There is no literal meaning

I’ve transcribed this Jonathan Pageau video. I’ve made edits where the text was confusing, and to optimize this for reading (the video was improvised monologue). He hasn’t approved this transcription, but I’m confident it’s a good representation of the ideas he presents herein.

A problem I encounter when talking to people about symbolism is the literal-versus-metaphor idea.

But in fact, this isn’t a problem once you realize that there is no such thing as literal.

Now, of course, I already hear a bunch of people screaming “No! He’s saying that the Bible didn’t happen! That everything is just a metaphor!”

Not exactly. I’m trying to break that duality. I’m trying to destroy it, because it’s not useful in understanding how meaning occurs and how things manifest themselves.

Now, when I say there’s no such thing as literal, what I mean by literal is this strange, pervasive idea that there is such thing as a direct description of something. That there is such thing as a description of something that is not bound up some narrative or image. That there is somehow a meaningless description of something that is not already imbibed in meaning.

People will often argue that the descriptions in the Bible are literal. And these people talk in such a way that they infer there is some kind of neutral description of reality that is possible—one that does not already have some kind of value or meaning latent in it.

But this type of description is not possible. When you describe something (no matter what it is you describe), you must do so with some purpose in mind. You need a framework, because reality is too big. There are too many details. You have to focus your time and attention on some particular events and leave any number of the millions of other possible events surrounding some episode unsaid.

Now, this already undermines the notion of literal meaning. Because if, say, I’m telling a story and I don’t mention the folds in the characters’ shirts or the fact that one of them cut themselves shaving that morning, then I’m leaving out facts of what really happened. But that’s because they are not relevant to what I’m trying to communicate—they are not part of the purpose for which I’m describing that event.

Now, depending on the purpose for which I’m describing something, I will use different types of language to describe it. The idea that somehow accuracy in a scientific sense of the word is always desirable is, of course, completely wrong. It is completely absurd because accuracy falls into an indefinite amount of detail.

Let’s say that I’m describing a fight and I want you to understand what happened. Now, I could use language that is extremely accurate. I could say something like:

“You know, the guy put his left foot in front and then the other person’s right hand came at this speed toward his face, and he flinched slightly when the fist hit his face. He displaced so many hairs and displaced so many pores and so many tissues in his check were disturbed. Then his head moved three centimeters to the left and then it moved forward four centimeters,” et cetera, et cetera.

I could describe the event in extreme detail, but as I’m describing it accurately, I’m not getting to the purpose for which I’m describing the event. To do that, I use hyperbolic language, like “The guy got smashed! He got his ass whooped!” in order to help you understand what happened in the fight. And in the end, this hyperbolic language – these figures of speech, exaggerations, etc. – will end up being truer to the purpose for which I’m describing the event. Truer, in fact, than I would have been had I attempted to be perfectly accurate.

Now, that’s extremely important to understand—especially if we’re looking at stories in the Bible. Each story in the Bible—each book in the Bible—has different ways of describing things based on the purpose for which they are describing them. There are different styles, different ways, different analogies used in order to help you understand the reason for which one is writing the text.

So this very idea that, somehow, you can get to some literal description of reality is extremely problematic and it’s not useful. It’s better to, rather, understand the purpose for which a story is being told.

Even a scientific theory or description is never literal or neutral. When you do a scientific experiment, you must frame that experiment narrowly, because there are too many details. If my purpose in a scientific experiment is to prove something about water, I will not give you descriptions of surrounding trees or rocks, or a description of the cloud cover that day. Instead, I will talk only about the facts of the thing that I’m trying to describe—an extremely narrow frame. I will use a certain kind of language—quantifiable language—in order to describe the phenomena, with the purpose of you understanding the mechanistic causes that bring it about (so that, for example, you could then reproduce it mechanistically, too).

But mechanistic reproduction is not always the reason why we’re describing an event. To use figures of speech can sometimes be more effective and more powerful than then using this kind of quantifiable language.

Now, if I use figures of speech or analogies to describe something, does that mean I’m not actually describing an event? Of course not! I’m still describing an event—I’m just using different ways of explaining it.

The point I’m making here is that it’s important you know the Christian persuade of describing reality is that the world is made by logos. The world is made by meaning and purpose, and the very cosmology in which Christianity exists excludes the possibility that there can be some kind of neutral reality that exists “at the bottom,” somehow, that is not informed by meaning (or logos).

The Bible itself describes the creation process as a process full of meaning and purpose. That said, I don’t understand how people can have this weird idea of a neutral reality existing underneath the world of Christianity. The Christian world is a meeting of heaven and earth. It’s a meeting of patterns, logos, meaning, and purpose. And this potentiality there at the bottom—what St. Maximus calls logos and tropos, this notion of purpose and meaning and the particularity of something—means heaven and earth joining together in a sort-of mini-incarnation. It may not be an incarnation in the same way that Christ is incarnated, but it is analogous in that it’s an invisible meaning and purpose which joins a kind of indefinite particularity, and that meaning is where reality exists. That’s where the world where life—where all these things—exists.

Once this starts to break in our thinking, a lot of things become less problematic. A lot of things become easier to deal with, because one of the problems that we have is that people seem to want to know the neutral event behind the stories.

Let’s say you’re reading Genesis. You’re reading the description of creation. You want to get to this event that, somehow, you think you can access “behind the story”—what really happened. But you don’t have access to that. And you can’t get to it because it doesn’t exist. It doesn’t exist on its own. As they are described, the events that happen are this framing—this coming together—of meaning and particulars.

What we do have is just the story. Especially when we’re talking about something like the creation story or other ancient stories that have been around for thousands of years. What we do have is the story. If you try to somehow get to what is behind the story in this neutral manner is not the right way to read them. People do think that somehow they tried, through these archaeological methods or through these historical methods, to get to what is behind the story in Genesis But it’s a futile trip. It’s especially futile if you think that once you get there, using archaeological methods or these different modern scientific ways of breaking down the text—you’re going to get to something which is truer than what the story is offering you.

Once you understand this, a lot of things are going to free up in your mind. A lot of problems are going to go away.

One of the one of the examples that I like to use is of the prophecy that that Elijah is going to come before the Messiah.

There there’s this Old Testament prophecy that says Elijah is going to show himself before the Messiah. So when Christ is here, the disciples asked him about this prophecy, and Christ tells them that Saint John the Baptist is the Elijah that was to come before the Messiah. He says if you’re able to receive this, that is what happened.

Now, the question that is asked is “Did Elijah come before the Messiah?” The answer is yes, Elijah did come before the Messiah. Elijah was John the Baptist.

You see what I’m doing there? I’m not trying to get to this weird, literal, neutral reality behind it. I’m trying to show you how Christ can quite easily take this prophecy and show that it’s actually a pattern of reality manifesting itself, and that here is the manner in which it manifests: Elijah as this pattern of St. John the Baptist—those two come together. Elijah did manifest himself before the Messiah.

Now, that is the answer that I will give to everything. Did Adam and Eve fall in the Garden? Yes. Did Adam and Eve eat the apple in the garden? Yes. I have no problem saying these things are true, and that they are the best description of that event and the best description of that reality. I’m not trying to, in some weird scientific sense, get behind the story to find out what it is that really happened. I have no idea what we think we’re going to get. The story is the story, and it’s the best way to describe the event.

Many problems modern Christians have come from the fact that, that without even knowing it, they have completely taken upon themselves this modern, “scientific” description as being the highest reality.

I remember hearing a Protestant tell me, “Science is just the mind of God.” Well, it’s seriously problematic to engage the world that way. Because then you always end up trying to get behind the story to find some scientific description which you could find behind the story. But it’s not there, because science is not the first the first degree of reality. Science is the best or only way to describe reality. If your purpose is to show people how to live, or if your purpose is to help people understand events that happened so long ago that all your reference points are basically gone, we use story tropes and manners of describing that are the best way to describe that event. Because of this, it’s extremely problematic to say that there is this weird opposition between literal and metaphorical.

Now, there are other people who somehow think that the metaphor is going to save them. That saying that something is a metaphor is going to get them out of trouble.

This is particularly true of Communion. I’ve seen often that people bring this up when I talk about Communion—that this is truly the body and blood of Christ. Now, always, someone will show up and say “No, it’s not it the real body—that’s so disturbing because then it’s a weird cannibalistic thing. It’s just a symbol, it’s just a metaphor.”

Well, you’re not getting out of the problem that easy. First of all, I will not accord to you that it is just a metaphor. But I’ll entertain that idea for a second. Then how are you getting out of the problem? You’re saying that it’s too disturbing that we would eat the real body and blood of Christ, but it’s not disturbing that you would eat the metaphorical body and blood of Christ? Is that not just as weird and disturbing as saying that it’s real?

Consider this rather disturbing example: Imagine some weird cult came up with a ritual where they eat the feces of someone, or they eat they have a kind of inverse satanic Communion where they eat the feces of their master and then you know someone says “Oh no, we’re not really eating the feces of our master. It’s just a metaphorical eating of the feces. We just make this bread in the form of feces and then we eat it. It’s less weird that way.”

But is it really? Why is that less disturbing? Why is that less of a problem?

So rather than punt to metaphor, it’s best to deal with the mystery of communion rather than try to skirt around it and avoid it by saying that if something is just a metaphor, it’s meaningless. It’s not.

I sometimes joke say there’s no such thing as literal and there is no metaphor. Now, that’s not exactly how things work. But it true that we can’t just throw something away and say, “Oh, that’s just a metaphor.” Because there’s a reason why we’re using that metaphor, even if it’s just a metaphor! There’s a reason why we’re using those particular words and that specific purpose. Metaphor, literal—these terms are not useful toward helping us understand how meaning occurs and how things unfold.

Now, to deal with this this problem of the body and blood in Communion, and to deal with the idea that it’s neither literal in the scientific sense nor is it a metaphor in the modern way of understanding metaphor, we have to understand that it’s symbolic. It’s the bringing together of elements and joining them with a spiritual essence. That that is how reality functions.

You could get to the same idea, for example, when we say that that the church is the “body of Christ.” Is that literal or is that a metaphor? Well, it’s neither. It’s not literal and it’s not metaphor. It’s a symbolic truth that helps us understand what a body is—how a body comes together and manifests something which is above it, something spiritual. Because anything that is a body is always an accumulation of parts. And just because you can’t visually see those parts close together does not mean that they aren’t parts which are separate from each other.

In your body, for example, there’s a lot of space between your molecules. If you think that that relatively small amount of space between your molecules is not bothersome, but the relatively the big amount of space between the members of the church is somehow bothersome, that’s a problem. The church can’t be a body. But the story of the church-as-body shows us that yes, the church can be a body—an accumulation of people can be a body just like the accumulation of molecules that comprise your body. The way this happens is neither literal nor metaphor. It’s symbolic. It shows the spiritual essence—the logos—via stories of unity and multiplicity.

I hope this helps you understand that the language of literal and metaphor is not useful to help you understand reality.

Why I Oppose Banning Gender-related Therapies for Kids

One of (not the only) the reasons why I oppose bills that limit the types of medical care available to children (including transgender therapies) is because think parents are better-suited to make these kinds of decisions along with their children than are state governing authorities. I certainly I want my own kids to see that I believe this—that what happens to them ought to be up to us as a family, and no one else.

And I’d bet that many (not all) proponents don’t really think their kid could desire to transition genders. So they see this as a law for “them” that won’t affect “us.” Therefore, as sacrosanct and parental authority may be in other areas of life, it’s worth the “loss” here because, well…it’s not really a loss if you’re convinced it can never happen to you.

(I’m open to pushback on that being a common perspective among proponents of laws banning transgender therapies for children. I can’t read people’s minds, after all.)

But whether I’d win or lose that bet, I’ve been there (“This can’t be happening to me…”) one too many times to let that shape my thinking about these issues.

I suppose all this adds up to the simpler point that:

I believe there can be reasonable exceptions to the general idea that irreversible gender-related therapies for minors are bad. And if there are reasonable exceptions, then sweeping legislation is not the right answer.

IEP on Hartshorne and Unchangeableness

A selection from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s article Charles Hartshorne: Dipolar Theism. I’m a fan of process philosophy/theology. It’s been a years-long journey to fully understand what exactly is being proposed by Hartshorne, but I’m confident now in both my understanding and the value of process theology.

…some forms of value—aesthetic qualities in particular—do not admit of a maximum. Just as it is impossible to speak of a greatest possible positive integer, so it may be impossible to speak of a greatest possible beauty. The fact that Mozart’s music achieved a new level of beauty does not mean that there was nothing left for Beethoven to do. Another analogy is interpersonal relationships. It is a good thing to be flexible in one’s responses to others. The ideal is not unchangeableness; it is, rather, adequate response to the needs of others. It is true that stability and reliability of character are desirable. But this means, in part, that the person can be relied upon to respond in ways appropriate to each situation, and responsiveness is a kind of change. The analogy is particularly appropriate in the divine case since there are always new creatures to which God must respond and hence there is no upper limit to the values associated with these relationships, for each is as unique as the individuals with whom God is related.

Who is your enemy?

I think it’s important to believe this:

That the biggest enemy to you (and the way you want to live) is something inside of you, and not some “people” who are “out there.”

If you don’t believe this, I think it’s important to try hard to believe this.

If you find it prohibitively hard to believe this, consider your ultimate goals. What gets you up in the morning? What’s driving you? What makes you happy (or what do you think will make you happy)?

And if you still can’t believe this, meditate on this question: Does what I think makes (or will make) me happy depend on other people not being the way they are?

If your answer to that last question is yes, I think it’s a good sign that you will benefit from rethinking your entire outlook on life and completely getting rid of this belief.

There is no way to happiness – happiness is the way.

Bad arguments for Biblical inerrancy

I attend a PCA church. Many would call it “conservative.” Though it’s not in any membership vows, the church leadership believes the Bible is the inerrant and infallible Word of God.

This particular issue has been on my mind for a few years, now. Mostly because despite the centrality of Biblical inerrancy to the entire denomination, I’ve never heard a good argument for it. Some take it on faith, which is fine. But most of these will also level some bad argument or other as to why the Bible is inerrant.

Here are some of those bad arguments, plus my responses.

ARGUMENT: The Bible says it is inerrant and infallible.

RESPONSE: No it doesn’t. That is an inference based on a number of specific verses that do not refer to the 66 books of the Protestant Bible, except insofar as you embrace the idea of inerrancy (and completeness) already. It begs the question.

ARGUMENT: The Bible is God’s Word. God cannot lie. Therefore the Bible must contain no lies.

RESPONSE: This begs the question. Also, must God’s Word be inerrant? What is our standard or reference for God’s Word?

ARGUMENT: Without inerrancy, how would we know what of the Bible to believe? How can we trust any of it if some of it might be in error? What is our trustworthy guide for faith?

RESPONSE: This presumes we need some inerrant guide in order to find God (or to know anything, for that matter).

ARGUMENT: If you don’t believe the Bible is inerrant, you’re making yourself the standard of truth. You are deciding what parts of it are true and false, based on your own personal preferences. You are making yourself God.

RESPONSE: This does not address the question of whether the Bible is inerrant. And what have we but our own reasons when deciding whether some claim is trustworthy? Choosing to believe the Bible is inerrant is also a matter of personal preference.

ARGUMENT: The Bible, across thousands of years of criticism, has never been proven wrong.

RESPONSE: This begs the question, as those who canonized the Scriptures did not include books with obvious error, just as the Reformers redrew some lines around the canon in the middle of the last millennium.

RESPONSE: Biblical authors make many claims that cannot possibly be disproven. They also makes claims that we know today are wrong, but for which we’ve simply updated our interpretation (i.e. David’s insinuation that the sun moves around the earth).

RESPONSE: The Bible does contain obvious inconsistencies. The sign over Jesus’ head on the cross, for example, has three different phrases across three different books. By some standards of inerrancy, this should most definitely be an “error.”

ARGUMENT: God wouldn’t allow us to have been mistaken for so long.

RESPONSE: Is the same true for other Christian traditions that you believe have been in error for a thousand years?

ARGUMENT: The Bible is what God gave us. Why would it be wrong?

RESPONSE: Who says God gave us the Bible?

RESPONSE: Then why would there be scribal errors? Why is that allowed?

The bottom line is that I don’t think inerrancy (and infallibility) is something to believe, then check off so one can move forward. Or that it is somehow a prerequisite for faith. I think that working this out is what it means to grow in faith.

I don’t know of any gross errors in the Scriptures. I generally believe what I read therein. But mostly I simply grow from my reading of them—it’s not, for me, a matter of believing or not believing. My own reason and convictions are so fickle, I can’t honestly say I’m sure that I believe the same things from one moment to the next. But I like reading the Scriptures, and I don’t care whether they are inerrant or infallible.

The Second Naiveté?

Thanks to whoever transcribed this David Bentley Hart lecture (text here). I’ve listened to this a few times, despite the horrible audio. Here’s a quote:

And of course, Origen give us that precious notion that everything incoherent, unseemly, incredible, or contradictory in scriptures, everything repellant to reason or moral intelligence at the literal level of the text, though it be the intention of the authors of the text, serves for the Christian as the necessary skandalon – the necessary stumbling block, which would cause us to stumble and awaken us to the folly of treating the literal level as the place where the Holy Spirit comes to meet us in giving us the wisdom of Christ.

Tielhard de Chardin on Evolution and Bad Theology

On the perils of bad theology to human prospering:

Although we too often forget this, what we call evolution develops only in virtue of a certain internal preference for survival (or, if you prefer to put it so, self-survival) which in man takes on a markedly psychic appearance, in the form of a zest for life. Ultimately, it is that and that alone which underlies and supports the whole complex of biophysical energies whose operation, acting experimentally, conditions anthropogenesis.

In view of that fact, what would happen if one day we should see that the universe is so hermetically closed in upon itself that there is no possible way of our emerging from it — either because we are forced indefinitely to go round and round inside it, or (which comes to the same thing) because we are doomed to a total death? Immediately and without further ado, I believe — just like miners who find that the gallery is blocked ahead of them — we would lose the heart to act, and man’s impetus would be radically checked and ‘deflated’ forever, by this fundamental discouragement and loss of zest.

Pierre Tielhard de Chardin

Donald Trump’s Inaugural Address

Here is a transcript of President Donald Trump’s Inaugural Address, delivered from the US Capitol on January 20, 2017.


Chief Justice Roberts, President Carter, President Clinton, President Bush, President Obama, fellow Americans and people of the world, thank you.

We, the citizens of America, are now joined in a great national effort to rebuild our country and restore its promise for all of our people.

Together, we will determine the course of America and the world for many, many years to come. We will face challenges, we will confront hardships, but we will get the job done.

Every four years, we gather on these steps to carry out the orderly and peaceful transfer of power, and we are grateful to President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama for their gracious aid throughout this transition. They have been magnificent. Thank you.

Today’s ceremony, however, has very special meaning because today, we are not merely transferring power from one administration to another or from one party to another, but we are transferring power from Washington, D.C. and giving it back to you, the people.

For too long, a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost. Washington flourished, but the people did not share in its wealth. Politicians prospered, but the jobs left and the factories closed. The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country. Their victories have not been your victories. Their triumphs have not been your triumphs. And while they celebrated in our nation’s capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land.

That all changes starting right here and right now because this moment is your moment, it belongs to you.

It belongs to everyone gathered here today and everyone watching all across America. This is your day. This is your celebration. And this, the United States of America, is your country.

What truly matters is not which party controls our government, but whether our government is controlled by the people.

January 20th, 2017 will be remembered as the day the people became the rulers of this nation again.

The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer.

Everyone is listening to you now. You came by the tens of millions to become part of a historic movement, the likes of which the world has never seen before.

At the center of this movement is a crucial conviction, that a nation exists to serve its citizens. Americans want great schools for their children, safe neighborhoods for their families, and good jobs for themselves. These are just and reasonable demands of righteous people and a righteous public.

But for too many of our citizens, a different reality exists: mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities; rusted out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation; an education system flush with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge; and the crime and the gangs and the drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential.

This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.

We are one nation and their pain is our pain. Their dreams are our dreams. And their success will be our success. We share one heart, one home, and one glorious destiny. The oath of office I take today is an oath of allegiance to all Americans.

For many decades, we’ve enriched foreign industry at the expense of American industry; subsidized the armies of other countries, while allowing for the very sad depletion of our military. We’ve defended other nations’ borders while refusing to defend our own.

And spent trillions and trillions of dollars overseas while America’s infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and decay. We’ve made other countries rich, while the wealth, strength and confidence of our country has dissipated over the horizon.

One by one, the factories shuttered and left our shores, with not even a thought about the millions and millions of American workers that were left behind. The wealth of our middle class has been ripped from their homes and then redistributed all across the world.

But that is the past. And now, we are looking only to the future.

We assembled here today are issuing a new decree to be heard in every city, in every foreign capital, and in every hall of power. From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first, America first.

Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs will be made to benefit American workers and American families. We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies and destroying our jobs.

Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength. I will fight for you with every breath in my body and I will never ever let you down.

America will start winning again, winning like never before.

We will bring back our jobs. We will bring back our borders. We will bring back our wealth. And we will bring back our dreams.

We will build new roads and highways and bridges and airports and tunnels and railways all across our wonderful nation. We will get our people off of welfare and back to work, rebuilding our country with American hands and American labor.

We will follow two simple rules; buy American and hire American.

We will seek friendship and goodwill with the nations of the world, but we do so with the understanding that it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first. We do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone, but rather to let it shine as an example. We will shine for everyone to follow.

We will reinforce old alliances and form new ones and unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate completely from the face of the Earth.

At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America, and through our loyalty to our country, we will rediscover our loyalty to each other. When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice.

The bible tells us how good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity. We must speak our minds openly, debate our disagreements honestly, but always pursue solidarity. When America is united, America is totally unstoppable.

There should be no fear. We are protected and we will always be protected. We will be protected by the great men and women of our military and law enforcement. And most importantly, we will be protected by God.

Finally, we must think big and dream even bigger. In America, we understand that a nation is only living as long as it is striving. We will no longer accept politicians who are all talk and no action, constantly complaining, but never doing anything about it.

The time for empty talk is over. Now arrives the hour of action.

Do not allow anyone to tell you that it cannot be done. No challenge can match the heart and fight and spirit of America. We will not fail. Our country will thrive and prosper again.

We stand at the birth of a new millennium, ready to unlock the mysteries of space, to free the earth from the miseries of disease, and to harness the energies, industries and technologies of tomorrow. A new national pride will stir ourselves, lift our sights and heal our divisions.

It’s time to remember that old wisdom our soldiers will never forget, that whether we are black or brown or white, we all bleed the same red blood of patriots.

We all enjoy the same glorious freedoms and we all salute the same great American flag.

And whether a child is born in the urban sprawl of Detroit or the wind-swept plains of Nebraska, they look up at the same night sky, they fill their heart with the same dreams, and they are infused with the breath of life by the same almighty creator.

So to all Americans in every city near and far, small and large, from mountain to mountain, from ocean to ocean, hear these words. You will never be ignored again.

Your voice, your hopes, and your dreams will define our American destiny. And your courage and goodness and love will forever guide us along the way.

Together, we will make America strong again. We will make America wealthy again. We will make America proud again. We will make America safe again. And yes, together we will make America great again.

Thank you. God bless you. And God bless America.

Thank you.

God bless America.

“You good at Excel?”

Here’s a little secret:

I lied to get my first job.

The interview went well. The interviewer (my future boss) and I really clicked. At the end, we even spent 10 minutes talking about my studies, my family, even my personal life.

I could tell I was going to get the job.

But just as I got up to shake his hand and leave, he asked me one last question:

“Oh, I forgot to ask. You good at Excel?”

I thought about it for a second-and-a-half. It struck me that I’d completely forgotten about that part of the job requirements. I’d be tracking everything in Excel, and needed to be ready on day one.

So I did what any ambitious person should do.

“Fluent,” I replied, looking him right in the eye.

We shook hands, I got the offer a few days later.

But the fact is, I had never used Excel in my life. It was a big mystery to me.

But this interview was in April. The job started in June. So I had six weeks to get up to speed.

And get up to speed, I did. I spent most of the next six weeks watching Excel tutorials on YouTube and practicing with datasets on my own. I remember the night before my last final, staying up until 2am trying to understand the difference between INDEX MATCH and VLOOKUP.

When I showed up for my first day, I was better at Excel than anyone else in the office.

Falsehood is easy, truth so difficult.

A few years ago, I was watching a particular event unfold real-time on TV. One of the biggest stories of that year.

I got an idea while watching.

I wrote a long conspiracy theory about the event and posted it on Reddit that same afternoon.

It was completely false. I made up details, and I pretended to be someone I’m not.

A few days later, I logged back in to see how the post performed. More than 20,000 viewers. 300+ comments. It became one of the most popular posts of that month on r/conspiracy.

In the following weeks, I saw my “conspiracy theory” referenced on major news outlets (even on CNN). People were debating its merit on various forums. Versions of it went viral on Facebook. Some well-known pundits claimed it as their own, using particular details that I literally came up with on-the-spot.

Today, that conspiracy theory is in the “mainstream” of alternative perspectives on this event. It’s been shared and referenced thousands of times. “Experts” have discussed it publicly, and (I truly believe) millions of people believe that my story is the actual truth of what happened on that day.

It was 100% made-up. I’m being 100% serious.

Remember this next time you see something online that you aren’t able to independently verify.

“Falsehood is easy, truth so difficult.”

The end of Ingersoll Lockwood’s “The Last President”

This is the end of Ingersoll Lockwood’s book 1900; Or, The Last President. The book, along with his earlier book Baron Trump’s Marvelous Underground Journey, contain eerie parallels to the story of Donald Trump’s presidency.

Read all of this. Remind you of the events of the past few weeks (and especially today)?

The Republican leader rose to his feet. His voice sounded cold and hollow. Strong men shivered as they listened. “Mr. Speaker: We have done our duty to our country; we have nothing more to say, no more blows to strike. We cannot stand here within the sacred precincts of this Chamber and see our rights as freemen trampled beneath the feet of the majority. We have striven to prevent the downfall of the Republic, like men sworn to battle against wrong and tyranny, but there comes a time when blank despair seizes upon the hearts of those who struggle against overwhelming odds. That hour has sounded for us We believe our people, the great and generous people of the North, will cry unto us: Well done, good and faithful servants. If we do wrong, let them condemn us. We, every man of us, Mr. Speaker, have but this moment sworn not to stand within this Chamber and witness the passage of this act. Therefore we go.”

“Not so, my countrymen,” cried a clear metallic far-reaching voice that sounded through the Chamber with an almost supernatural ring in it. In an instant, every head was turned and a thousand voices burst out with suppressed force: “The President! The President!”

In truth, it was he, standing at the bar of the House, wearing the visage of death rather than of life. The next instant the House and galleries burst into a deafening clamor which rolled up and back in mighty waves that shook the very walls. There was no stilling it. Again and again it burst forth, the mingling of ten thousand words, howling, rumbling and groaning like the warring elements of nature. Several times the President stretched forth his great white hands appealing for silence, while the dew of mingled dread and anguish beaded on his brow and trickled down his cheeks in liquid supplication that his people might either slay him or listen to him. The tumult stilled its fury for a moment, and he could be heard saying brokenly:

“My countrymen, oh, my countrymen.”

But the quick sharp sound of the gavel cut him short.

“The President must withdraw,” said the Speaker, calmly and coldly, “his presence here is a menace to our free deliberation.”

Again the tumult set up its deafening roar, while a look of almost horror overspread the countenance of the Chief Magistrate.

Once more his great white hands went heavenward, pleading for silence with such a mute majesty of supplication, that silence fell upon the immense assemblage, and his lips moved not in vain.

“Gentlemen of the House of Representatives, I stand here upon my just and lawful right as President of the Republic, to give you ‘information of the state of the Union.’ I have summoned the Honorable the Senate, to meet me in this Chamber. I call upon you to calm your passions, and give ear to me as your oath of office sets the sacred obligation upon you.”

There was a tone of godlike authority in these few words, almost divine enough to make the winds obey and still the tempestuous sea. In deepest silence, and with a certain show of rude and native grandeur of bearing, the Senators made their entrance into the Chamber, the members of the House rising, and the Speaker advancing to meet the Vice-President.

The spectacle was grand and moving. Tears gathered in eyes long unused to them, and at an almost imperceptible nod of the President’s head, the Chaplain raised his voice in prayer. He prayed in accents that were so gentle and so persuasive, they must have turned the hardest heart to blessed thoughts of peace and love and fraternity and union. And then again all eyes were fixed with intensest strain upon the face of the President.

“Gentlemen of the House of Representatives, this measure upon which you are now deliberating…”

With a sudden blow that startled every living soul within its hearing, the Speaker’s gavel fell. “The President,” said he with a superb dignity that called down from the galleries a burst of deafening applause, “must not make reference to pending legislation. The Constitution guarantees him the right ‘from time to time to give to the Congress information of the Union.’ He must keep himself strictly within the lines of this Constitutional limit, or withdraw from the bar of the House.”

A deadly pallor overspread the face of the Chief Magistrate till it seemed he must sink then and there into that sleep which knows no awakening, but he gasped, he leaned forward, he raised his hand again imploringly, and as he did so, the bells of the city began to toll the hour of midnight.

The New Year, the New Century was born, but with the last stroke, a fearful and thunderous discharge as of a thousand monster pieces of artillery, shook the Capitol to its very foundations, making the stoutest hearts stand still, and blanching cheeks that had never known the coward color. The dome of the Capitol had been destroyed by dynamite.

In a few moments, when it was seen that the Chamber had suffered no harm, the leader of the House moved the final passage of the Act. The President was led away, and the Republican Senators and Representatives passed slowly out of the disfigured Capitol, while the tellers prepared to take the vote of the House. The bells were ringing a glad welcome to the New Century, but a solemn tolling would have been a fitter thing, for the Republic of Washington was no more. It had died so peacefully, that the world could not believe the tidings of its passing away. As the dawn broke cold and gray, and its first dim light fell upon that shattered dome, glorious even in its ruins, a single human eye, filled with a gleam of devilish joy, looked up at it long and steadily, and then its owner was caught up and lost in the surging mass of humanity that held the Capitol girt round and round.

How to Graph Van Westendorp Data

I’ve never seen an easy resource on this before, so here you go: How to graph Van Westendorp data to come up with a graph like the one below.

Van Westendorp pricing (the Price Sensitivity Meter) - 5 Circles Research
Note: Van Westendorp is sometimes referred to as a standard price sensitivity analysis.

If you’re doing this sort of thing all the time, you probably have a macro or some template for running these quickly. But I get lots of questions from people doing this for school, or for one report—this walk-through is designed to meet those kinds of needs.

Fist, I’m assuming you’ve asked all the right questions in your survey. But just in case, here are the four questions asked in a Van Westendorp question set:

  • At what price would you think product is a bargain – a great buy for the money
  • At what price would you begin to think product is getting expensive, but you still might consider it?
  • At what price would you begin to think product is so inexpensive that you would question the quality and not consider it?
  • At what price would you begin to think product is too expensive to consider?

When your survey is done, download your raw data into Excel or CSV. Copy-and-paste the four columns containing the answers to the four Van Westendorp questions onto a separate sheet. Start the paste in column B. Make sure the question labels are in the first row and in the same order as above (“a bargain” on the left, “so inexpensive” on the right). See image below:

The left-to-right order of the columns here is important.

Separate each of the four columns by inserting one column in-between them, like in the image below.

An empty column between each column with data.

Select cell B1, then click Data>>Filter. Then sort smallest-to-largest. Then select B1 again and de-select filter. Select cell F1 and do the same thing. Columns B and F should then be sorted smallest-to-largest.

Now do the same things for columns D and H. Select cell D1, then click Data>>Filter. Then sort smallest-to-largest. Then select D1 again and de-select filter. Select cell H1 and do the same thing. Columns D and H should then be sorted largest-to-smallest.

(The reason for doing this one column at a time, with a blank column in between, is to make sure we’re only changing one column at a time.)

Remove all the blank in-between columns, so that only columns B, C, D and E have data.

Begin numbering each row in column A, starting at A2. Fill the entire column until every row with data has a number. Each row should contain data in all of columns A, B, C, D and E.

Things should now look like this:

Columns B and D sorted smallest-to-largest. Columns C and E sorted largest-to-smallest.

Now add a blank column between A and B. In the new blank cell B2, paste this formula:


Then drag this down to the bottom of your sheet — to the last row containing any data. Then highlight this column (B) and convert to Percent Style. Your sheet should now look like this:

Cell B1 should be the smallest value in this column. The last cell in B with any data should be 100%.

Highlight columns B through F, then click Insert and create a Line graph. The graph should generate and look like this (I renamed mine):

I renamed this before sharing here. Yours will, of course, say “Chart Title” at the top.

Now, the goal with a Van Westendorp is to highlight the overlap in the middle. So shrink the data selection of your graph in order to make this gap easy to see. You can do that by dragging the top and bottom of your graph’s data selection so that the gap becomes larger. That’s what I did in the image below:

The arrow here points to the range of acceptable prices.

I’m not going to go into any more detail about how to interpret this graph. If you’re here learning how to graph is, I’m assuming you know why you’re doing this in the first place.

So that’s it! As always, let me know if you have any questions. For more on market research, generally, see my resource for startups.

DBH on the God of Nothing-but-will

A passage for the ages from DBH.

If all that occurs, in the minutest detail and in the entirety of its design, is only the expression of one infinite volition that makes no real room within its transcendent determinations for other, secondary, subsidiary but free agencies (and so for some element of chance and absurdity), then the world is both arbitrary and necessary, both meaningful in every part and meaningless in its totality, an expression of pure power and nothing else.

Even if the purpose of such a world is to prepare creatures to know the majesty and justice of God, that majesty and justice are, in a very real sense, fictions of his will, impressed upon creatures by means both good and evil, merciful and cruel, radiant and monstrous—some are created for eternal bliss and others for eternal torment, and all for the sake of the divine drama of perfect and irresistible might.

Such a God, at the end of the day, is nothing but will, and so nothing but an infinite event; and the only adoration that such a God can evoke is an almost perfect coincidence of faith and nihilism.

David Bentley Hart

God’s plan is not simply the total sum of everything that happens, no matter what it is — the “infinite equation” that leaves nothing behind. There’s a very clear point at which this explanation becomes meaningless. Indeed, it ceases to explain anything at all.

To say that everything is part of God’s plan, without any deeper mystery of created freedom, is to assert nothing but that the world is what it is. That there is no distinction between the will of God and the simple totality of the universe.

On Process Theology

I’ve been reading a good bit about Process Theology lately. Lots of essays online, and John Cobb’s Process Theology.

I like Process Theology (and Process Philosophy) because I find it to be honest about our actual, real-world experiences, and to not depart from that honesty when hypothesizing about God and the nature of ultimate reality.

I was talking to friend about this last night. It’s hard to explain—I’m not sure he was following, though he’s one of the most intelligent and open-minded people I know.

In that light, I’m writing some points below. I haven’t had time to synthesize all of this yet—at least, not in writing. But there’s no harm in laying out pieces of the whole before I’m able to explain it all concisely and coherently.

  1. Our thinking about religion depends on our prereflective beliefs about ultimate reality. No one can honestly reference Scripture alone as the foundation for their entire metaphysical outlook. Our interpretations of Scripture (and other religious artifacts) depend, necessarily, on our prereflective beliefs about ultimate reality. In my view, process theology takes this more seriously than other theologies I’ve encountered. It unifies metaphysical speculations with theological speculations—for many process philosophers and process theologians, those two things are in perfect harmony and, some may even say, one in the same thing.
  2. We really have no mental apparatus for comprehending the claims we make about God’s omnipotence. We say He is “all-powerful,” but I think we often fall into the trap of anthropomorphizing that power and envisioning his omnipotence as what it might look like if a human being had omnipotence—that is, unemcumbered coercive power to enact anything that pops into our mind. This would be human omnipotence, maybe, but what is “power” in the context of infinity? What does “power” mean when one (God), supposedly, has no inhibitions whatsoever on the enacting of his will? God’s omnipotence is not just the pole of some power spectrum. It’s an entirely different sort of power—one that, in my view, invites a host of alternative interpretations of God’s power over the universe. Specifically, interpretations (like process theology) that don’t involve implicating Him in evil.
  3. God isn’t a male. God is not a human. God is not embodied. But we speak about “Him” (male) taking human-like actions (speaking) to influence our dimension (embodied). We aren’t mistaken in doing so—the fact is, we simply can’t talk about God without making drastic simplifications. Sometimes, I think, we end up drawing inferences from oversimplifications, forgetting that our claims about God are imperfect. Inferring new ideas from imperfect descriptors, and then inferring new ideas on top of those, causes confusion. It’s a form of imagination, not reasoning. In my view, process theology doesn’t make this error. It acknowledges that omnipotence plus omnipresence are attributes (or even the definition) of God, but acknowledges also our inability to comprehend the gravity of those ideas, or really to have any useful conception of them at all (ones that advance our understanding, rather than just confuse us).

More to come on this subject.

Merton on the Devil

The selection below is Chapter 13 of Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation. It’s called The Moral Theology of the Devil.

The devil has a whole system of theology and philosophy, which will explain, to anyone who will listen, that created things are evil, that men are evil, that God created evil and that He directly wills that men should suffer evil. According to the devil, God rejoices in the suffering of men and, in fact, the whole universe is full of misery because God willed and planned it this way.

Indeed says this system of theology, God the Father took real pleasure in delivering His Son to His murderers, and God the Son came to earth because he wanted to be punished by the Father. Both of them seek nothing more than to punish and persecute their faithful ones. As a matter of fact, in creating the world God had clearly in mind that man would inevitably sin so that God would have an opportunity to manifest His justice.

So according to the devil, the first thing created was really hell – as if everything else were, in some sense, for the sake of hell. Therefore the devotional life of those who are “faithful” to this kind of theology consists above all in an obsession with evil. As if there were not already enough evils in the world, they multiply prohibitions and make new rules, binding everything with thorns, so that man may not escape evil and punishment. For they would have him bleed from morning to night, though even with so much blood there is no remission of sin! The Cross, then, is no longer a sign of mercy (for mercy has no place in such a theology), it is a sign that Law and Justice have utterly triumphed, as if Christ had said: “I came not to destroy the Law but to be destroyed by it.” For this, according to the devil, is the only way in which the Law could really and truly be “fulfilled”. Not love but punishment is the fulfillment of the Law. The Law must devour everything, even God. Such is theology of punishment, hatred and revenge. He who would live by such a dogma must rejoice in punishment. He may, indeed, successfully evade punishment himself by “playing ball” with the Law and the Lawgiver. But he must take good care that others do not avoid suffering. He must occupy his mind with their present and future punishment. The Law must triumph. There must be no mercy.

This is the chief mark of the theology of hell, for in hell there is everything but mercy. That is why God Himself is absent from hell. Mercy is the manifestation of His presence.

The theology of the devil is for those who, for one reason or another, whether because they are perfect or because they have come to an agreement with the Law, no longer need any mercy. With them (O grim joy!) God is “satisfied”. So too is the devil. It is quite an achievement, to please everybody!

The people who listen to this sort of thing, and absorb it, and enjoy it, develop a notion of the spiritual which is a kind of hypnosis of evil. The concepts of sin, suffering, damnation, punishment, the justice of God, retribution, the end of the world and so on, are things over which they smack their lips with unspeakable pleasure. Perhaps this is why they develop a deep, subconscious comfort from the thought that many other people will fall into hell which they themselves are going to escape. And how do they know that they are going to escape it? They cannot give any definite reason except that they feel a certain sort of relief at the thought of all this punishment is prepared for practically everyone else but themselves.

This feeling of complacency is what they refer to as “faith”, and it constitutes a kind of conviction that they are “saved”.

The devil makes many disciples by preaching against sin. He convinces them that the great evil of sin, induces a crisis of guilt by which “God is satisfied:. And after that he lets them spend the rest of their lives meditating on the intense sinfulness and evident reprobation of other men.

The moral theology of the devil starts out with the principle: “Pleasure is sin.” Then he goes on to work it the other way: “All sin is pleasure.”

After that he points out that pleasure is practically unavoidable and that we have a natural tendency to do things that please us from which he reasons that all our natural tendencies are evil and that our nature in itself is evil in itself. And he leads us to the conclusion that no one could possibly avoid sin, since pleasure is inescapable.

After that, to make sure that no one will try to escape or to avoid sin, he adds that what is unavoidable cannot be a sin. Then the whole concept of sin is thrown out the window as irrelevant, and people decide that there is nothing left except to live for pleasure, and in that pleasures that are naturally good become evil by the de-ordination and lives are thrown away in unhappiness and sin.

It sometimes happens that men who preach most vehemently about evil and the punishment of evil, so that they seem to have practically nothing else on their minds except sin, are really unconscious hates of other men. They think the world does not appreciate them, and this is their way of getting even.

The devil is not afraid to preach the will of God provided he can preach it in his own way.

The argument goes something like this: “God wills you to do what is right. But you have an interior attraction which tells you, by a nice warm glow of satisfaction, what is right. Therefore, if others try to interfere and make you do something that does not produce this comfortable sense of interior satisfaction, quote Scripture, tell them that you ought to obey God rather than men, and go ahead and do your own will, do the thing that gives you that nice, warm glow.”

The theology of the devil is really not theology but magic. “Faith” in this theology is really not the acceptance of a God Who reveals Himself as mercy. It is a psychological, subjective “force” which applies a kind of violence to reality in order to change it according to one’s own whims. Faith is a kind of super effective wishing a mastery that comes from a special, mysteriously dynamic will power that is generated by “profound convictions.” By virtue of this wonderful energy one can exercise a persuasive force even on God Himself and bend Him to one’s own will. By this astounding new dynamic soul force of faith (which any quack can develop in you for an appropriate remuneration) you can turn God into a means to your own ends. We become civilized medicine men, and God becomes our servant. Though He is terrible in His own right, He respects our sorcery. He allows Himself to be tamed by it. He will appreciate our dynamism, and He will reward it with success in everything we attempt. We will become popular because we have “faith”. We will be rich because we have “faith.” All our national enemies will come and lay their arms at our feet because we have “faith”. Business will boom all over the world, and we will be able to make money out of everything and everyone under the sun because of the charmed life we lead. We have faith.

But there is a subtle dialectic in all this, too.

We hear that faith does everything. So we close our eyes and strain a bit, to generate some “soul force”. We believe. We believe.

But nothing happens.

So we go on with this until we become disgusted with the whole business. We get tired of generating “soul force”. We get tired of this “faith” that does nothing to change reality. It does not take away our anxieties, our conflicts, it leaves us prey to uncertainty. It does not lift all responsibilities off our shoulders. Its magic is not so effective after all. It does not thoroughly convince us that God is satisfied with us, or even that we are satisfied with ourselves (though in this, it is true, some people’s faith is often quite effective).

Having become disgusted with faith, and therefore with God, we are now ready for the Totalitarian Mass Movement that will pick us up on the rebound and make us happy with war, with the persecution of “inferior races” or of enemy classes, or generally speaking, with actively punishing someone who is different from ourselves.

Another characteristic of the devil’s moral theology is the exaggeration of all distinctions between this and that, good and evil, right and wrong. These distinctions become irreducible divisions. No longer is there any sense that we might perhaps all be more or less at fault, and that we might be expected to take upon our own shoulders the wrongs of others by forgiveness, acceptance, and patient understanding and love, and thus help one another to find the truth. On the contrary, in the devil’s theology, the important thing is to be absolutely right and to prove that everybody else is absolutely wrong. This does not exactly make for peace and unity among men, because it means that everybody wants to be absolutely right himself, or to attach himself to another who is absolutely right. And in order to prove their rightness they have to punish and eliminate those who are wrong. Those who are wrong, in turn, convinced that they are right… etc.

Finally, as might be expected, the moral theology of the devil grants an altogether unusual amount of importance to.. the devil. Indeed one soon comes to find out that he is the very center of the whole system. That he is behind everything. That he is moving everybody in the world except ourselves. That he is out to get even with us. And that there is every chance of his doing so because, it now appears, his power is equal to that of God, or even perhaps superior to it…

In one word, the theology of the devil is purely and simply that the devil is god.