Understanding, memory, and will

Like other theologians of his time, St John of the Cross takes for granted a picture of the human mind that sees it as working in three basic ways: the human mind understands, it remembers and it wants. Or, in more abstract terms, the human mind is made up of the interaction of understanding, memory and will. The distinctive and fresh insight that St John of the Cross offers is that if you put together understanding, memory and will with faith, hope and love, you have a perfect picture of where we start and where we finish. In the Christian life, faith (he says) is what happens to our understanding; hope is what happens to our remembering; and love is what happens to our wanting. So to grow as a disciple is to take the journey from understanding into faith, from memory into hope and from will into love.

— Rowan Williams, Being Disciples

“1960” by Billy Collins

In the old joke,
the marriage counselor
tells the couple who never talks anymore
to go to a jazz club because at a jazz club
everyone talks during the bass solo

But of course, no one starts talking
just because of a bass solo
or any other solo for that matter.

The quieter bass solo just reveals
the people in the club
who have been talking all along,
the same ones you can hear
on some well-known recordings.

Bill Evans, for example,
who is opening a new door into the piano
while some guy chats up his date
at one of the little tables in the back.

I have listened to that album
so many times I an anticipate the moment
of his drunken laugh
as if it were a strange note in the tune.

And so, anonymous man,
you have become part of my listening,
your romance a romance lost in the past

and a reminder somehow
that each member of that trio has died since then
and maybe so have you and, sadly, maybe she.

The misuse of biology by the Nazis is a reminder that perverted ideas can have horrifying consequences and that intellectuals have a responsibility to take reasonable care that their ideas not be misused for evil ends. But part of that responsibility is not to trivialize the horror of Nazism by exploiting it for rhetorical clout in academic catfights. Linking the people you disagree with to Nazism does nothing for the memory of Hitler’s victims or for the effort to prevent other genocides. It is precisely because these events are so grave that we have a special responsibility to identify their causes precisely.

An idea is not false or evil because the Nazis misused it. …

The danger that we might distort our own science as a reaction to the Nazis’ distortions is not hypothetical. The historian of science Robert Proctor has shown that American public health officials were slow to acknowledge that smoking causes cancer because it was the Nazis who had originally established the link. And some German scientists argue that biomedical research has been crippled in their country because of vague lingering associations to Nazism.

— Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate

Being wrong is undesirable, but it is also inevitable. We want people to feel safe making mistakes; otherwise they will not venture new hypotheses. On the other hand, we want to encourage them not to make mistakes; otherwise they will be slipshod. So we need just the right amount and kind of accountability—not too much or too little, not too harsh or too lenient. How do we thread that needle?

The answer is with multiple layers of accountability, of which the first and most important is internal: epistemic conscience. Sometimes scientists bury unfavorable data, prosecutors hide evidence, journalists cherry-pick quotes. What is important is that those failings be recognized as just that: failings. No reputable scientist or journalist or prosecutor, if exposed, says, “Sure, I made up fake evidence and hid the real thing. It worked! You should try it!” She expresses shame, and hopefully feels it, too. Epistemically, she tries to be law-abiding, and she expects others to do the same. It would never occur to members of the reality-based community to shoehorn more than 100 false or misleading claims into a single two-hour speech, as Donald Trump did on March 2, 2019. The whole idea of spewing lies strikes them as bizarre and sociopathic (which it is).

In cases of outright misconduct, those who break the rules are called out and sanctioned, or at least should be; their papers or prizes may be withdrawn, their careers impeded, their reputations damaged. Sometimes, in extreme cases, when the violation is consequential and clearly committed in bad faith, they may lose their professional credentials or be fired. More often, however, accountability takes a simpler, subtler, and softer form: those who err lose the argument. In other words, they fail to persuade, and their views fall by the wayside. The marvel of this soft form of accountability—accountability to the marketplace of persuasion—is that the consequences are serious but not severe. Losing an argument is painful, but everyone lives to move on to the next question.

However, most of what the reality-based community does to deter wrongness is to encourage rightness. The community prefers carrots to sticks. Scholarly citations, follow-up stories by other journalists, inclusions in the President’s Daily Brief, the opportunity to set a legal precedent: those and other positive incentives are the coins of the realm in the reality-based community.

— Jonathan, Rauch, The Constitution of Knowledge

Playful people

As I grow older I recognize that the people I have most admired and learned from are all playful people. They experiment. They receive the “spur of the moment” and respond. They try out alternative points of view. They pretend for the sheer pleasure of peering down a road not taken. And their capacity for intense, focused, productive work is sustained by the wisdom that allows them to suspend that work for a whole afternoon while they throw a ball around with a ten-year-old or hide behind trees waiting to be found, or sit cross-legged on the floor in front of a game board, caring less about the outcome than about the little opponents for whom this competition has the look of love.

— Marilyn McEntyre, Adverbs for Advent

Awareness, expectancy, discipleship as a state of being—all of this is bound up with the idea of the disciple as someone who follows. This listening awareness, this expectancy, presupposes following because it assumes that we are willing to travel to where the Master is, to follow where the Master goes. And, of course, in the Gospels, where the Master goes is very frequently not where we would have thought of going, or would have wanted to go.

Being where Jesus is means being in the company of the people whose company Jesus seeks and keeps. Jesus chooses the company of the excluded, the disreputable, the wretched, the self-hating, the poor, the diseased; so that is where you are going to find yourself. If you are going to be where Jesus is, if your discipleship is not intermittent but a way of being, you will find yourself in the same sort of human company as he is in. It is once again a reminder that our discipleship is not about choosing our company but choosing the company of Jesus—or rather, getting used to the fact of having been chosen for the company of Jesus.

— Rowan Williams, Being Disciples

Two guitarists!

If people differ genetically in intelligence and character, could we selectively breed for smarter and nicer people? Possibly, though the intricacies of genetics and development would make it far harder than the fans of eugenics imagined. Selective breeding is straightforward for genes with additive effects—that is, genes that have the same impact regardless of the other genes in the genome. But some traits, such as scientific genius, athletic virtuosity, and musical giftedness, are what behavioral geneticists call emergenic: they materialize only with certain combinations of genes and therefore don’t “breed true.” Moreover, a given gene can lead to different behavior in different environments. When the biochemist (and radical scientist) George Wald was solicited for a semen sample by William Shockley’s sperm bank for Nobel Prize–winning scientists, he replied, “If you want sperm that produces Nobel Prize winners you should be contacting people like my father, a poor immigrant tailor. What have my sperm given the world? Two guitarists!”

Whether or not we can breed for certain traits, should we do it? It would require a government wise enough to know which traits to select, knowledgeable enough to know how to implement the breeding, and intrusive enough to encourage or coerce people’s most intimate decisions. Few people in a democracy would grant their government that kind of power even if it did promise a better society in the future. The costs in freedom to individuals and in possible abuse by authorities are unacceptable.

— Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate

Social funnel

Put a global network of intelligent, industrious minds to work in the marketplace of persuasion, promise them glory if they can find an error or establish a fact, and the system operates as a kind of epistemic funnel. At the wide end, millions of people float millions of hypotheses every day. Only a fraction of the ideas will seem sufficiently plausible or interesting or fruitful to be acquired by the network, or even to get noticed. Once acquired, a hypothesis passes through one screen after another: testing, editing, peer review, conference presentation, publication, and then—for the lucky few ideas deemed important—citation or replication. Only a precious few make it to the narrow end of the funnel; there, after a process which can take years or even decades, a kind of social valve admits the surviving propositions into the canon of knowledge by granting them prestige and recognition, indicated with designations like “generally accepted” or “well confirmed.” People who successfully bring a proposition into the canon are rewarded with publication, professorships, promotions, and prizes. Those who follow the rules without scoring a breakthrough receive honorable mention and try again. Those who flout the rules are simply ignored; usually their ideas are not acquired by the network to begin with.

The two ends of the funnel operate very differently—almost antithetically. At the big end, the community collects as many interesting hypotheses and arguments as it can find; in its search for new input, it allows just about anyone to say just about anything. Its guiding principle is freedom: free speech, free expression, diversity, pluralism. Its interest is in stimulating new ideas, new agendas, new perspectives. If the intake end of the system squelches ideas or silences speakers, it risks losing valuable insights and allowing errors to go unnoticed. The fallibilist rule, “No final say,” keeps the funnel open.

But as the network acquires an idea, the empirical rule, “No personal authority,” begins its relentless winnowing. The vast majority of hypotheses are rejected out of hand or not even examined to begin with, and the few which are acquired face withering professional scrutiny. At its wide front end, then, the funnel is pluralistic; the more ideas, and the more different ideas, the better. But as it narrows, hypotheses pass through increasingly stringent stages of expert review. Think of medical research, for example, and the process of developing a new drug or device or treatment. The big end of the funnel screens millions of molecules, but reaching the small end often requires hundreds of trained professionals spending thousands of hours and hundreds of millions of dollars.

Civil libertarians, take note: free speech is necessary to make the reality-based community work, and that is why the Constitution of Knowledge (like the U.S. Constitution) so uncompromisingly defends it. But free speech is not sufficient. It provides raw materials in the form of ideas and criticism, but those raw materials are merely the inchoate potential for knowledge until rule-based social checking goes to work. Nor does the Constitution of Knowledge afford any guarantee that all speech will get attention or respect. In fact, the reality-based community ignores most of what most people say. The number of testable propositions may be infinite, but the time and resources of the reality-based community are finite and precious. The Constitution of Knowledge, like the U.S. Constitution, requires its adherents to follow elaborate norms and procedures if they want the community’s attention, and the community’s power to set its own agenda is its single most potent lever for influence. If you want to express yourself, great. But if you want to create knowledge, be prepared to jump through hoops and sweat and suffer. The sign over the door says, “This will be difficult!”

If you want to be reality-based, you need to accept and defend the whole Constitution of Knowledge, not just the easy parts: you need to accept and defend the rules and responsibilities it imposes as resolutely as the rights and liberties it confers. Defending freedom is often challenging, but unfortunately, in our anti-institutional age, defending rules is even harder; and the rules, as we will see, have enemies.

— Jonathan, Rauch, The Constitution of Knowledge

Live Imaginatively

My favorite question asked of men and women preparing for ordination in the Presbyterian Church is this: “Will you seek to serve the people with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love?” The question reminds both the person being ordained and those who count on pastors for competent, faithful leadership that each of those qualities matters. It’s not enough to be theologically educated. Or to be committed to church growth or to programs or even to good preaching. The habits of mind and heart the question identifies challenge the person entering leadership to understand service as a matter of ongoing spiritual development, and the vocation of ministry as an ongoing process of seeking.

I’ve come to believe that imagination is one of the human qualities most encouraged in Scripture—especially in the Gospels. The parables might well begin with “Imagine this…”. Imagine what it feels like to be the man lying by the side of the road who has to accept help from a member of an enemy tribe. Or imagine the distress of a woman who has lost a coin she needs for household expenses. Or of a father whose son has rebelled, wasted his inheritance, and held his father’s hopes in contempt. Imagine the kingdom of heaven not as a political triumph or an equitable economic system but as a mustard seed or a leavened loaf or a wedding banquet. Imagine, when you walk urban streets, what it is like to be homeless or chronically hurried or culturally displaced or disoriented and scared.

The biblical story is riddled with gaps that leave room for imagination, reminding us that Scripture is not an instruction book, but a story to be entered as a place of habitation and exploration, a story that provides maps and clues and equipment for our unique journeys. Story after story in Old and New Testaments tease us into imagining: how did Sarah feel when Abraham and Isaac returned from their traumatic, transformative moment on the mountain? What did Joseph say when Mary told him she was with child? What happened to Lazarus after he was raised from the dead? What did Jesus do on his long sojourns in the desert? How did sudden sight change the blind man’s life? We are left to imagine.
If we enter those gaps and dwell there, imagination will become a habit, and we will begin to see each other and the circumstances of our shared lives with eyes more open to possibilities. The most imaginative people I’ve known don’t pass quick or unthinking judgment. They don’t stereotype. They are more compassionate because they can imagine their way into others’ points of view, constraints, problems, hopes, histories.

It has seemed to me over decades of teaching literature that the main reason to read fiction or poems or plays is to foster compassion. And peacemaking. The wise reminder that ‘The only peace we can have is the peace we can imagine” challenges us all to put real energy into imagining, as specifically as possible, what peace might look like. Out of that inner work come changed behavior, new strategies, courage to change what we can, the wisdom to focus our efforts effectively. Imaginative living is playful and trusting, engaged and engaging, capable of going to very dark places, and of delight in ordinary things. It’s a good way to live. We’re designed for it. And called to it.

— Marilyn McEntyre, Adverbs for Advent

Prayer as birdwatching

But for now let’s just stay with what it involves and think a little about discipleship as a state of awareness. The disciple is not there to jot down ideas and then go away and think about them. The disciple is where he or she is in order to be changed; so that the way in which he or she sees and experiences the whole world changes.

That great Anglo-Welsh poet David Jones wrote poignantly in one of his late poems about the poet’s relation to God: ‘It is easy to miss him at the turn of a civilization.’ Discipleship as awareness is trying to develop those skills that help you not to miss God, to miss Jesus Christ, at the turn of a civilization, or anywhere else. Awareness, in this connection, is inseparable from a sort of expectancy, and that is one of the characteristics that most clearly marks the true disciple. Disciples are expectant in the sense that they take it for granted that there is always something about to break through from the Master, the Teacher, something about to burst through the ordinary and uncover a new light on the landscape. The Master is going to speak or show something; reality is going to open up when you are in the Master’s company, and so your awareness (as has often been said by people writing about contemplative prayer) is a little bit like that of a birdwatcher. The experienced birdwatcher, sitting still, poised, alert, not tense or fussy, knows that this is the kind of place where something extraordinary suddenly bursts into view.

I’ve always loved that image of prayer as birdwatching. You sit very still because something is liable to burst into view, and sometimes of course it means a long day sitting in the rain with nothing very much happening. I suspect that, for most of us, a lot of our experience of prayer is precisely that. But the odd occasions when you do see what T. S. Eliot (in section IV of ‘Burnt Norton’) called ‘the kingfisher’s wing’ flashing ‘light to light’ make it all worthwhile. And I think that living in this sort of expectancy—living in awareness, your eyes sufficiently open and your mind both relaxed and attentive enough to see that when it happens—is basic to discipleship.

— Rowan Williams, Being Disciples