Monday Meslier: 184 – Can We Love God?


Can We, Or Should We, Love Or Not Love God?

Jean Meslier Portrait

Jean Meslier

The Christian Doctors have made their God so little worthy of love, that several among them have thought it their duty not to love Him; this is a blasphemy which makes less sincere doctors tremble.

Saint Thomas, having asserted that we are under obligation to love God as soon as we can use our reason, the Jesuit Sirmond replied to him that that was very soon; the Jesuit Vasquez claims that it is sufficient to love God in the hour
of death; Hurtado says that we should love God at all times; Henriquez is content with loving Him every five years; Sotus, every Sunday. “Upon what shall we rely?” asks Father Sirmond, who adds: “that Suarez desires that we should love God sometimes. But at what time? He allows you to judge of it; he knows nothing about it himself; for he adds: ‘What a learned doctor does not know, who can know?'” The same Jesuit Sirmond continues, by saying: “that God does not command us to love Him with human affection, and does not promise us salvation but on condition of giving Him our hearts; it is enough to obey Him and to love Him, by fulfilling His commandments; that this is the only love which we owe Him, and He has not commanded so much to love Him as not to hate Him.”

[Voltaire notes: See “Apology, Des Lettres Provinciales,” Tome II.] This doctrine appears heretical, ungodly, and abominable to the Jansenists, who, by the revolting severity which they attribute to their God, render Him still less lovable than their adversaries, the Jesuits. The latter, in order to make converts, represent God in such a light as to give confidence to the most perverse mortals. Thus, nothing is less established among the Christians than the important question, whether we can or should love or not love God. Among their spiritual guides some pretend that we must love God with all the heart, notwithstanding all His severity; others, like the Father Daniel, think that an act of pure love of God is the most heroic act of Christian virtue, and that human weakness can scarcely reach so high. The Jesuit Pintereau goes still further; he says: “The deliverance from the grievous yoke of Divine love is a privilege of the new alliance.”

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I’ve always felt that the idea of “loving god” or “god’s love” – either of them – is some kind of category error. If god were actually infinite, immortal, all-powerful, omniscient, and omnipresent, how can a mere mortal even apply the word “love” to an emotion directed at such an entity? For does not “loving” something entail understanding it, appreciating it, or knowing something about it?* We are no more equipped to understand and love a god, proportionally, than a bacterium in my colon is equipped to love and appreciate me. And a supreme, omnipotent, omnipresent being – even if it is an infinite micromanager – can no more shower love on me than I can on any particular E. Coli. Indeed, saying that god has a “chosen people” makes about as much sense as me having a preferred strain of intestinal bacteria: they are unnoticed and beneath notice to me, and to them, I am not a discernable thing, I am their universe.

The latter point has always made me doubt the few agnostics/deists that I encounter. They appear to venerate the universe, since that’s all they know anything about, and that puts them very much in the same camp as a worshipful intestinal bacterium: “Oh, mighty warm thing that is my home, uh, thank you for, uh, being my home.” It’s a philosophy that’s certainly on a bacterial level of sophistication. One either wishes to be treated with the respect that we show to our intestinal flora, or one is putting on great airs indeed.divider2

(* In my experience with other animals that are less intellectually advanced than humans – horses, dogs, cats, rats, snakes – I have often wondered at what point it is no longer possible to use “love” to describe the emotion they appear to feel for their caretaker. I am comfortable saying my dogs loved me. I am comfortable saying my horses loved me, in their own horsey way. Perhaps even my cats, though they seemed to love me more like one appreciates a prompt and excellent waiter. The difference between dog and man, and horse and man, is certainly not that great compared to the difference between god and man. I don’t feel any qualms about what happens to my intestinal bacteria, I certainly don’t love them, and I don’t mind putting them in water with bleach. Hmmm, perhaps I am godlike, after all.)

Comments

  1. Trickster Goddess says

    I’ve always had trouble with the idea of being “commanded” to love God. Emotions just don’t work that way.

  2. John Morales says

    Owlmirror, um. As with most such allegories, I really don’t get the point.

    In passing, presumably the title is a deliberate misnomer; if literal, it should be something like In Hell, God is Absent given the narrative.

  3. says

    Owlmirror@#2:
    I’d never read that before. It’s, um… I rummaged around in there a bit looking for a point but I couldn’t find much of one.

    I’m a big non-fan of arguing by analogy or allegories, and that’s a perfect example of why: the author gets so wrapped up in this allegedly fictional hypothetical that they spend a huge amount of time beating around in the weeds (of their own creation) rather than just saying whatever it was they originally set out to say. It also comes across to me as a bit of a cheat; the author is ascribing to Neil a set of behaviors and beliefs that seem rather ridiculous to me; when I see that I immediately sense a rhetorical trick is being employed to protect the author’s “true beliefs” from mockery or to avoid having to confront their falseness.

    Chiang appears to be trying to come to grips with the problem Meslier identifies; I think there are probably simpler and more effective ways to do it. But a little divine torture-porn first thing in the morning is just the thing to get my blood moving, so thanks for sharing it!

  4. John Morales says

    Marcus, thing is, I checked goodreads and other review sites after reading the story, and many people find it an excellent story and very insightful and meaningful — though they’re vague as to why.

    I can’t even tell whether it’s pro- or contra- Goddism, to be honest. Which seems to be a point in its favour according to reviewers.

    [Digression from your post, I know]

  5. Owlmirror says

    Hm,

    I figured that the point was what the ending of the story emphasizes: people tend to ascribe to God these positive attributes like “kindness” and “fairness” and “just”, but these terms are not being used correctly when applied to God — regardless of whether God is cruel/unfair/unjust (which the author avoids saying), or so incomprehensible that he just seems cruel/unfair/unjust (which seems like the sort of excuse that an actual theist might use), it is not honest to weaken the meanings of the words by using them incorrectly. Or something to that effect.

    In general, I would say that Chiang does not come across as viewing God-belief and worship as being positive — only as emotions and behaviors that are part of the human experience, and that he tries to explore in this story.

    @Marcus Ranum:

    the author is ascribing to Neil a set of behaviors and beliefs that seem rather ridiculous to me

    I don’t understand this at all.

    In the context of the story, Neil believes that he is going to go to Hell because he does not love God (and as best he knows, loving God is a perquisite for going to Heaven). He falls in love with someone who does love God and is seen to rise to Heaven when she dies. Neil loves and misses her, and wants to reunite with her after death, and as best he knows, the only way to do so is to catch a glimpse of Heaven (and so be changed into someone who loves God).

    Which of Neil’s beliefs and behaviors are ridiculous in the face of how he thinks the world works and how he feels about his wife?

  6. John Morales says

    Owlmirror @6 to Marcus:

    Which of Neil’s beliefs and behaviors are ridiculous in the face of how he thinks the world works and how he feels about his wife?

    Since Marcus didn’t, I shall respond: his belief and behaviour once in Hell.

    (He changed once, why can’t he change again?)

    re #7, that was a much better story in my estimation (and actually comprehensible), though I lost my suspension of disbelief when the antagonist showed up. Reminiscent of A. E. van Vogt.

  7. springa73 says

    On a different note, I don’t think that the human-universe / gut bacterium-human comparison in the last part of the original post is a very accurate one. For one thing, as far as we know, a bacterium is incapable of feeling any emotions about anything, whereas people are very emotional about all sorts of things. I don’t see any reason why a person should be incapable of loving something far greater than themselves, or something that they do not understand. As for God loving something infinitely smaller, again, why would that not be possible for an entity that is capable of anything?

    Part of the problem might be that the word “love” in English can have several meanings. I remember reading that in the Ancient Greek that was used to write the New Testament, the word for the love between God and people is actually a different word than the word used to describe emotional love between people, and that there is a third word that was used for physical love/sex. English uses the same word for all three meanings.

  8. John Morales says

    springa73, it’s a question of scale.

    (Me, I’d have gone for a protein molecule in an organelle in a cell in a dog’s tail, thinking it wags the dog)

    As for ‘love’, there are than a mere three senses to the English word, especially when loosely used.

    (I love raspberry jam)
    (cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greek_words_for_love )

    As for God loving something infinitely smaller, again, why would that not be possible for an entity that is capable of anything?

    <snicker>

    Leaving aside the utter silliness of that concept, is that entity capable of contradicting itself?

    If not, there are some things of which it is not capable.

    If yes, consider the principle of explosion.

  9. Owlmirror says

    @John Morales:

    Owlmirror @6 to Marcus:

    Which of Neil’s beliefs and behaviors are ridiculous in the face of how he thinks the world works and how he feels about his wife?

    Since Marcus didn’t, I shall respond: his belief and behaviour once in Hell.
    (He changed once, why can’t he change again?)

    Huh. That still makes no sense to me.

    As I understand it, Neil’s nature is such that before he sees Heaven’s light, he is incapable of loving God. But seeing Heaven’s light is itself an irreversible transformative experience. After the event, he is incapable of not loving God.

    Are you saying that Neil should be able to untransform himself by an act of will?

    You write that he changed, but it seems to me a misreading of the text to infer that he had control over all aspects of how he changed, so that he could just undo them.

  10. John Morales says

    Owlmirror, no, I’m was and am saying I find Neil’s Hellish belief and behaviour ridiculous.

    He’s physically fine, but he “is experiencing more anguish than was possible when he was alive” (he’s not alive?) and all he does is suffer and love unconditionally that which caused his anguish.
    He could have a normal Hellish life (like most other Hellions), but doesn’t care to do so, preferring to suffer instead.

    As I understand it, Neil’s nature is such that before he sees Heaven’s light, he is incapable of loving God. But seeing Heaven’s light is itself an irreversible transformative experience. After the event, he is incapable of not loving God.

    You’re saying the text implies he was changed by an external agency, and that this is an irrevocable change. I was thinking the change evoked an epiphany, but he remained Neil even if changed, so he perforce remained capable of change.

    But yeah, re-reading the passage in question I think you’re right. It’s not that Neil-that-is doesn’t care to do otherwise than suffer pointlessly, it’s that he can’t do otherwise.

    (So, on examination, I find the story anti-Goddist — it predicates God, but it’s a cruel god)

  11. says

    owlmirror@#6:
    In the context of the story, Neil believes that he is going to go to Hell because he does not love God (and as best he knows, loving God is a perquisite for going to Heaven). He falls in love with someone who does love God and is seen to rise to Heaven when she dies. Neil loves and misses her, and wants to reunite with her after death, and as best he knows, the only way to do so is to catch a glimpse of Heaven (and so be changed into someone who loves God).

    The whole story hangs upon Neil believing a bunch of stuff that makes no sense at all to me. That’s what I mean that his beliefs are ridiculous – in the face of all the evidence of what happens to you when you die, he believes people “rise to heaven” or reunite after death. The only reason Chiag’s story hangs together at all is because he’s referencing a particular set of cultural norms: christianity. If Chiang told the story about people who believed in pokemon, or totoro, it would be ridiculous: why would I care about totoro after I die? I’ll be dead.

    I’ve always been this way, as far as I recall – when someone starts talking about things that supposedly happen after death, it completely fails to make any sense to me at all. They may as well be saying “blah blah blah woof woof” – our bodies’ relationship with their life and physical reality (pain, threat avoidance, illness, healing) are so obviously concerned with keeping alive, it screams the utter falsehood of any speculation about life after death. So Neil is speculating about something that he ought to know – at a somatic level – isn’t true. I feel sorry for him, but I don’t see any point in engaging intellectually with his delusions.

    ridiculous in the face of how he thinks the world works and how he feels about his wife?

    He’s not a credible character, to me. But if I try to step into his shoes and think about how he thinks the world works, I can’t do it because he appears to understand “dead” and able to understand “dead wife” and “dead wife that is not dead, ascended to heaven” contradicts “dead wife”

    I can imagine a character that believes totoro is real, but totoro is less contradictory than “dead but not dead.”

  12. says

    springa73@#9:
    On a different note, I don’t think that the human-universe / gut bacterium-human comparison in the last part of the original post is a very accurate one. For one thing, as far as we know, a bacterium is incapable of feeling any emotions about anything, whereas people are very emotional about all sorts of things.

    I agree that the comparison is not accurate; that’s what I get for breaking my rule about not arguing by analogy: it often obscures my point more than it illuminates it.

    a bacterium is incapable of feeling any emotions about anything, whereas people are very emotional about all sorts of things

    When I made that analogy, I was actually thinking along the axis you mention – emotional capacity – rather than just size and fecundity. In terms of a human’s ability to feel emotions, wouldn’t a supreme being capable of creating universes be more capable of feeling and understanding emotions than a human to a bacterium? Our ability to experience emotional depth must be completely different from a god’s (For one thing: gods have this incomprehensible-to-this-mere-human desire to be worshipped; that makes no sense to me but that’s because I am as emotionally sophisticated as a bacterium in comparison to a god)

    Your reaction was exactly what I was trying to lllustrate: bacteria don’t feel emotions. Well that’s because you define “emotions” in human terms. We can ascribe a “desire to live” to bacteria, as we can to other life.

    I don’t see any reason why a person should be incapable of loving something far greater than themselves, or something that they do not understand.

    “I love the continent Europe”
    “I love the planet Mars”
    “I adore the Kuyper Belt”

    I don’t want to argue in bad faith, by bringing my own definitions into the discussion, but I’d say that my definition of “love” involves having some kind of understanding of what we love. So, my dogs probably “loved” me because they understood certain lovable things about me, such as that I rubbed their noses, fed them, patched their boo-boos, etc. They did no love Europe because they had no idea what Europe is or even that it exists at all. On that same scale, we probably know less about god than we know about the Kuyper Belt.

    As for God loving something infinitely smaller, again, why would that not be possible for an entity that is capable of anything?

    As you said, it’s not the scale, it’s the level of practical detail. In principle I could get to know every one of the bacteria in my colon; I could name them and watch them like god watches every sparrow. But what’s the point of that? What’s the point of god watching over individual humans? What does “watching over” even mean when you’re talking about 7 billion humans or 100 trillion bacteria in my gut?

  13. says

    John Morales@#10:
    (Me, I’d have gone for a protein molecule in an organelle in a cell in a dog’s tail, thinking it wags the dog)

    That’s a good one. “Clearly, this dog was created for me.”

  14. Owlmirror says

    @John Morales:

    re-reading the passage in question I think you’re right. It’s not that Neil-that-is doesn’t care to do otherwise than suffer pointlessly, it’s that he can’t do otherwise.

    One of the points that have occurred to me is that the story was intended to emphasize the choice between Heaven and Hell was meant to be “not coerced” by the threat of torture; as the author states:

    Pope John Paul II once said, “Rather than a physical place, Hell is the state of those who freely and definitively separate themselves from God.” One of the interesting things about this conception of Hell is that it makes the search for salvation a real choice. If your only two choices were eternal torture or worshipping a possum cap, you’d probably pick the latter, but that wouldn’t constitute a powerful recommendation; anything is better than eternal torture. Your decision to worship someone only becomes meaningful when it’s not coerced.

    Yet the strong implication in the story is that seeing the light of Heaven forces those people who view it to love God; that they are coerced into doing so. This is emphasized at the points where even a serial rapist/ murderer who views that light (while disposing of one of his victims!) changes in the exact same way as everyone else who does so, or where it states that Janice no longer has a message that is unique to herself, but rather one that echoes those of every other light-of-Heaven-changed person.

    I suspect that Chiang was trying to reference two types of religious believers in his story; the majority who struggle to keep the faith despite having doubts and moments of human weakness, and those rare ones who have some sort of transforming religious experience, like the canonical example of Paul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus. I think Chiang was aware of the inconsistency between the general rule and the less-than-usual cases; he definitely seems to be emphasizing that God is not consistent, and that inconsistency is part of the essential God.

    Something that occurred to me that it the story seems to have set up that angels actually have “more” free will than humans. Humans who directly experience Heaven (whether by seeing the light while living, or after dying and going to Heaven) are all changed to beatifically rejoice in God. But angels, who were all presumably created in Heaven and therefore directly experiencing God, have the ability to reject God and Heaven and become fallen. Ted Chiang, as far as I know, does not revisit the worlds of any of his stories, but I kind of hope that he would be willing to do so in order to write one that involves something like an interview with a fallen angel, perhaps also in light of the fate of Neil Fisk, that goes into this and expands on their choice. It’s all very well to say, as they are quoted as saying, “Decide for yourselves”, but surely there could be something they could add to that about what informed their decisions.

    It also occurred to me that the omniscient narrator of the story — who somehow knows what Neil feels in Hell — might in fact be a fallen angel in the world of the story.

    (So, on examination, I find the story anti-Goddist — it predicates God, but it’s a cruel god)

    Yes: “God is not just, God is not kind, God is not merciful”. Some religious people who have read the story have powerful negative reactions to that conclusion, but I think they are just shocked by the bluntness.

    The God of the Bible/Quran is not kind either, and examples where God causes unnecessary pain/suffering/distress can be found throughout those texts.

    Indeed, the God of Chiang’s story is less cruel than the God of the monotheistic religions, in that fewer people suffer needlessly in Chiang’s world.

  15. Owlmirror says

    Bleh. Errata:
    “and that inconsistency is part of the essential God”
    should read
    “and that inconsistency is part of the essential nature of God.”

  16. Owlmirror says

    @Marcus Ranum:

    The whole story hangs upon Neil believing a bunch of stuff that makes no sense at all to me. That’s what I mean that his beliefs are ridiculous – in the face of all the evidence of what happens to you when you die, he believes people “rise to heaven” or reunite after death. The only reason Chiag’s story hangs together at all is because he’s referencing a particular set of cultural norms: christianity. If Chiang told the story about people who believed in pokemon, or totoro, it would be ridiculous: why would I care about totoro after I die? I’ll be dead.

    I . . . really have no idea how you engage with fiction at all, given this. I suppose, though, that you cannot help what you feel about certain things being ridiculous.

    It seems odd to me, though, you can talk about God as a putative existing entity, and make arguments following from that premise, and yet cannot even approach the putative premise of “something from a human (immortal soul/spirit/ghost/atman/whatever) can continue to exist after the physical body stops working”. I mean, I agree that there is no reason to think such a thing exists, but that’s a conclusion based on investigations of how physics works: There is no room for ghosts (as being something made of a substance distinct from everything else we’ve found out about physical reality) in our knowledge of physics. But you really cannot even imagine such a thing without thinking it ridiculous?

    Oddly enough, I am reminded of an idea I pitched to David Heddle a while back (the full thread is here, but comments don’t show up unless javascript is disabled, the formatting is munged, and I have no idea how to link to a specific comment).

    Let me re-write the idea completely:

    Posit that a God exists. This God is Knowledgeable++ (where that means “knows every provable noncontradictory logically true fact, and everything about every particle in the universe, from at least the Big Bang to the ultimate fate of the universe (whatever that might be)), and Powerful++ (where that means “can perform any action involving particles in our universe and in any potentially adjacent universe, instantaneously (or in a negligible amount of time)”)(I’m using those terms so as to avoid any potential digressions into contradictions based on all-knowing/all-powerful). It’s also immortal, of course.

    So if this God existed, it would be able to create “you” (or any other human, multiple times if it so wished) again after you died — it could access the state vector of your brain from just before you died (or earlier, if you succumbed to dementia), recreate it, atom by atom, and put it in a body created from its knowledge of that state vector (plus any beneficial modifications, like healing chronic injuries or defects or whatnot). God could then put that recreated “you” somewhere else, like in a universe parallel to our own, on a planet similar enough to our own that you would feel mostly comfortable.

    Alternatively, God could “run” a simulated instantiation of you, providing simulated inputs to all of your senses; you would be a sort of brain in a jar inside God’s mind.

    Thus, an “immortal soul” is not a substance that we can actually discover using physics experiments; it refers to a putative God’s putative knowledge of every single thing about you that can be used to recreate you.

    Does this make the concept less inherently ridiculous to you?

  17. says

    owlmirror@#18:
    I . . . really have no idea how you engage with fiction at all, given this. I suppose, though, that you cannot help what you feel about certain things being ridiculous.

    That’s a good point!!! I guess that’s part of my problem with metaphysical hypotheticals: I see them like they’re a really bad plot device. At the point where the script-writer has gone so far off the rails that my head is aching from eyeball-rolling, they haven’t even gotten close to the level of suspension of disbelief that the catholics expect.

    you can talk about God as a putative existing entity, and make arguments following from that premise, and yet cannot even approach the putative premise of “something from a human (immortal soul/spirit/ghost/atman/whatever) can continue to exist after the physical body stops working”

    Yes, it just sticks in my brain as a contradiction in terms. Like a particularly bad science fiction plot. For example, I am very fond of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan series, and I had minimal difficulty swallowing cryo-suspension and revival burn as plot devices. For sure, if her characters that “died” and were revived suffered that experience with no damage at all, I probably would have thrown the book against the wall and taken it to the goodwill along with all the John Ringo and John C. Wright books. If you want to understand how I feel when someone starts hypothesizing goddy stuff, it’s pretty much like that, “crap, this novel really sucks!”

    Come to think of it, I had no problem with Iain Banks’ invoking ‘Hell’ as an experience in “The Hydrogen Sonata” because he presented a semi-plausible plot around it, contextualized it so it made sense, and arguably might happen. I picture you bugging your eyes out at me as I say that, but, yeah. I find Banks much more plausible than catholicism because he attempted to explain his phenomenon and make it plausible. And come to think of it, I had no problems with Mark Twain’s character of Captain Stormfield in his “Extract from Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven” because, again, Twain was trying to come to grips with some of the expected consequences of what it might be like if all that stuff were true.

    I probably would be OK with the hypotheticals about Neil if it was a science fiction story and the writer attempted to make Neil’s beliefs somewhat grounded in something plausible. Then I could suspend disbelief.

    There is no room for ghosts (as being something made of a substance distinct from everything else we’ve found out about physical reality) in our knowledge of physics. But you really cannot even imagine such a thing without thinking it ridiculous?

    I really can’t!! I immediately begin to deconstruct it and it becomes ridiculous. Actually, I have been meaning to write a piece about ghosts, and what seeing ghosts would entail, etc.

    Now, if you tell me a story about someone who has been hypnotized to see ghosts… Oh, OK. I’ll buy that.

    So if this God existed, it would be able to create “you” (or any other human, multiple times if it so wished) again after you died — it could access the state vector of your brain from just before you died (or earlier, if you succumbed to dementia), recreate it, atom by atom, and put it in a body created from its knowledge of that state vector (plus any beneficial modifications, like healing chronic injuries or defects or whatnot). God could then put that recreated “you” somewhere else, like in a universe parallel to our own, on a planet similar enough to our own that you would feel mostly comfortable.

    OK, so god is in command of the transporter bay of NCC-1701 and has jiggered the interlocks so that he can use the matter transporter as a duplicator, and has found an out of the way planet, and amuses himself by duplicating James T. Kirk so he can make him artfully rip his shirt over and over again. I can get behind that. Actually, I think that’s John Scalzi’s “Red Shirts” which was pretty good…

    Thus, an “immortal soul” is not a substance that we can actually discover using physics experiments; it refers to a putative God’s putative knowledge of every single thing about you that can be used to recreate you.

    Does this make the concept less inherently ridiculous to you?

    Yeeeeeeeeeeeees (he said, guardedly)
    But then the epicurean in me kicks in and says “it’s not worth worrying about, because anything as powerful as all that is going to to do whatever it’s going to do and my actions, desires, intents, are all as nothing to such a creature.”
    I see your point: I can hypothesize something semi-plausible, but even then my mind immediately starts picking out the continuity problems and it turns into a really bad sci-fi novel.

    I guess that’s how I’d put it back to you: if you read the story about Neil as if it was a sci-fi novel, would you get past the first page before you were thinking “WTF is this?”

  18. says

    Owlmirror:
    Something that occurred to me that it the story seems to have set up that angels actually have “more” free will than humans.

    Here’s another thing: often when I read things I translate them into my own perspective so that they can become plausible enough to think about without hurting myself or getting bored. When someone starts talking to me about free will or morals/ethics I pretty much translate their words on ingestion into “illusion of free will” and “opinions about morals” – I find that then what they are saying actually makes quite a bit of sense. Of course, it’s not being intellectually honest with their ideas but I don’t think those particular ideas are coherent enough to be intellectually honest about, if that makes sense. If we were talking about a character like Ava in a sci-fi movie like “Ex Machina” and the critical part of the plot was about exploring the issues of the robot’s being programmed to act as if it had free will, why then I’d find it quite plausible, even fascinating. But when someone goddy just says “you have free will” … ugh, wow, what a sophisticated plot device.

  19. Owlmirror says

    [Sorry this is so late] (do late responses bother you? PZ sometimes gets upset about people resurrecting a “dead” thread; I take that opposite view that almost any conversation worth having is worth continuing at a later date)

    @Marcus Ranum:

    And come to think of it, I had no problems with Mark Twain’s character of Captain Stormfield in his “Extract from Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven” because, again, Twain was trying to come to grips with some of the expected consequences of what it might be like if all that stuff were true.

    But… that’s exactly why I like Chiang’s story. It’s not like Twain and Chiang differ that much on the point of positing “there exists some part of a human that can continue after death” and “some sort of God exists”, while they go in very different directions on the details of those premises.

    I probably would be OK with the hypotheticals about Neil if it was a science fiction story and the writer attempted to make Neil’s beliefs somewhat grounded in something plausible.

    You know, one of the things that bugs me about this criticism that I finally got around to articulating, is that the placing the problem with Neil is just inappropriate. Chiang goes out of his way to emphasize, in the story, that Neil’s beliefs are based on what the world he lives in is like. It’s like saying that you can’t believe that Gulliver Foyle believes that he can teleport (because teleportation is ridiculous) in “The Stars My Destination”, despite the fact that the entire introduction to the story describes how most people in Foyle’s future world can teleport. Maybe you do think Bester’s story is ridiculous, but it’s not because of what Foyle believes; it’s the entire premise of the world.

    If your problem is with the world-building, that’s how you should express it: “A world where God and souls exists is too ridiculous for me to believe”. Except now your statement about Twain’s story is inconsistent with that criticism, too. So I’m even more at a loss.

    [I’ve got more to say on the topic, but once again time pressure is pushing me away]

  20. Owlmirror says

    [OK, maybe I have more time than I thought]

    @Marcus Ranum, continuing my previous post:

    One of the problems with religious believers is that their concept of God is deeply inconsistent with reality, and with itself. They all too often go from expressing the idea that God is some sort of inhuman, and perhaps even impersonal, abstract fundamental principle; the ground of being (“cosmic muffin”), and then switch to express the idea that God is indeed personal and involved with humanity, and did all of the things that the bible claims about God (“hairy thunderer”).

    Twain, obviously, was trying to present a depiction of a pluralistic Heaven that ultimately was not consistent with what the most devout religious people believe (but might actually be consistent with what more religious people believe; pluralism/non-exclusionism appears to be more common, according to some Pew studies).

    Chiang, on the other hand, is trying for something a bit closer to what the devout conceive of as Heaven — a place for people who love God unconditionally, and where those who could not achieve that degree of love are excluded.

    There’s more to it than that, of course. Maybe I’ll figure out how to articulate it better at some point

    I guess that’s how I’d put it back to you: if you read the story about Neil as if it was a sci-fi novel, would you get past the first page before you were thinking “WTF is this?”

    But I do think that it’s SF, for more fantastic definitions of SF. I don’t think that teleportation-as-an-act-of-will is possible, and I am more than a little leery about teleportation as a more general concept, but I do think that “The Stars My Destination” is nonetheless SF.

    Incidentally, I dug up web archive links to a couple more of Chiang’s works:

    72 Letters — the premise are that golems work, and the preformation/homunculus concept of reproduction are true. I don’t know if just reading that will make you reject it as ridiculous, but there it is.

    The Story of Your Life — Aliens arrive. The basic story is about a linguist struggling to communicate with them; but it gets more complex. In addition to the premise of aliens from outer space, there’s the premise that language affects human mental abilities (strong Sapir-Whorf). The story was made into a film that just now opened (Arrival) (which I haven’t seen yet)

    @#20, Regarding free will — I probably expressed that poorly. Maybe it would make more sense if I wrote it as “angels are psychologically or psychically stronger/more resistant than humans”. An analogy that occurred to me was that, for example, there’s a place where there’s strobe lights of certain shades and intensities flashing at particular frequencies. All humans happen to have a vulnerability to this strobe that causes them to have an intense, continuous temporal lobe seizure, and cannot turn away from the light. Angels are analogous to a smaller sub-population that is capable of resisting the strobe to a certain degree and turning away.

  21. says

    Owlmirror@#21:
    do late responses bother you? PZ sometimes gets upset about people resurrecting a “dead” thread; I take that opposite view that almost any conversation worth having is worth continuing at a later date

    I had the blog set to auto-disable comments on posts older than 14 days; you got in right under the wire. So I extended it to 30 days. I do think some discussions are worth continuing. After a certain point, I think we risk repeating ratholes if we don’t completely reload our context.

    But… that’s exactly why I like Chiang’s story. It’s not like Twain and Chiang differ that much on the point of positing “there exists some part of a human that can continue after death” and “some sort of God exists”, while they go in very different directions on the details of those premises.

    Yes, I think I’m coming around to your view. I think that my reaction was emotional, based on Chiang’s character who takes all the goddy stuff so seriously – Twain’s clearly not serious.

    I wasn’t being deliberately dishonest, but I didn’t consider the degree to which I was simply not giving Chiang a chance because I couldn’t stand Neil. :/ Well, I guess Chiang’s character was effectively enough portrayed that I reacted to him (I don’t react to Captain Stormfield)

    One of the problems with religious believers is that their concept of God is deeply inconsistent with reality, and with itself. They all too often go from expressing the idea that God is some sort of inhuman, and perhaps even impersonal, abstract fundamental principle; the ground of being (“cosmic muffin”), and then switch to express the idea that God is indeed personal and involved with humanity, and did all of the things that the bible claims about God (“hairy thunderer”).

    Yes. I like how Daniel Dennet describes it: belief in belief. Goddism is vague everyplace, especially when it needs to defend itself.

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