This post is about Scott Adams’ recent book on the art of persuasion, titled Win Bigly: Persuasion in a World Where Facts Don’t Matter. Warning: longish.
This was an impulse borrow from my local library, and I checked it out without any preconceived notions or a plan to review it. I was intrigued by Adams because he was one of the few public figures who made a very early prediction that Donald Trump would become president, and maintained this posture through the end of the election (at great risk to his career and public image). However, this post is not about the President or the election, or much about the art of persuasion, but rather the spiritual or metaphysical issues Adams touches on, intentional or not.
I will preface this by saying that I am a sinner and mediocre Christian, and it is very difficult to truly know what is going on inside another person, particularly in their spiritual life. However, I found Adams to be admirably open and transparent in writing this book. Without his confessions this type of review would not be possible. For purposes of this review, I am going to assume everything he says is true, and see where that leads us.
Adams lets us know that the book is about more than the art of persuasion on the very first page:
I’m a trained hypnotist. And I’m going to tell you about the spookiest year of my life. It happened between June 2015 and November 2016. Okay, that’s a little more than a year.
Everything you are about to read in this book is true, as far as I know. I don’t expect you to believe all of it. (Who could?). But I promise it is true, to the best of my knowledge.
Adams starts with the topic of “filters”, or the way a person interacts with the world. He repeatedly states that “A good filter is one that makes you happy and helps predict the future.” He identifies the filters he has tried so far in his life. He describes how he used the “Church filter” from the age of six to eleven. He was a practicing Methodist and attended Sunday school every week. However, he found that stories such as Jonah and the Whale strained his credulity to such an extent that he stopped believing and going to church.
He then transparently discusses the other filters he tried and discarded, including the “Alien Experiment” filter (e.g. that humanity is an experiment or computer simulation run by aliens), the “Atheist filter” and the “drug filter.” I find it interesting that there are a number of very intelligent, successful people who subscribe to the computer simulation theory. Each of these proved unsatisfactory. He finally arrived at the “moist robot” filter.
In the moist robot filter, human beings do not truly have free will or a soul. The brain is a machine that can be trained to develop useful habits, improve happiness, and predict the future (e.g. If I do A then B will result). The “persuasion filter”, the intended subject of the book, is a subset of the moist robot method. Adams argues that most of our decisions or opinions are not based on reason, but on emotional reaction to a stimulus. Persuasion is a tool to get others to do what you want that does not rely on evidence or reason. If you can identify a “Master Persuader” like Trump, you can get an edge on others in predicting what may happen next.
The second part of the book goes on to discuss errors in reasoning, such as confirmation bias, and cognitive dissonance, which is a symptom of holding contradictory beliefs. He provides multiple examples of these from the election and other historic events.
In the third part, he breaks down what persuasion actually is, its elements, and how Trump and Clinton used it, to greater and lesser effectiveness, respectively. In the fourth part, he provides advice on how to use persuasion in business and politics.
Much of this is of little value to a Christian in carrying out the work of evangelization or simply providing a good witness through acts of faith, hope or love. I think Adams does make a good point about the futility of directly attacking others’ belief systems. I am very doubtful of the ability to argue someone out of their beliefs, particularly if it is atheism or agnosticism. Apologetics has a valued place, and we should tell the Truth if asked, but the Lord and the Holy Spirit are what changes minds. Like the Father in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, God always makes the larger move.
Part five is the most interesting, and probably the most unbelievable for many readers. However, as I said, I am going to accept everything he says as true to arrive at the question I asked myself after I finished the book.
He begins by condemning tribalism, which results in people making decisions based on group loyalty as opposed to the truth, or evidence. Tribalism can be political party membership, but it can be excessive attachment to ethnicity, gender, cultural traditions, etc.. I think the best identity is to see yourself and everyone else as part of the Body of Christ (whether they have been baptized or not).
The last pages are the most interesting: Adams gets to the “spooky parts” and meets a ghost in the machine of his moist robot mind.
Adams talks about his dreams or how he imagined the events of the election taking shape. Regardless of the scenarios, he had an unshakeable hunch that Trump would win. He shares his past experiences of having “visions” that came true. He claims to have had one at age 6 that he would grow up to become a famous cartoonist. He had others that he would later move to San Francisco, and also that he would become a well paid public speaker. All happened. He describes the visions as being different than a memory or an exercise in imagination. He claims to have had about a dozen of these spontaneous visions that came true.
He goes on to wonder whether his prediction even contributed to the Trump victory. The idea of our world being a simulation comes up again, and he includes an entire appendix on the topic.
This little bit that follows is for anyone reading this who is an agnostic or atheist, but is intrigued by the idea that our world is simulation. In a way, the idea that your life is a simulation is not contrary to the Gospel. What follows is an extended excerpt from a book about St. Therese by Von Balthasar:
The Christian needs to be “crucified to the world” (Gal 6:14) with the Lord, to undergo death and be buried with him (Col 3:3; 2:12), and then be sent back to the world as the leaven in the mass.
If he is to fulfill these demands and realize the mystery of his station, he needs also a veil of protection. United with Christ’s death and burial, the Christian now shares in his Resurrection, is even enthroned with him above the heavens (Eph 2:6; Col 2:12, 3:1);
In truth he lives in heaven and is a stranger here below. But so as to be able to bear this heavenly life without dying, without losing his earthly mission in the abyss of God’s mystery, his own life has, so to speak, to be withdrawn from him until his earthly mission is complete: “You have undergone death, and your life is hidden away now with Christ in God” (Col 3:3). *
Through baptism we receive a share in Christ’s death. Your real life, life to the fullest, awaits you in Heaven (John 10:10). The existence below is the “shadowlands”, which was the title of the last chapter in C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle. Thinking this way also helps makes sense of Christ’s proclamations such as “Not a hair of your head will perish” (Luke 21:18), or “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning. See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you” (Luke 10:18-20). Terrible things happen to people every day, but your true life is preserved in Heaven. Your life in Heaven must be hidden for now, for a single full glance would kill you. Maybe you get to take a peek in your dreams, and your true self gives you glimpses of the future.
I am not providing a recommendation on whether to read or buy the book, and I do not have an opinion to share on his analysis of the election or the art of persuasion.
My main interest, as should be clear by now, is the mystical element. Are the spooky parts (e.g. the visions) true? I do not know. We have a baptized Christian that is not only not practicing their faith, but has apparently rejected it. Can the gifts of the Holy Spirit (of which prophecy is one) be operative in such an individual? We might think no, that faith and the gifts are a package deal. But this would negate the divine freedom of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit to bestow their favors where they like. For example, we have the figure of Balaam from the Book of Numbers, a non-Jew who God used to prophesy to the Israelites.
So how shall we categorize Scott Adams then: Cartoonist, businessman … and prophet? He stuck to his guns on his Trump prediction despite all evidence that it would not come true. He acknowledges that there were some others who made similar ones, but in my view they were very late to the game, or lesser known figures with nothing to lose. Maybe his dreams are God’s way of trying to shake his self-reliance and open him to other possibilities? A man with his talents could do a lot in service to the Lord.
I will continue to watch what Mr. Adams says (and pray for him), for as we often say, the Lord works in mysterious ways. Discernment is important. Balaam, despite his initial obedience to God, later preached wickedness and met a bad end.
*Two Sisters in the Spirit, Therese of Lisieux and Elizabeth of the Trinity, Hans Urs Von Balthasar (Ignatius Press, 1992)