Staring Doubts in the Face

Staring Doubts in the Face March 13, 2013

Before I left DC to start my new job, I arranged a The Great Divorce bookclub with an atheist friend.  Somehow, just in the lead up to the argument we managed to pull in Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and the Grand Inquisitor scene from The Brothers Karamazov.  (And now I’ve got him reading Ted Chiang’s “Hell is the Absence of God“).

But aside from the pleasure of a good fight, making my friend grant that this soteriology made more internal sense than he expected, and apparently inspiring him to write a parody song based on the book (which he’ll probably let me post), there were some unexpected benefits.

I know some of the blog readers are cross readers of Less Wrong, but for everyone else, you can use this link to familiarize yourself with the idea of an ugh field.  It’s a term made up by LW that basically refers to the things you flinch away from thinking.  My ugh fields tend to turn up when I think I might notice an answer I don’t like if I keep gathering data.  For example, when I was trying to start my dryad costume, I kept putting off making the big diagram of everything I needed to do.  I suspected, correctly, that once I wrote everything down, it would be clear I didn’t have time to finish before Halloween.

Ugh fields don’t always mean I’m about to be proven wrong somewhere I’d like to be right.  (That would be a useful signal to have).  It just tends to mean that I’m not confident about which way the answer will go, and I badly want it to turn out a particular way.   I try to be a good rationalist, and use that flinching feeling as a cue to look deeper, but I don’t always manage it.

But debates, especially with a smart person arguing in good faith, are a great way to get someone else to shove you into your ugh field and not let you out til you find the answer you didn’t want.  During my book club/fight, my friend kept pressing me, not on the truth of Christianity, but on whether I was personally incapable of being a good Christian, whether or not it was true.  (The specific details of why aren’t so relevant to this post).

This concern had occurred to me before, and it was the kind of thought I shied away from.  I didn’t want to examine the evidence for or against this claim carefully, in case it were true.  I’d never even bothered to try and flesh out the argument.  But, in the middle of a book club fight, I didn’t have an easy way to flinch once my friend started needling me.

But, it turns out, once I actually heard the full argument, instead of just thinking “that would be awful,” I didn’t actually find it persuasive.  I wasn’t just trying to beat my friend.  When he broached the topic, I flinched, worried he was right, and then was surprised to find I did have pretty good answers to his objections.

[I think “Wow, this argument is way weaker that I was afraid it was!  Thank you!” was not the reaction he was going for].

The whole thing reminded me a bit of rubber duck debugging, where explaining your problem in detail to anybody — another specialist, a friend, or a rubber duck — makes you think carefully about your assumptions instead of skipping over the bits that feel obvious or scary.  So I’m awfully grateful to have had my feet held to the fire on this one.

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  • Joe

    Good to have you back Leah!! I can’t wait to hear the song!!!

  • Two thoughts:

    1. Always face your doubts head on. Be confident that there’s an answer, but don’t let that excuse you from finding the answer. If you always defer the doubt based on the assumption that someone else has a solution, your doubts will build up over time, and when you suddenly have an incentive to embrace some particular error, suddenly your bad desire will have a whole rival intellectual framework with which to destroy what you believe. Fr. Bob likes to say that doubt is a necessary part of faith. He’s wrong, and terrible for saying that, but the rooting out of doubts *is* actually an important part of faith.

    2. The idea of the “ugh field” is nice. The downside of calling it an “ugh field”, though, is that this kind of lingo participates in the creation of a weird subculture that’s incapable of communicating core ideas to other people because it yokes them to random unintelligible tech-speak that no one outside the club is going to understand. And chances are half of these ideas are just common sense given an obscure name.

    • leahlibresco

      Any better names? There isn’t a pithy existing thing that we replaced, far as I know.

      • Scott Hebert

        For anime fans (almost all of whom have at least seen Evangelion), ‘self-targeted Absolute Terror Field’ captures the essence in an overpowering way…. :p

        It’s good to see you back, Leah.

        • Jmac

          Yeah, but if I want to investigate my own AT field, doesn’t that imply that when I’m successful I turn into Tang?

      • grok87

        I think “ugh field” is a useful concept. Sometimes naming a thing helps crystallize an idea/comcept. Taleb makes this point in Anti-fragile re Iatrogenics
        He writes that he had been working with this idea that sometimes professionals like doctors do more harm than good, and then someone told him there was a name for it and it helped it gel for him

        • I think you’re right. I guess my thought was that Less Wrong generates tons of these nifty little things and then when people in the club start lingo-dropping since the concept doesn’t have a name that intelligibly designates what it’s talking about it just becomes kind of like hide and seek. Take a page out of the biologists’ textbook. They’re good at taxonomies. Let’s have more greek/latin roots.

          • grok87

            how can one possibly argue against more greek/latin?

      • Kristen inDallas

        I’ve always thought of it as “my (dark and) scary place” although that’s hardly universal either.

    • Speaking of language no one outside the club will understand, who is Father Bob?

  • Mitchell Porter

    This is a confusing post. Maybe it’s just me, but it doesn’t seem very lucid. I can’t even tell what idea your friend was challenging – the idea that you personally have what it takes to be a good Christian? the idea that you don’t?

    This is probably an inappropriate or unhelpful or patronizing thing to say, but… I’m wondering if the move to the west coast was the wrong step for you, as far as your intellectual development is concerned. I’m not a Catholic, not a Christian, but I still think your conversion was ultimately something of a good thing for your rationalist materialist atheist peers to witness, especially the manner of it, because it dramatized the existence of intellectual alternatives, for certain questions where their answers are clearly inadequate.

    But to then go and work in the citadel of rationalist correctness itself… I wouldn’t expect you to be *harangued* by RMAs, but they may try to intellectually seduce you, make their various reductionisms and dogmatisms sound reasonable. In my opinion, the path towards truth lies away from both religion and conventional materialism, and that path seems best pursued in an independent space, away from the worldly headquarters of either movement.

    Maybe the outcome to expect is an intellectual holding pattern. You won’t advance, but you won’t go back either. Within the subculture you’ll be Leah, the oddball who can sling the rationalist lingo but who somehow persists in being religious at the same time. I suppose I’m negative because at the moment, I have a low opinion of the capacity of the subculture and organizations around LW to ever develop beyond their defining dogmas.

    It’s ironic; I only ever heard of you because I was reading LW, and I predicted your conversion wouldn’t last. And now, you’re moving closer to the heart of LW rationalism, and I’m treating that as a bad thing that might dilute what’s best about you! But I was wrong about the Catholicism not lasting; maybe I can be wrong about some of these other things.

    • Mitchell Porter wrote:
      > I’m wondering if the move to the west coast was the wrong step for you, as far as your intellectual development is concerned…. But to then go and work in the citadel of rationalist correctness itself

      Mitchell, are you implying that California is “the citadel of rationalist correctness itself”???

      Well… I came out to CA in ’72 for college, and have lived here ever since in all four of the biggest metro areas: LA, the Bay Area, San Diego, and, now, Sacramento.

      And, while CA has many virtues and many faults, being the “the citadel of rationalist correctness itself” is most assuredly not among them.

      Mitchell also wrote:
      > I’m not a Catholic, not a Christian, but I still think your conversion was ultimately something of a good thing for your rationalist materialist atheist peers to witness, especially the manner of it, because it dramatized the existence of intellectual alternatives, for certain questions where their answers are clearly inadequate.

      I’m inclined to agree: at least, Leah’s conversion was illuminating in some of the responses it produced!

      > In my opinion, the path towards truth lies away from both religion and conventional materialism…

      I agree, and I’ll add that that view is more widespread in CA than you might think.

      Dave Miller in Sacramento

      • Mitchell Porter

        I wasn’t referring to California, but to her new employer and the family of organizations with which it is affiliated.

        • PhysicistDave


          Thanks for the clarification: is Leah’s new employer tied in to these “Less Wrong” folks, the Singularitarians, etc.? (I apologize if all the regulars here are aware of this and I am ignorant simply through having skipped too many of Leah’s posts.)

          By the way, I knew some of the guys who seem to be among the antecedents of those groups way back in the ’80s when I lived in Palo Alto: Robin Hanson, the radical nanotech guys, etc. However, I have not really kept up on their twists and turns since. If this is the group Leah has fallen in with, the fireworks should be interesting to watch: I myself had one amusing evening when I casually mentioned that I was not really sure that there was no life after death; fortunately, the party broke up before I was able to confess that I was not really absolutely sure there was no God. I’d like to be a fly on the wall if Leah is getting together with those guys!

          Anyway, maybe I am still misunderstanding the situation, so I’m interested if you can fill me in.

          All the best,


  • Joe

    I have always wondered why they call it “Less Wrong”. Are they being modest or do they not believe that there is a real truth to be found, and the best man can hope for is to me less wrong through rational thinking?

    • Joe

      sorry should read “to be less wrong through rational thinking?”

      • Ray

        It’s almost certainly a reference to this essay:

        • Joe

          Thanks Ray

          • grok87


        • Actually that is a good way of describing what Catholics mean by development of doctrine. Except Catholics don’t describe it as less wrong but more true. What Jesus taught was more true than what Moses taught. What St Augustine taught about salvation was right but what the Council of Trent taught was more right. We can go deeper and deeper into God’s truth but never hit the bottom. In fact, what we know remains finite and what we don’t know remains infinite.

          This is good because humans have a desire not just to learn but to discover new truths. It allows every generation to have the joy of achieving real progress. So the English major is right too. Every century feels that now mankind is really getting somewhere. They could all be right.

    • Jmac

      The road to wisdom? Well, it’s plain
      And simple to express:
      and err
      and err again,
      but less
      and less
      and less.

      -Piet Hein

    • Theodore Seeber

      I don’t know about Less Wrong, but here’s what I believe.

      There is an objective truth to be found.

      Due to a combination of the finite processing power of the human brain, the Catholic theological concept (which in reality is just a hypothesis based on a few hundred years of direct observation of human behavior) of Original Sin, and certain limitations of our sensory perception, the human species is incapable of finding that truth in entirety.

      We can, however, be Less Wrong than the other guy- by admitting to ourselves that we are incapable, and by rationally standing on the shoulders of giants.

  • Scott Hebert

    I have ‘ugh fields’ that are very powerful, and they are pretty crippling to me, considering the exact problem area.

    For the Catholics here, it’s basically a huge issue of Sloth/procrastination. The fact that it stems from a positive trait makes it even harder to ‘beat’.

  • R.C.


    I have to agree with the lucidity difficulties Mitchell Porter mentioned in his comment (which was a very interesting read for other reasons, as well).

    From how you wrote your post, I’m uncertain whether you think yourself personally incapable of being a good Christian, and your atheist friend challenged that notion with a weak argument…or whether you think yourself personally capable of being a good Christian, and your atheist friend challenged that notion with a weak argument.

    Also, whichever it is, I’d like to hear some clarification about what you’re thinking of when you refer to “being a good Christian.” Jesus says, “Be ye perfect…” and of course you’re not gonna live up to that until glory.

    But there’s God’s definition of being a good Christian…and then, there’s the sort of bell-curve view in which if you can manage to wind up on the better-than-the-mean side of moral behavior, spiritual disciplines, knowledge of your faith, and consistency in practicing it without simultaneously ending up on the worse-than-the-mean side of humility, then that also can be considered a form of “being a good Christian.” You can do that, and better than that. You can, in fact, become a living saint. So can I. The strongest Ugh Fields in the world are the Ugh Fields that dissuade us from being saints: The biggest reason most of us are not saints is because we do not really want to be. We’d rather be really good and disciplined about being really good and disciplined for, say, three days straight…and then take a break and let our hair down on the fourth. Human beings don’t, as a rule, repent of their sins so much as go on a diet from them. With, y’know, a nice binge at the end, as a sort of reward.

    Anyway, by the time I finished your post I wasn’t sure what kind of Being A Good Christian was being discussed, what level of capability you and your friend each thought you had, and why that would even be an interesting point of discussion, let alone something to debate about.

    So I’m clearly missing something, here. Will you kindly clarify?

    • leahlibresco

      I thought I was missing something as part of my character that is fairly essential to Christianity, and my friend agreed with this assessment. However, I’d just kind of assumed this was a possibility without thinking too hard about it, in case it was true. But when he made the argument explicitly, it turns out I didn’t find it compelling enough to merit concern.

      But since the flaw is fairly personal, and not relevant to the “stop flinching away from ideas” point of the post, I’m not planning to discuss it.

      • Theodore Seeber

        This is the reason I’m Catholic and NOT a generic Christian- because I know I’m a really bad Christian. I am intrinsically disordered, at least as far as my ability to stay away from sin goes.

        And that’s why I need the sacrament of reconciliation.

        Elizabeth wrote on this a couple of days ago as well, go and read it.

      • Leah,

        This also confused me in the original post, and your comment here only helps a little to clarify. I don’t want to pry into your flaws, but I do want to understand what you’re talking about. So I’ll take a guess at what you mean, and let you tell me how wrong I am.

        It sounds like you’re describing an argument along the lines of: “If Christianity were true, then flaw X would necessarily be absent in you personally, or feature Q would necessarily be present in you – perhaps because in every human person X would be absent or Q would be present.” Is this the kind of argument going on? Or am I stumbling in the wrong direction?

        • leahlibresco

          Assume Christianity is true. Christianity requires trait X, which I lack. Oh dear.

          • Theodore Seeber

            I resemble that remark, and I’m not terribly afraid to talk about it.

            I have High Functioning Autism. I severely lack in empathy for the most part. This led me, when I was Leah’s age, to leave behind Church teaching and I came dangerously close to being a child molester, because I not only rejected everything the Church taught about human sexuality, but in fact everything that anybody taught about human sexuality.

            Oddly enough, I was NOT a classic pedophile, and was very heterosexual, and that likely saved me- my female near-victims were often more knowledgeable about sexuality than I was, and were smart enough not to do what I shouldn’t have tried to lead them to do.

            It took a lot of study, and a lot of pain, for me to learn compassion. That earlier self horrifies me now (as well it should). I still have problems with empathy, but I’ve learned enough compassion to kind of sort of understand appropriate and inappropriate behavior, at least as well as defined by the law and the Church.

            I am still lacking in empathy. And as I wrote below, that’s part of the reason why I’m Catholic. Not even the Saints were perfect their entire lives. Even St. Francis of Assisi went astray in childhood. I wonder if he had Asperger’s.

          • B. R. Lind

            Do you really “lack X,” or are you just not very good at X?

            I think the concept of “having a trait” or “having a flaw” is problematic. These are just ways of describing how someone behaves most of the time (and remember, thinking is a behavior). At what point do we earn the distinction of “being” empathetic or “having” empathy (to use Mr. Seeber’s example)? I’ve been described as empathetic, but I still sometimes need to remind myself to tune in to what another person is feeling – and the reminding makes a difference! Empathy can be easy or difficult, but it doesn’t emanate constantly from an inherent trait or mirror neurons or any other thing that one “has” or “lacks.”

            I was originally going to ask, “Since we are all fundamentally flawed, why would any particular flaw make it impossible to be a ‘good Christian’? Is a ‘good Christian’ really the kind of thing that has necessary and sufficient conditions?” But then I realized I was probably conceptualizing a “flaw” differently from you. One might struggle to practice a particular virtue, but it seems to me that persistently trying should be enough.

            (P.S. I found your original post perfectly lucid.)

          • Scott Hebert


            Well, that certainly narrows the field down, doesn’t it?

            I will say, though, that you cannot ‘lack’ anything ‘required’ by Christianity. Christianity’s entire purpose is to bring all of humanity back to God. As such, if there was a trait that it requires and a certain proportion of humanity lacks that trait, that proportion would be incapable of being saved, and Christianity would fail in its purpose.

            As others have said, that trait might be underdeveloped, which would translate to being one of your personal crosses. (I certainly have enough of those…) It’s impossible, though, for the formulation you give to be true. Therefore, the formulation cannot be accurate.

          • Thanks! I think I understand now, and understand why the argument turned out to be a weak one.

      • deiseach

        Okay, if it’s personal, I won’t press for details since it’s none of our business. But as for being capable of being a good Christian, none of us are – not by our own, unaided efforts. That’s why there’s grace, and that’s why grace is necessary.

        I’m possibly hanging out on Protestant sites too much, but I’m going to quote St. Paul about no-one can keep the Law perfectly, so if it is a matter of not being law-breaking, we are all condemned; that is why salvation is by faith and not by works of the law.


        I don’t know if I have “ugh” fields, but I certainly have experienced, at times, the sensation of doors slamming shut in my mind (think of the Get Smart closing titles). Sometimes it encourages me to examine what is making me so uncomfortable about the idea; why do I feel threatened or anxious so that I don’t want to even think about this? Sometimes, very rarely, it’s a good thing. The best example I can think of that is Dr. Dee’s Enochian Calls.

        I have a very amateur interest in and shallow knowledge of the Western Esoteric Tradition, and I’d come across a couple of mentions of these and a description of one or two of the Aethyrs. A few years back I finally found a translation and interpretation of the Calls online. I started reading, expecting nothing more than the kind of symbolism involved in the Tarot and certainly not expecting any genuine spiritual content, either good or bad (I think Kelley was a charlatan and a fraud and I think Dee was much too eager to be convinced that these kinds of revelations were true so he allowed himself to be hoodwinked).

        About half-way into the first paragraph of one of the aethyrs, I got the “slamming shut” sensation and a very definite feeling that I should stop reading right now and not go any further with this topic. Since then I’ve avoided any investigation or even mention of them. It was a strange and odd sensation, but I really do think it was a warning and I really do think that – whatever about other people’s experiences with them – there was a genuine danger there. Make of it what you will.

  • “Ugh” fields–that’s a great concept, and something I have too many of!

    As to the books, I love The Great Divorce, and I always have found The Marriage of Heaven and Hell in particular and Blake in general to be fascinating.

    I went to the link and read the story by Chiang though, and ooh–did it ever set up “ughs” and “aghs” and everything else! There is a certain logic to what he portrays–if you truly loved God absolutely, it wouldn’t matter if you were in Heaven or Hell, or whether God was loving or cruel or just or capricious. However, a universe such as he Chiang portrays would be a horrible one. In a world such as that, one might argue about what the rational strategy would be–is it better to have a vision of the Divine Light and love God perfectly and perhaps still be separated from Him eternally; or to risk Hell, which seems no worse than Earth; or to attempt to attain Heaven, the criteria for which are very unclear?

    One of the things I’ve always struggled with is the concept that Christians must love God above all else, for His own sake, regardless of any reward. I don’t necessarily deny that notion; but it is based on a concept of a God who is just and loving. If you don’t assume that, you end up with a world such as Chiang portrays, which, once more, seems to me to be horrendous. It almost seems to me that Chiang is satirizing the simplistic notion of such a view by taking it ad absurdum. I’ve often said that while it is correct that God is beyond all understanding and anything we say of Him (that He is good or loving or just or even that He exists) has to be understood as an analogy; but that if there isn’t at least some commonality between what something means for us and for God, the analogy fails. “Good” doesn’t mean the same for us as for God; but if we allow God’s incomprehensibility such free reign that we could say a God who treats the character Neil like He does is still somehow “good”, then we’ve drained the word of all meaning. To the credit of the author, he, speaking through Ethan, says, “. God is not just, God is not kind, God is not merciful”; but many who’d attribute lots of nasty things to God wouldn’t take the logical step from there and say that He is therefore not good, merciful, and so on.

    I do think that one should strive for unconditional love; but I don’t think the kind of Divine love the redeemed in heaven experience is the sort of bland, zombie-like love that Chiang portrays and that some spiritual writers come close to endorsing (at least so it seems to me). I also think God is just, merciful, and such, at least in the big picture. The story is certainly food for thought; but it certainly creeped me out, too.

    • Theodore Seeber

      Even as a theist Catholic, I’m a bit too much like Chiang. I enjoyed, in college, challenging atheists and evangelicals alike with “If my Lord Jesus Christ sends me to Hell, I shall gladly go and serve him there”.

      • Steve

        yes… very challenging…

        • Theodore Seeber

          I was equally challenged myself a few years later by the concept from Daniel Quinn that interprets the story of Cain and Abel into what he calls “Takers and Leavers”- with the idea that Abel is still living in Eden today (though Cain is at the garden wall and burning it down as we speak to the tune of several thousand acres a day; in an effort to make Brazil as big of a beef country as Argentina).

          It kind of put me off evangelism for a while as I came to terms with the idea of certain primitive tribes still living without knowledge of sin- and the possibility that it could be evil to bring them out of that state.

          Luckily, being a North American, I’m not faced with that problem in anything other than a theoretical sense. Everybody around me knows what sin is, and those who reject the concept usually have a subjective, emotional reason for doing so.

    • deiseach

      I don’t know what Ted Chiang intended as the meaning of his story or what end he was trying to achieve. If he was trying to portray God as unreasonable and arbitrary, or believers as lacking rationality, I still think he doesn’t achieve what he wanted to achieve with the fate of his character.

      We are supposed (I imagine) to think that what happens is unfair or unjust or wrong. But it’s perfectly just (within the logic of the universe as set up in the story) and more than that, it is an example of having one’s own will be done. The character is warned time and again that he can’t use God as a means to an end, that he can’t try and gain Heaven just to be united with his lost wife. Before his wife died, he was perfectly happy with the idea of going to Hell, because he didn’t expect or see how Heaven could be any gain to him. He even understands that if he does make it to heaven and is reunited with his wife, he will not feel the same love for her that he did on earth, but he still wants to do it anyway.

      So he lived all his life not wanting heaven, until he did want it not for itself but for personal gain, and he tried to use a loophole to get there, and then he is given what I presume is an ironic ending. He is purged of his selfish desires, truly loves God for His own sake, then is deprived of the Beatific Vision.

      This is unjust? But Neil Fisk was counting on that very injustice for his plan to work – if a rapist and murderer can achieve heaven merely by being exposed to the heavenly light, then he can get there the same way. The story makes it plain that he’s not being punished (“He knows his being sent to Hell was not a result of anything he did; he knows there was no reason for it, no higher purpose being served. “) and so it is no more (or less) unjust or unfair for him to be in Hell than it would be for him to be in Heaven. Complaining about the God in this universe makes as much sense as deliberately sticking your hand in a fire and getting burned and complaining that fire burns and it should make an exception in your case.

      He was willing to lose his love as he knew it for his wife just to be reunited with her (which makes no sense; he’s misses her so much he’s willing to give up the feelings that make him miss her?) but in Hell he still keeps those feelings of love. It is a very literal working out of having his will done as he wanted it: he did not want God, he didn’t even want to love God, he wanted only to be reunited with his wife. So he gets what he (didn’t) want; he gets the lack of God that he was perfectly willing to endure when he died. He still doesn’t have his wife, but again, before her accidental death, he was happy enough with the idea that they’d be parted in the afterlife.

      I think the true question we should be asking in this story is not “How is this fair to Neil?” but “How can Neil say he loves Sarah?” Suppose instead of Neil’s desperate attempt to gain Heaven in order to be reunited with Sarah, he instead tried to work out some way of bringing her soul back to earth to be reincarnated, or that he tried to bring her to Hell to be with him there. After all, there is no physical suffering in Hell and they’ll be together again and won’t their love make up for it all? Would we be encouraged to think of him as a hero or an unfortunate then?

      The answers to the problem that the author suggests to us (I think he suggests) is that either (a) everybody stops believing in God so they won’t love Him and won’t suffer when they go to Hell (but in this universe, where God is palpably real, that is like telling people not to believe in sunlight or gravity; how do you do it when you can experience for yourself that it really exists?) or (b) everyone goes to Heaven regardless of whether or not they believe in and love God (but then, why should the families of the dead women be angry the rapist went there, if he could go there anyhow with everyone else?) 0r (c) God should not exist (a bit tricky, that last: it’s rather like Neil and Sarah saying that Ted Chiang should not exist) ; okay then, God should not interfere with humans so that when they die, they – what, just stop existing or go to Heaven and Hell as a complete surprise or what? or (d) human love should trump divine love. Maybe even (e) there should be no such thing as disinterested love, you should only love for what you get in return – and we see that with Neil, whose love for Sarah is in the end a selfish love that wants her for what he can get, not for herself (we don’t get one word from Sarah herself, not even a diary entry or a letter; she just exists to be killed and drive the plot). That makes as much sense as “We should stop believing in God because it won’t get us anything more than we can already get and if we do love disinterestedly, we will only suffer more”.

      But I think we already see, in the fate of Neil, what happens when human love trumps divine love. It’s not God who puts him in Hell, it’s the author. Why does Ted Chiang punish his character like this? If he can explain why he chose to do that, he can explain why Neil is in Hell.

      • Kristen inDallas

        It’s really interesting to me to read your take, because for me, I got something completely different out of the story (I think). I Chiang waws trying to portray God as unjust, I certainly didn’t see it. I would have swore this was an evengelical work.
        It seem like he’s playing with the idea of a world where people are given a bigger picture of God’s plan than we get here (obviously to an extreme). Instead of wondering whether an illness or spontaneous healing is “natural” or “God-intended” people in the story KNOW. But they are still just as confused and messed up as we all are. They still don’t have enough to really understand the “why” of suffering. Of all the characters, whther they’ve been hurt, lost a loved one, been given “a purpose”, or even been miraculously healed, the only ones that ever seem genuinely content with their lot in life are those that have seen God (aka the light). Initially Neil is uncomfortable with loss of earthly things, Ethan uncomfortable with not having a larger role, and (the other girl) who is uncomfortable recieving unearned gifts. All of these would be obstacles (rooted in pride) to accepting a spot in heaven, if left unchecked. At the end of the story, the only one who gets their discomfort removed is Ethan, and his final words sound pretty bleak. I’d pity him if I couldn’t tell myself that he hasn’t died yet and his life is still open to changes. As for Neil, I’m not advocating for hell, but if you have to go, to go knowing exactly the shape of the whole in your heart, seems like a blessing rather than a curse. The author seemed to be portraying that Neil felt that way as well. And his longing for Sarah is replaced by a longing for God. Not that he wouldn’t still be sad, but there are some kinds of sadness which are self-pitying and icky feeling, and there are other kinds of sadness which are really beautiful (like when I cry during the torch lighting scene from the lord of the rings lol), I like to think Neil got that second kind of sadness in the end.

        • deiseach

          I could have (and should have) boiled down my objections to the story as follows: it seems to me that the author is complaining of a lack of justice in that universe. But the real trouble is that there is no lack of justice; what we see, indeed, is naked justice untempered by anything else – “(Ethan) He tells people that they can no more expect justice in the afterlife than in the mortal plane, but he doesn’t do this to dissuade them from worshiping God; on the contrary, he encourages them to do so. What he insists on is that they not love God under a misapprehension, that if they wish to love God, they be prepared to do so no matter what His intentions. God is not just, God is not kind, God is not merciful, and understanding that is essential to true devotion.”

          I would argue that there is justice in the afterlife; Neil was perfectly convinced he would go to Hell, he was content enough to accept that, he even accepted that he would be separated from Sarah in that afterlife. It was only her untimely death that spurred him to try and trick his way into heaven, and he was quite clear that he didn’t want to go for the sake of God, did not want to love God, only wanted to use God as a means to get back with Sarah, even though he accepted that he probably would not feel the same about her when he got there.

          Well, he doesn’t get God, he doesn’t get Sarah, but he still keeps the feelings for her he would have lost had his plan worked. He gets what he expected to get all along. What the real complaint is, is that there is a lack of mercy. That’s a different problem to the one that has been set up in Ted Chiang’s story universe.

  • Evgeni

    Great job at elucidating the point you wanted to make without bringing in bits that would sidetrack things. I’m going to have to look at how you do that, in a structural sense.

  • In some sense priority claims are really dumb… and yet in my small mindedness I can’t resist poking at it a bit. Please forgive the pettiness 😛

    LW didn’t make up the term “ugh field”; I made it up years before LW existed while hanging out with a small group of intellectuals at UCSB. Later, LW functioned as a vector by which the term spread, though mostly outside of my direct awareness. In the early days of OB/LW I looked around a bit… but mostly avoided the site because good friends from UCSB were already in that orbit (which is how LW came to acquire the term) and in the meantime it seemed epistemologically hygienic for some of us (I nominated myself unilaterally) to avoid the echo chamber until it had settled down a bit and I could participate or not with a reasonably good idea of what I might be getting myself into thereby.

    By the time Ugh Fields was written, I’d acquired an account, but I had not realized the term was circulating among F2F communities that grew up through personal connections developed in that forum. For what its worth, I don’t think the term would have caught on so widely if not for having escaped into a community that was (1) so willing to play along with uncredentialed arguments that sounded useful and (2) so coherently focused on verbally articulable techniques for nurturing cognitive efficacy. Which is to say… err…. I guess… I’m proud of the coining even as I recognize the participatory nature of jargon development and popularization 😛

    • grok87

      interesting. got any other phrases you’ve coined that you’d like to share?

  • I think for many Catholics all of Catholicism an ugh field. That is they are afraid there won’t be good answers if they expose their faith to serious rational scrutiny. So they avoid learning their faith. They change the subject when you ask them about it. It is really quite embarrassing. The sad part is there are really good answers to all those questions. Not just good answers but answers so amazingly beautiful that they blow your mind. But you have have the courage to really take the questions seriously.

    It boils down to a misunderstanding of what faith is. It is not refusing to listen to objections. It is an assurance that something is true and therefore it must stand up to rational scrutiny. In fact, asking rational questions is the only way to really understand it. Not listening to objections really shows a lack of assurance in the truth of the proposition. If you really thought it was true the questions would not bother you.

  • TerryC

    In a way we are all incapable of being good Christians. Even Saints only achieve their more perfect following of Christ through God’s grace. I’m glad that once you exercise due diligence that you determined to your own satisfaction that you were able in the present to be a good Christian. I do hope that should circumstances change for you in the future that you don’t let a perception of your own inability to be a good Christian to cause you to fail to follow what you now believe to be true. For a Catholic especially it is important to realize that most of us will fail to follow Christ in all things as we should. It’s why Christ instituted the Sacrament of Confession, and why the Church promotes the Sacrament to all believers.
    As for “uhg” fields in my mind it is an aspect of moral bravery to be able to ignore or overcome the fear that causes one to flinch from data which makes us uncomfortable. Far to many people lack that moral character.

  • Mike

    This is a very useful concept for people to keep in mind; we all have ugh fields. Sometimes I find them useful in the sense that they save me time or energy by helping me avoid going over things I’ve been through. Other times they are a clue that I am not where I should be and that further exploration may be warranted. I seem to run into them alot at work, but that’s not really that related.

    BTW yesterday upon the announcement of the new Pope, I had 5 people in my office talking RCC and religion all of whom I thought were totally uninterested in the subject and who I just assumed were hostile. And BTW I didn’t even initiate the discussion, but it was cordial and we stayed later than usual talking and talking. It’s amazing how many people are interested but too afraid to ask. Of course the holy trinity of left-wing issues came up but even then they were much more open to the message of the RCC than I’d have imagined they’d be.

    • Theodore Seeber

      Me too! I make no secret of being Catholic, but the two other engineers on my team never have mentioned religion to me. I was trying my best to avoid talking about it- until, as we were waiting for a meeting room, one of the other two brought it up.

      We all had a good laugh that the first non-European Pope, was the son of Italian Immigrants, and carries an Italian last name.

  • Darren

    Oho! Chiang’s “Hell is the Absence of God” gets a double thumbs up!

    Did not see the twist at the end coming…

    • Theodore Seeber

      Neither did I. But I am familiar with a major religion that has over 800 million adherants (too lazy to look up the exact number) that has a God that works *EXACTLY* like that. Catholicism doesn’t, and that’s why we have science today.

  • jose

    It’s impossible to be a bad christian. Every interpretation is justified—there are tens of thousands of christian sects.

    • Scott Hebert

      Whatever you may believe, both reason and the Catholic Church disagree with you.

  • grok87

    Habemus Papam Bonum!
    Not exactly on topic, but I thought Leah might apprecate today’s NY Times Op-Ed by David Brooks on Pope Francis where Brooks talks about St. Augustine (are you still allowed to read the NY Times now tthat you are on the Left Coast?)

    “Augustine, as his magisterial biographer Peter Brown puts it, “was deeply preoccupied by the idea of the basic unity of the human race.” He reacted against any effort to divide people between those within the church and those permanently outside. He wanted the church to go on offense and swallow the world. This would involve swallowing impurities as well as purities. It would mean putting to use those who are imperfect. This was the price to be paid if you wanted an active church coexisting with sinners, disciplining and rebuking them.

    Like most of the world, I don’t know much about Pope Francis, but it’s hard not to be impressed by someone who says he prefers a church that suffers “accidents on the streets” to a church that is sick because it self-referentially closes in on itself. It’s hard not to be impressed by someone who stands by traditional Catholic teaching, but then goes out and visits Jeronimo Podesta, a former bishop who had married in defiance of the church and who was dying poor and forgotten. It’s hard not to be impressed by someone who ferociously rebukes those priests who refuse to baptize the children of single mothers. ”

    Habemus Papam Bonum! Praise the Lord that Benedict the Donatist has resigned! Bring on the Vatican III Council!

    • Theodore Seeber

      I doubt very much that hopes of Vatican III will materialize.

      In fact, I’m hoping that instead, after reforming the curia, the City of Rome will be graced with the spectacle of a humble Pope who goes out every night after dinner with a load of sandwiches for the homeless.

      Because, much as we may want Vatican III, the reform that is needed is to find ourselves again.

    • Adam

      Calling Pope Benedict XVI a Donatist seems a bit far-fetched. I’m not aware of him ever teaching that some people were ineligible for the Sacrament of Reconciliation because of the gravity of their sins.

      • grok87

        I was using donatist in the broad sense of David Brooks article. Neo-donatist would be more precise i guess.
        i may have been wrong about Benedict, this article would seem to suggest that.

        • Theodore Seeber

          And yet it all turned out to be correct, when Obama stabbed his Catholic friends in the back with the HHS Mandate and then proceeded to remove freedom of religion from privately owned but open to the public businesses.

    • Darren

      Goodness Grok87… you’re getting all “Modern” on us… 😉

      • grok87

        Perhaps I am a little hard to figure out. I’m all for modernity (Vatican II, etc.) as long as we don’t leave the valuable traditions and wisdom of the past behind.
        Have you read Taleb’s Antifragile yet? he talks a lot about that…

  • Cam

    “Hell is the absence of God” reminded me greatly of Orwell’s ‘Nineteen Eighty-four’: Neil’s eventual love of God struck me as mirroring Winston’s eventual love for big brother in many respects, particularly the mental anguish and torture.

    As an atheist it was a baffling story to read, mostly as its difficult to distinguish which components of the story are meant to correspond to reality (or the religious perception of reality at least), and which were meant to be fantasy. The angels? ‘Visitations?’ Seeing hell from earth? This is quite a problem when reading religious fiction. The whole narrative seemed very unorthodox either way.

    “Most people he met assumed God was responsible for this, but Neil’s mother hadn’t witnessed any visitations while carrying him; his condition was the result of improper limb development during the sixth week of gestation, nothing more.”
    – I don’t understand when religious people think this way. Either God created improper limb development, or one of God’s defective creations created it, and God allows it. The buck stops at the top. The only solution here is to throw your arms in the air and say that you can’t know who created illness and why, or you can’t know for sure illness actually exists. Sectioning elements from the universe and claiming their existence doesn’t flow from God contradicts most monotheistic theology.

  • Minah

    Here’s an “ugh field” for you that Christians love to shy away from: this is not a monocausal world.

    Drop a piece of paper and then try to list the reasons why it came to rest exactly the way it did. You will probably decide you have better things to do before you’re finished. Then take a more complex event and try to list the reasons for that. You have a good chance there will be more of them than you could name in your lifetime. You can search your life forward and backward, and you will not find a single event that has only one single reason, only one contributing factor. You can search history, paleontology, geology, cosmology – all with the same result.

    The simple statement that no event has only one reason is the most time-proven and well-tested theory ever conceived. It plays out in every moment of our lives. Furthermore, the number of reasons tends to increase quite dramatically with the complexity of an event. Yet Christians, in their pathological arrogance and vanity, claim to know that the most complex event known – the emergence of the universe as we know it – has only one single ultimate reason. And better yet, they claim to know what that reason is. If you were the “rationalist” and the “geek” you claim you are, you would think this through to the end and come to the realization that your theistic beliefs are delusional.

    • deiseach

      Mmm. This reminds me of the joke argument that you have two parents. Your parents each have two parents, which makes four people needed to produce you. Go back to great-grandparents, back again, back again. With every generation more people are needed merely to produce one person, so where did all these millions of past ancestors come from in the first place?

      Of course, that is not a serious explanation of how humans arose. Saying that the further back in time we go, the more and more complex and complicated are the factors that caused the universe and all its components to come into being, invites the obvious rejoinder that you have just proven the universe is too complicated to exist – yet here we are!

      I don’t worry too much about why or if it was absolutely necessary for the Big Bang to happen, and I don’t worry about Absolute Divine Simplicity either. Call me arrogant, if you like.

    • Mitchell Porter

      Hello Mina, good to see you again… Reality is unity as well as multiplicity, and reason requires synthesis as well as analysis. You may choose to be the advocate of polyphony and multiplicity, but your opponents will still have a point. Why can’t a chain of many interacting causes start with a single cause?

      • Minah

        Hi Mitchell, I haven’t forgotten you and that e-mail, but the newest addition to our family is somewhat limiting my available online time 😉 I am not an advocate of anything, just an observer. The answer here is quite simple: your single cause argument requires an environment which allows, among other things, multiple consequences, and that environment becomes a cause in its own right.

    • grok87

      While I disagree with your adjectives (“pathological arrogance” and “vanity”) I quite agree, as a Christian, that our claims are outrageous- mind-boggling. I think in fact you have understated them In addition, we believe that God, the creator, unaccountably loves and cares for us beyond imagining. This post is too short to discuss those claims. But briefly, it all goes back to Judaism-there is very little that is new in Christianity.
      From today’s Divine Office:
      Psalm 3
      “But you, Lord, are a shield about me, my glory, who lift up my head.
      I cry aloud to the Lord. He answers from his holy mountain.
      I lie down to rest and I sleep. I wake, for the Lord upholds me.
      I will not fear even thousands of people who are ranged on every side against me.”

      • Minah

        => While I disagree with your adjectives (“pathological arrogance” and “vanity”)

        Harsh as they may sound, I am afraid they are well-deserved. The belief that you of all people know how the universe emerged – without even trying to understand its complexity – is both unimaginably vain and unimaginably arrogant. Moreover, given the effort required to understand even relatively simple processes, your belief is also delusional, out of touch with reality. Hence the adjective “pathological”. I could discuss the limitations of human intuition, but suffice it to say, it is a great tool for solving simple problems quickly, while it is hopelessly out of its league when it comes to processing complex information.

        => I quite agree, as a Christian, that our claims are outrageous- mind-boggling.

        They are quite simply false. The Christian creation myth may have been a contender for explaining the origins of the universe 2,000 years ago, but that is no longer the case today. We can now say with confidence that the planet Earth is not the oldest object in the universe. Christianity is an obsolete theory. The Christian “god” is quite literally dead. You can worship its corpse all you want, but it is still a corpse (sorry about the metaphorical language, Mitchell).

        => I think in fact you have understated them In addition, we believe that God, the creator, unaccountably loves and cares for us beyond imagining.

        You pick a random high-level concept (“love”, “morality”, whatever) that is relevant to humans of our time period, but not to the rest of the universe, not to our distant ancestors and conceivably not to an evolved form of our species. And then you claim that it is what makes the universe tick. The fact that those concepts are vaguely defined, have different meanings for different people, should already tell you that they are emergent phenomena, not things that are in some way “atomic”. There is no one single “love”, nor is there one single “morality”. Those English words refer to a diverse, somewhat discontinuous collection of different things. You could make a far stronger case for money being a universal absolute than for love or morality.

        You are under the illusion that concepts which are relevant to you must be relevant to everyone and everything. Of course, your intuition may tell you they are. But then see above about human intuition. It evolved to provide quick responses to simple stimuli, not to explain the origins of the universe. And yet you listen to it, because hey, it is a nice idea that the things you consider important for yourself must be objectively important. Because that idea makes you feel important, does it not? You, the center of the universe. And then you externalize it and call it “God” to make it sound humble. No, it is not humble. It is arrogant, vain and self-centered.

        => This post is too short to discuss those claims. But briefly, it all goes back to Judaism-there is very little that is new in Christianity.

        Neither was there in Judaism. Religions, like most human inventions, evolved over a long period of time.

        => […random quote from Christian mythology…]

        I look forward to the day when your “bible” becomes one more collection of harmless bedtime stories for children, alongside the Ancient Greek Odyssey, the Ancient Norse Saga or the Gilgamesh Epic. I have no illusions that this will happen in my lifetime, but who knows – even Atheists have their miracles 🙂

    • Theodore Seeber

      I thought that was what we meant by “God” all along- that only an OMNIPRESENT mind could put together a lot of diverse and complex causes to produce a single effect.

      Of course, first you have to get over your ugh field around suffering to do so.

      • Minah

        What gives you that idea? You don’t need a single binding principle (let alone anything resembling a sentient mind) to have some form of organization.

  • Jack

    “Assume Christianity is true. Christianity requires trait X, which I lack. Oh dear.”

    Oh dear! Yeah, you know what you lack? It’s called Christianity.
    You guys are idiots. This monkey entered the church beacause in her mind it’s easier to babble her bullshit, and it’s harder for the church to dismiss her if she’s a member. In her mind.

  • What struck me most about THE GREAT DIVORCE is how Lewis had to make the damned behave in ways that ring false to make the story fit his theological views.
    “Hell is the Absence of God” is a good contrast. I found the behavior and emotional reactions so much more realistic and believable in Chiang’s story.

  • “There is a certain logic to what he portrays–if you truly loved God absolutely, it wouldn’t matter if you were in Heaven or Hell….”

    In the context of the story, it mattered a great deal. The protagonist was one of the few individuals for whom hell was a place of great suffering.

    ” However, a universe such as he Chiang portrays would be a horrible one. In a world such as that, one might argue about what the rational strategy would be–is it better to have a vision of the Divine Light and love God perfectly and perhaps still be separated from Him eternally; or to risk Hell, which seems no worse than Earth; or to attempt to attain Heaven, the criteria for which are very unclear? ”

    The God of that universe was pretty clearly a monster. The God of most forms of Christianity is even worse though—the hell of Chiang’s story is not the place of eternal torment for most of it’s inhabitants that it traditionally has been in Christianity. I think that’s the central point of the story: even believers in God will likely be jolted into perceiving the story’s God as a monster—despite it being far less cruel in it’s treatment of the damned than in their own theologies. Though I suspect too many will fail to perceive that their own God is worse than the one they just reacted so negatively to in Chiang’s story.