One can grow into whatever kind of person one wants to be.

Sartre represents the pole of the freedom in secularism. As Nietzsche was to the tragic hero, Sartre is to the freedom and self-determination present in secularism: “Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does. It is up to you to give [life] a meaning.” He also has that rebellious streak in him, “Better to die on one's feet than to live on one's knees.” But, IMHO, I think the Christian Milton says it better by the mouth of his anti-hero, Satan:

                                …Here at least
we shall be free; the Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:
Here we may reign secure, and in my choice
to reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven

Freedom, the ability to make one’s own way, to sail one’s own ship, the throwing off of shackles and the desire to see others so liberated: : this is the final secular treasure.


I started this article by saying that there were three psychological motivations for secularism. But as I wrote this, I realized too that these are not simply motivations, they are core set of virtues. Perhaps that is at the bottom of most of our subconscious motivations: we think we’re fundamentally doing good, following some virtue or other. As one develops in one’s secularism, particularly as one grows in intellectual integrity, courage, and freedom, alternatives become less convincing, particularly when they’re weak in these areas.

The Christianity today appears to lack these virtues. Whatever the reality, Christians are seen as intellectually compromised, cowardly when facing the inevitability of death, and restricted in their lives by burdensome and arbitrary rules. The secular person who has grown to love these virtues when asked by a Christian to consider conversion, is being asked to weigh comfort and ease against hard-won virtue. Pascal’s Wager seems to be the reasoning of a coward, not at all like a bold, Norse defiance of Frost Giants. But not everybody can be so strong. There is a compassionate and genuinely pluralistic side of the secular mind that permits and even shows grace to such weakness.

I’ve spent a great deal of time with all variety of secular folks, and have truly come to admire these virtues. I spend enough time on this blog talking about how wrong atheism is, but think I haven’t spent enough time acknowledging the good that it has produced. I think it’s unfortunate that Christianity has become so weak that strong-minded people often don’t find a home there. It was not always this way, and I maintain that Christianity, despite appearances, is actually a boon to a person who values these things. Perhaps I’ll write about that at another time.

I will end with a poem that captures the spirit of defiant freedom, that secular ideal, better than any I know:

by William Ernest Henley

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.

[1] I drive a Prius. And like Prius drivers of a decade ago, I need to announce to the world that “I DRIVE A HYBRID CAR [AND YOU DON’T. NEENER, NEENER, NEENER].” Except that doesn’t work anymore unless you drive a fully electric car.

[2] For the purposes of this article, I’m going to lump them together and call it “secular” to contrast it with “religious” or “theistic”; I think they hang together psychologically, despite having important rational and philosophical differences. I will implicitly be contrasting this to a Christian worldview as the backdrop that they are a reaction to. I’d be very interested to read an article like this one written from a Chinese or Indian perspective. 

Monday, October 27, 2014

Unwilling Unbelievers

There’s a very interesting class of person that gets far too little press. A huge amount of contemporary Christian thought and attention goes to loud-mouthed Atheists. But there are atheists who do not want to be atheists. Actually, a surprising number state that they’d rather believe if they could.

Others are on the opposite end of the spectrum: they want to disbelieve, and the intellectual arguments are face-saving excuses. I once had a very long conversation with an atheist that ended with my discussant acknowledging that Christianity was the more rational position. Rather surprised by the concession that I had actually won a heated argument, I asked if he was ready to convert. He stated that, despite its irrationality, he preferred the illusion of being in control of his life.

Distinguishing those who want to believe but can’t from those who don’t want to believe is quite important. To identify the former group, I've started asking: “If I had a perfect rational argument that would utterly convince you intellectually that God exists and the Jesus rose from the dead, would you become a Christian?” Had I asked this question, I would have saved myself many hours of pearl-casting on a person who disbelieved for emotional reasons. But even in those who answer “Yes” to my question, there still may be a lot of psychological resistance to conversion. This can be explored in a variety of ways. There is the cool, abstract question, “What psychological or emotional difficulties might there be in becoming a Christian?” But my favorite is an emotion-laden visualization, “Imagine I convinced you rationally right now. Then imagine we walked down the street to my church’s baptismal, and then had my pastor baptize you. How would you feel?” In one person, this produced an overwhelming feeling of disgust and horror. Once generated, the emotions can be explored, “Why did that frighten you?” There’s a wide variety of emotional reasons to resist conversion with more or less rational backing. I’ll write about this separately. But once this is done and it becomes clear that the person’s disbelief is honest, yet they are motivated to change, then what? They can’t just flip a switch.

As far as I can tell, there are three major paths to overcoming the resistance.


The first way is a kind of workaround. Most of our beliefs of whatever variety are formed by our social connections.

The social effect is unbelievably powerful. Of course, close friends can convince us better than strangers. But even a handful of strangers can override basic visual processing. If you set an experimental subject in a room with five other “subjects” (who are actually experiment confederates), and ask basic questions like “which line is longer?” you can get normal people to trust strangers’ eyes more than their own. It would seem that seeing is not believing: hanging out is believing. In general, the closer the ties, the stronger the effect.

The old argument, “You only believe X because you were born in Y” is a true statement about efficient cause; it is the manner by which it came about. That is, the mechanism by which a vast majority of our beliefs come about is social geography. This works in early childhood; a person might say: “I was born in Texas; when I was younger, I believed in the Republicans.” In adulthood, it still works: “…then I went to UCLA and reconsidered a lot of my old beliefs. Now [like a vast majority of my friends and professors] I am a Democrat.” Of course (though apparently this is not obvious to everyone), how someone came to a belief says nothing whatever of the truth of that belief. The social mechanism is truth-independent: it would work for any belief, true or false. But that’s exactly what this tool is for in human history. A pipe wrench can’t measure the true distance between two points; social beliefs can’t tell you whether those social beliefs are true or false. So it’s a very good idea to only intentionally use this mechanism to help change oneself from a false belief to a true one. Or, for those of you who disbelieve in the idea of truth, the social mechanism should be used only to change an unhelpful belief to a helpful one. The fact remains: one big and effective way to change your mind is to join a particular social network that holds a target belief.

Stanford Anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann has written about this effect in Evangelicals (and previously, in psychiatrists). “When God Talks Back” is, in part, about how beliefs are reinforced by social participation and ritual. In other studies of conversion, it is often found that social networks play a huge role. The most natural and common way to change your mind is to spend time with people whose mind you want to share. If you want to be a Christian, go to church. Sing the songs. Attend Bible studies. Make friends with Christians, particularly Christians qua Christians. While it’s helpful to see them at work or on the golf course, it’s even more helpful to go to the place where they are feeling Christian emotions and thinking Christian thoughts that, as with all emotions and thoughts, are contagious.


The next way is somewhat contested. While it boggles my mind, there are apparently-thinking people who are convinced that thinking is not a way to change one’s mind (these poor souls are among the most tragic casualties of Post-Modernism). I suppose there are those in this world who have never had the wonderful experience of hearing an argument and changing their minds; more likely, this has happened, but they forgot to pay attention.

We live in so-called “Western Civilization,” and one of the defining and differentiating aspects is our conviction, at least since Socrates, that systematic thinking is a noble pursuit, that arguments are worthwhile, and that by engaging in it, we might actually make progress toward what’s true. I have had the experience several times of having a vigorous discussion with another person, and then my making some comment like, “So what you’re arguing is [summary of their position]” to which they respond in all sincerity, “I’m not arguing anything. I don’t think what I say is true.” I am skeptical of those skeptics who fire up the great engine of rigorous thought and forthwith drove with terrifying speed to the conclusion that they never went anywhere.

Some less skeptical folks will maintain that reason is great for science, but is useless elsewhere. I had an intense discussion with someone recently, who aggressively demanded of me, “What empirical proof do you have that God exists?” It’s a fine question; it implies that if empirical proofs are lacking, then a thing cannot be known. The argument goes like this: “1) Assume only physical things can be known 2) God is not a physical thing 3) God cannot be known.” The trouble with the argument is that just about everybody believes that 2+2=4, that killing Jews in a holocaust is wrong, and that sunsets are beautiful. ‘4,’ ‘wrong,’ and ‘beautiful’ are not physical things, but most of us are pretty sure they’re real. Those who make the arguments that start with “what proof do you have that [spiritual thing]?” are almost never willing to ask the same thing of addition, morality, or beauty.

But enough! If you think reasoning a worthwhile endeavor and have the courage to apply it to the non-physical, read on! For the rest (for whom I've never quite understood why you’d read anything in the first place), feel free to skip. For those of you who are willing to gird up your intellectual loins, get ready for a new experience! There is an entire field of study for the rational defense (and offense) of the faith. It even has a name: “Apologetics.” The first thing to note about the field is that it, like Chuck Norris, doesn't say “sorry.” The English name comes from the Greek word, apologia, meaning either “verbal defense” or “a reasoned statement or argument”; the root, logos, is the same one used in the English word “Logic.”

For the unwilling unbeliever, one could explore apologetics for a lifetime without exhausting it. If one really wants to be persuaded, there are a multitude of possible arguments. The two kinds of argument can roughly be divided into “offense” and “defense”: part of apologetics involves providing evidence and arguments for why Christianity is true (e.g. historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus; philosophical arguments for the existence of God); the other part of apologetics involves responding to arguments against Christianity or answering “hard questions” (e.g. “How can a good God allow suffering?” “What happens to those who never heard of Jesus?”). Apologetics is a wonderful field because it is a multi-disciplinary pursuit. It’s quite open-minded and acknowledges that we can be persuaded by historical truths as well as philosophical truths. While most of the credit and history of the field goes to the philosophers and theologians, I know that some of the more significant shifts in my opinion have come from arguments based on history.

This article is meta; this is an article about apologetics, not directly an apologetics article. Nonetheless, I’ll give you three apologists that have influenced me, describe their work, and allow you to investigate the arguments yourself: William Lane Craig (philosopher), NT Wright (historian), and Rodney Stark (sociologist).  Craig is a professor of philosophy who has become perhaps the foremost apologist in contemporary Christendom, debating the top atheists in the world and winning (even by Atheist accounts). He presents well-validated mostly philosophical arguments for God’s existence with precision and conciseness. Craig’s writings and materials are a prime specimen of what most Christians mean when they say ‘apologetics.’ However, this line is less influential to those who are disinclined to think philosophically. Much of the ire against Christianity, and conviction in secularism is the belief that, more or less, religion leads to war and superstition, and secularism leads to peace and prosperity. This subconscious “reason” was powerfully at work in me until I read Rodney Stark. He takes a broad sweep of history and argues that Christianity was the reason for the peace and progress: Science, Representative Government, Capitalism and the end of slavery, were all fruits of Christianity. The book summarizing his other books is The Triumph of Christianity. Wright is probably the foremost historian of first century Palestine; he provides an eminently scholastic account (video summary) of how the resurrection of Jesus was so un-Jewish and un-Roman that it requires an extraordinary explanation, “That is why, as an historian, I cannot explain the rise of early Christianity unless Jesus rose again, leaving an empty tomb behind him.” He also does a superb job of explaining how Christianity is exactly not about “dying and going to heaven,” but involves making earth like heaven.


I once had a change of mind like a dam-bursting. It was an experience on the rational path, but has lessons for the spiritual path. In the course of a two-hour lecture, I went from one side of an argument to the other; I was taking notes on my own feelings and opinions in the margin, and was able to identify a period of 20 minutes where I went from a solid opponent of the idea to avid defender. It was like a chemical reaction: I found a lower and more stable energy state, never to return to the starting position once catalyzed. I've seen this sort of thing happen with belief in God after a spiritual experience: a person goes from reluctantly granting some arguments for God’s existence, and then leaping to an expression of faith in the resurrection of Jesus.

I've seen people who wanted to believe follow either the social-emotional or the rational path for a time, and sometimes a long time. Then something happens. Maybe it’s a dream that shakes them to the core. Maybe it’s a ‘coincidence’ of profound personal significance. They were making glacial progress, as one who went from convinced atheist to tentative theist over the course of years. But then, in a flash, they find that they arrive at the destination of Christianity. Others don’t even start down the path when they are called. A famous case is the Apostle Paul, who started as a persecutor of the faith when he was called, but he was obedient to the vision. I've heard many accounts of this sort of thing happening today, often in the Muslim world. Whatever progress one has made, it can be accelerated by miracle.

The final way to go from unbeliever to believer is to meet God. It’s actually not as hard as it sounds. If the hypothesis that “there is a personal God” is true, then it is, in principle, entirely possible to meet Him. This is completely compatible with an honest scientific perspective. Science involves taking the sense-information and incorporating it into a theory of how the universe works; one cannot arbitrarily exclude sense-information that happens to align with Theism.

Try to pray regularly for a time. Play a lower-stakes version of Pascal’s Wager: if God is real, He hears and may respond. If God is not, you've gained new information about the existence or nature of God. Ask God to show Himself to you. Ask for a sign. But be careful, especially before attempting this path. The danger is this: sometimes when you ask for a sign, He shows you one.

After His resurrection, Jesus appears to the disciples when Thomas was away. They told Thomas about it but he would not believe, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.” Thomas would not believe on the testimony of others; he needed to meet Jesus himself. Jesus was happy to oblige, appearing to him and saying, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” This is all in accord with Jesus’ words on the Mount of Olives: “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.”

So, if you dare, knock. But do not be surprised if the door opens.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Dark Horse

“And I beheld, and lo a black horse” - Revelation 6:5 

“What’s the right thing to do?”

I asked the question was asked to a group of middle and high schoolers at SPLASH. Hands shot up. Answers were given. But not to the question I asked. They all conspired to, completely without my approval, answer a different question: “Why is it impossible to do the right thing?”

While no doubt an interesting question, it seemed to the students indistinguishable from my first. It seemed no matter how many times I repeated my question or clarified, they obstinately persisted in offering answers to the second question. I heard about studies in moral psychology, sociology, and evolutionary biology. I heard personal anecdotes of students doing what they seemed to think was the wrong thing, defeatedly declaring it inevitable. I was very familiar with relativism, the fashionable (and crazy) idea that all moral truth is relative [1]. I even knew about moral agnosticism, the slightly less fashionable and slightly less crazy idea that there is an objective moral world, but it was unknowable. The majority of the class wasn’t set on relativism, or at least not set on it deeply. But the class did seem to be utterly convinced of the depravity of the human condition: we know the right thing to do, but have no ability to actually do it.

The only philosophical system that I know of that has so low a view of human capacity is the extreme end of Reformed Theology, people like the Puritans. But even that system is optimistic because the solution (Jesus) is provided. The Ancients had ideas that things like tradition, education, religion, wisdom or reason were paths to a virtuous life. But my students had been told of no such paths. But their previous teachers had not been idle; they made sure to pile rocks of explicit doubt on the best paths, and obscure the rest under a light snow of relativism. The tragedy of my poor students was matchless.

“Part of me wants to do what’s right. But part of me just wants to be rich.”

So said my friend in the midst of a career decision. So far so good. We all have unholy desires and impure motives. It’s good that he recognizes it.

“So I don’t know what to choose.”

There are those boldly wicked men like Thrasymachus [2] (about whom much of Plato’s Republic is set out to refute), who actively argue that injustice is better than justice. But my unfortunate friend was in a different place. He wanted to be a good person, and he knew what a good person would do. But there is another part of himself which he could not deny which wanted something else, and he did not know which part of him had the valid claim: the rational, just part; or the greedy, unjust part. It is like his mind is the Manichean cosmos: there are two gods, a good one and a bad one, and neither has the ultimate claim to being Right.

This is a new thing. Humanity throughout the ages was pretty well convinced of how totally awesome Reason was. The question “should I follow reason?” was pretty well taken for granted. In fact, there’s not much of human craft that is possible if the answer turned out to be “no.” In fact, much of my future profession is dedicated to dealing with people who seem to have that question in the negative. To the Greeks and many Christians, Reason (not the Hokey Pokey), was what it was all about. This is Reason in the highest sense (all apprehension of capital T “Truth”), not just what you learned in Geometry. Aristotle says this about the purpose of life: “The function of man is activity of soul in accordance with reason, or at least not without reason.” The consequences of not living out this purpose are described in vivid (believe me, vivid) descriptions of H-E-double-hockey-sticks by Dante; the Inferno is a place for beings who, to varying degrees, abandon or corrupt their Reason. To Dante, Hell is nothing less and nothing more. Previous generations required that vice be concealed as virtue, that the irrational put on the clothes of reason. Today, it seems, vice can walk the streets naked and unashamed.

“I don’t know if I’m in love with him. Should we break up?”

She’d been in a relationship for over a year, but the passion faded and/or wasn’t as strong as it “should be.” This is a classic case. And, as numerous conversations with friends have demonstrated, we have no flipping idea how to make decisions about relationships. Sometimes, we don’t even think we should use “cold” reason in such a fiery thing as love.

“Love” apparently meant, “warm feelings” and these were, apparently, supposed to be really, really strong. And if they weren’t then it meant the many months of dedication and sacrifice were for naught. That person must not be “the one.” This conviction is cemented by the common experience of having a previous lover with whom one did have really, really warm feelings towards. Why that relationship (the one with the feelings) didn’t work out will not be reflected on.

Passion is far too weak a glue to bind two people together for any significant time. It certainly does a very adaptive thing for humanity and gets us to commit to each other while intoxicated by love. But that was back when the good king Reason ruled and acknowledged that promises and commitments had force even when feelings faded. Now that the Passions are ruling, this is now a conscience-driven process. “Feelings are the Good, and if they are absent, then I’m out, promises be damned.” All the other things that people considered in their partner are now all but ignored. It is not temptation but Reason-endorsed conviction that causes me to consider breaking my commitment.

To Be or Not to Be?

In The Willpower Instinct, Kelly McGonigal tells the story of a girl who had recurrent suicidal thoughts, tried to suppress them, and had even more recurrent suicidal thoughts (a transient obsession that McGonigal attributes to the white bear effect). As a result, she concluded that the recurrence of these thoughts reflected the fact that, deep down, she really wanted to kill herself. Her conscious, rational self has no reasons to offer, but that must mean that the conscious, rational self is ignorant of the true reality.

Why would anyone think all subconscious ideas contained deep and irrefutable truths about us? I suppose it’s partly because of a watered down and corrupted legacy of Freud. But it may also be because that the thoughts and feelings that occur to us outside our conscious control arrive from a mysterious source. They, like visions or prophecies, have the appeal of mystery. And in an environment where we know everything is false, at least with the private idea-generator called the subconscious, we don’t know that it’s false; it stands alone in our minds as not having its epistemological foundations undermined.

The Reign of the Dark Horse

The common theme of all these stories is that many modern people seem to think feelings are inviolable. It’s a bizarre inversion of what has always been the ideal. Classically, when the Passions overpowered the Reason, it was a tragedy. Now the Passions rule, but the Reason is actually complicit. At best, Reason has one vote amongst the Passions. At best, Reason is as impotent as a junior congressman from Idaho. Sometimes, Reason is just an observer, along for the ride like a tick on a dog. Our minds are adequately muddled to permit for a new thing in the history of the world: not forced servitude, but voluntary commitment of Reason to the Passions.

One of Plato’s allegories compared the human soul to a chariot pulled by two horses. The driver is reason, one of the horses (white) represents the good emotions or “spiritedness” and the other horse (black) represents the carnal or base passions. The driver’s job was to bridle and direct the horses; not suppress them, or let them guide the chariot (for a fuller account, check out this Art of Manliness article). Plato called the failure of the rider and the triumph of the Passions, “…the ruthless enslavement of the divinest part of himself to the most despicable and godless part” and submitted that such a man should be “deemed wreched.” All Plato could imagine seemed to be an incompetent driver (which was just “wreched”). Our modern insanity seems to have been unforeseen: he couldn’t imagine a rider so insane he would yoke himself beside the other horses and allow the Dark Horse to lead. I don’t think he could have imagined conscious and intentional mutiny of Reason against Wisdom, not just being enslaved by the Passions, but swearing allegiance to them.

My students seemed as if they were trained from childhood to yoke their Reason beside their passions and to pull with it in whatever direction the Dark Horse was inclined to go. My money-loving friend knew what was right, on some level wanted to do right, but gave his Reason an equal vote. My friend in the relationship thought the Dark Horse’s inclinations were the only reliable guide. The suicidal girl allowed her Passions to persuade her Reason.

After thousands of years of trying by a multitude of means, humanity seems to have finally given up trying to break the Dark Horse. But rather than just enjoying a directionless chariot ride, we have kept our Reason active, pulling the now-empty chariot beside the Dark Horse here and there and everywhere. Plato described the integrated soul, when the rider and two horses worked together: he told of how such a soul could rise up into the heavens with the gods. But such cannot be our fate. Our souls will be scattered across the plains and deserts of the earth, driving madly in a direction we know not.




Unless Reason rules again.

[1] Paul Blume famously opens his book on American universities with this line: “There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative.” As for its craziness, the strong defenders of the hypothesis are hard to find.
[2] “injustice, when it comes into being on a sufficient scale, is mightier, freer, and more masterful than justice.”

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Mediterranean Diet in a Bowl: SuperStew 4.0

Mediterranean Diet in a Bowl: SuperStew 4.0

This is a super filling, super low glycemic index, evidence-based food. It has several ingredients which are proven to be good for diabetics or preventing diabetes. As with all my SuperStews, it’s designed to be a “desert island food,” that is, you wouldn't die if it’s all you ever ate.

3 onions
½ bunch of celery
2 bell peppers
½ lb JalapeƱos  (optional; this will make it spicy)
2 large cans of diced tomatoes
1 large can of crushed tomatoes
½ lb navy beans
½ lb soybeans
1/8 lb wild rice
1.5 lbs chicken thighs
Montreal steak seasoning
2 cups olive oil
½ lb peanut butter (crunchy, natural)
½ lb almonds (sliced)
½ lb sunflower seeds (shelled)
¼ lb ground flaxseed
2 cups Greek Yogurt
1 cup shredded coconut
½ cup apple cider vinegar
¼ cup molasses

Spices (part 1)
4 tbsp (1/4 cup) black pepper
2 tbsp cayenne (optional; this will make it spicy)
2 tbsp coriander

Spices (part 2)
2 tbsp mustard seed
2 tbsp cumin
½ cup Italian spice

Makes 25 servings.

1. Rinse the beans (navy and soy). Put them in a large pot, cover with water and bring to a boil. Simmer for 1 hour.
2. Roughly chop all the veggies except the greens (don’t worry about deseeding the jalapeƱos unless you want it to be a bit milder). Put ½ cup of olive oil in the stock pot. Fry on medium heat for 5 minutes. Add coriander, cayenne and black pepper. Fry for another 5-10 minutes (the onions should start to look a little see-through).
3. Add the tomatoes, broth (and/or cubes), remaining oil, and remaining spices. Bring to a boil and simmer for 15 minutes.
4. Drain the beans. Add to the main pot and mix in.
5. Heat the grill to the high “grill” range. Cover the chicken with copious steak seasoning (yeah, I know, it says “steak” on it; trust me on this one). 5 minutes per side should work if the meat’s not too thick (i.e. you didn’t buy genetically engineered “I can’t walk because I’m so fat, but it doesn't even matter because my cage is too small to stand up in anyways” chickens). Cut into ~1 inch pieces and add to pot. [note: if you don’t have a grill, prepare the chicken however you like, or just add it to the pot at step 3]
5. Add in wild rice and stir. Add water as is necessary to keep it liquid. Simmer for 15 minutes.
6. Add in everything else. Stir.
7. Done! (you can use step 7 as an occasion to put it into Tupperware and/or do the dishes)


The stew has several unique features which I will reference when I have more time (I actually pulled the papers this time). First of all, I want to talk briefly about the fats. It has 40g of fat (eek!) by design (???). In one of the few well-designed randomized trials done on diet, Atkins actually came out on top (beating the Ornish “eat mostly plants” diet and other “intuitive” diets). Surprising I know. Even in terms of cholesterol readings. Even more surprising. This is probably because we all have metabolic syndrome and have way too much sugar/carbs floating around to be good for us. Previous iterations of this stew went partway, incorporating more low glycemic index grains. But this time, I went further. More fats. They fill you up, and improve your cholesterol and health. In a randomized (nonscience people read that “totally believable”) study, adding nuts or olive oil to a diet reduced cardiovascular events by around 30%. You don’t really need the oil for frying purposes, but I’ve told you to add it so that you have more healthy fats: monounsaturated fats in olive oil increase your good cholesterol and decrease you bad. There is also a decent literature on dairy (especially cultured dairy) preventing development of diabetes, so I added yogurt (and Greek yogurt had more protein and less sugar than normal). Flaxseed is good for your heart (Omega 3 fats). Coconut oil is also supposed to be good for you (that’s where a lot of the “saturated fat” is coming from… don’t worry, it’s not bad!). In looking how to cheaply get coconut oil into my stew, I discovered that the oil was hella expensive. But shredded coconut is cheap, and as it turns out, has coconut oil inside (I snuck out of Whole Foods without them knowing I had gotten coconut oil out of the building without losing my shirt). There is a ton of work about how inflammation is bad, and how anti-inflammatory stuff is good, and hence the large amounts of spice (for cheap, high quality spice, try or visit the planet Dune). One bowl of this has 7x what is good for a full day. Stuff that is “anti-inflammatory” tends also to have anti-cancer anti-oxidants. But, alas, inflammation and anti-oxidation is hard to actually measure by science as it’s so variable, so there’s not spectacular evidence to support so heavy a use of spice (at least not in the nutrition section… but the taste is another story). I had done vegetarian versions before, but the grilled chicken wasn’t that expensive, tasted great, and was actually pretty good health-wise. Vinegar has been shown to increase satiety and improve insulin response. The fiber is good (41% of daily value), but has been reduced from prior versions because it generally comes with carbohydrates. Fiber independently is good for your heart, reduces cholesterol and (some research suggests) helps transport the antioxidants down to the colon where they can work to help prevent colon cancer. And, of course, there’s a ton of veggies which are, as your mother said, good for you. I haven’t recalculated for this version, but the original (which had a similar amount of veggies) contained >5 vegetable servings in 2 bowls.

It’s got a good amount of calories, macronutrients, minerals, and all the vitamins except for D and B12. So go outside, see the sun, and eat a steak every once in a while and you’ll be fine.


For a 574 Calorie bowl of stew, the cost is $1.56. Not too shabby. The Dollars Per 1000 Calories (a unit I explain in more detail here) is 2.71. Food Stamps cutoff, that is, the cost where one could actually live on nothing but the food provided by food stamps, is 2.44. Black beans alone come in at 0.9 and a Big Mac is 7.6. My 2.71 number was arrived at by buying most of this at Whole Foods (except the veggies, which I went to my local Mexican supermarket). In other words, I bought things like Run-Around Chickens (i.e. pasture-centric; Whole Foods Grade 4). If you bought the stuff at Costco or a normal grocery store, you’d considerably increase the value (as well as the guilt on your soul :P).


It took about 1 hour to shop and 2 hours to cook (and I doubled the recipe, so ~50 meals) and about 30 minutes cleaning and storing. Not counting the 3 hour literature review (yeah… that’s how I roll. And cook. I both cook and roll via reviews of the primary scientific literature), it took me ~4.2 minutes per meal of cook time. From fridge to microwaved takes another 3 minutes per meal. So for about 7.2 minutes of my time, I can have this super healthy stew that tastes great (for reference, it takes  7.5 minutes to prepare a Hungry Man TV dinner; and yes, I did have to Google that).


Best yet. It’s amazing! I think I am white enough to prefer the Jambalaya-style spices over the Indian-style spices I had been using before. Probably because it’s so fatty, it is, dare I say it, scrumtrulescent. It is spicy (caliente) enough to keep me interested, and the yogurt and maybe vinegar move the taste into the sour axis just slightly, just enough to get interesting. And the grilled chicken was a very, very good decision. As this is what I will literally eat just about every day for a month or more, I am always happy when it turns out J. Enjoy!

Sunday, February 2, 2014

The Willpower Instinct (McGonigal) - Review and Critique

The Willpower Instinct is the best book out there for building the virtue of Temperance. Kelly McGonigal does an incredible job helping us make sense of our “willpower failures” and to learn to better respond to them. This is one of America’s greatest failures, and so I can understand why her class is so wildly popular.

There is little on the subject that she does not cover; there are few modern perspectives that are not considered. She then goes the extra mile and proposes ways to think about these failures in the reader’s own life, and exercises for trying to overcome the failures. It is eminently practical, one of the most practical self-help books I’ve come across.

Chapter by Chapter Summary and Discussion
In chapter 1, McGonigal makes the case that there are three kinds of “willpower”: I will, I won’t and I want. She advises that it is often useful to reframe challenges; for example, instead of “I will go to bed on time” she suggests trying things like “I will not use the internet after 10pm.” She also points out that focusing on our desire for “long term goals” is an important way to keep on track.

In chapter 2, she describes stress biology. She describes “fight or flight” versus “pause and plan” and talks about heart rate variability as a “store” of willpower. She describes how slowing down can improve your ability to make good choices and recommends relaxation exercises to aid with this process. A feature that comes up in a big way in this chapter is the translation of everything into cave-man fairy tales. Don’t get me wrong: I love fairy tales. I don't mean that she proposes developed evolutionary hypotheses that I happen to disagree with. Though well read on neuroscience and psychology, she didn't seem to bother studying evolutionary biology, but instead uses it as a narrative inspiration. The problem with this is that there are plenty of poor schmucks who probably can't tell the difference between McGonigals otherwise superb ability to summarize complex science and her speculations on human evolution. While showing remarkable restraint in staying within the bounds of the science in most places, she seems to be unable to exert “I won’t” power, and so we are transported back to the savanna every few pages to forage for hyena carcass or wear hippopotamus loin cloths.

She briefly summarizes the totally awesome work of Roy Baumeister in chapter 3: that willpower is like a muscle, can be depleted, built with practice and how it even runs on sugar (this work gets a little bit of a short shrift; for fuller treatment see Willpower by Baumeister). Otherwise, I think she did quite a good job on this front.

She deals with “licensing” effects in chapter 4, and describes the dangers of our moral illogic: a woman losing weight may reason, “I just burned 200 Calories on the stepper; I deserve extra dessert.” She points out how our moral logic of good works vs. bad works is counterproductive. Her advice is: forget virtue and focus on goals and values.  The major shortcoming of the book is McGonigal’s treatment of morality. She seems to implicitly treat it like nothing more than social shame, a set of emotions that is either useful or not toward achieving “long-term goals.” Nowhere does the light of any other perspective break through the clouds of her post-modernism. Never does she consider that most people through most of history were pretty sure that the only worthwhile long-term goal was morality. Plato’s pursuit of Justice in the Polis, or Aristotle’s description of the virtuous life of Eudemonia, or Jesus’ appeals to holiness, or Paul’s calls to godly life in community, or Augustine’s Confessions and call purity; no eightfold paths; no five pillars. Long-term goals are personal, and generally seem to include things like “losing weight” or “checking Facebook less”; at best, “improving my relationship.” But coming from Harvard and now at Stanford, she can hardly be blamed; moral relativism is pretty well taken for granted and individual freedom and choice is unquestionably thought to be The Good. She may also be excused because she’s using the word ‘virtue’ in the vernacular, as used by members of her class with nothing at all to do with what the word has traditionally meant. The irony is that while she repudiates virtue, I consider “The Willpower Instinct” the most practical modern workbook for those wanting to build the virtue of Temperance.

In chapter 5 “The Brain’s Big Lie,” she provides a delightful discussion of the work on dopamine and motivation, starting with the Olds and Milner brain stimulation-seeking rat (here’s the unrelated-to-the-book actual video, go to 2:30) and moving into the more recent literature. She seems to want to frame it as “the stupid basically-still-chimpanzee brain is lying” rather than “the incredibly well-tuned motivation circuits are hijacked.” Otherwise, for a lay-audience, I saw little room for improvement.

The “what the hell” effect was discussed in chapter 6: what happens after the sobered alcoholic falls off the wagon, or the dieter “blows” the day. I never realized how moralizing people get about their willpower failures, and how badly wrong they are about how morality works. Here, she makes up somewhat for her bad advice in chapter 4 with the good advice: accept yourself in your present condition, and try again.
Chapter 7 was a discussion of behavioral economics. She talked about delayed discounting, and some of the human vs chimpanzee delay-of-gratification experiments, as well as the Walter Mischel marshmallow experiment (here’s an awesome kid-trying-not-to-eat-a-marshmallow video). What was new to me was some of the new work on improving “future self continuity.” Some of this included VR interactions with “old you,” but other exercises like writing letters to “future me.” It reminded me of GK Chesterton’s essay about rash vows: “The man who makes a vow makes an appointment with himself at some distant time or place.”

Chapter 8 focused on the contagion of willpower, bringing up the intriguing studies on the Naval Academy and Framingham. She described evidence of both good and bad behaviors spreading and she brought up the concept of the “social self.” These ideas are thought-provoking as we are rediscovering what the Greeks took for granted; i.e. that the “self” is only really a “self” in community.

Chapter 9 was a great treatment of the “White Bear” paradigm: telling people not to think about a white bear and then watching them squirm. She discusses a strategy that is often used in dialectical behavioral therapy and/or mindfulness therapies of “Surfing the Urge”; she recommends not fighting negative feelings or urges, but just experiencing them and observing how they affect the body. She covers a lot of work done on this effect, but has significant omission of Jeff Schwartz’s work on OCD.

4 out of 5. While spectacular and eminently usable, the omission of a mature discussion on virtue when writing a book about a virtue leads me to leave off granting a perfect rating.

In the end, she and reminds the reader to be a scientist: that is, to test her claims. I think this was a really effective approach. The Buddhist idea to experience the truth for yourself, or the Psalmists admonition to “taste and see” are (perhaps subconsciously) applied. Though I may quibble with some points, I think the Willpower Instinct is an important book with a very important message. It is a message that Americans desperately need to hear in the cacophony of voices that seems to say nothing other than, “Your failures are inevitable.” I am in total agreement with McGonigal’s mission to enhance willpower, and I agree with the conclusion of her book: “The is a secret for greater self-control, the science points to one thing: the power of paying attention.”