Book Review

Why what we desire affects how we think

Alan Jacobs helps us identify our thinking problems

September 6, 2019

Several years ago I met a very interesting man while flying to speak at a conference. He was finishing a Ph.D. with a specialization in shark research. That immediately made him cool to me. After talking about sharks for an hour, he turned the conversation to me and asked about my career. 

The first part of my answer intrigued him: “I am a professor.” The second part of my answer confused him: “I’m also a pastor.” He proceeded to ask how I can be both because, after all, belief in God is by definition belief without evidence—and that just didn’t seem to jive with having a Ph.D. in philosophy and being a professor. Of course, I was compelled to ask him: “Who said the definition of faith is belief without evidence?” 

We are all like shark guy

The rest of my experience with “shark guy” was a fascinating discussion on why I thought the Bible was trustworthy, what to make of all the violence in the Bible (he asked), and whether or not there were good reasons for thinking Jesus rose from the dead (I threw that in free of charge). In a moment of honesty, he admitted he had never given much thought to solutions to these questions; he just assumed the Bible was a story and that miracles were impossible.  

Shark guy is actually like most people. He formed a belief that seemed reasonable to him, but what shark guy didn’t consider was why it seemed reasonable to him. Alan Jacob’s book How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds is an effort to address people like shark guy and to demonstrate that we are all like him in that we don’t think well.  

So what are some of the reasons we don’t think well? In some instances, it’s because we rely on “intuitive thinking” that renders snap judgments regarding a matter (16). Snap judgments are not inherently bad. If I see a mugging and say, “That’s wrong,” I’ve made a good snap judgment. What’s more, if we had to analyze every thought, we would be paralyzed. The key, according to Jacobs, is that our biases and predispositions be the right ones to “relieve the cognitive load.” Of course, forming these mental trends involves situating ourselves in the right community where truth can be found.

In other cases, we have problems overcoming personal biases regarding an issue (15). Before speaking one time, I had someone say to me, “I know what you’re going to say, and you’re going to say it because you’re biased toward Christianity.” I responded, “Of course I’m biased toward Christianity. I think it’s true. Wouldn’t it be weird to believe something is true but not be biased toward it?” He agreed. 

The crux of the matter

What we are looking for is not necessarily a lack of bias; we are looking for fairness. And even that is hard to come by. This is why the focus of How to Think centers on what Jacobs says is the crux of the matter, namely that “the fundamental problem we have may be best described as an orientation of the will: we suffer from a settled determination to avoid thinking” (17). Why is this so? In short, “relatively few people want to think. Thinking troubles us; thinking tires us. Thinking can force us out of the familiar, comforting habits; thinking can complicate our lives” (17). We can think better, we just don’t want to. But why not?

For some people, thinking will get in the way of the reward of having a belief or attitude socially approved—we “respond to the irresistible draw of belonging to a group of people whom we happen to encounter and happen to find immensely attractive” (57). It seems what we value affects what we are willing to accept. Jacobs invites us to consider the example of NBA legend Wilt Chamberlain. 

Chamberlain was a force to be reckoned with in every facet of the game, except for shooting free throws. When he was encouraged to shoot them underhanded, his free throw percentage improved. However, Chamberlain didn’t continue to shoot underhanded. People have wondered why. Jacobs suggests that Chamberlain didn’t “want to look like a sissy” because there were other pursuits that he found valuable, namely having sex with as many women as possible. He wanted sex more than he wanted a higher free throw percentage (45-47). 

To Jacobs this highlights an important point: thinking well is as much about desire as it is about having the right information. We often do not think well because doing so stands in contrast to what we want. Thus, an important observation for Jacobs is this: thinking is not just rational; it is emotional. He says, “One must have a certain kind of character: one must be a certain kind of person, a person who has both the ability and the inclination to take the products of analysis and re-assemble them into a positive account, a structure not just of thought but also of feelings that, when joined to thought, can produce meaningful action” (43). Perhaps, in the example of Chamberlain, it could be feelings that, when joined to thought, produce moral action.

Jacobs does a fine job of showing the importance of learning in a community (because we don’t really think “for ourselves”), of identifying our blind spots, and of being fair to those with whom we disagree. Maybe more than how to think, Jacobs invites us to consider what is keeping us from thinking well and from receiving the truth. Bearing that in mind, the book is less about solutions to our thinking problems and more about identifying our thinking problems, which, as Jacobs says, might be all that is needed. 

Jeremy Evans

Jeremy Evans earned a Ph.D. in Philosophy from Texas A&M and taught at both New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Jeremy authored or edited three books dealing with issues ranging from the problem of evil to the issues related to war and violence in the Bible (along … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24