The What It Is

This is the philosophy behind a person’s essence, that is, one’s temperament, which can be described by higher-order traits or dimensions that are further divided into sub-traits or facets.  Some of these tendencies are driven by our physiology, some just hint at it, while others correlate with other facets, giving clues that one is tangled with the other, and some may bear no such relationship.

In philosophy, essence makes the thing what it is, and without which it would be not that kind of thing [3].  The concept can be seen in the works of Aristotle and Plato, who used the Greek expression to ti esti, meaning “the what it is“.  [4]

To be sure, it’s a tough task to etch out a particular tendency such that it has a stable and definable input response, say stimulating an infant with a light shined to its eyes (the input) to measure a response (the output), since the outputs will change when the situation changes.  But we can still capture a definable quality as described by the behavior we observe, and the idea that it’s impossible to get at the “essence” of these observations has been wrongly expressed throughout our philosophical history.

Niels Bohr was skeptical about our ability to grasp whatever “hidden whole” (the physiological process) lay behind what was observed (the trait’s behavior), even though he agreed it was necessary to use words as conceptual aids to describe the invisible processes. But these words were conjectures to help understanding. [1]

The Essence of a Behavior

To locate the essence of a behavior means to get as close as possible to the physiological response that is shaped by genetics and unique to a class of people.  For example, the temperament – a genetically influenced trait – called inhibition to the unfamiliar, changes over the situation, say shy when with people, say timid when in unfamiliar territory, and finicky when with unfamiliar food.  Inhibition (the “hidden whole”) is the essence of the traits labeled as shy, timid, and finicky since it’s closest to one’s physiology.

To side with Einstein, however, is to commit the error of awarding a trait [my insertion] a Platonic reality—a thing in itself—that is a fiction.  Hilary Putnam (1995) argues that when we talk of “ding an sich” [a thing as it is in itself, not understood through human perception]” we do not know what we are talking about. [1]

The trait is not a Platonic reality because it only exists as a phenomenon perceived.  Here, it’s the physiological response to a stimulus applied to infants to see how “reactive” they are.  Developmental psychologist Jerome Kagan found that 20% of infants, always in that proportion if sample size large, “showed limbic activity combined with distress to visual, auditory, and olfactory stimuli” [1].

“EEG activation on the right frontal area under resting conditions while most infants show activation in the left frontal area” [1].  The right frontal area in the brain is where negative “affect” occurs.  Affect is either how pleasant or unpleasant (valence) we feel or how agitated or calm (arousal) we feel.  Infants that show negative affect are more likely to test high for the trait of neuroticism as adults.

The Essence as Elusiveness 

The trait of inhibitedness, however, may not be the fundamental trait since “high sensory-processing sensitivity” of brain regions and the nervous system exist in individuals that are labeled as “high-reactive”, which results in sensitivity to subtle stimuli, cues, and novelty, as well as being easily overstimulated.  And people with this trait can appear to be shy because they often hesitate.

This hesitation has been described by Dr. Aron as “geared to pause, inspect and reflect” [1].  An analogy may be helpful here to illustrate why “sensitivity” is a better descriptor than “inhibitedness” just as “skin-cancer-proneness” is not as generally useful a descriptor of a blonde, blue-eyed person’s major physical traits as “fair” or “fair-complexioned” would be” [1].

The importance of sensitivity or inhibitedness (which can result in fearfulness, shyness, and anxiety) will be obvious in a future post where the psychopath, not all but a vast majority, scores low in inhibitedness and therefore expresses what is known as boldness and fearless dominance, which, some argue, coupled with other traits, make the trait pathological in nature [2].


[1] Extreme Fear, Shyness, and Social Phobia (Series in Affective Science).

[2] Handbook of Psychopathy, Second Edition. Guilford Publications.

[3] Lakoff, George. Moral Politics. University of Chicago Press.

[4] Wikipedia contributors. “Essence.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 25 Feb. 2020. Web. 26 Apr. 2020.

Nuts and Bolts and Ego

If some of this comes across as excessive, there is actually a healthy reason behind it.  Because I am fortunately not fueled by resentments but rather by fascination, and a bit of obsession, with how each and every one of us manages to maintain positive feelings towards ourselves in the face of unfavorable self-comparisons, failures, or even abuse.

How this system works and self-regulates, to me, is a marvel of evolution, even if it is comparatively much simpler than many other systems its effects have enormous consequences to our happiness.  So this is not only about educating others on the perils of dominating and abusive people but also is self-serving because I too can learn from it.

Nuts and Bolts of NPD

What I just mentioned above—self-esteem regulation—actually is the dysfunction behind someone with narcissism.  It’s not so much about the addiction to wanting to feel more important than the rest or the romanticizing about how everyone will envy you when you have that perfect beach-front property and so forth.  It’s about the need to suppress feelings of shame and inferiority that theoretically drive a narcissist to behave the way they do.

The most concise way I’ve seen the causes of narcissism put is as seen below taken from “The Self-Conscious Emotions”.  This means that narcissists—we can all do this but again it’s a matter of degree—over time have become very good at getting defensive and inflating themselves when they feel threatened so much so that it becomes a feature of their personality.

Chronic experiences with certain self-conscious emotions can, in turn, shape people’s explicit self-esteem such that it differs in valence from their implicit selfesteem. In the context of the resulting fragile self system, narcissistic—that is, defensively self-aggrandizing—personality tendencies take root.  [6]

To illustrate the unstable self-esteem, with one possible scenario, the narcissist could sense a “put down”, priming the mind to send a burst of shame as a warning to take heed that their sense of ‘self’ is in jeopardy of being tarnished.  The defensive system then becomes engaged, and the narcissist focuses on the potential “threat to self” by getting defensive, angry, and even inflating with hubris, anything but to feel the shame.  And they have lots of practice at doing this because most theories posit that this starts in early childhood.

Shame, the output of a much larger self-esteem system, is what’s known as a ‘self-conscious’ emotion in that it works when you perceive that you are unattractive and undesired to others.  To get perspective, imagine self-esteem as being something that encourages us to strive for status and acceptance by rewarding us with positive feelings (pride) upon meeting standards.  But can, arguably even more so, motivate us towards self-improvement, or conversely to conceal defects and not compete, by the prospect of being punished with aversive feelings (shame) if we fall short of standards.  But shame’s role only works well when we “care what others think”.

Shame emerges from our complex evolved abilities to be aware of “how we exist for others,” and make predictions of what they think and feel about us. [6]

The Ego in NPD

And it pays to “care what others think” at least it did for our ancestors in our distant past which aided them in figuring out how to be valued by others and to compete for resources and mates.  For those that did not have this quality of insight may have been destined to becoming “not enough” and at risk of being exploited or even ousted by their tribe.

But this facet of us, the ego, has a dark side too since the very act of imagining “not being enough” is quite taxing to the mind and body.  As much effort now a day is spent practicing how to quiet that nagging voice through mindfulness meditation and being more aware.

Ego is the one affliction we all have in common. Because of our understandable efforts to be bigger, better, smarter, stronger, richer, or more attractive, we are shadowed by a nagging sense of weariness and self-doubt.[1]

This ego, which is colloquial for us for describing the turmoil of the self-conscious emotions, the yin and yang of struggles—to be dismissed or to be recognized or be laughed at or to be taken seriously—must be ubiquitous.  In fact, I imagine the ego plays a bigger role than we admit to since our daily battles with it make us feel small if others knew that we were driven by such petty stuff, so its effects remain largely hidden.

In fact, self-conscious emotions play a central role in motivating and regulating almost all of people’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Most people spend a great deal of time avoiding social approbation, a strong elicitor of shame and embarrassment. We worry about losing social status in the eyes of others and, as Goffman noted, our every social act is influenced by even the slight chance of public shame or loss of “face.” In fact, according to the “Cooley–Scheff conjecture,” we are “virtually always in a state of either pride or shame”. [6]

And so the ego is quite vexing, but the narcissist, the disorder not the person, has a simple solution to this problem which is to block the part that hurts and which keeps us humble but at the cost of others witnessing it grow without bound.


[1] Epstein, Mark. Advice Not Given. Penguin Publishing Group.

[2] Gilbert, Paul. Genes on the Couch. Taylor and Francis.

[3] Leary, Mark. The Curse of the Self: Self-Awareness, Egotism, and the Quality of Human Life.

[4] Leary, Mark.  Interpersonal Rejection. Kindle Edition.

[5] Quartz, Steven. Cool. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

[6] Tracy, Jessica. The Self-Conscious Emotions . Guilford Publications.

On Diagnoses of NPD


In the previous submission, we learned that a person has to have impairments in personality (self and interpersonal) as well as have pathological personality traits (erratic traits that society rejects that aren’t optimal to functioning) present in order for us to use the “disorder” label.  These impairments in personality are at the ‘self’ level affecting identity and self-direction as well as the ‘interpersonal’ level where empathy and intimacy play a role (see Table 2).  Here we will use the diagnostic criteria we see in DSM 5 part II (see Table 1) to point towards diagnoses based on the trait model but will also integrate section III’s model since it is much more insightful.

I’m sure I can read on the practice of how to diagnose and assess until I turn blue in the face but to truly be a good clinician takes actual experience, which I don’t have.  But I’d argue that in some sense I’m actually in a much better position to making an accurate diagnosis than a practitioner is as I have observations that stretch over ten years, which exclude the narcissist’s confessions to a therapist which are often contrived and of little value.  In fact, I am providing a very rare opportunity at looking at how a narcissist thinks because NPD is the least studied of personality disorders and many variations exist making it confusing and difficult to diagnose.

Method Used

Unfortunately, there seems to be a lack of rigor and protocol to diagnosing that confirms my overall impression that I have had on the profession, and I say this in the most respectful way because I know it’s a social and behavioral science making variables more difficult to capture and measure.  But look at the first criterion (Table 1) and notice that there’s nothing to distinguish between how strong (severity or magnitude) or how often (frequency) the effect is.  So this makes me concerned about conflating the disorder with just having the trait.

And besides, there is no attempt on capturing how often these nine tendencies show up over time, there’s also no way of characterizing the quality of how the traits are expressed under certain conditions which may be important.  I did, however, find a questioner that puts it in on a five-point scale ranging from very often to never, which I decided to use.  But we don’t have access to the person’s personal thoughts and feelings, and she is socially skilled enough to know how to hide her unattractive ego with others.  So what are we relying on as data?

What I did was estimated an answer shown in the criteria scale below under Table 1 based on the degree and frequency of her demonstrating these traits as seen in her actual behavior and in odd things that she’s uttered.  These utterances were in unique contexts that when extracted, I would argue, give lots of information about her inner workings.  She also had a very well hidden but highly developed ego, which could be quite disturbing, often coming across as if that were her authentic-self making all other sides to her seem but a facade.  

It was in these moments of egotistical truth, however, that revealed a highly insecure person that was very much attuned to my place, your place, and her place in the social hierarchy so as she can best strategize her moves in her limitless quest for power and attention.

Table 1. Trait Model (DSM 5 section II)

  1. Has a grandiose sense of self-importance. (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements).
  2. Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, ideal love.  
  3. Believes that he or she is “special” and unique and can only be understood by or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions).
  4. Requires excessive admiration.
  5. Is interpersonally exploitative. (i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends)
  6. Has a sense of entitlement.  (i.e., unreasonable expectation of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations)
  7. Lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others.
  8. Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her.  
  9. Shows arrogant, haughty behaviors and attitudes.

Explanation of Traits

The essence of grandiosity I take as to be the desire to feel “important” which can easily fall into a feeling of superiority.  The emotions involved here are those of the self-conscious type—namely pride and shame—which help us to function in social situations by making us aware of how we come across to others.  So important only makes sense in social contexts because it has to do with how we rank relative to one another.  And one of the reinforcers of feeling important—making you want to do it—is to feel the emotion of pride, but once you start comparing yourself in a superior way, then you will feel the inflated pride of a narcissist known as hubris.

The next trait is having the tendency of idealizing, fantasizing, or romanticizing.  The kernel in these activities has to do once again with feeling important, special, and powerful.  What happens is that we fantasize how perfection would be in the future – say the ownership of many houses or to be in the presence of a perfect lover—and we relish those feelings of pride and feelings of being special through our imaginations.

The third trait has to do with how important it is to associate with high-status others to affect your self-esteem.  This is where the trait model found in section II shows its limitations, so I will mention section III, the hybrid model, shown in Table 2 below, that works with dimensions instead of traits that could be integrated into this analysis for more insight.

Table 2. Hybrid Model (DSM 5 section III)

A. Moderate or greater impairment in personality functioning, manifested by characteristic difficulties in two or more of the following four areas:

1. Identity: Excessive reference to others for self-definition and self-esteem regulation; exaggerated self-appraisal inflated or deflated, or vacillating between extremes; emotional regulation mirrors fluctuations in self-esteem.
2. Self-direction: Goal-setting based on gaining approval from others; personal standards unreasonably high in order to see oneself as exceptional, or too low based on a sense of entitlement; often unaware of own motivations.
3. Empathy: Impaired ability to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others; excessively attuned to reactions of others, but only if perceived as relevant to self; over-or underestimate of own effect on others.
4. Intimacy: Relationships largely superficial and exist to serve self-esteem regulation; mutuality constrained by little genuine interest in others’ experiences and predominance of a need for personal gain.

B. Both of the following pathological personality traits:

1. Grandiosity (an aspect of Antagonism): Feelings of entitlement, either overt or covert; self-centeredness; firmly holding to the belief that one is better than others; condescension toward others.
2. Attention seeking (an aspect of Antagonism): Excessive attempts to attract and be the focus of the attention of others; admiration seeking.

To shed light on the need to feel ‘special’ to the point of exclusively associating only with other high-status individuals, we need to see how we manage our self-definition and self-esteem.  If we rely too heavily on our associations to define ourselves or to manage our self-esteem, this can become maladaptive and is listed as an impairment in personality (Table 2, A, 1).  We will discuss why this is maladaptive in the post that focuses on the causes and consequences of NPD.

The trait of excessive admiration is something that can be hard to see since it’s often a hidden requirement in narcissists, but it seems to be an important need to be not necessarily well-liked but more importantly well respected and looked up to by others.  And jumping to the last two traits from Table 1, we can see that they will feel envious often or believe others are envious of them, which captures feelings of resentment and discontent over others’ achievements or possessions.  The ninth trait of arrogance is related to trait one of grandiosity but the focus seems to be on displaying it where you exaggerate your significance (inflate yourself) and importance by posturing around others and can even show attitudes of disdain toward those that don’t meet your standards.

The last three traits to discuss are impairments in empathy, exploitation of others and a sense of entitlement.  These in my view are the consequences of having narcissism as they affect those around you.  It’s not that they don’t have the ability to be empathetic and often do but more often than not it’s in a self-serving way.  The exploitation of others then comes naturally with low empathy, and people often become objectified and used as a means to accomplishing their goals.  And, lastly, a sense of entitlement means I deserve it because I’m important not because I earned it.


[1] Buss, David M.. The Dangerous Passion: Why Jealousy Is as Necessary as Love and Sex. Free Press.

[2] Dziegielewski, Sophia . DSM-5 in Action 3rd Edition. SAM Ficher.

[3] Gilbert, Paul. Genes on the Couch (p. 181). Taylor and Francis.

[4] Leary, Mark. The Curse of the Self: Self-Awareness, Egotism, and the Quality of Human Life.

[5] Quartz, Steven. Cool (p. 134). Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

[6] Ronningstam, Elsa. Ph.D. Dimensional Conceptualization and Diagnosis of NPD.  Harvard University.

[7] Tracy, Jessica. The Self-Conscious Emotions . Guilford Publications.

[8] Treatment in Psychiatry.  Narcissistic Personality Disorder: Diagnostic and Clinical Challenges.  Eve Caligor, M.D., Kenneth N. Levy, Ph.D., Frank E. Yeomans, M.D., Ph.D.

Personality Disorders


The American Psychiatric Association provides a concise definition of personality disorder, but they are explicitly measuring the defect if you will against culture’s standards.

A personality disorder is a way of thinking, feeling and behaving that deviates from the expectations of the culture, causes distress or problems functioning, and lasts over time.

The DSM-5, which is a reference for psychologists and psychiatrists for diagnosing disorders, organizes it in terms of personality functioning and the presence of pathological traits and defines it as follows.

The essential features of a personality disorder are impairments in personality (self and interpersonal) functioning and the presence of pathological personality traits. To diagnose a personality disorder, the following criteria must be met:

  • Significant impairments in self (identity or self-direction) and interpersonal (empathy or intimacy) functioning.
  • One or more pathological personality trait domains or trait facets.
  • The impairments in personality functioning and the individual‟s personality trait expression are relatively stable across time and consistent across situations.
  • The impairments in personality functioning and the individual‟s personality trait expression are not better understood as normative for the individual‟s developmental stage or socio-cultural environment.
  • The impairments in personality functioning and the individual‟s personality trait expression are not solely due to the direct physiological effects of a substance (e.g., a drug of abuse, medication) or a general medical condition (e.g., severe head trauma).


So it’s best and most accurate to say that a personality disorder is one that has the features of impairments in personality as well as having the presence of pathological personality traits.  Well, I usually think of the word pathological as meaning something that just doesn’t work for the situation at hand and is often extreme.  Let’s see what the DSM says about this.

characterized by adaptive inflexibility, vicious cycles of maladaptive behavior, and emotional instability under stress.

To define pathological correctly, it looks like it must have the features of not being able to be appropriate or adequate for the situation along with possessing an unstable pattern of it, especially when under stressors.

DSM-5 and Clusters

If you look at how the DSM organizes the ten personality disorders, then you’ll notice that they use key features to put them in groups called clusters.  The group that is of interest to us is cluster B, Figure 1 below, which uses the characterization of dramatic and erratic behavior to describe the four disorders: BPD, HPD, ASPD, and NPD.

This behavior described seems to be similar to impulsiveness which means having little control over behavior and emotions, but phrasing the behavior as dramatic and erratic seems to add nuances while avoiding unwanted connotations.

Those that show subclinical symptoms of Machiavellianism, narcissism, and psychopathy may also benefit from reading this cluster, see the text in bold since it describes the bold element to their behavior remarkably well.

The “Cluster B” personality disorders are characterized by dramatic or erratic behavior. People who have a personality disorder from this cluster tend to either experience very intense emotions or engage in extremely impulsive, theatrical, promiscuous, or law-breaking behaviors.

  • Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) is characterized by emotional instability, intense interpersonal relationships, and impulsive behaviors.
  • Histrionic Personality Disorder (HPD) features a need to always be the center of attention that often leads to socially inappropriate behavior in order to get attention. People with this disorder may have frequent mood swings as well.
  • Antisocial Personality Disorder (ASPD) tends to show up in childhood, unlike most other personality disorders that don’t appear until adolescence or young adulthood. Symptoms include a disregard for rules and social norms and a lack of empathy for other people.  [This “umbrella” term of Antisocial Personality Disorder includes the traits of sociopathy and psychopathy.]
  • Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is associated with self-centeredness, exaggerated self-image, and lack of empathy for others.
Figure 1: Cluster B


[1] Salters-Pedneault, Kristalyn, Ph.D.  Introduction to the DSM Personality Disorders.

Egalitarianism and Narcissists

A narcissist seems to hold people’s attention because of the, once thought of as ineffable, quality known as charisma, and they represent what we secretly desire which is to feel special and to have undue influence over people and control over resources.  When you break it down to those terms you can empathize with the wannabe narcissists because who doesn’t want power and control.  Well, there are many reasons why an unchecked ego and unbridled desire go beyond being just ugly.

And we did not always glorify these people as we do now, take for example the Kardashians of the world or even people such as our President Donald Trump who is “given to boasting, preening, and swaggering to the point of self-parody” [3].

The following excerpt touches upon how we would keep one another in check by putting each other “down” if we got too “full of ourselves” in our tribal past and would remain more or less egalitarian while striking down those that would take but not give value back such as bullies and free-riders.

Boehm concluded that human beings are innately hierarchical, but that at some point during the last million years our ancestors underwent a “political transition” that allowed them to live as egalitarians by banding together to rein in, punish, or kill any would-be alpha males (or females) who tried to dominate the group.

And I can’t help but underscore the point again of street justice if you will when blatant domination occurs.  We can extrapolate from chimpanzees’ behavior for a lot of good reasons and one is because we are 98.6% similar in DNA to them like it or not.  To illustrate, look at a chimp named Foudouko in 2017 that was beaten and stomped to death and then cannibalized by his own community because he became a tyrant, in other words, a bully that took more of his fair share and that had little concern for anyone else.

After his death, the gang continued to abuse Foudouko’s body, throwing rocks and poking it with sticks, breaking its limbs, biting it and eventually eating some of the flesh.

The emphasis of this point is not just a Freudian-slip because of what I have experienced in my life, but it’s the rudimentary makings of our very own egalitarian society we strive for today.  Do I endorse such extreme forms of retaliation to oppression, well when I was being dominated and manipulated I certainly may have?  But that’s the point of our penal institutions which is to keep even the victim in check from our innate brutal capacities that are apparently still alive and well.


[1] Boehm, Christopher. Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior. Harvard University Press.

[2] Haidt, Jonathan. The Righteous Mind (p. 198). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.

[3] Kohn, Alfie.  “Narcissist in Chief.  A Psychological Take on a Political Reality.”

[4] Whyte, Chelsea.  “Chimps beat up, murder, and then cannibalize their former tyrant.”


What would you do if your significant other told you one day out of the blue in a very earnest way that you were living a double life?  Yes, you were living a double life and they were so convincing that you believed that you actually did something wrong for a moment – even though as you quickly jogged your memory for bad behavior nothing surfaced*.

That is the power of influence from someone that is determined to get their way at any cost.  That is a person that shows signs of the dark triad by using a technique of deception known as gaslighting.  And this is my story on how I was manipulated by my significant other in order for her to live her “double life” that she ever so thought she was justified in living.

Before jumping to conclusions of weak-mindedness, at least I did, as an explanation for being gaslighted, let’s define it and then look at why it’s more complicated than that.

Gaslighting is a malicious and hidden form of mental and emotional abuse, designed to plant seeds of self-doubt and alter your perception of reality.  In other words, the perpetrator destabilizes you by delegitimizing your beliefs.

The term gaslighting comes from the film “Gaslight” released in 1944 played by Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer where the husband (Boyer) is trying to convince the spouse (Bergman) that she is mentally ill and that everything she perceives is not really true.  The husband has plans on committing her to a mental institution to gain power of attorney.  It turns out that the husband had murdered someone and was trying to keep her silenced.

The above story is my story in a nutshell with one minor difference: my significant other was hiding her infidelities and not concealing a murder.  But it was even worse than the film’s scenario as I actually have clinical depression which is a mental illness, making it a plausible tactic at least at face value.  And in a similar way, she was also trying to commit me to a rehabilitation center in order to avoid confrontation as well as make a smoke-screen that would serve to protect her image in front of family and friends.

We probably can identify traits that make someone more prone to being manipulated, but I’m not convinced it is as simple as gullibility because we are also very cynical.  When you have deep affection and admiration for someone, on the other hand, then you eventually open your inner-world to them, insecurities and all, and become vulnerable.  This means to give them the benefit of the doubt and to have faith that they consider you when making choices, even when you are not around.  It’s beautiful but also tragic.

But perhaps for me, there wasn’t love, only an unhealthy attachment, which would explain a lot.  I never did, however, give her the benefit of the doubt as some may have, but I stored that tactic that I know now as gaslighting in my mind until I gathered more evidence to support my intuition.  At that time I chose not to leave the relationship because of fear and a low opinion of myself.  Yes, indeed, I would have been in the category of high risk not just because of a tendency to undervalue myself but because of the disparaging messages that I was receiving from this person that I let into my inner-world.


*This took some deep reflection as far as figuring out what exactly I felt when I was confronted for the first time with someone trying to dismantle my reality before my very own eyes.  My initial thoughts and feelings were as if I was sucker punched, stunned and confused.  So it worked for a minute but then immediately my analytical part took hold and said why would anyone have a need to exert energy to say such a crazy thing if they weren’t trying to hide something.  So I was angry and resentful and went on the offense immediately to attack her intentions.  But then afterward I was saddened and having thoughts of how could someone that I loved be so malice and deceptive.


[1]  Buss, David M.. The Dangerous Passion: Why Jealousy Is as Necessary as Love and Sex. Free Press.

[2] Kole, Pamela. The Psychology of Abusive Relationships: How to Understand Your Abuser, Empower Yourself, and Take Your Life Back.

[3]. Lancer, Darlene.  “Beware of the Malevolent Dark Triad.”

[4]. Lancer, Darlene.  “How to know if you are a victim of gaslighting.”

[5] Marmot, Michael. The Status Syndrome. Henry Holt and Co.

[6] McBride, Karyl. “How does a narcissist think.”

[7] The Self-Conscious Emotions. Guilford Publications.

[8] Subordination and Defeat: An Evolutionary Approach To Mood Disorders and Their Therapy. Taylor and Francis.

The Dark Triad

This is one submission of many to follow that will be focusing on personality traits—such as narcissism and psychopathy—of people that when involved in romantic relationships with can be abusive and dominating as well as exhibit reckless and impulsive behavior that wreaks havoc on you and the relationship.

The machiavellian, the narcissist, and the psychopath are commonly known as the dark triad by psychologists.  And there is a very good reason for this especially if you are the victim of one of them.  But strip these words of their ostracizing power which means to rid them of their connotations, and they all have one theme in common which means to maximize personal gain, almost always at the cost of another, and then to feel justified in doing so.

Now although these labels have become stigmas for most of us – unless of course, you are OJ Simpson, Elliot Spitzer (former NY governor) or Jeff Skilling (former CEO of Enron) and so forth – I think it’s nevertheless important to realize that we all show characteristics of these traits given the right situation, but those that experience them often and do so with greater severity can be diagnosed as having one of these personality traits as an actual disorder (see notes).  Yes, these are measurable personality traits that are heritable, so, for example, the tendency to want to exploit others varies from one individual to another.

But, on the other hand, these traits through a biologist’s perspective are not necessarily disorders since their frequency of occurrence in the population is much too high but are instead adaptations that helped us to survive and reproduce.  Yes, the Machiavellian, the narcissist, and the psychopath are all here because they outmaneuvered others in this jockeying for position in this game we call life.  Now that is an unsettling fact for someone as meek and mild as I am.

The focus thus far has been on personality while ignoring the situation at play.  Social psychologists, however, know all too well that behavior is a function of not only your personality but also the very perceived social value that you hold relative to another person.  So, for instance, when I will describe the relationship that I was in, from an outsider someone could clearly see that there was a power imbalance – to be defined later – between the two of us.  If these discrepancies in social standings are great enough, then the lower-ranked member is at a higher risk of being exploited.

To briefly go over the triad’s differences which can be remembered in short as narcissism is about grandiosity and is an addiction to feeling “special” or “important”, Machiavellianism is about deception and manipulation and psychopathy is about callousness and bold behavior.  Although not thorough enough at least this gives an introduction to their essence.


The dark triad is a category that loosely refers to someone that shows signs (subclinical symptoms) of narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism but may not necessarily have an NPD (narcissistic personality disorder) or ASPD (antisocial personality disorder).  To clarify, all three of the dark triad are personality traits and if extreme enough are classified by the DSM as disorders while Machiavellianism is simply a personality trait.

Some may inquiry why the sociopath is excluded.  This word, which denotes a personality trait and not a disorder although can be classified as ASPD (Antisocial Personality Disorder) if criteria are met, is sometimes used synonymously with psychopathy and other times there’s a distinction.  The big distinction is that a sociopath becomes a sociopath because of learned behavior while a psychopath has genetic dispositions or traits that incline them to be callous and bold.


[1]  Buss, David M. The Dangerous Passion: Why Jealousy Is as Necessary as Love and Sex. Free Press.

[2] Kole, Pamela. The Psychology of Abusive Relationships: How to Understand Your Abuser, Empower Yourself, and Take Your Life Back.

[3]. Lancer, Darlene.  “Beware of the Malevolent Dark Triad.”

[4]. Lancer, Darlene.  “How to know if you are a victim of gaslighting.”

[5] Marmot, Michael. The Status Syndrome. Henry Holt and Co..

[6] McBride, Karyl. “How does a narcissist think.”

[7] The Self-Conscious Emotions. Guilford Publications.

[8] Subordination and Defeat: An Evolutionary Approach To Mood Disorders and Their Therapy. Taylor and Francis.


Why I’m Not an Ideologue

I choose not to be associated with any political ideology—neither libertarianism, liberalism nor conservatism—as I believe that it reinforces deep-seated tribal instincts that affect our stance and decision making on issues of importance.  It does so by imposing constraints on our ability to form good conclusions (motivated reasoning) and fosters conformity (groupthink).  Ideologies allow us to evaluate what’s right and wrong, give a cultural identity, and allows us to turn ideas into action.  So I see the value of an ideology and not adhering to one probably makes me politically impotent, but I won’t compromise critical thinking skills just to be politically viable.  Some may argue, all belief systems within a culture are in a sense just principles, which escapes no one, and so your worldview is really just an ideology too.  I agree with this retort, but here I’m talking about ideologies that have dogmatic assertions, well-defined agendas, and consist of ingroup members that uphold these things at any cost.  Moreover, although principles and ideals are important, I believe they should oftentimes be subordinated to pragmatism – the idea that you do what works.

To the wider point, by distancing myself from groups, for example, not identifying myself with a conservative pundit on TV, I avoid abuse of ideas such as groupthink, which is a highly dysfunctional way of solving problems and making decisions as a result of, often unconscious, ingroup influences.  Wikipedia does a nice job of summarizing, see below.  A good example of this is when the Bush administration believed that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.  Other effects are demonization of outgroup members and collective confirmation bias or preferential treatment towards the group’s theory as new evidence appears.

In an ingroup situation, like conservatism, there’s an effort to undermine dissenting and controversial viewpoints, indoctrinate members, isolate from other groups, possess a bias towards the group’s principles and ideas, all in an effort to maintain conformity and harmony.  The results are that the ingroup overrates its abilities and underrates its opponents and consequently have an inflated sense of certainty that the right decision has been made. [8]

Becoming the victim of indoctrination, a facet of groupthink and an uncritical way of obtaining information, shouldn’t be surprising to anyone as we all see how one can inherit a religion or political persuasion, often unquestionably.  We also know how easily novices, particularly when young, can be influenced to believe in persuasive people’s viewpoints, especially from those who are revered.  How we become indoctrinated, on the other hand, is complex and numerous pathways probably exist.  Although I believe that those that are well versed in logic, critical thinking and are informed in the field of inquiry are less prone, I think much is unavoidable.  I believe this to be the case because the belief formation process—whether or not to accept or reject a claim—is easily corrupted by emotional appeal, psychological biases end evolutionary forces.  To illustrate emotional appeal, we can become a part of an ideology out of pure preference or sentiment without any analysis; for example, “I like liberals because they seem more compassionate to those in need.”  This path is actually probably the more frequent of avenues we take versus sitting down and evaluating every claim and position a group proposes.  This is unfortunate but understandable as assessing arguments from economics, history and political science is very time-consuming.  One of the reasons why we are ideologues is that it serves as a shorthand to being politically relevant but at a cost.

I recall how easily I was indoctrinated by conservative talk show radio – in a matter of months I was parroting all of their arguments and principles – and liberals were the subject of my caricatures and demonization.  Likewise, when I went through a period where I identified myself as a liberal, reading exclusively the New York Times and the Huffington Post, I showed much prejudice towards conservatives.  So conforming to an ideology not only comes at the cost of possible indoctrination, but it also creates stark ingroup and outgroup members.  And this has real consequences as it can evoke tribal instincts to have contempt towards the outsider and affinity towards the insider.  This chasm between groups creates defensive behavior when people are challenged on their viewpoints which inevitably leads to obstinance and bigotry – our amygdala probably hijacks our prefrontal cortex.  In fact, you can think of conservatism, liberalism, and libertarianism to be of different tribes with their own languages.  As The Three Languages of Politics by libertarian Arnold Kling puts it:

Humans evolved to send and receive signals that enable us to recognize people we can trust. One of the most powerful signals is that the person speaks our language. If someone can speak like a native, then almost always he or she is a native, and natives tend to treat each other better than they treat strangers.  The language that resonates with one tribe does not connect with the others. As a result, political discussions do not lead to agreement. Instead, most political commentary serves to increase polarization. The points that people make do not open the minds of people on the other side. They serve to close the minds of the people on one’s own side. [3]

If you haven’t realized it already, most of us actually get our beliefs first and then look for evidence to support it, not the other way around.  This is known as motivated reasoning, where we focus on what we want the cause to be.  But these beliefs (causes) come from being indoctrinated within an ingroup in the first place.  It’s no coincidence that a majority of liberals believe many people are oppressed by society, that is, after all, an inherited tenet, but this may or may not be true as a general rule.  Some Liberals, as conservatives, will hunt for evidence that conforms to their belief—society causes apparent oppression—without ever considering alternative causes.  Liberals and conservatives have other heuristics and causes by which to assess the political landscape, but they are finite.  The real world, however, is much more nuanced and complex, creating the need to look at many other causes.  But ideologies restrict you from doing just that since you are stuck with inherited principles, e.g., big government is always bad, to work with.  The following quote by libertarian Arnold Kling reinforces the points on obstinance and motivational reasoning.

If people were open-minded, you would think that the more information they had, the more they would tend to come to agreement on issues. Surprisingly, political scientists and psychologists have found the opposite. More polarization exists among well-informed voters than among poorly informed voters. Moreover, when you give politically engaged voters on opposite sides an identical piece of new information, each side comes away believing more strongly in its original point of view. That phenomenon has been called “motivated reasoning.” When we engage in motivated reasoning, we are like lawyers arguing a case. We muster evidence to justify or reinforce our preconceived opinions. We welcome new facts or opinions that support our views, while we carefully scrutinize and dispute any evidence that appears contradictory. With motivated reasoning, when we explain phenomena, we focus on what we want the cause to be. The philosopher Robert Nozick jokingly referred to this as “normative sociology.”  For example, what accounts for the high incarceration rates of young African American males? A progressive would look to racism in our justice system and society as the cause. A conservative would look to high crime rates as the cause. And a libertarian would look to drug laws as the cause. [3]


[1] Greene, Joshua. Moral Tribes. Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[2] Haidt, Jonathan. The Righteous Mind. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[3] Kling, Arnold. The Three Languages of Politics: Talking Across the Political Divides . Cato Institute. Kindle Edition.

[4] Lakoff, George. Moral Politics. University of Chicago Press. Kindle Edition.

[5] Lakoff, George. The Political Mind. Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[6] Lakoff, George. Your Brain’s Politics. Societas. Kindle Edition.

[7] Westen, Drew. The Political Brain. PublicAffairs. Kindle Edition.

Hell, Christianity’s Most Damnable Doctrine

And the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night for ever and ever.  [Revelation 20]

This is the second death, the lake of fire; and if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown in the lake of fire.  [Revelation 20]

Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them. [John 3]

Those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus, they will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might. [2 Thessalonians]

This title is borrowed from a chapter in a book I reference often titled “The End of Christianity”, edited by John Loftus.  And this piece is of the same spirit and done in commemoration.  The first set of quotes shows how Christianity paints a ghastly image of judgment and hell that can reverberate in your soul (metaphor!), while the quote below aptly explains how I feel about hell.

What if I’m wrong, and what if this Christian thing is right?  … I get to the pearly gates and find out that I’m wrong.  “Say, well gentleman, I was mistaken.”  Is God going to be a peevish theology professor and say “too bad you bastard you are going to fry”?  If that’s God, then that’s a God not worth worshiping.  I’m going to hell in someone’s dogma anyway, Nation of Islam or Johavos Witness for example.  [Robert Price]


Some ask me why I have an obsession with Christianity.  I let them know that it’s because I have the drive to abolish falsehoods that haunt humanity, and Christianity is no exception.  But what has perturbed me as of late is Christianity’s haunting doctrine of hell.  Being judged and condemned to an eternity of punishment if you don’t follow the rules, that you may not have agreed to in the first place, is inherently totalitarian and doesn’t seem to be a fair system, to say the least.  This doctrine has affected members of my family—as they age, they seem to become more and more fearful of God’s judgment, or they become inordinately concerned with getting in his special favor.  We should not be living in unnecessary fear.  Some may argue that if it wasn’t for the potential wrath of God that man would sin egregiously and profusely.  They may have an argument because I’ve seen what fear can do to us homo sapiens, but I’d prefer that people rely on themselves, others, and punitive institutions to remain accountable for their actions and words.

I would like to shed some light on this doctrine of hell and figure out if there is any merit to it because as an agnostic I’m committing a grave sin.  But this is all very confusing since some liberal Protestants say I’m forgiven and will receive God’s grace regardless, while Catholics’ Catechism (book of doctrines), on the other hand, clearly states it’s a mortal sin (if not forgiven before death by repenting, I’m punishable to eternal hell).  Pope Francis in 2013, by contrast, said Jesus’ redemption is for all, even atheists, justified by a passage in the Gospel of Mark, but later rebuffed by the Vatican.  To be fair, in their attempt to be just, Catholicism even has legal jargon to explain what’s a mortal sin: it has to be grave in matters, committed with full knowledge, and have deliberate consent.  Still, these contradictions don’t surprise me as the Gospels and Epistles each have their own unique theology, and if you cherry-pick, which all denominations do, then the end result is this rainbow of doctrine you see.

Play with our Emotions

Before I start on the particulars of hell, I thought the following quote by Michael Shermer sums up the possible evolution of monotheistic faiths and how religion can manipulate our emotions, especially playing upon fear.

Religion is a social institution to create and promote myths, to encourage conformity and altruism, and to signal the level of commitment to cooperate and reciprocate among members of a community.  Around five thousand to seven thousand years ago, as bands and tribes began to coalesce into chiefdoms and states, government and religion co-evolved as social institutions to codify moral behaviors into ethical principles and legal rules, and God became the ultimate enforcer of the rules.  In the small populations of hunter-gatherer bands and tribes with a few dozen to a couple of hundred members, informal means of behavior control and social cohesion could be employed by capitalizing on the moral emotions, such as shaming someone through guilt for violating a social norm, or even excommunicating violators from the group. But when populations grew into the tens and hundreds of thousands, and eventually into millions of people, such informal means of enforcing the rules of society broke down because free riders and norm violators could more readily get away with cheating in large groups; something more formal was needed. This is one vital role that religion plays, such that even if violators think that they got away with a violation, believing that there is an invisible intentional agent who sees all and knows all and judges all can be a powerful deterrent of sin.

Pervasiveness of Hell

The concept of an afterlife, in general, is present in some way or another in most religions, with hell, in particular, being present in most modern religions with the exception of early Judaism and early Hinduism.  I don’t know the inter-dependencies of these religions, but it’s fascinating to note that most have some form of what we would call “hell”.  The best attempt I’ve seen at explaining the pervasiveness of belief in an afterlife is by Michael Shermer in his book titled, “The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies—How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths.”  To touch only on the religions with an influence on Christianity, Judaism, for example, like the notion of their heaven, has an ambiguous version of hell.  There is Sheol, where the spirits of the dead go, and Gehinnom, which is a dump that was constantly burning to which became a place for sinners – not until much later does hell become a place of actual punishment.  What’s unique about Judaism in contrast to Christianity’s concept of hell is that the punishment is temporary, not eternal.  In Greek mythology, there is an underworld, also known as Hades, containing a component known as Tartarus, which is the place where torment and suffering take place.  So Tartarus is to hell as Hades is to Sheol.  Christianity recycles these words and usage can be a bit different, but the point is that hell is referenced frequently and vehemently, in fact over twenty times in the New Testament.  It was a vivid belief back then, and it still thrives today in most denominations.

The Necessary Ingredient, Soul. 

As a confession, I do not accept Scripture as divinely inspired by the holy spirit nor as it being inerrant.  In fact, the more I study the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament the more I view it as a very human book indeed.  A descriptive analysis of what hell is to most Christian denominations includes a very unpleasant place of fire and torture, unlivable but yet mostly ongoing, and has an element of punishment for committing grave sins.  The details across denominations of how one goes to hell vary so much, which is typical, that it boggles the mind how anyone can conclusively agree with one over the other.  Besides, like most religious truths, this is all based on a priori reasoning or top-down deductive logic.  This is where one’s conclusions are based on-premises, in a more or less closed system, derived on reason alone—that is, there is zero empirical evidence for hell.  Not that truths can’t be ascertained deductively, like mathematics or syllogistical reasoning, but if the premises are false, then your conclusions and rationale are nothing more than fairytales.

To get back to how one gets to hell, we must first understand the concept of the soul.  For brevity, we’ll look at just how key denominations view the soul and see how it’s integral to the understanding of hell.  For starters, the concept of mind-body dualism and the immortality of the soul is completely foreign to the Bible; the immortality and separation of the soul from the body is a Greek phenomenon, espoused by Socrates and Aristotle.  Moreover, the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) uses the word soul (nephesh) to mean “life” or “vital breath”, and there is no equivalent English version of the word soul in Hebrew.  Moreover, the Jews believed in a whole-body resurrection not an ascension of the soul.  However, the Hebrew bible does say that the soul—a vague concept of life itself—can die and does go to Sheol upon death, regardless of status with God.  Also, some have argued that the bible has a notion of duality, see Luke 16:19–31 on Lazarus, 1 Samuel 28, and Luke 23:43.  Regarding the New Testament, it is a little more complicated and uses the Greek word psuche, which means “life”, while the word spirit is used interchangeably.  The apostle Paul generally describes death as “sleep” awaiting the final resurrection.  Although much is spoken about eternal life, nowhere is there a teaching of the immortality of the soul or of that of an explicit duality existing between mind and body.  These concepts were introduced by the Greeks and incorporated into church doctrine by the church fathers Origen of Alexandra and Augustine of Hippo and by the philosopher Thomas Aquinas.

How does it work?

So if you are a biblical inerrantist, then there may be some challenges to accepting the Greek’s version of the soul, for, conceptually, it is not found in the bible at all.  And yet it is one of the more popular beliefs of Christianity.  Changes to scripture or needs to establish doctrine are usually made to overcome common objections or to solve theological problems.  Although I can only widely speculate as for the need for immortality and duality of the soul, it is possible that it allows for immediate judgment, i.e., suffering, or exaltation, of the individual upon death since bodies don’t rise from the dead, which was the common expectation of the time.  Moreover, since the second coming has yet to come (and never will come), where universal resurrections would occur, this duration of time can pose a problem as the body does decay and disappear, so raising an immaterial, immortal soul would be a solution to that problem.  A universal resurrection is when all the dead from past to present get resurrected by Christ at the last judgment: see John Chapter 5:28-29.  And eschatology, so we know the theological discipline, is the part of theology concerned with death, judgment, and the final destiny of the soul and of humankind [Webster’s Dictionary].

I’d say there are two broad categories that sum up how the soul interacts with hell.   For Catholics and Greek Orthodox, they believe that during the general resurrection and last judgment – when the second coming of Jesus Christ occurs to raise and judge all – those who are not worthy will be permanently separated from God and, of course, eternally punished for their sins.  One’s soul dies after committing a mortal sin (grave) and is separated from God if they don’t repent beforehand, but the venial (slight) sins get purified in purgatory, which is supposedly a less severe form of a transient hell.  And those lucky ones without any mortal sins go to heaven.  Also, all this occurs at the last judgment, where the soul is reunited with the body, but, confusingly, this does not necessarily mean that those that die don’t get judged immediately as well, in what’s known as the particular judgment—double judgment?  Most Protestants, on the other hand, believe in conditional immortality – that is, the soul does not live until the resurrection of the dead or second coming of Christ – so the soul dies with the body at death.  This doctrine is more specifically known as Christian mortalism, and can be found as far back as the Protestant Reformation with Martin Luther and as recent as with N.T. Wright from the Anglican church.

A Damnable Doctrine

So far we’ve read about how Christianity sends horrific messages that we will be damned to an eternity of hell if we do not believe in him, obey the gospels or commit grave sins without repenting.  I argued that it seems rather totalitarian to have to accept these terms without consent.  But of course, some will argue that any decent parent would punish their children for misdeeds without the child’s consent.  And this is the part that I just can’t accept—complete submission to an authority that I have doubt exists.  And, even if God did exist, I don’t understand this obsession with submission and worship.  I suppose if God did create all that exists and is the very nature of existence itself, then reverence for him would be appropriate but not necessarily submission.  Regardless, the real crux of the issue is how can a merciful God punish sinners.  Again, the analogy of a good parent could challenge that, but, wait a minute, this punishment is for eternity.  And this is not in accordance with the Gospel of Matthew’s teachings on the Sermon on the Mount.  For example, Matthew Chapter 5:38, one of the six antitheses, talks about how the Hebrew Law promotes peace and justice in a community by “taking an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” although he takes it a step further and suggests that one should suffer the wrong by not retaliating at all, by turning the other cheek.  So, first, Matthew agrees with the Code of Hammurabi, which is about the punishment fitting the crime, but then builds upon it with a radical conclusion of non-violence.  So if he believes in the Hebrew Law of justice, how could Jesus also agree that being damned to eternity is just; that is, how could any crime ever warrant an eternity in hell if God is merciful.  We know he’s just, but he’s also merciful and benevolent.

To compound on matters, Matthew discusses in the parable of sheep and goats, Matthew 25:26, that those that are charitable to others will inhabit the Kingdom of Heaven.  The Kingdom of Heaven (God) has various interpretations by theologians and secular scholars, but it suffices to say for now that it is a desirable place if one is in God’s good favor.  So Jesus’ parable is commanding you to be compassionate, and I, therefore, have great respect for it; however, it ends poorly by saying, “And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”  The parable is essentially saying those that do not follow suit in charitable acts are damned to eternal punishment.  Now perhaps this is hyperbole for effect, but this is not the way Christianity takes it.  So in taking it how Christians take it, this does not sound, once again, like a just and merciful God.  Some may say that’s just God’s prerogative and leave it at that.  I, however, when trying to square it aware with theological attributes ascribed to him, e.g., righteousness, love, merciful, and so forth, have a difficult time taking the claim seriously.  If the religion is taken seriously, by contrast, these claims of eternal hell frighten people and may possibly even work as recruitment or retaining mechanism for the more than two billion worshippers.  I, on the other hand, believe that people should be committing good deeds for the sake of the actin it of itself, not for a reward such as the Kingdom of Heaven.

So the doctrine arguably doesn’t always coincide with scripture’s message, with a merciful and just God, and is totalitarian in its structure.  However, there have been arguments proposed to counteract these objections, e.g., free will.  Free will is the ability to freely choose between different courses of action.  I think free will should be viewed on a continuum—with some behaviors and thoughts giving the person more freedom to choose over others—say the instinct to eat, on one extreme, versus the decision to go for a car ride or stay home, on the other extreme.  I’d say it’s even more convoluted than that since genes, emotions, influences, and so forth, make it even more difficult to really ever have a truly free decision.  This is not to say that we shouldn’t be taking responsibility for our actions, for who else is going to?  Many believe that God has given us this free will, and therefore we have the ability to choose him or to exclude him.  As C.S. Lewis has said, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.'”  I’d argue that why would God give us this freedom of our ultimate destiny in the first place if he knew we were susceptible to the wrong choices.  The counterargument is that there had to be free will, so someone could choose to love him, and you can’t love someone if you don’t have that choice to do so.  But I’ve always wondered why God has this obsession with wanting you to love him in the first place?  Why can’t he just let go and be free?

Some theologians say that God can’t determine someone’s actions ahead of time, which contradicts omniscience by the way, because of free will and that he can’t interfere with someone’s will as it would no longer be free will. That’s a simplistic black and white reading of human behavior.  As I discussed, free will is complex, and it’s not an all or nothing concept.  Moreover, if everything God creates is good, he wants good for everything he’s created, he’s omnipotent and omniscient, then why couldn’t he interfere occasionally to assist with good decisions and create a change in the hearts of atheists?  If he didn’t make the person aware of it, this would still keep the integrity of free will intact, as theologians define it.  The bottom line is that theologians don’t want to part ways with scripture; they must accept the passages that contain eternal damnation references because of the inerrancy criteria. They are then forced to come up with an explanation that will also be compatible with God’s attributes.  This flimsy explanation is free will.  Free will appears to be a convenient tool that theologians use to rationalize suffering and why some go to hell—it is nothing more than an oversimplified abstraction of human behavior used to their advantage.  It’s fraught with semantic problems and doesn’t portray the reality of decision making.  And, also, it’s not necessary since you can love someone without making a choice; it happens all the time, unconsciously.  Lastly, there’s one more argument often put forth and that is the mystical – esoteric or transcending human knowledge—explanation.  So some will claim that it’s beyond our understanding, which is possible, but I’d propose that the more probable explanation is that, like free will, this is a cop-out or rationalization.  It’s time we put the concept of hell as a destination to rest.


[1] Harris, Sam. Free Will. Free Press.

[2] Horn, Trent. Why We’re Catholic: Our Reasons for Faith, Hope, and Love. Catholic Answers Press.

[3] Loftus, John. The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails.

[4] Loftus, John. Christianity in the Light of Science. Prometheus.

[5] Mele, Alfred R. Free. Oxford University Press.

[6] Miles, James B. The Free Will Delusion: How We Settled for the Illusion of Morality.

[7] Musolino, Julien. The Soul Fallacy. Prometheus.

[8] Shermer, Michael. The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies—How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths. Henry Holt and Co.

Miracles and Probability III


We discussed the challenges of accepting a miracle as true because it contradicts how we know the world works. We then proceeded to ask the question: well, what happens if we have good evidence for the miracle? The solution to that problem was to translate our hypothesis, evidence, and background knowledge into terms of degrees of certainty and inputting that into our logically valid formula developed by Thomas Bayes. We could always resort to informal argumentation, but using Bayes’ theorem gives us special insight by breaking the problem down into components – hypothesis, prior knowledge, new evidence, etc. — and preventing us from falling victim to confirmation bias. This bias is reduced because we are given the opportunity to consider alternate hypotheses in the theorem, which are often ignored through “armchair” arguments. In this post, we will try to show that extraordinary claims do indeed require extraordinary evidence. The hypothesis we will be testing is whether or not Jesus was raised from the dead by a supernatural agent. The formula will be given again below for reference.

P(h|e,b) = P(h|b) * P(e|h,b) / [ ( P(h|b) * P(e|h,b) ) + P(~h|b) * P(e|~h,b)]

P(h|e,b) = probability that the hypothesis is true: Epistemic probability or Posterior probability
P(e|h,b) = how expected the evidence is if our explanation is true: Explanatory probability or Consequent probability
P(e|~h,b) = how expected the evidence is if our explanation is false
P(h|b) = how typical our explanation (hypothesis) is: Prior probability or Intrinsic probability
P(~h|b) = how atypical our explanation is: (1 – prior probability)

It’s helpful to see this formula in terms of an argument to the best explanation, which is often used by historians, especially apologists. It is a type of abductive reasoning. You can think of prior probability as being how plausible your hypothesis is when combined with ad hocness. Plausibility has to do with how typical our explanation is – that is, how much is it in accord with how we know the world works (background knowledge).  If you try to develop excuses (ad hoc) for your evidence in order to make it fit your hypothesis, then you lower the prior probability, P(h|b).  The other components in ABE, or argument to the best explanation, are the ones that affect the probability of the evidence explaining the hypothesis, P(e|h,b) and P(e|~h,b). The first one is explanatory power which asks if the hypothesis has a higher probability of being true than competing hypotheses, and it should account for the facts without forcing it. Increasing your explanatory power will increase P(e|h,b). Explanatory scope, on the other hand, is about explaining a wider range of evidence better than the competing hypotheses. Increasing explanatory scope lowers P(e|~h,b) relative to competing hypotheses, and if ~h has a greater scope, then P(e|h,b) drops. Lastly, explanatory fitness can’t contradict any well-established beliefs, and it functions like explanatory power in terms of probabilities affected.

Getting back to priors, an example of ad hocness could be making the assumption that at least one person can defy gravity and fly into the sky without using any special technology [Matthew Ferguson]. We would have to make this assumption or excuse in order to make the hypothesis that Jesus was raised, by natural means, into the sky plausible. Now of course if we said, b, our background knowledge includes the assumptions of metaphysical theism, then God can do anything, and it wouldn’t be ad hoc. However, if we accept that premise, then we are at the mercy of God’s will and whims. And I have yet to be convinced that a theistic God or any other god is at work behind the scenes. Even if you have the hypothesis that God interferes in everyday life, you can’t derive any reliable predictions from it. God is not like a subatomic particle that we can’t see because, as in the case of the particle, we can make predictions as to how it behaves but not so with God. We are at a loss when it comes to modeling God, for God is knowable and incomprehensible at the same time. Moreover, as theistic Christianity defines him, he’s a philosophical construct, not a scientific one. But, to be fair, we didn’t even assume naturalism in our reference class. We actually relaxed our constraints and claimed that we’ll consider all cases of god raising purported persons from the dead.

Quality of Evidence

Now, before we continue, it’s worthwhile to acknowledge that we will all interpret evidence in different ways based on our presuppositions or how skeptical we are or are not. For example, if we assume miracles are impossible to begin with, then we will underestimate the likelihood of P(h|b) and P(h|b,e). Likewise, if we assume that miracles occur all the time, then we will overestimate the likelihood of P(h|b) and P(h|b,e). We did see how we could reduce these biases in the determination of P(h|b) by keeping the reference class as narrow as possible and by being conservative on our estimates. But how do we reduce the chances of inaccurately predicting P(e|h,b)? To be candid, at this point of my investigation, I have yet to find a systematic way of determining the probability of consequent probabilities. And thus there will be an amount of subjectivity involved, which is true in general of epistemic probabilities, which come as ‘degrees of belief’ when assessing the uncertainty of a particular situation [wikipedia]. The best way to minimize bias would be to be as charitable as possible when ascertaining our probabilities.  We will be relying chiefly on Matthew Ferguson’s analysis of the evidence in addition to Richard Carrier’s, while contrasting it against Mike Licona’s and William Lane Craig’s.

Here’s the evidence we have for the fantastical claim that Jesus rose from the dead by God. Why is this claim essential to the Christian faith? Well, because the apostle Paul aptly declared, “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, and your faith is vain” (1 Corinthians 15:14).

  • Jesus was crucified.
  • Jesus was buried by Joseph of Arimathea in a tomb.
  • An empty tomb was found by the women.
  • Postmortem appearances to Peter, Paul, James, apostles, disciples, and the “500”.
  • The disciples, James and St. Paul’s belief in the resurrection.

It’s important that we consider the quality of the evidence. The above evidence comes from the Gospels, written forty to fifty years after Jesus’ death, and the Epistles, written twenty years after Jesus’ death, all contained within the New Testament.  So, first, we have evidence decades after the fact. Keep in mind also that the above claims are not necessarily facts. After all, some of these are elements in stories contained in hagiographies (i.e. the Gospels) that are mainly used as propaganda to promote a theology or movement. We have already concluded that the genre of the Gospels are legendary biographies, meaning that the author’s chief objective was to proselytize a message about Jesus Christ and not to teach us history.  The sources also don’t have independent attestation since I consider the Gospels as dependent on one another, with the exception of, maybe, John; the Gospels may or may not have had access to the Epistles, but we will grant independency.  But it’s not until the second century do we get extra-biblical (outside of the bible) evidence of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.  Moreover, the Gospels are all anonymous, surely not based on eyewitness testimony, and are most likely a combination of literary creations and oral tradition.  And, lastly, although we don’t know with certainty, it’s a reasonable assumption to make that superstition and the belief of gods, demons and spirits were more accepted by the population than would be now, probably because the Bronze age did not have the luxury of experiencing the Enlightenment era. The following paragraph underscores the type of evidence we have, by Matthew Ferguson.

Instead, our knowledge for many historical events in the ancient world relies solely on the reports found in ancient texts. Ancient texts, however, cannot be scrutinized as thoroughly as the evidence studied in forensic science, and thus using ancient texts as a form of evidence for knowing about the past is often far more speculative and less certain (especially when such texts are highly literary or symbolic in their composition). Frequently, the ancient sources that a historian consults will be biased, vague, misinformed, speculative, or simply outright liars (see Bart Ehrman’s Forged: Writing in the Name of God).


So how do we approach the analysis of the evidence – what’s our methodology? Do we take the authors’ – that are often anonymous – word for it, for example, when they say that Jesus Christ’s empty tomb was discovered by women, or do we take the skeptical stance since we don’t know who the authors were, the authors had an agenda, and no extra-biblical corroboration exists near the event? The assumptions and skepticism one exercises affect the outcome, so this is very important. So important that it (skepticism) drives Matthew Ferguson and Richard Carrier to conclude that the resurrection is very improbable while Mike Licona and William Lane Craig conclude that it’s very probable because they take the evidence at face value. Given the kind of evidence we have described in the previous paragraphs and knowing human nature and the era of that period in history, I find no reason other than to approach the evidence with skepticism, giving credence to evidence that is independently corroborated by disinterested sources and discounting that which is not.  This may not seem fair since we really don’t have any disinterested sources and the absence of evidence is not evidence for absence.  However, this presumption – that of taking a skeptical stance – is one that most reasonable people would adhere to if they were assessing others’ faith. It’s also important to acknowledge, justifying my stance, that we have better evidence for other supernatural events; for example, the Salem Witch Trials, and we don’t accept those as true.  As another good example, see Why the Resurrection is Unbelievable by Richard Carrier, where he discusses if we don’t believe Herodotus’ accounts why would we believe the Gospels or Paul’s account?  Before we get into the analysis of the evidence, I believe this excerpt by Richard Carrier in “Proving History” illustrates that we always have to be mindful of our background knowledge since P(e|h,b) is conditioned on that:

     The smell test is a common methodological principle in the study of legend, myth and hagiography.  This tests can be most simply states as if it sounds unbelievable, it probably is.”  When we hear tales of talking dogs and flying wizards, we don’t take them seriously, even for a moment.  We immediately rule them out as fabrications.  We usually don’t investigate.  We don’t wait until we can find evidence against the claim.  We know right from the start the tale is bogus.  Yet the only basis for this judgment is the smell test.  Is that test valid?
     It is certainly ubiquitously accepted by historians in every field.  It is suspiciously only rejected by religious believers, and then only when it’s applied to amazing claims they prefer to believe.  They ground this rejection in the claim that we shouldn’t be biased against the supernatural, and God can do anything.  Yet if they honestly believed in those principles they would be compelled to concede the miracle claims of every religion because “you shouldn’t be biased against the supernatural, and God can do anything.”  This includes all the pagan miracles (incredible apparitions of goddesses, mass resurrections of cooked fish, wondrous healing, and teleportation), Muslim miracles (splitting moons, wailing trees, flights to outer space), Buddhist miracles (bilocation, levitation, creating golden ladders with a mere thought), and indeed every and any amazing claim whatever.  Tales “proving” reincaration?  We can’t reject them – because God can do anything.  Ghosts confirming to the living that heaven is run by a Chinese magnate and his staff?  We can’t rule it out.  That would be bias against the supernatural.
     Honestly living that way would be impossible.  You would believe everything you read … In other words, our bias against the supernatural is warranted, just as our bias against the honesty of politics warranted: we’ve caught them being dishonest so many times it would be foolish to impolitely trust anyone in politics.  Likewise, amazing tales: we’ve caught them being fabricated so many times it would be foolish to implicitly trust any of them.
     The smell test thus represents an intuitive recognition of the low prior probability of the events described (i.e., P(h|b) << 0.5); the ease with which the evidence could be fabricated (i.e., P(e|h,b) is always high, unless we have sufficient evidence to the contrary), in fact often the ease with which such an even if real would produce or entail much better evidence (i.e., P(e|h,b) is often low); how typically miracle claims are deliberately positioned in places and times  where a reliable verification is impossible, which fact alone makes them all inherently suspicious; and sometimes the similarity of a  medical story to other tales told in the same time and culture is additionally suspect, like the odd frequency with which gods in the ancient West rose from the dead, transformed water into wine, or resurrected dead fish, oddities that curiously never occur anymore, and which are so culturally specific as to suggest more obvious origins in storytelling.


[1] Boyd, Gregory A.. The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition . Baker Book Group.

[2] Byas, Jared. Genesis for Normal People (Study Guide Edition): A Guide to the Most Controversial, Misunderstood, and Abused Book of the Bible . Patheos Press.

[3] Carrier, Richard. Not the Impossible Faith: Why Christianity Didn’t Need a Miracle to Succeed.

[4] Carrier, Richard. On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt. Sheffield Phoenix Press.

[5] Carrier, Richard. Why I Am Not a Christian: Four Conclusive Reasons to Reject the Faith. Philosophy Press.

[6] Copan, Paul. That’s Just Your Interpretation. Baker Publishing Group.

[7] Harrison, Guy. Simple Questions for Every Christian. Prometheus Books.

[8] Keller, Timothy. The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism . Penguin Publishing Group.

[9] Loftus, John W.. God or Godless?: One Atheist. One Christian. Twenty Controversial Questions. Baker Publishing Group.

[10] Loftus, John W. The Outsider Test for Faith: How to Know Which Religion Is True . Prometheus Books.

[11] Michael R. Licona. The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach.

[12] Bruno A. Olshausen. Probabilistic Models of the Brain: Perception and Neural Function (Neural Information Processing). A Bradford Book.

[13] Price, Robert M.. Evolving out of Eden. Tellectual Press.

[14] Robert M. Price. Incredible Shrinking Son of Man: How Reliable Is the Gospel Tradition?.

[15] Templeton, Charles. Farewell to God: My Reasons for Rejecting the Christian Faith . McClelland & Stewart.

[16] Thomson, J. Anderson. Why We Believe in God(s): A Concise Guide to the Science of Faith . BookMasters.

[17] Unwin, Dr Stephen D.. The Probability of God. The Crown Publishing Group.

[18] John H. Walton. The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate.