What’s the opposite of good, clear thinking? An obvious answer is ‘biased thinking’. The truth is that we’re all biased. None of us are gods or angels, and the brains with which we do our thinking often go wrong, the whirls and eddies of our thoughts pushing us away from the truth instead of towards it. The best we can do is be aware of these biases and do our best to correct for them, redirecting our minds towards pursuing the truth.
One very common sort of bias is the ‘Ugh Field’ (the term comes from the website Less Wrong). If you have an Ugh Field about some belief, it means that you find yourself flinching away from thinking about it (with, presumably, a mental ‘Ugh’).
The best we can do is be aware of these biases and do our best to correct for them, redirecting our minds towards pursuing the truth.”
Take an example, a believer in God named Tim who has an Ugh Field about the prospect of God not existing. Every time Tim even thinks about a world without God, his stomach drops, he starts sweating, and he panics as he stares into the void of a world that cannot hold.
It’s not that Tim has thought it all out, considered all the implications, and then decided that a world without God would be horrifying. Rather, he’s so terrified about what a world without God might be like that he refuses to actually think about it at all.
A second example: Charlotte, who supports same-sex marriage, has an Ugh Field about the idea of herself changing her mind. Coming to believe that gay marriage really was morally wrong might be a terrible prospect for her: she might think things like, “how could I face my gay friends?” or “that would be so horribly unfair”, and flinch away from considering the arguments about same-sex marriage on the merits.
If you have an Ugh Field about some belief, it means that you find yourself flinching away from thinking about it
Usually, people with Ugh Fields have a sneaking suspicion that the belief they’re afraid of might be correct. If Tim were completely and utterly confident in his belief in God (because of rock-solid arguments, personal experiences or any reason really), he wouldn’t flinch from considering the possibility that God did not exist. Even if he thought the prospect were truly awful, he wouldn’t think it at all likely and so (barring phobias) wouldn’t be afraid of it. But the Ugh Field itself might prevent Tim ever getting to that position – he gives the belief force over him by refusing to calmly consider its truth or falsity. Similarly, Charlotte wouldn’t have an Ugh Field about same-sex marriage if she were completely convinced of the correctness of her current position: she’s afraid because changing her mind feels to some degree like a real possibility.
In both cases the solution is the same: Tim and Charlotte should imagine, in detail, what it would be like if they actually were wrong, and the belief that they fear were true. They should push through their Ugh Fields in whatever way they can. Tim should think through all the implications of God not existing, and Charlotte should do the same for same-sex marriage being wrong.
This process won’t have the same results every time. (I’ve deliberately chosen my examples so that there’s one view that I think is true and one view I think false).
Sometimes pushing through an Ugh Field will make you realise that the belief you feared wasn’t so scary after all, and that changing your mind wouldn’t be so bad. Sometimes you realise that when you actually examine them more calmly, the arguments for your Ugh field belief aren’t as strong as you were afraid of.
As a result, you become more confident in your own position because you understand the other side of the argument rather than just being afraid of it. Sometimes you’ll realise that the arguments for the belief you fear are very strong, but the belief still seems really unpleasant or objectionable for whatever reasons. But at least you’ll know where you stand, and you’ll be able to face the real problem rather than its menacing shadow.
Sometimes pushing through an Ugh Field will make you realise that the belief you feared wasn’t so scary after all
Overcoming Ugh fields can make it easier to change your mind or it can make you more confident in your existing beliefs. People in the grip of an Ugh Field tend to be bad arguers: desperately flinging arguments at the position they fear in order to make it go away rather than engaging in a good-faith search for truth. They’re likely to impute dodgy motivations to their opponents – anything rather than consider whether they might have to actually believe whatever it is they have an Ugh Field about. They often don’t even know the best arguments for their own position, because they’ve been too afraid to consider the best arguments against it.
Overcoming Ugh Fields can be tricky, but facing them head-on will make us better truth-seekers.