Review: Deep Work

Deep work is becoming “increasingly valuable in our economy.” Knowledge workers have to set themselves apart from each other in order to succeed, and the myriad electronic temptations out there, social media foremost among them, are frittering away our best work time.

This is a helpful (if occasionally tired) point, and Cal Newport’s personal example of dedication to productivity is inspiring. He offers practical advice for taming the intrusion of electronics and aiming one’s time toward goals of true value. I like the “bi-modal” and “rhythmic” approaches to deep work, because few people can keep up intense concentration for long periods. And I liked the idea that scheduling deep work and not-so-deep-work periods in advance would help others know what to expect about my availability and would help me not to have to go through the sometimes draining task of deciding whether to engage in deep or “shallow” work.

But.

Though I don’t exactly blame an (apparent?) non-theist for having secular goals, Newport is going to get a Christian worldview analysis—because he’s smarter than your average self-help book writer (he has a PhD in Computer Science and teaches at Georgetown), and he made an explicit “Philosophical Argument for Depth” (pp. 86ff.), an argument which I found very interesting but ultimately unpersuasive, even if I agree with his conclusion (who’s going to disagree about the value of “depth”?). He also leans heavily on some of our culture’s most accredited truth-tellers, a set of philosophy professors from Berkeley and Harvard.

I listened carefully for the incentives Newport offered or assumed throughout the book, the things you would get if you engage in “deep work”—and, not surprisingly, his most basic promise is financial reward. This utilitarian viewpoint leaves me cold, not because more cash would be wholly undesirable, but because [a little book told me] that money likes to take wings and fly away. It’s fleeting. It isn’t an ultimate thing. I’m also wary of bald appeals to financial gain because of the critique levied by my favorite Harvard economist, Michael Sandel, on the “moral limits of markets”—the way money tends to corrupt the very goods whose exchange it facilitates (he points, for example, to the selling of kidneys: it is good to give up one’s kidney to save the life of another, but money introduces unhealthy power dynamics—no wealthy American businessmen are likely to give theirs to Pakistani tribesmen anytime soon). Strike one against the value of Deep Work.

So I was pleasantly surprised when Newport cited the work of Matthew Crawford in the excellent book Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work. Newport tied one of Crawford’s most profound points—that knowledge workers are often frustrated by their inability to point to tangible accomplishments—to a further observation of his own, namely that such knowledge workers are likely to let hyper-connectedness make them appear busy to themselves as much as to their managers. I truly don’t judge (very many of the) people who are on Twitter all the time, but I’m with Newport: I’ve just never been able to see how Twitter is anything but distraction crack for someone with a job like mine. Newport says, and he must be right, that there are some highly relational jobs (salesperson, and I’d add, college president) in which personal connections are the value one provides to his or her employer. But that’s not most of us. I loved Newport’s example of the New York Times reporter who seems to tweet “desultorily” and as little as possible. I’ll give half a strike back to Newport, then.

At this point in the book Newport had already evinced more interest in metaphysics than three passels of self-help books typically do (in my experience these books are almost entirely utilitarian). And I was genuinely surprised to see him press the point even deeper in his “Philosophical Argument for Depth.” It is here that he relies on philosophers Dreyfus (Berkeley) and Kelly (Harvard). He actually uses the word “metaphysical”—positively—and even the word “sacredness.” I began to get a little excited when I saw this:

As Dreyfus and Kelly emphasize, for all its good in the political arena, in the domain of the the metaphysical [Cartesian, Enlightenment] thinking stripped the world of the order and sacredness essential to creating meaning. In a post-Enlightenment world we have tasked ourselves with to identify what’s meaningful and what’s not, an exercise that can seem arbitrary and induce a creeping nihilism. (87)

This is good; we’re on a track I can follow.

Newport then, following Dreyfus and Kelly, appeals basically to natural law and the pleasure craftsmen find in discovering the natural order of things. A nineteenth century wheelwright, for example, found joy in discovering the truth of what’s in his wood and aligning himself with that portion of the cosmos. (I took this down from audio; punctuation may be off.)

The craftsman has stumbled onto something crucial in a post-Enlightenment world: a source of meaning sited outside the individual. The wheelwright doesn’t decide arbitrarily which virtues of the wood he works are valuable and which are not. This value is inherent in the wood and the task it’s meant to perform. As Dreyfus and Kelly explain, such sacredness is common to craftsmanship. “The task of a craftsman,” they conclude, “is not to generate meaning but rather to cultivate in himself the skill of discerning the meanings that are already there. This frees the craftsman of the nihilism of autonomous individualism, providing an ordered world of meaning.” (88)

This is all great, and I can follow this far. But this is where he stops. What follows is some hand-waving about how all workers, even knowledge workers, can find joy and meaning in honing their craft, in discovering what’s true about that work independent of themselves. And I’m ultimately left as cold as I was by the utilitarian (“pragmatic,” Newport himself calls them) sections from earlier in the book. So the natural world is the final order of meaning? It’s the bedrock below which I cannot dig?

I don’t see sacredness there; nor do I see meaning. I see nihilism again—both because this cosmos will, the scientists all tell us, itself one day reduce to nothing (or at least no one) and because I’m part of this cosmos; what confidence can I have that I stand above it rather than fully in it? A naturalistic framework like the one Newport assumes cannot accept any metaphysics or sacredness or meaning, only their evolutionary adapted simulacra. We are Homo sapiens Deepensis, he says: we’ve evolved, he says, to thrive on deep work.

But Newport is not a philosopher. He’s not a Matthew Crawford. His citations of Crawford and of Dreyfus and Kelly have the same breezy feel as his citations of scientific or sociological studies. One senses in Shop Class as Soulcraft that Matthew Crawford has worked hard over the course of a lifetime to fit his view of natural law into an overall worldview. The brief attention which Cal Newport gives to the matter suggests that he has managed to find a utilitarian approach to employing the insights of non-utilitarian philosophies.

In reading Newport I finally what bothers me most about books in the self-help vein: the epistemology. How do we know that deep work (or sticky ideas or getting things done) is good? Scattered, brief citations of scientific papers most readers probably couldn’t really evaluate even if we read them in their entirety are trotted out in between cheery anecdotes related with a spirit of you-can-succeed-like-me-if-you-have-the-Horatio-Alger-like-gumption. The Western tradition of philosophy only appears when a veneer of philosophical depth is needed, and the theological claims of Christianity (or any other religion) to define the good life are, of course, left out entirely. The good life is assumed to be one in which you make more money and enjoy your work—not bad things, those, but not ultimate things. Books like these cultivate a studied avoidance of ultimate things. In the end, nothing that avoids the ultimate can go very deep.

Liberals Are Eating Their Own

Liberals are eating their own. The Google Engineer who wrote a piece appealing to science to explain gender differences, and who has received massive blowback (including a denunciation from the new Vice President of Diversity, Integrity & Governance), doesn’t sound like a conservative of any kind to me. He sounds like a libertarian, a kind of classical liberal. His opening words:

I value diversity and inclusion, am not denying that sexism exists, and don’t endorse using stereotypes.

He also writes,

People generally have good intentions, but we all have biases which are invisible to us.

And:

I strongly believe in gender and racial diversity, and I think we should strive for more.

But he didn’t genuflect hard enough; he doesn’t believe hard enough in Diversity. And now he is facing the wrath of the powers that be in the only eschaton Western secularist liberals believe in: Social Media Judgment Day. Read more about the dust-up here.

Analysis

One of the most signal signs of spiritual blindness I see in our culture is the slogan that “diversity” has become. Like “tolerance” before it, “diversity” has a definite and rather contestable definition, but it’s whole appeal lies in its supposed utility as a perspicuous, undebatable, universal concept. Like “harm” and “fairness” and “discrimination,” the shape of “diversity” cannot be debated in any real way without it faltering as a cultural standard. Its votaries cannot permit themselves to notice that their “diversity” is violently circumscribed. Only certain differences are cool.

As it is written in Stanley Fish, in one of the most epochal paragraphs I’ve ever read:

A supposedly neutral principle such as “free speech”— just like “fairness” and “merit” [ed. or “diversity”]—rather than a concept that sits above the fray, monitoring its progress and keeping the combatants honest, . . . is right there in the middle of the fray, an object of contest that will enable those who capture it to parade their virtue at the easy expense of their opponents: we’re for fairness and you are for biased judgment; we’re for merit and you are for special interests; we’re for objectivity and you are playing politics; we’re for free speech and you are for censorship and ideological tyranny.

(The Trouble with Principle, 16)

And nearly as epochal for me in this late-modern Western culture of ours:

Strong multiculturalism…. is strong because it values difference in and for itself rather than as a manifestation of something more basically constitutive. Whereas the boutique multiculturalist will accord a superficial respect to cultures other than his own, a respect he will withdraw when he finds the practices of a culture irrational or inhumane, a strong multiculturalist will want to accord a deep respect to all cultures at their core, for he believes that each has the right to form its own identity and nourish its own sense of what is rational and humane. For the strong multiculturalist the first principle is not rationality or some other supracultural universal, but tolerance.

But the trouble with stipulating tolerance as your first principle is that you cannot possibly be faithful to it because sooner or later the culture whose core values you are tolerating will reveal itself to be intolerant at that same core; that is, the distinctiveness that marks it as unique and self-defining will resist the appeal of moderation or incorporation into a larger whole. Confronted with a demand that it surrender its viewpoint or enlarge it to include the practices of its natural enemies—other religions, other races, other genders, other classes—a beleaguered culture will fight back with everything from discriminatory legislation to violence. At this point the strong multiculturalist faces a dilemma: either he stretches his toleration so that it extends to the intolerance residing at the heart of a culture he would honor, in which case tolerance is no longer his guiding principle, or he condemns the core intolerance of that culture (recoiling in horror when Khomeini calls for the death of Rushdie), in which case he is no longer according it respect at the point where its distinctiveness is most obviously at stake. Typically, the strong multiculturalist will grab the second handle of this dilemma (usually in the name of some supracultural universal now seen to have been hiding up his sleeve from the beginning) and thereby reveal himself not to be a strong multiculturalist at all. Indeed it turns out that strong multiculturalism is not a distinct position but a somewhat deeper instance of the shallow category of boutique multiculturalism.

(“Boutique Multiculturalism, or Why Liberals Are Incapable of Thinking about Hate Speech,” Critical Inquiry, 23:2 [Winter, 1997], 382–383)

Evaluation

I believe in diversity—defined Christianly. All people are made in God’s image, and there is ultimately “no male or female in Christ” (Gal 3:28). I am as saved from my sins as my wife is (in fact, she is a little ahead). And yet when saints “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” come to praise the Lamb in the last day (Rev 7:9), there will still be recognizably different nations, tribes, and peoples. Every knee will bow, but some of those knees will be different colors (and some will presumably be shaved while others are not). This is biblical diversity.

(To be clear: I’m with John Piper in Bloodlines: Race, Cross, and the Christian: the erasure of “racial” lines through intermarriage is a good thing pointing toward the ultimate unity of all people in Christ—and even in Noah! I’m only saying that the Bible predicts that not all those lines will ultimately be erased.)

Also, God’s created goodness lies in all cultures, so I can expect that some cultures will see some beauties of God in their art and music and greetings and dress and customs and folktales that other cultures don’t see. But the fall has twisted all nations, so I can expect to reject or refine various elements in any given culture, too.

I find it helpful to have a minority worldview, because the majority never lets me forget (as they so often do) that my own viewpoint is contestable. When I start thinking of all my beliefs and conclusions and ideas as obvious to any sane person, I become a triumphalist who cannot permit his or her mortal enemies (such as a poor libertarian Google Engineer) to utter a word in the public square without the severest repercussions. We must all make judgments about what kind of talk is reprehensible, but the Christian is, or at least should be, more capable of grace because final judgment is in the hands of another (Matt 12:36).

Fantastic Deal on My Favorite Theology Books

John Frame is retiring, and now you can have all six of his best and most important books for $120. Hardbacks. This is killer. I paid much more.

Do not miss this deal: $20 a book for some of the best theology books you will ever buy.

The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, in particular, has been epochal for me. It shapes me in ways I see just about every day. The Doctrine of the Christian Life was also extremely helpful. When I’ve dipped into Frame’s Systematic Theology, I have also found what he always delivers: carefully biblical, straightforward, clear, even simple explanations of complex topics.

Is Science the Best Way to Know?

Not long ago, popular YouTube science guy Derek Muller of Veritasium put out a video detailing the myriad ways in which scientific studies go wrong. He titled it, “Is Most Published Research Wrong?”

He ends with these words (click here to skip to this portion of the video):

What gets me is the thought that even trying our best to figure out what’s true, using our most sophisticated and rigorous mathematical tools, peer review, and standards of practice we still get it wrong so often. So how frequently do we delude ourselves when we’re not using the scientific method? As flawed as our science may be, it is far and away more reliable than any other way of knowing that we have.

I’m actually not a science skeptic. I have to have pretty compelling reasons to disbelieve a given Western scientific consensus. The Words of the Living God in Genesis 1–11 provide one compelling reason to doubt one reigning consensus. But I’m not against science as such. I’m for it. I think the scientific method is an incredibly useful tool for discovering truth God reveals through the observable cosmos.

What gets me is scientism: the faith people place in science. “As flawed as our science may be, it is far and away more reliable than any other way of knowing”? How can we know that? Science can’t prove that science is the best way to know. I’m far from the first to make this point; I simply found it interesting to see such faith at the end of a video in which Muller shows how flawed science can be.

For a much fuller discussion of the themes in this post, check out Biblical Worldview: Creation, Fall, Redemption. I wrote unit 7 on science, and I roundly praise the created good in science, explore the ways the fall twists it, and show that Christ can and will restore his rule over it.

David Brooks on Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option, Or, The Ironist Us Vs. the Purist Them

middlebury

David Brooks has responded in the New York Times to Rod Dreher’s just-out, “already-the-most-discussed-and-most-important-religious-book-of-the-decade” The Benedict Option. His response is not negative so much as graciously dismissive. He does this by labeling Dreher a “purist.”

Brooks’ critique sets “purists” like Dreher against “ironists” like Niebuhr (and, apparently, Brooks); and at first he had me assuming I’d land clearly in Dreher’s category, conservative Protestant that I am.

But the way he describes ironism had some theological appeal, too:

Ironists believe that this harmony may be available in the next world but not, unfortunately, in this one. In this world, the pieces don’t quite fit together and virtues often conflict: liberty versus equality, justice versus mercy, tolerance versus order. For the ironist, ultimate truth exists, but day-to-day life is often about balance and trade-offs.

This all seemed to fit me, too, given my belief not just in creation but in fall—at least until he said,

[For ironists] there is no unified, all-encompassing system for correct living.

Whereas I think there is such a system, found in the Bible—though this system is more for the individual than for the society. I distinguish the two not because the Bible has nothing to say to society as a whole (it does; if Moab and Ammon can be judged guilty of oppression in Isaiah, there must be standards available by which nations can be judged innocent of oppression), but because the Bible never holds out hope that there will be societies in which all people are citizens of Christ’s kingdom, in which all people have the new heart of the New Covenant. How can a society full of rebels against God possibly be successful? And, sadly, human rebellion isn’t limited to unbelievers. Even now, New Covenant members still have our horrid flesh. I know I’ve got mine. We can’t be relied upon to create heaven on earth either.

I can’t follow Brooks’ ironism as far as he takes it:

The real enemy is not the sexual revolution. It is a form of purism that can’t tolerate difference because it can’t humbly accept the mystery of truth.

The sexual revolution most certainly is an enemy, and an incredibly destructive one. And though I hope I’m a humble enough ironist to see plenty of mystery out there, my difficulty is not with accepting that we see through a glass darkly, it’s accepting the particular list of things Brooks thinks we won’t see clearly until the eschaton. He repeatedly mentions “LGBT issues” as a matter over which he disagrees with Dreher. And though even there I don’t pretend to have perfectly solid answers to all questions (how do nature and nurture relate in the formation of homosexual desire, do the “eunuchs from birth” Jesus spoke of include celibate homosexuals), I do have a few solid enough answers—divinely revealed answers—to guide public policy. One is that heterosexual, monogamous marriage is a reality, a given, not an ad hoc social construct. I can’t compromise this point for the common good when the common good relies on it.

If I’m a purist, I’m one that is resigned to empirical pluralism and more than prepared to work in good ironistic fashion with other groups for the common good—and to await pure perfection only in the New Earth. But it’s meaningless for me to work for that common good now unless I get to retain my biblically informed vision of what that good entails.

Brooks thinks,

Rod is pre-emptively surrendering when in fact some practical accommodation is entirely possible. Most Americans are not hellbent on destroying religious institutions. If anything they are spiritually hungry and open to religious conversation. It should be possible to find a workable accommodation between L.G.B.T. rights and religious liberty, especially since Orthodox Jews and Christians aren’t trying to impose their views on others, merely preserve a space for their witness to a transcendent reality.

And I hope he’s right. I think he may be. But one reason I think Dreher may win me over—I began reading The Benedict Option moments after it became available in the Kindle store—is the ironically sad blindness of the NY Times commenters.

“cljuniper” from Denver said,

[I] agree with Brooks that purism is the real enemy. In my view, any religion that creates an “us and them” mentality is likely more cost than benefit to humanity.

Thank you, Stanley Fish and John Frame and St. Paul, for giving me tools to see what’s going on in a sentence like that. Do you see it? cljuniper critiques an “us and them” mentality by naming an enemy—by establishing a new us-and-them.

cljuniper lands squarely in the trap her liberal secularism has made for her by calling what her enemy does a “harm,” by assuming that her definition of “harm” is uncontestable and obvious and neutral and beneficent and “progressive”:

What people like Dreher don’t get is that the progressive community that accepts and embraces human diversity are all about religious and personal freedom and we aren’t about to come hunting for Christians—we are about not judging people by their flavor of religion or lifestyle preferences unless they are hurting others. We are not “authoritarian liberals” whereas the Christian Right and the Right generally is full of “authoritarian conservatives”…who want government to tell us how to live.

Come on in, Fish. We need you. Ah, thank you for stopping by.

Fish says,

A religion deprived of the opportunity to transform the culture in its every detail is hardly a religion at all.

The fact is that every religion—even secularism and progressivism, which are faiths, make no mistake about it—feels the natural impulse to order all of life, including society, by its principles.

Despite cljuniper’s apparent belief in the benignity and live-and-let-livety of her progressivism, Rod Dreher and many others have detected a distinct uptick in progressive authoritarianism, from the well-publicized attacks on Christian wedding cake bakers and florists, to the HHS Mandate that the Little Sisters of the Poor provide abortifacient contraceptive coverage, to the Middlebury students shouting down Charles Murray by calling him anti-gay when he isn’t. What can Rod, an expert culture-watcher say, except that he has his ear to the cultural ground and believes that the times they are a-changin’? Brooks—admittedly an expert culture watcher himself—disagrees. But I’m leaning heavily Dreher’s direction. I just don’t see how the commenters at the New York Times can repeatedly call me and Rod Dreher, and all orthodox Christians “bigots” without threatening social cohesion. What used to be called “disagreement” is now called “hate”—and how is compromise possible with an irrational being such as a hater, someone who clearly doesn’t “respect existence”? Secularist progressives are playing the morality card, they are claiming the cultural high ground. They are appropriating the mantle of the civil rights movement. Even some of their own have complained about their illiberality.

Them are not completely evil (being made in God’s image and all), and cultural accommodation may be possible in the short term, but us have good reasons to contemplate the Benedict Option. I read with avid interest.