How To Ask Questions

Caeli: Hi!
Elliot: Hi, Caeli.
Caeli: I was told that I should ask you about parenting, but I'm not sure why.
Elliot: OK, go ahead. Perhaps you'll learn why, after you ask.
Caeli: What do you think of parents, today?
Elliot: I am not impressed.
Caeli: Why not?
Elliot: They use false epistemology, they don't think about and address the primary issues they are responsible for addressing, they don't notice when they act cruelly, or worse sometimes they do notice and continue anyway, they...
Caeli: Let's stop there for now. What are the primary issues that a parent needs to consider?
Elliot: He needs to think about what role he should play in his child's life, and what his responsibilities are, and he needs to consider whether conventional parenting practices make sense before adopting them.
Caeli: What are his responsibilities?
Elliot: A parent should help his child become independent. This has various aspects. He needs to give material support, and he needs to help the child find interests, and he needs to help the child to learn a variety of things.
Caeli: What sort of things are important for children to learn?
Elliot: Morality is near the top. That means knowledge of what a good life is, and how to make good choices. Then there's various things loosely called philosophy: how to ask questions, how to approach learning about something new, how to think of good ideas, how to solve problems, how to be optimistic, how to treat other people well, how to treat one's self well, how to decide which ideas to believe or not, how to explain reality. But let us never forget that the goal is not to force a child to learn what the parent deems important, it is to help the child learn things he is interested in. The things I've mentioned are things I think pretty much everyone would like to know and find helpful. There will also be other things. They may include how to play chess, or build lego castles, or beat a video game, but they may not.
Caeli: What if my child doesn't care for most of the things you mentioned? I don't remember meeting any children who asked me about any of those.
Elliot: Did you offer them?
Caeli: No, I guess not.
Elliot: Most people you meet already have ideas about what all the things I mentioned are. About whether they are fun, hard, useful, and what the answers are. And most people you meet have already learned that most people give bad advice about those things. So I don't think you can expect someone to just start asking you about them.
Caeli: Still, what if my child isn't interested in them?
Elliot: Well, first of all, is there a problem? If he knows other things and is doing well, maybe you shouldn't worry. And maybe he knows more about them than you've realised. So, consider what the topics have to offer, and then offer those things.
Caeli: And if he says no?
Elliot: There will be a reason. He may not tell it to you; he may not know what the reason is, explicitly. But you can try to figure it out.
Caeli: I don't know how to.
Elliot: Aha! I think you're demonstrating two things here. The first is that philosophy is very useful: your lack of knowledge of it is an obstacle to being a good parent. And second, perhaps the reason you find it difficult to imagine persuading your child that you have valuable philosophy to offer, is that in some areas, you don't.
Caeli: Am I a bad person?
Elliot: No, I didn't mean it that way. Ignorance is nothing to be ashamed of. Especially because good philosophy is hard to come by. Most people don't know any, explicitly.
Caeli: What's explicitly?
Elliot: It means in a language, like English. It's like conscious thoughts. If you can put an idea into words, it's explicit, but if you can't, it isn't.
Caeli: Alright, continue.
Elliot: A bad person is someone who chooses bad things for his life, or who values bad things.
Caeli: Isn't it important to actively choose good things for my life?
Elliot: Yes, but did you ever turn down a chance to learn philosophy that looked promising?
Caeli: No, I guess not. But wouldn't it be better if I knew more, now?
Elliot: It would undoubtedly be nice if you did. But if there was no way available to you to do better, surely you've done nothing wrong. Also, bear in mind that if you did know more, you could still say, "Wouldn't it be nice if I knew more?". You can say that no matter how much you know. It's just the human condition.
Caeli: What if there was a way I could have known more already, but I didn't notice it?
Elliot: I'm sure there were ways, if you knew how to find them. But you didn't, and I don't see how anyone could fault you for that. What you're really getting at is that it's possible to do better than we actually do. And that is great thing. It means improvement is possible.
Caeli: Is it bad to not improve really fast?
Elliot: It's important to try to improve, and to care about improving. It's also important not to beat yourself up over any mistakes you might make. That won't help anything. I like you now; you ask good questions.
Caeli: Thanks, I feel better. Shall we get back to parenting?
Elliot: OK.
Caeli: So one thing a parent should do is help his child learn about life and philosophy and his interests. But you said not to force him to learn these things. Can you expand?
Elliot: The way conventional parenting works is that the parent feels a huge responsibility towards his child. There is this person, and he's vulnerable, and the parent doesn't want him to be hurt. And he could grow up to be a criminal, and the parent doesn't want that. And he could just grow up to be boring, and have a mediocre life, and the parent doesn't want that either. The parent wants to protect him, and guide him to good things.
Caeli: That sounds good to me.
Elliot: Well, the motives are good. But that doesn't mean the results will be.
Caeli: Go on.
Elliot: Parents are so keen to prevent mistakes, that when they disagree with their child, they force the child to do it their way. And they make rules, again to prevent the child from doing anything the parent thinks would be a mistake.
Caeli: Do you think children are usually right?
Elliot: No, of course not. Children have a lot of ignorance. But they aren't always wrong, especially when the issue is their own life.
Caeli: If parents are right most of the time, would it maybe be best to just always do what the parent suggests? It'd work pretty well, most of the time.
Elliot: I don't think it would. But the best way to discuss this may be to look at the alternative, which is clearly better.
Caeli: OK, what is it?
Elliot: Most of the time, parent and child will agree. The parent will say he knows best, and suggest something, and the child will have no idea what's best, so he'll take his parents advice, willingly. That's the common case. So without any mention of using force, we already have a good thing happening most of the time.
Caeli: OK, so I guess the important case must be when they disagree.
Elliot: That's right. When they disagree, what the child is saying is, "I do know something about this topic. I have some knowledge, and I think it's enough knowledge to make a decision, and this is what I want to do."
Caeli: Isn't the child probably wrong?
Elliot: I can't evaluate the probability. But it isn't important. What's important is that we don't dismiss the child out of hand. There's no good reason to, and it messes up the times the child is right. And it teaches the wrong lessons about how to think.
Caeli: What do you mean?
Elliot: It's important to think for yourself, and to learn about how good your ideas are. That way you can learn to create better ideas by avoiding mistakes you've made in the past.
Caeli: So, if the parent doesn't discuss a child's ideas, he won't find out which ones are good and which are bad?
Elliot: Right. So, when there is a disagreement, the first thing that should be tried is to consider the disagreement and try to persuade each other.
Caeli: What if they don't want to?
Elliot: If things are going well, they will want to. I think it'd be best to first consider the case where life goes smoothly, to see how things should work. Then, if you still have questions about alternative lifestyles, or how to get to the right lifestyle from a flawed one, we can address them. Does that sound good?
Caeli: Yeah, that makes sense. OK, so they are trying to persuade each other...
Elliot: Right. Now the most common thing will be that the parent persuades the child. The reason is that although both could be wrong about the subject itself, the child has less knowledge about how much knowledge he needs to venture an opinion. And he has less knowledge about what subjects might be related and important. There are a lot more ways the child is likely to go wrong.
Caeli: OK, so what's the point?
Elliot: Well, the most common case is that the child agrees immediately. In a disagreement, the most common case is that the child had a parochial misconception and is easily persuaded. But after that, the other case is that they still disagree, and then they are on even ground. There is no way to tell, automatically, who is right. We can't just assume the parent is.
Caeli: Are you sure it's even? I think a lot of parents misjudge how much they know about their child's life and interests.
Elliot: That's a very good point. Most disputes are about the child's life, so the child is in a better position to know about it.
Caeli: So what should happen if the parent and child can't agree?
Elliot: Well, first off, they can agree. It's possible. There's no powerful force stopping them.
Caeli: No? But people find it hard to agree.
Elliot: Well, communication is a very hard problem. That covers a ton of cases. And then there's the issue that maybe to come to agree they need to think of some new idea to help reconcile their positions. They can do that, and nothing is stopping them, but maybe they won't.
Caeli: OK, so they can agree. But let's say they don't. Then what.
Elliot: Well, the child's life is the child's life. Why shouldn't he make his own choices?
Caeli: He doesn't know what's best for himself.
Elliot: Well, remember we are only discussing the cases where first the parent's initial idea didn't win the child over, and then when they talked about it, the parent wasn't able to think of anything very persuasive. Or cases where the child has a really powerful idea of his own. So in these cases, either the parent hasn't been able to show that he knows what's best, or the child has an especially good idea. So this is the time it's least possible to say that children don't know what's best for themselves, because we are only discussing the few times when maybe they do.
Caeli: I'm not sure about that, but let's go on and maybe it will make more sense. Why should a child make his own choices, exactly?
Elliot: Because he's a person. A human being. One of the things we value in our culture is freedom. Everyone gets his own life, and his own property, and makes his own decisions about what to do with them. That's a great thing, and we should apply it to everyone.
Caeli: I think I'm losing track of the point. Can you summarise?
Elliot: You asked about parenting. One of the issues parents face is helping their children learn important things about life, to prepare them for independence. Parents commonly make rules, and insist on their way by force, but they shouldn't. It's better to persuade children, and in the rare cases where the parent can't figure out how to do that, he has just demonstrated his own ignorance of either the subject or the child, and either way he's now in the one situation where he'd want to use force, but also the one situation where he has lost all justification to use it.
Caeli: I'm getting tired, do you mind if we continue tomorrow? I promise I'll reread what you said. There's so many things I wanted to ask that we didn't get to. Like what is parochial, and how do you know about all this stuff, and what if the parent says persuasive things but the child won't listen.
Elliot: I don't mind taking a break. I'm glad you seem excited by this.
Caeli: By the way, why is the title "How To Ask Questions"? It was all about parenting.
Elliot: The topic was parenting. But the Caeli character asked a question for most of her lines. So this conversation serves as a good example of how to ask questions.
Caeli: Oh, that's great. I'm proud.
Elliot: You should be. Goodnight.
Caeli: Bye!

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)

How To Ask Questions 2

Caeli: Hi!
Elliot: Hi, Caeli.
Caeli: What's parochial?
Elliot: This is going to take a little while to explain, so bear with me.
Caeli: OK.
Elliot: In the distant past, life was very different, in some ways. But in other ways, it was similar. In the distant future, life will be very different, in some ways. But in other ways, it will be similar. Things that are constant between different places, different times, and different cultures, like logic or math, are not parochial. Features of our personal circumstances that are unique to our lives, are very parochial. The main idea is that parochial thinking is lacking in perspective. It mistakes local features of reality for universal patterns. The opposite of parochial is something like universal, necessary, or fundamental.
Caeli: What do you mean by "local"?
Elliot: Local usually means "here". It's stuff that's close to us, usually physically close, like in terms of location. But more generally, a local thing is one that isn't attached to the universe in general. It's something we can think about in isolation.
Caeli: Is anything really unrelated to anything else?
Elliot: Not perfectly, but we can think about the aspects that are unrelated, or make some approximations.
Caeli: OK, so parochial ideas are like local ideas?
Elliot: That's very close. But if an idea really is local, it's not wrong to think so. Parochial thinking refers to making mistakes about what is local. It's thinking stuff is not local, when actually it is.
Caeli: Can you give an example?
Elliot: There's a saying that death and taxes are universal. The reason people think that is that they play a huge role in our lives. But the saying is very silly. Already people are putting off death for many years using new medicines. And already there are books describing how we could have a good society without taxes.
Caeli: I think I see what you mean. So, should we just avoid saying that things are universal, if we don't know?
Elliot: What we need to do, is think carefully about what we do know, and what makes sense. Explanations have their own logic which says what they apply to, and you can't make it more or less just by saying something different. Now consider taxes. Lots of societies in the past didn't have any. So it's hard to imagine how a careful thinker could conclude they are a universal feature of human existence.
Caeli: What about death?
Elliot: Well, that one is easy to forgive, at least until recently. Let's not worry too much about whether people should have known better in the past. The point is that if we try, we can identify a lot of parochial mistakes and avoid them. Surely we will be making others we don't know about, but the goal is to get better at this.
Caeli: Why is this important?
Elliot: It's related to a lot of things. For example, parenting. Because of their extreme ignorance, young children are prone to make parochial errors. They have such a small data set to work with that unless they get a lot of advice about how to not think parochially, they are bound to make a lot of mistakes.
Caeli: That's cool. I like when seemingly different topics are related.
Elliot: Yeah. It happens a lot. The reason is that explanations have reach. I was actually just talking about this a moment ago. I was saying that you can't make explanations apply to more or less stuff. So, another word for "apply" there is "reach".
Caeli: What's an example that goes the other way: making an explanation have less "reach" than it should?
Elliot: Suppose someone says that it's wrong to hit people, because hitting hurts, and hurting is wrong. That applies to all hitting, whether he likes it or not. It applies to self defense. Hitting an assailant hurts him, and hurting is wrong (or so he says).
Caeli: That's silly. Of course not all hitting, or hurting, is wrong.
Elliot: Indeed, but people say stuff like this all the time. Another example would be if a parent says that pornography is sinful, so a child can't see any. Well, if that's so, then to be consistent the parent better not look at any pornography either, or by his own logic he is a sinner.
Caeli: A lot of people think life is different for parents and children, and different rules should apply to them. Does that make sense?
Elliot: Yes and no. Parents and children have different circumstances, and different characteristics. For example, parents are generally taller, so they have less need to keep things on low shelves. I think the important thing is that any difference between what's right for parents and children has a reason. It needs to be based on different characteristics. But what is the characteristic of children that makes pornography more sinful for a child than a parent?
Caeli: I don't know. Why don't you tell me?
Elliot: I think what people say is that children can't handle it as well until they are more mature. But I don't agree with that.
Caeli: Why not?
Elliot: I don't want to dwell on this, but I'll say briefly that people's obsession with sex is very parochial, and the ideas surrounding sex are full of error.
Caeli: That sounds interesting. Can I ask you about it some time?
Elliot: Yes, I'd be happy to talk about it. I just don't want to get too far away from parenting for now.
Caeli: OK, I agree, let's try to keep focussed. So, umm, what's next?
Elliot: Yesterday you asked, "What if the parent says persuasive things but the child won't listen?"
Caeli: Oh yeah! That's a good question.
Elliot: One issue is that the word "listen" is ambiguous here. It could mean that the child still disagrees, or it could mean that he plugs his ears and doesn't hear what the parent says.
Caeli: Well, I meant that he hears the parent, but he acts like he isn't listening.
Elliot: OK, I think I see the confusion. What you're imagining is a very common scene. It's a family where a lot of things have gone wrong in the past, and now the child doesn't trust the parent, but he also doesn't know how to stand up for himself, so he doesn't like what the parent is saying, but he doesn't know what to do about it, so he just sort of ignores it.
Caeli: What should be done about that?
Elliot: That's a very hard question to answer, because it's very parochial. First, there's no universal reason that things should go disastrously wrong in that way. It's a feature of our culture, and a fairly recent phenomenon. Second, every family is different, and the solution will depend on subtle details of the people involved and their lives. Third, if we focus on the wrong way to live, that misses the point. What people really need to know is the right way. If they understood that, they could work out how to get there.
Caeli: Hmm, so I guess you want to tell me the right way to live?
Elliot: Yes :)
Caeli: What is :) ?
Elliot: It's a smiley face. It's sideways.
Caeli: Oh, I see. Neat :)
Elliot: You can add a nose, too :-), or stick out its tongue :-p
Caeli: Haha, mine is winking ;)
Elliot: When things are going right, what does it mean for a child not to listen? It means he is not persuaded. It means he disagrees. It means he thinks his own idea of what to do is best, and nothing the parent has said has changed that. (Or, more likely, the child has changed his idea in small ways because he thought the parent was right about some side issues.)
Caeli: So, what should the parent do about this?
Elliot: Well, he should consider that he might be wrong. And he should also consider that it might not be very important either way. And if he thinks he is right and it is important, he should think about how to express this better. Maybe what you're really getting at is you want to know how to be persuasive?
Caeli: Yeah, that sounds right. And also, does persuasion always work, if you're right?
Elliot: That's a good question. OK, the key elements to persuasion are argument and suggestion. By argument, I mean pointing out flaws in the ideas other than yours, and saying criticism of them. I'll call those ideas "rivals", by the way. So, we give reasons that rival theories don't work. If you can convince someone his idea is no good, he won't want to do it any longer. By suggestion, I mean suggesting your own idea that you think would be best. To be persuasive, you don't have to conclusively rule out alternatives. If you highlight the great merits of your advice, people will take it even if other courses of action still look OK.
Caeli: What if someone is having trouble seeing the merits, and you know what they are, but you're having trouble putting it into words?
Elliot: That's hard. If it's important enough, you can keep trying and you will be able to figure it out, especially with the other person's help. He can say what he understands so far, and make guesses about what you mean.
Caeli: That sounds nice. I wish the people I talked with were so helpful.
Elliot: Maybe you should suggest that they try that.
Caeli: I will, now that you mention it. So, do continue.
Elliot: Well, if it's not really important, and you can't put your idea into words, then it won't be a disaster if the other person doesn't take your advice. So just relax.
Caeli: Would it be better if he did take my advice though, if I'm right?
Elliot: You can't be certain you're right, so it's important that he make up his own mind about who's right.
Caeli: OK, but the point is he can't make up his mind because I haven't expressed my idea properly. But if I am right, and I don't express it, isn't he missing out?
Elliot: Well, yes, I guess so. But consider that the time it takes to put your idea into words could be spent doing something else, which would also be valuable.
Caeli: So, I don't think I really understand how to be persuasive, yet.
Elliot: Well, you criticise rival ideas, and suggest your own. If you explain why your idea is good, and others are flawed, and you're right, and the person understands, surely he will be persuaded.
Caeli: It sounds easy when you put it that way. But in practice isn't it hard?
Elliot: Yes. Life is complex, so there will be lots of factors to take into account. And communication is hard, so people aren't going to understand all the nuances of your position, at least not immediately.
Caeli: So let's try to tie this back to parenting. You were saying a parent should use persuasion and not force or rules?
Elliot: That's right. There are some huge benefits to doing it this way.
Caeli: What are they?
Elliot: First is error correction. If the policy is to always do what the parent originally says, then any errors the parent has in his thinking will never be corrected. But when persuasion is attempted, a lot of errors can be found. And I don't just mean that the child will point them out. When he tries to present his ideas rationally and persuasively, the parent himself will discover a lot of problems with them, and a lot of improvements that could be made.
Elliot: Second is that how is a child to learn how to think for himself if the parent never lets him? I realise parents will try to give their children some choices. But, the more the better. A child who is accustomed to considering rival ideas, and evaluating criticisms and merits will be much better prepared to be independent.
Elliot: Third, by involving the child, we have a whole new source of creativity. No longer is it the parent's sole burden to find good things for the child. Now the child will be able to help. Maybe he won't have many good ideas at first, but over time he will get better at it.
Caeli: That sounds good. Why don't more parents do it?
Elliot: They think that they do! A lot of parents say they listen and give reasons, and only "lay down the law" when their child is being really unreasonable and is obviously wrong. Unfortunately what this actually means is that if the parent fails to be persuasive, he interprets this as the child's error.
Caeli: Could it be the child's error?
Elliot: Yes, certainly. But the parent doesn't know that it is. It's never obvious that something is wrong. Sometimes it appears to be, but that could be a parochial mistake.
Caeli: Wow, this parochial thing really does come up a lot.
Elliot: Yeah, I told you :)
Caeli: Could you give an example of something that seems obvious, but is actually a parochial mistake?
Elliot: Suppose a parent sees his child pouring cereal on the floor. He may think this is obviously a mistake. The child is making a mess, for no good reason. He has some horrible misconception, or worse he's trying to hurt the parent. In the parent's worldview, there is nothing to gain by putting cereal on the floor, and a lot to lose. He assumes this must be true of everyone else's life too. But it isn't.
Caeli: What's a worldview?
Elliot: It means all of someone's ideas and values and explanations.
Caeli: Why might a child pour cereal on the floor? That doesn't sound good to me.
Elliot: Maybe it makes an interesting sound. Maybe it's fun to walk on. Maybe the child wants to have more cereal, and thinks pouring it is a way to create cereal. Maybe the child dropped something into the box, and is trying to get it back out. Maybe the child thinks the cereal is pretty and makes the floor look nicer. Maybe the child has seen the dog eating things off the floor before, and wants to see it again. Maybe the child doesn't like that cereal and wants to get rid of it.
Caeli: A lot of those aren't very good reasons to pour cereal on the floor. Like if the child lost a toy in the box, he could probably get it by reaching in, or at least he could dump the cereal into a container to avoid making a mess and to be able to eat it later.
Elliot: That's very true. There are probably improvements that could be made. But the point is that the fundamental idea the child has could be sound. There are many, many ways it could be sound. That the parent couldn't think of any shows there was a serious error in his thinking.
Caeli: Oh, I guess there was.
Elliot: What the child really needs is not for the parent to force him to stop. That's terrible. He could just use some help. It'd be good if the parent found out what he was trying to accomplish, and then gave some suggestions. Like if the child is trying to decorate, he might like to know about paint, which has a lot of advantages over cereal. And he might like to know about paper too, instead of using the floor.
Caeli: That's cool. After some improvements, the final result could probably be something the parent doesn't mind anymore.
Elliot: That's right. And also, suppose the child likes walking on cereal, and he's doing it on the kitchen floor which is actually a good place for that. Then the parent could change his mind and approve once he knows that reason, and sees that the child's action makes sense.
Caeli: What if the child's idea actually is bad?
Elliot: The worse it is, the more better ideas exist for the parent to suggest. And the worse it is, the easier it is to find bad parts that the child won't like once they're pointed out.
Caeli: Oh, that's cool. So the times it's hardest to be persuasive are the times it's least important.
Elliot: Yes, exactly!
Caeli: I need to go, but I'd love to continue another time.
Elliot: I'll be happy to oblige. Farewell.
Caeli: Bye bye!

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)

How To Ask Questions 3

Caeli: Hey!
Elliot: Hi, Caeli.
Caeli: Last time we talked was fun. I'm glad to be back.
Elliot: That's excellent.
Caeli: So, where were we? Oh yeah. We were talking about persuasion. I don't think you clearly said if persuasion always works, if you are right.
Elliot: It doesn't, but that's OK. Keep in mind that the more important the situation is -- the more critical the error you wish to correct -- the easier persuasion is. So when persuasion fails, we're usually talking about cases where nothing too big is at stake.
Caeli: OK, but even then wouldn't it be better if we got the right answer? If persuasion won't work, maybe we can get it another way.
Elliot: There is no such thing as a way of acting that always does the right answer. It's not possible to have a system that makes mistakes impossible. What we should look for are policies that help spread good ideas to everyone, and help prevent mistakes from spreading, and help eliminate mistakes within ourselves.
Caeli: That sounds wise. OK, how do we do that?
Elliot: Let's compare persuasion and listening to people who feel completely sure that they are right. If someone is sure he's right, and everyone is required to listen to him, good ideas will have an easy time spreading. Someone just has to think of one, and be confident that it's good. Unfortunately, bad ideas will also spread easily. Every time someone mistakes a bad idea for a good one, that will spread just as easily as a good idea. And there aren't any mechanisms for correcting errors built into this system, so once they start to spread, there's nothing to stop them.
Caeli: What about with persuasion?
Elliot: Using persuasion, good ideas will often spread, and they will spread fairly effectively. Bad ideas, on the other hand, will have an uphill battle. Every step of the way, people will challenge them and criticise them. And if someone comes up with a powerful criticism of a bad idea, that itself is a good idea, and a persuasive one that many people will be interested in, so it could spread and cause the elimination of error. Further, if I try to persuade someone of my idea, he may end up persuading me that I was wrong, or I may realise I'm wrong while examining my own idea. So there are multiple levels of error correction.
Caeli: If someone's really sure he has a good idea, isn't that important? If we take that into account, maybe we can find and spread good ideas faster, while still thinking for ourselves some too.
Elliot: It does matter. There are a lot of steps people can take to get their ideas heard. For example, they can write and publish a book. If someone cares enough to do that, more people will be exposed to his ideas. Or he can go on TV, or give lectures. People can put effort into advocating their ideas proportional to how sure they are that it's true and valuable.
Caeli: Oh, that's cool. What if the author of a good idea is really busy, though?
Elliot: If he's too busy to ever tell anyone, then no possible system could spread his idea. But if he does tell some people, they are free to advocate his idea for him, with as much passion as they think is fitting.
Caeli: Are there any of your ideas that you'd like me to advocate for you?
Elliot: That would be nice. But I don't want to say which ones. Just pick whichever you find most interesting or important, or whichever ones come up frequently in your life.
Caeli: OK, I will!
Elliot: I will do the same for you, of course.
Caeli: But I haven't said any ideas.
Elliot: You've said some, but also your questions contain ideas in them. What I meant is that I learn things from you, and I won't hesitate to pass them on when good chances present themselves.
Caeli: Oh, thanks :)
Caeli: Will you tell people that the ideas came from me?
Elliot: Probably not. It's hard to keep track of where my ideas come from, and it's not very important anyway. We should judge ideas based on their merits, not their author.
Caeli: But I want to get credit, so people know I have good ideas.
Elliot: Don't worry about that. Anyone who talks to you will instantly see that you are bright. And if he doesn't, he's silly, so don't think of him.
Caeli: OK, I guess. Maybe I'll come back to this later. What I really want to know about today is you said parents act cruelly.
Elliot: That's right. There are a lot of well known things parents do or say which are cruel. Consider: "You'll understand when you're older", "Do what I say, or else", "Eat your vegetables", "Go to your room", "You can come back when you're ready to apologize", "Because I'm your father, and I said so".
Elliot: And then there's ideas like that children need limits and boundaries. Which are only meaningful and controversial because they mean limits and boundaries that children don't want. And there's the ideas of compromises, discipline, obedience, spoiling children, that "you can't always get what you want", and that a few dollars a week is plenty of money.
Caeli: Wow, that's a lot of stuff. I see why some of them are bad, like "I said so" isn't a good reason. But what about being a father? Don't parents need to be able to make some decisions for the family?
Elliot: As we've discussed earlier, the more critical the case, the easier persuasion is. If a parent can honestly say that something is very important, but for some reason, such as time pressure, he isn't able to explain things to the child now, then won't children voluntarily go along with it?
Caeli: Don't parents try that a lot, and their children don't listen?
Elliot: Yes, but I think you're proving my point. That situation doesn't happen very often. If a parent uses it frivolously, his children may notice and distrust him in the future.
Caeli: What about if they're at a restaurant, and the child is disturbing the other customers. I think that's pretty common.
Elliot: Yes, but it's nothing like the kind of emergency I was thinking of. What's the worst that can happen? You're asked to leave the restaurant. That's not very bad. It's nothing worth damaging your relationship with your family over.
Caeli: Wouldn't it be better if the child calmed down long enough for the parent to explain, so they wouldn't get kicked out?
Elliot: Yes, it would. And that can certainly happen. The parent could say, "Please stop. I think you're making a mistake, and I want to tell you why, but first it's very urgent that you lower your voice and stop throwing things." The child will get an explanation right away if he stops, so he doesn't have anything to lose. He doesn't have to take his parent's advice on faith for more than a few minutes. And once he does this, he'll have a better idea whether to do it again in the future. I think children who won't calm down for a little while to talk have almost always tried this many times in the past, and it didn't go well.
Caeli: How would it go badly?
Elliot: Well, the parent might say, "Great, now you're calm. So, you can't act like that in restaurants. You have to be polite to the other people, and it hurts me when you act like an animal."
Caeli: Wow, that's terrible. I wouldn't want any advice at all from someone who talked like that.
Elliot: Yeah, it's unpleasant. It says the child can't have what he wants, but it doesn't explain why in any detail, and it surely doesn't explain why the suggested way of life is nice and enjoyable. And it's manipulative. The parent has chosen to be hurt by behavior he doesn't like as a way to suppress it.
Elliot: By the way, there's a very important fact we haven't yet considered. It is that a parent does not have to take his child to a formal restaurant before explaining what sort of behavior is expected there. It's quite irresponsible to go to one without giving the child any warning. On the other hand, if the child knows what's happening in advance, and has chosen that he does want to go to the restaurant, then the only things that will stop him from acting with great decorum are either if he doesn't know how to, or he changes his mind.
Caeli: So, then what?
Elliot: If he changed his mind about the restaurant visit, perhaps you should leave. Oh well, but really not a very big deal. And if he doesn't understand decorum, despite the lessons he had before coming, that is almost certainly a very small problem. Just remind him, or tell him the parts he doesn't know. If he's truly interested in trying to act appropriately for a formal restaurant, that is, if he does want to be there, then he will be happy to get advice about how to do it better.
Caeli: I see. I guess most of the problems come when the child doesn't really want to be there, or doesn't want to behave.
Elliot: That happens a lot, yes. Another issue is that parents overreact. I've seen parents discipline their kids because they thought the child was bothering me, even though I said he wasn't. The parent refused to believe me, and thought I was just being polite.
Caeli: That's a shame. Why are parents to eager to be kind and helpful to strangers, but not their own children?
Elliot: Our culture values treating strangers with care, and being helpful to them as appropriate. And it's right to do that. It's just that it is also right to be good to our children.
Caeli: If treating strangers well is valuable, then isn't the parent being helpful by making his child do it?
Elliot: I'm sure he's trying to be helpful. But this gets back to using force or persuasion. There's no need, and no justification, to threaten a child if he has made a mistake out of ignorance. Won't he be happy to be told about a very good value that is present in the world, which he can enjoy?
Caeli: Oh, it sounds so much nicer when you put it that way.
Elliot: Indeed. What's going on frequently is that the child doesn't like the parent's advice, because it isn't persuasive, and doesn't seem to be good or nice.
Caeli: If most parents are bad at persuasion, even when they are right, is it understandable if they use force instead sometimes?
Elliot: Well, are they making a large effort to become better at persuasion? Any effort at all? I don't think they can be forgiven if they aren't trying.
Caeli: What if they don't know that persuasion is better? That's just ignorance, so can't we forgive it?
Elliot: Our society values freedom, and voluntary association, and not being forced to do things. Everyone in our culture knows this. If they decide it somehow doesn't apply to children, they are arbitrarily restricting the reach of one of our values to exclude people. It's well known that you shouldn't do this to other groups like blacks or women. But, yes, it's a parochial error and the real issue shouldn't be forgiveness, it should be how to help our society move past this blindness.
Caeli: That's very noble. What do you think would help to remedy this blight?
Elliot: Maybe writing dialogs.
Caeli: Do you like self-reference?
Elliot: Yes :)
Caeli: What are some ways persuasion can go wrong even though you're right?
Elliot: Persuading another person is a matter of communicating your idea and its merits, and discovering rival theories the other person holds, and communicating criticisms of those. Fortunately, the other person will often be helpful and refute some rival theories himself.
Elliot: So, successful persuasion isn't just about being right. It's also about being able to communicate with this person, and finding out about other ideas he has which are relevant, and responding to them. All those steps can go wrong even if your main idea is true.
Caeli: You've mentioned a few times that communication is hard. That goes against common sense. People hang out to talk all the time, and often use this to relax, and find it easy.
Elliot: How hard it is depends on what you want to say, and your culture. In our culture, some communication is common and easy, because everyone has knowledge to facilitate it. But that's cheating, in a sense, because it doesn't involve much knowledge getting from one person to another, it involves both people already having shared knowledge.
Caeli: OK, so tell me about the case when they don't already share an idea.
Elliot: If someone doesn't understand my idea already, the conventional theory is that I can just tell him, and then he will. But that doesn't make sense. He doesn't know what it is. I can say words that I think can be translated into the idea, but he will only be able to guess at the correct method of translating words to idea, because he doesn't know what he's supposed to end up with.
Elliot: By the way, far and away the best reference on this topic is the book Godel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter. See chapter 6 on The Location of Meaning.
Caeli: Can you give a brief summary, now?
Elliot: Sure. OK, imagine sending messages to space aliens. We have to put the message in a language, say English. And we have to do something to indicate that this is a message, and not just random junk, so that they notice and try to understand it. And we can include some hints about how to decode the main idea, that we think might be helpful.
Caeli: Could we just include a dictionary?
Elliot: Yes, and that might be helpful, but unfortunately they won't know how to read it, when they start.
Caeli: Oh, well how will they ever get started?
Elliot: They can look for patterns, and they can make guesses about what things mean, and then try applying the guesses to other parts of the text, and if the guess makes sense in multiple places, then we know the guess has reach and that's a sign it's good and worth trying in more places.
Caeli: This idea of reach seems to have a lot of reach.
Elliot: Yeah. Now consider when we try to say something to another person. We face all the same problems as with a space alien, except for one difference. The difference is that we already have shared knowledge. In fact, we have a lot, including the whole English dictionary. So that makes it a lot easier, because whenever we want to express a new idea, we can say something that's partly new and partly old. Then it's easier for people to get started decoding it. It's like filling in the blanks, instead of guessing the entire thing at once.
Caeli: So this relates to how you were saying communication is easy when you already share knowledge of what you're saying, but hard when you don't already share the knowledge you want to communicate?
Elliot: Yes. Communicating new ideas to a person is exactly the same kind of problem as communicating them to a space alien. It's easier because we have more shared knowledge to start with. But as many people have pointed out, we can expect to have shared knowledge with space aliens too. They will have physicists and mathematicians, and know about logic and morality, just like we do. Communication is hard in both cases because it's hard to guess what idea someone has when you don't already know it.
Elliot: Now, there's a very important fact I haven't mentioned yet. It is that a baby is just like a space alien. What I mean is that he has very little shared knowledge with other people. So communicating to him is very difficult. And that he ever understands anything is amazing. Babies don't have a whole civilisation with foreign language specialists, physicists, mathematicians, and so on, to translate messages. They only have their own brain, and their extreme ignorance.
Caeli: But babies learn language, and lots of stuff. It doesn't seem like a problem.
Elliot: That happens for a few reasons. The first is that babies have fully functional brains. They are very creative. Otherwise learning human language would not be possible. The second is that our culture has evolved traditions about raising children. What that means is that over time ways to raise kids that work less well have been eliminated, and ways that work better have been found. I don't mean better for everything, but for specific issues like raising a child who can talk, we've evolved to be very good at it. (Of course, raising a child to talk intelligently is another matter, and many people would agree with me that there's room for improvement there.)
Caeli: Are there more reasons?
Elliot: Our children are immersed in our culture. There are people talking all the time. They don't have just one message to decode. There are thousands, and if they only decode every hundredth message, that will be fine. It's easier to find patterns in such a big data set.
Caeli: That's cool. So, I read that scientists have shown that young children don't have mature brains yet, not like adults.
Elliot: Those aren't scientists, they are psychologists and "social scientists". And they are not very interesting, so I'd prefer not to talk about them much. Maybe another time. For now, let me just say: if children don't have very functional brains, what is the explanation for how they learn so much?
Caeli: I don't know.
Elliot: Indeed. And neither do those "scientists" that you mentioned.
Caeli: Actually I better go now. But I'll prepare a few questions for next time.
Elliot: OK, see you.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)

How To Ask Questions 4

Caeli: Hiya!
Elliot: Hi, Caeli.
Caeli: Yesterday you were talking about ways parents are cruel, but then we got distracted discussing communication and alien babies. I want to know more about parents being cruel.
Elliot: Alien babies?
Caeli: Oh, that was a joke. I pretended to have misunderstood most of what you said in the conversation about the difficulties of communication. Was it too subtle?
Elliot: No, it's a good joke, I just wasn't clear on what you meant :)
Caeli: I'm going to quote things you said that parents say, and then you can explain what's wrong with them in more detail, OK?
Elliot: Sure.
Caeli: "You'll understand when you're older"
Elliot: All that means is, "I won't explain it to you now". Or sometimes it means "I don't know how to explain it, won't try to figure it out, and won't admit it."
Caeli: Don't parents sometimes say that because a child isn't ready to understand something?
Elliot: Sort of. By "not ready", I believe you mean there is other background knowledge that would probably be best to understand first. But so what if there is? Start there. You can make progress towards learning about this today. There's no reason to be dismissive to your child and not help him just because the answer to his question is big and complicated.
Caeli: I see. OK next is "Do what I say, or else"
Elliot: That's a threat. It's vague, admittedly, but what good thing could "or else" mean?
Caeli: Good point, OK let's move on again. "Eat your vegetables"
Elliot: Parents have a habit of making their children eat food that the child does not want to eat. That's quite a lot like torture.
Caeli: Aren't you exaggerating?
Elliot: You tell me. How would you like it if I tied you up and ... well what foods do you truly loathe?
Caeli: Cottage cheese, lima beans, and mandarin oranges.
Elliot: Alright, well I force feed you those foods. Or worse, I mix them together, and add dog kibble and a can of cat food. Doesn't that sound awful?
Caeli: But it's not like that. It's just broccoli or brussel sprouts.
Elliot: Some people hate those just as much as you hate cottage cheese.
Caeli: Isn't it important to eat healthy?
Elliot: Sure. But what constitutes eating healthy is controversial. One of the health problems we have in this country is obesity. And the cure is to not eat when you aren't hungry. Forcing children to eat when they don't want to eat will surely mean eating when they aren't hungry. That isn't preparing them to eat properly.
Caeli: Oh my! Don't parents also say "finish your plate" because they don't want to waste food?
Elliot: Indeed. Although the food isn't really wasted. The point of food -- the reason we buy it -- is to have the option to eat it. We only want to actually eat it under certain circumstances. If we'd be required to eat it a certain food, we would rarely buy that food. Foods go bad, and no one minds throwing that out. And sometimes people serve too much food on their plate. So what? You had the option to eat food without getting up to serve more. You didn't use it. It isn't useful anymore. So throw the food out.
Caeli: What about the starving kids in Africa?
Elliot: What about them. If I eat more food, that won't help them. If you want them to have food, send them money.
Caeli: Why not send them food?
Elliot: Shipping food is far more expensive than sending money. Let huge corporations deal with transporting food between countries. They're better at it.
Caeli: If we give them money, they might waste it buying things other than food.
Elliot: Indeed. So don't give money to people who have wildly different values than you do. They won't use it to further objectives that you value.
Caeli: We're losing focus. Let's move on. "Go to your room"
Elliot: It's cruel to lock a child in a room against his will. And it's a harsh way to deal with a disagreement. It's not persuasion, and it's not helpful.
Caeli: But parents usually add, "And think about what you did", so the child will learn his lesson.
Elliot: An even better idea, if the object is that the child learn, is that instead of being pushed away and told he is bad, the parent tells him that everyone makes mistakes, and he has nothing to feel bad about, and now the parent will help him to learn how to do better next time.
Caeli: Will he take it seriously if he isn't punished?
Elliot: Punishment is a terrible way to get someone to take your ideas seriously. If your ideas are so good, why aren't you arguing for them? What punishment is good at is getting people to be scared of you, and getting them to take actions to avoid being punished again. Is that what you want?
Caeli: No, I don't, I was just asking questions.
Elliot: Oh, I apologize. I didn't mean you personally. It was a rhetorical question.
Caeli: That's OK! "You can come back when you're ready to apologize"
Elliot: What that's saying is the child can come back when he agrees that he was wrong and the parent was right. It's saying the child can't come back unless he says he's persuaded. Instead of persuading the child with ideas, the parent just orders him to be persuaded.
Caeli: Is it important that children apologize for their errors?
Elliot: Not really. Perhaps it's pleasant, but it's not worth fighting over.
Caeli: That's the end of the quotes, but you mentioned a number of other topics. Let's start with compromises.
Elliot: A compromise is a way of acting that no one thinks would be best.
Caeli: Ouch! That's a sharp way to put it.
Elliot: Indeed.
Caeli: How about obedience.
Elliot: Obedience means pretending the parent is always right, and never questioning things. It means the parent can abandon reason in favor of his whim.
Caeli: Spoiling children.
Elliot: Spoiling children means letting them get what they want, a lot. This should be encouraged.
Caeli: But I've met some spoiled brats, and they weren't pleasant at all.
Elliot: There's a lot of things going on here. One is that if a parent just buys his child whatever he wants, then he's not helping the child figure out what is good to want. Getting what you want is only very effective if you have knowledge of what things are good, and if you are creating more of it.
Caeli: What if a parent and child don't have that kind of knowledge. Then should they avoid getting what they want?
Elliot: I don't see how that will help. Especially because that knowledge is probably something they'd like to have.
Caeli: It would prevent them from getting bad things.
Elliot: It would prevent them from getting the best things they know how to get. If that's so terrible it must be stopped, perhaps you should just kill them now and get it over with.
Caeli: That's gruesome. Why'd you say that?
Elliot: Because I'm serious. What's the point of life if you are thwarted from getting anything you want? You'll soon starve to death anyway. Although, it's not as if you could commit suicide: someone would stop you.
Caeli: Oh, I didn't think of it like that. I didn't realise it applied to food, and everything.
Elliot: Explanations have reach, and can't be restricted arbitrarily.
Caeli: Right, right. Thanks for reminding me. But did you have to be so graphic?
Elliot: I like strong arguments, and I like taking things to their logical conclusions. But if it upsets you, I could try to avoid certain things.
Caeli: I think it's OK, but perhaps you could warn me next time? Besides, if it really bothers me, I'll just ask you how to feel better about it.
Elliot: That's a good plan.
Caeli: You mentioned a few dollars a week being plenty of money?
Elliot: That's what some parents seem to think. They spend more on makeup and booze than their kids spend on everything combined.
Caeli: A lot of parents have tight budgets, and they buy a lot of things for their kids out of their own wallets.
Elliot: That's true. But what's going on is the parent wants to have control over what the child buys. So he gives the child very little money. Then whenever the child wants something else, he has to ask his parent, and the parent can decide whether it's a good purchase or a mistake.
Caeli: Isn't it good for parents to help their children avoid bad purchases?
Elliot: Yeah, but this isn't helping. It's not giving advice, and it's not being persuasive. It's just the parent arbitrarily saying "no" when he wants to.
Elliot: I should add that a lot of parents mislead their children about what a lot of money is and isn't. Parents will claim they can't afford a $10 toy, but never mention that they spend $150 a month on cigarettes. They don't put it in perspective, so it's easier to lie.
Caeli: If the cigarettes are already in the budget, along with rent and bills, maybe there really isn't room for the toy.
Elliot: Yeah, but how many parents have an honest discussion about these things? How many consider that maybe some of the things they buy should be up for discussion? Everything the child wants the parent can veto, but the parent only vetoes his own purchases when he decides to on his own.
Caeli: The parents earn the money, so don't they have a right to buy themselves things with it?
Elliot: They do. But they also have a responsibility to their children.
Caeli: I think this is related. You said parents say, "you can't always get what you want". But isn't it true? For example, no matter how they adjust the budget, they won't fit in a jet plane.
Elliot: It's pretty much unheard of that a child seriously wants a jet plane. It's pretty easy to understand that a plane is a huge thing that took a lot of effort by a lot of people to make, and you have to do something really important to be entitled to one. That isn't the sort of purchase that families fight about. It's almost always small stuff that would be possible to buy if the parents really wanted to. And the rest of the time, the child could stop wanting it with a bit of help to create the right knowledge.
Caeli: What about things other than purchases. Like someone might want a certain guy, say Jack Bauer, to be her husband. But she can't have that. She probably can't marry the actor, either.
Elliot: It's true that there are things that you can't have. But the issue is whether you can get what you want. In other words, is there anything that we can't have, but also can't not want? Are there things where we can't have a reasonable preference, so we're bound to be unhappy?
Caeli: Well, are there?
Elliot: If there's a reason that we can't get something, then that's reason enough not to want it. As we understand it can't be gotten, we'll stop wanting it.
Caeli: What if we don't realise that we can't get it?
Elliot: Then there's nothing wrong with pursuing it. We'll learn as we go.
Caeli: That's a good attitude.
Elliot: I think so :)
Caeli: You mentioned limits and boundaries. And you said the only controversial ones are the ones that children don't want.
Elliot: That's right. If a child found a limit, rule, or boundary to be helpful, he'd thank his parent for it, and there wouldn't be any issue. But rules and boundaries are an issue. It's well known that kids frequently fight with their parents over them. The ones that they fight about are only the ones that they think are hurting them.
Caeli: If the child thinks he's being hurt, why would the parent keep doing it?
Elliot: Because he's using force and not persuasion. Persuasion would be better. Someone is right, and it'd be best to find out who. Once they agree, they won't fight any more. There won't be anything to fight about.
Caeli: You make it sound so easy.
Elliot: It's easier than people realize. In fact, even in conventional families, persuasion is successfully used every day. It happens literally all the time. Everyone is rational about some things.
Caeli: What about the times it doesn't work?
Elliot: Unfortunately, people give up easily and declare things impossible. I think most failures weren't really very hard. If people had had more optimism and tried a little more, they soon would have found a solution.
Caeli: What about the remaining hard cases?
Elliot: On the few, rare occasions that persuasion is very difficult to come by, there are still plenty of things to do. First, persuasion is possible. Second, attempting persuasion will help the people understand the problem better, which will make it easier to solve. Third, there are lots of ways to get along, and not hurt each other, without agreeing about everything.
Caeli: I don't agree with my neighbors about everything, or the people on the bus, or my friends and family for that matter.
Elliot: That's right. Everyone you see out on the street is different, but fights are rare.
Caeli: That's great. How does that happen?
Elliot: We live in a peaceful society. We value voluntary interaction, which means people choose to interact only if they want to, and don't use force. And we value freedom, and think it's better to let people live a way we disagree with than to force them to live our way.
Caeli: You'll have to tell me more about that sometime, but I've got to go now.
Elliot: It was nice talking.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)

How To Ask Questions 5

Caeli: Hi!
Elliot: Hi, Caeli.
Caeli: You said that parents use false epistemology.
Elliot: I did.
Caeli: How so?
Elliot: There are a few main forms of false epistemology. One is induction. One is the idea that knowledge is justified, true belief. There's relativism, positivism, solipsism, instrumentalism. There's the sponge theory of brains. There's foundationalism.
Caeli: And parents use those?
Elliot: Everyone uses them, except for a few people who know better.
Caeli: Is it fair to complain specifically about parents, then?
Elliot: Parents and teachers. Epistemology plays a large role in theories of education and learning, so parents and teachers are people that especially ought to care about it.
Caeli: What is epistemology?
Elliot: It is the field of knowledge about knowledge. It covers what knowledge is, and how we can get it, and its qualities.
Caeli: Oh. That does sound important if you want to help a young child learn.
Elliot: Exactly.
Caeli: Tell me about epistemology.
Elliot: The primary form of false epistemology is the justified, true belief view of knowledge. All the others I mentioned are related to it in some way. But let's start with good epistemology. Then we can compare.
Elliot: Before we begin, let me mention a few outside sources. One of the best philosophers was Karl Popper. He wrote a lot about epistemology and it's worth taking a look at his books. There's also a few chapters about epistemology in The Fabric of Reality by David Deutsch which are excellent. Finally, a very good thinker and writer about education was William Godwin. Whereas Popper's focus was on epistemology, Godwin focussed more on the morality of education and parenting. Godwin's books are out of copyright now and you can download one for free at this link.
Caeli: So, what's the right epistemology?
Elliot: Knowledge is created through a process of conjecture and refutation. What this means is you make guesses and then you reject the guesses that are bad. When you find flaws in guesses, you don't have to throw them out entirely. Strictly speaking, that guess is no good. But you can create new guesses that are only slightly different and no longer have the flaw.
Elliot: By removing flaws and errors, our set of guesses constantly improves. So, we end up with new knowledge. This process is called evolution.
Caeli: I thought evolution was about animals.
Elliot: How to be an effective animal that survives and has offspring is a type of knowledge, and it is the best known example of evolution. Another well known example is memes. But the reach of evolution can't be arbitrarily restricted. The logic applies to any kind of knowledge.
Caeli: Do we need to start with true ideas? If we make small changes to false ideas, they'll still be false.
Elliot: It's not important where we start. Well, it sort of is. We should start in the best places we know how to. But it doesn't change the principle of the matter. For all we know, the ideas we are discussing now are largely false. That's OK. We can improve them. Doing so makes life better and lets us solve problems.
Caeli: So you're saying the goal is not to worry about having perfect ideas, but just to improve the ones we have?
Elliot: That's right.
Caeli: And the way to improve them are to find flaws and eliminate the flaws by making new ideas that are changed to not have the flaws anymore?
Elliot: Yeah.
Caeli: How am I supposed to know what the flaws are?
Elliot: People have problems in their life. One person might wish his door would stop getting stuck in the Winter. Another wants his child to be a doctor, but doesn't know how to make that happen. Another wants to marry a girl he met, but isn't sure how to act around her.
Caeli: You make it sound like problems are a lack of knowledge.
Elliot: Well noticed. They are. The only obstacles to doing things are knowing how and wanting to.
Caeli: So, I can't figure out how to get my door to stop sticking. How does that help me find flaws?
Elliot: The door embodies ideas about how to build a door. What shape to make it, and what materials to use, and what features to include to facilitate maintenance or replacement or to resist damage and malfunction. And it embodies ideas about what an aesthetic door would be, and what sort of door would go well with the other things in people's houses, and what sort of doors should be created given the resources available on Earth (including raw materials, technology, and labor).
Caeli: So, when it sticks, that is a criticism of some of the knowledge in the design?
Elliot: Yes, you've got it.
Caeli: How do we tell which knowledge?
Elliot: There's no formula for it. What we need to do is create an explanation of what's going on. It will explain why the door sticks. If we expand it, we can also explain what causes doors to stick or not, in general, and then work out what sorts of doors would not stick, and then use that to propose new ideas about what types of doors to build.
Caeli: Want to go through this example?
Elliot: OK. The door sticks because moisture in the air in Winter is absorbed into the wood, and this makes the door larger. Solutions would include making the door out of water-resistant materials, or coating it with something, or making slightly smaller doors (or slightly larger doorways), or using a lubricant to make it easier to push open even when there is friction with the doorway.
Caeli: You see so much detail in the ordinary.
Elliot: Doors aren't ordinary. They didn't exist for most of the history of the Earth. We create them through complicated processes that people take for granted, but shouldn't. Our civilization is a great wonder. There's a classic example economists give, which is that no one knows how to make a pencil. What they mean is that all the different labor involved is divided among so many people that no one knows how to do all the parts. A pencil includes wood, carbon, paint, rubber, and metal, and each of those things must be harvested, prepared, and put together, and then the pencils must be distributed to stores, and the stores and complex too, as are the ways of shipping things to stores. Shipping raw materials to factories involves trucks or trains. Those involve engines, and thousands of parts, and fuel, and many workers.
Caeli: Wow.
Elliot: Indeed.
Caeli: So, how do we know our criticism is correct? Couldn't we be mistaken when we think we find a flaw.
Elliot: We can be mistaken, but it's no big deal. A way I like to think about ideas is that they grow more complex over time. Instead of just inventing new ideas that don't fall victim to flaws we find, we can include in a new idea an explanation of the issue the flaw was about, and our current best ideas about how to deal with it.
Elliot: Now, suppose we make a mistake when we alter one of our ideas. That's OK. Now our knowledge includes the old idea, and the supposed problem with it, and the new idea, and supposed reason it is better. When we learn yet another new thing, we may see the old idea is better, but we won't ever go back to the past. We'll go to a new view of having an idea, plus a criticism of it, plus a criticism of that criticism. We'll be learning more even if we make mistakes sometimes.
Caeli: What if we made mistakes most of the time? Maybe we'd end up going backwards, or just never get anywhere. Why should we be right enough of the time to make progress? Aren't there more ways to be wrong than right?
Elliot: There are more ways to be wrong, but the ways to be right have more reach, so right away things don't look so gloomy. Every good idea we find counts for a lot, and will help us in many ways. But bad ideas we find will rarely matter to any other subjects.
Caeli: Don't we find a lot of bad ideas because they do have reach to other subjects, but they imply false things about the other subjects?
Elliot: That's a good point. I think the reason that happens is because we are looking for ideas with reach. We want to find general principles. But this policy has the effect of ruling out huge numbers of bad ideas, and few, if any, good ideas.
Elliot: Back to your question about how can we be sure to make progress. I should mention we can't be certain we are getting things right. Although having explored more bad ideas does count as progress. When we do learn better, we'll be less likely to mistake them for good ideas, because we'll have such thorough knowledge of them.
Elliot: But the primary answer is that criticism isn't arbitrary. We don't make it up. We don't just choose what to believe and hope we're right. As you saw in the door example, the problem was a fact of reality. The door was getting stuck. And the proposed solutions will either work, or they won't.
Caeli: I see how science will make progress, because we can verify our results. But what about moral and philosophical issues? For example, should we make the door stop sticking, or would it be better the way it is?
Elliot: There are many modes of criticism available to us for more airy topics. For example, almost all our untestable ideas claim to be compatible with present-day logic. If we discover they aren't, we can reject them. Next, good ideas are part of our explanations of the world. They don't just say "unstuck doors are good" and leave it at that. We'd want to know why that was so, and find the claim unpersuasive if there aren't answers to our followup questions. But if there are answers, then the idea is saying a lot of different things, and we can look for internal consistency, and consistency with our other ideas.
Caeli: Can you give an example of how we can relate our moral ideas to the real world to get some sense of whether they are any good?
Elliot: We can compare how pleasant life is it different societies (including past ones) which have different values. We can notice that our society is peaceful, as we've commented on previously, and this is an amazingly good thing, and extremely rare in history. Whatever moral values are behind that must have some truth to them.
Caeli: They must?
Elliot: I think they do.
Caeli: Can you say more about the interplay between moral ideas and real life?
Elliot: Which moral ideas we believe affects our life. How nice it is, how successful it is. Complex moral ideas usually (always?) have parts about how to live, and other parts about what nice things will result from living this way. This can in fact work, or not. Further, moral ideas have to offer explanations involving real-world events and facts. Our moral ideas need to have something to say when someone commits a murder, or a war starts, or we get in a fight.
Elliot: And other people can criticize our moral ideas. A lot of people think it's right and good that children be blindly obedient. What do you think of that?
Caeli: That's awful. As you've said, we live in a society that rightly values freedom and voluntary interactions. And we value people thinking for themselves. And there's no reason that shouldn't apply to children.
Elliot: Indeed. And if you go around telling people that, some will be convinced.
Caeli: What about someone who doesn't like our society. He wouldn't be convinced.
Elliot: You'd have two options. You could either find some shared beliefs and make reference to those in your argument. Or you could try to teach him the values of a free society. Communicating new ideas is hard, as we've discussed, but if he managed to create that knowledge he could certainly like it and then agree with you about kids.
Caeli: Couldn't I be wrong? I grew up in a society that said to value these things.
Elliot: Well, that same society said they don't apply to kids very much. You haven't taken your society's values on faith or authority, you've only adopted the ones that seem good to you.
Caeli: And ones I haven't thought about much.
Elliot: Yeah, but that's no big deal. If they come up and affect your life much, then you'll be reminded to think about them then. Just when they're important.
Caeli: Haha, that's cool. So, I'm still a bit fuzzy about how to link morality to the real world.
Elliot: It's tricky, because we don't know as much about the nature of morality as we might like. We have a lot of evolved moral ideas in real life which we can use. And they don't need to be justified, and it's not important where they came from. They'll get better over time as people think about them. But that doesn't really answer the question. If the real world wasn't linked to morality, maybe they wouldn't get better over time with thought.
Elliot: One thing to do is compare different groups of people that value the same thing, but try to achieve it in different ways. The group that better achieves its goals is more moral in some way.
Caeli: Couldn't they be lucky? Like they have more natural resources.
Elliot: Yes, that's possible. But you can form explanations of why they succeeded. If it's because of their policy of intense political debate and democracy, then that wasn't luck.
Elliot: Another thing to consider is that any morality which doesn't relate to the real world in any way is useless. So, if it doesn't relate, you can criticise it on those grounds. Any true morality must have a way it ties into life.
Caeli: What about people who debate nonsense and never get anywhere? Will their ideas evolve?
Elliot: If they have some rules to their debate, the ideas will evolve in accordance with those rules. But their ideas won't evolve usefully. What you should look at is: are these ideas solving problems people have in their lives, and accomplishing things, or not? If they aren't, you should be very concerned that it's arbitrary and pointless. But if the ideas are proving their value, then clearly they matter.
Caeli: That's cool. So what's next?
Elliot: Next is a brief summary of true epistemology, and then a comparison to various false ideas of epistemology.
Caeli: I think I'll go now. That summary would be a better way to start a discussion than end one.
Elliot: You're right. OK, bye.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)

How To Ask Questions 6

Caeli: Hi, Elliot.
Elliot: Hi, Caeli.
Caeli: I believe you were going to summarize true epistemology.
Elliot: We have ideas. It's not critical what they are. What's critical is that we evolve them, by thinking of new ideas that may be improvements, and using criticism to reject flawed ideas. In this way, we can solve our problems and make progress.
Caeli: What is the justified, true belief view you mentioned earlier?
Elliot: It says that knowledge is justified, true beliefs. Every part of this is wrong.
Caeli: Knowledge shouldn't be true?
Elliot: Newton's laws of physics are incorrect. We know that now. But they contain truth in them. They were a great discovery. The insistence that knowledge must be perfectly true in order to count is silly. Nothing we have is perfect.
Caeli: OK, what about belief?
Elliot: They mean we only have a certain piece of knowledge if we believe it. But people have all sorts of knowledge that isn't beliefs. For example, our intuition contains knowledge.
Elliot: Further, there's knowledge that isn't in people at all. A book can contain knowledge even if no one currently knows the things in the book. Books don't have beliefs.
Caeli: Are you sure about intuition?
Elliot: If it didn't contain knowledge, it'd be random how it worked. But in real life, it reacts fairly appropriately to a wide variety of situations. Those appropriate reactions demonstrate it has some knowledge of those situations.
Caeli: Alright, and what about justification?
Elliot: The way they tell it, you could hold a true belief for the wrong reasons, and that's not knowledge. You have to also have justified believing that. You need to actually know it's true.
Caeli: That makes sense.
Elliot: It's true that sometimes people adopt beliefs without proper consideration, and it shouldn't be assumed that they have deep knowledge of the subject even if they happen to be right. But there is a wide range of possibilities in the middle. In fact, in every real case people have more than zero reason, but also less than perfect reasons.
Elliot: Basically what they're saying is that unless you can prove that your belief is true, with unlimited precision and perfection, then it's not really knowledge.
Caeli: Why would they say something like that? What's the point?
Elliot: Because they don't allow for the idea of imperfect knowledge. They want total certainty. And you can't have total certainty without complete proof. Unfortunately for them, you can't have those things at all.
Caeli: You can't possibly have certainty, no matter what? Are you certain?
Elliot: That is my best understanding. One reason is that no matter what reasons you give to be certain of a proposition, I can question how you are certain those reasons work. Whatever proof you give, you'll need to give a proof of that proof. And whatever you say, I'll ask again. And again. You might try to invent a proof that proves something and proves itself. But that won't work. There will be some logic involved in proving itself. A reason it does prove itself. And that can be questioned.
Caeli: What's the point of questioning everything like that?
Elliot: There isn't any point. It's not useful to do so. It's just a thought experiment which rules out perfect, complete certainty. To be absolutely sure you're right, you have to answer all possible policies for objecting or questioning your position.
Caeli: I see. So, how do parents use false epistemology?
Elliot: I've actually given a speech about the consequences of the justified, true belief theory for parenting. You can read it at this link.
Caeli: Cool, a speech.
Elliot: *bows*
Caeli: What are those stars?
Elliot: Sometimes they indicate emphasis, but in this case they indicate an action. *smile*
Caeli: *understands*
Caeli: Do many parents really use the JTB (justified, true belief) approach? I hadn't even heard of it before.
Elliot: It's rarely on their mind explicitly. But the JTB approach to knowledge has informed most epistemology, and is implicitly behind a lot of educational theory. And parents are not embarrassed to be anti-fallibilist, so the JTB approach, with it's notion of certain truth, is behind a lot of that.
Caeli: You said a lot of things. What's fallibilism?
Elliot: It's the belief that we can be wrong, even if we feel really sure. It means that we can't have certain, perfect, truth. It means we can make mistakes even when we think we haven't.
Caeli: That sounds pretty obvious.
Elliot: Indeed. But, alas, it is not.
Caeli: In what way are parents anti-fallibilist?
Elliot: They often insist that they are right. They say they know best. They don't admit that the child might possibly be right.
Caeli: Maybe they usually think it's too unlikely that the child is right to bother about.
Elliot: Perhaps. But that's not very different. And it's not on any better of a philosophical basis. What, exactly, is the procedure for determining the probability that a child might be right?
Caeli: I don't know.
Elliot: There isn't one.
Caeli: How can parents be so certain they are right about everything when the divorce rate is so high? Or when divorces exist at all. Each one indicates that adults made a mistake, or in all probability, many mistakes.
Elliot: That's a good point. Parents don't apply their certainty to their whole lives. They only do it to their children, and only some of the time. Plus, perhaps, a few other things that they are irrational about.
Elliot: An interesting fact is that there is no subject that all parents are irrational about. For every single issue, some parents treat it in a perfectly reasonable manner. This goes a long way towards proving that rational parenting is possible.
Elliot: So, there is no fact that all parents are certain of. Or put another way, for any disagreement with a child, some parents would think the child may have a point. There is never a total consensus against the child, on any issue, even among parents.
Elliot: One of the consequences is that one can't reasonably believe that any of these issues are completely obvious, and certainly not that any view on them is certain truth. For all of them, some parents who seem perfectly reasonable would disagree.
Caeli: You keep mentioning parents doing this or that thing which is very unreasonable. But is it really that common?
Elliot: Yes. Try to think about your own parents, and those of your friends. Think about parents you know now, and how you've seen them treat their kids. And consider how you see families depicted on TV.
Caeli: Hmm. I see your point some. But I'm still not sure if you're exaggerating.
Elliot: I'll try to point out examples to you in the future.
Caeli: OK. That sounds fun!
Caeli: What are some bad consequences when parents use JTB? I know you have a speech about this, but can you just say briefly?
Elliot: Sure. Justifications are very complex because they need to be perfect, so children can't make their own. Truths are hard to come by, so children can't expect to find any. If the parent thinks he has the truth, he won't be interested in criticism or objections. Anything but listening obediently is a waste of time. And when parents give justifications, children won't understand them in full, and will have to take them on faith.
Caeli: That's terrible.
Elliot: Yeah.
Caeli: You said that even though JTB isn't on people's minds explicitly, it informs a lot of educational theory. What did you mean?
Elliot: That's right. I meant that even though people aren't thinking to themselves "my belief is justified and true, and the students' beliefs aren't justified" and stuff like that, the ideas are still there. Students are expected to learn the truths that their teachers impart. That's the dynamic. The dynamic is not joint truth seeking. No one expects the students to have any good ideas, or to disagree with their teacher, except in very limited ways.
Caeli: Aren't there in-class discussions?
Elliot: Yes, but either they don't reach a conclusion, or the teacher is considered the arbiter of who was right.
Elliot: A good example is tests. A test doesn't determine what the truth is. Its purpose is to determine if the pupil has learned the master's view. If children frequently disagreed with teachers, then the whole idea of testing wouldn't make sense, because grading is in terms of the instructor's ideas.
Caeli: I have a feeling that you have more to say about tests.
Elliot: I sure do. What are they for? Not the child's benefit. If he's happy with what he knows about the subject, he doesn't need a test. And if he isn't, he needs another lesson, not a test. The point of tests is for the teacher to find out if a child is learning the material. Why? So that if he isn't, he can be forced to. Tests are to deal with children who don't want to learn the ideas their teacher presents. If the child did want to be there, there'd be no point.
Caeli: Which do you think is more disrespectful to children, schools or parents?
Elliot: Parents, by far. Which is unfortunate, given that schools blatantly use force against unwilling pupils, assume they are right, grade children, and so on.
Caeli: What's wrong with grading?
Elliot: It's a way to pressure people to conform to the teacher's ideas. If you don't, you'll get a low grade. If everyone was there because they wanted to be, and was learning what they wanted to, no one would care about grades. They wouldn't be competing with each other to best do what the teacher wants, they'd just be living their own lives, and many of them would be doing different things.
Caeli: Isn't the problem with public schools the lack of funding to get good teachers?
Elliot: It's possible that is a problem, but one can't blame having entirely the wrong approach on funding. Imagine a parent who spanked and said it's because he is poor. That's insane. Being poor may cause problems, but it certainly didn't force him to hit his child.
Caeli: We've gone far astray. Let's go over some of the other false epistemic ideas. How about induction?
Elliot: Let's skip induction. It's a major topic by itself. So is foundationalism. Let's do the others for now.
Caeli: OK, how about instrumentalism.
Elliot: Instrumentalism says that ideas are just instruments to be used to make factual predictions. Related is positivism, which says the only true knowledge is scientific. An extreme version says that statements which aren't about science and prediction are meaningless.
Caeli: What should we use ideas for besides to make predictions?
Elliot: To explain things.
Caeli: You mention explanation a lot. Do you want to say anything more about it?
Elliot: Predictions are very limited. They tell us the train will arrive at 5 PM, or the atom will perform certain motions in the experiment. Explanations answer all our other questions. They tell us why the train will arrive then, and how trains can move, and whatever else we might like to know about trains. A prediction can tell us if a certain design for railroad tracks will break under a train of a certain weight. But an explanation can tell us why one design is better than another, and what the principles behind each design are. Only with an explanation will we be able to make changes or improvements. Predictions have no reach. It's just a fact, and that's it. If you want to know about another design, you'll need another prediction. And if you want to know about a train of another weight, you'll need another prediction. But when we understand things, we'll know there's no point checking a heavier train if we know that the tracks can't hold this one. And we'll know that isn't universally true: if the heavier train is longer, so the weight is distributed over a longer length of tracks, then that may be fine. There's so much stuff to understand. Understanding is what explanations are for.
Caeli: Oh, that's lovely.
Elliot: Logical positivism, by the way, which says only scientific statements are meaningful, is not a scientific claim. So it denies being meaningful. That's a good example of how we can criticize a theory without needing to observe or test anything.
Caeli: What if they changed it to say that all non-scientific statements except logical positivism are meaningless?
Elliot: Then they are reducing the reach of their view, without providing an explanation for why it doesn't fully apply.
Caeli: What if they came up with a reason?
Elliot: That'd be fine. We could discuss if it was good or not. Can you think of a reasonable reason that all philosophy except logical positivism might be meaningless?
Caeli: No. I can't even think of a reason that any philosophy should be meaningless. That would mean all our conversations are pointless, but I like them.
Elliot: Well noticed. The logical positivism theory has distant consequences, such as asserting that our conversation is meaningless. And if those seem silly, then logical positivism itself must be equally silly.
Caeli: What about relativism?
Elliot: Relativism says that the truth is relative to your perspective. It's different for each person, or each culture. One of the unfortunate consequences of relativism is it means we have no common ground with other people, and therefore the problem of communication cannot possibly be solved.
Caeli: Why is that unfortunate?
Elliot: Because people do talk to each other, and therefore relativism is false.
Caeli: How about solipsism.
Elliot: Solipsism says that no one else exists; they are just my imagination.
Caeli: I'm not imaginary.
Elliot: I know, it's silly. There's a joke about it. A philosophy professor gives a lecture on solipsism. Afterwards a student comes up and says, "That was a great lecture. I totally agree with you." And the teacher replies, "You agree that you're just part of my imagination?"
Caeli: Haha. They'll argue about which one of them is real all day.
Elliot: I expect they won't. They'll get bored and stop long before that. If they actually enjoyed arguing for entire days then they wouldn't be solipsists.
Caeli: What's the sponge theory of brains?
Elliot: It says that brains are like sponges. They absorb whatever ideas touch them. This is useful for saying that TV is dangerous, but little else.
Caeli: Isn't it also useful for saying books are dangerous.
Elliot: Yes :) And people used to do that. But they don't any longer. There is no explanation of why this argument no longer applies to books, they just stopped applying it. But as we've said, you can't arbitrarily restrict the reach of explanations. On a similar note, shouldn't the sponge theory reach to adults?
Caeli: Do people really take this stuff seriously?
Elliot: They don't say it in quite these words. But they are often scared about "influences" such as TV. They think children are unable to be discriminating; that their brains absorb ideas with no choice involved.
Caeli: How do you know that the don't?
Elliot: Well, every teacher knows that the sponge theory is false. His lectures often go in one ear and out the other. It's hard to get students to learn the material. They don't just absorb it automatically.
Caeli: What's the difference? Why do children pick up so many ideas from TV, and so few from school?
Elliot: The difference is that people learn things when they want to be there and like what they're learning, but rarely otherwise.
Elliot: By the way, you wanted examples of bad things parents do. Well, they restrict TV watching, by force. There's also grounding, timeouts, curfews, taking away allowances, restricting usage of a car, and deciding if the child is allowed to go on a trip or not.
Elliot: Further, activists who don't like government schools take the position that government shouldn't decide what our children learn ... parents should. No one takes the position that children should decide for themselves. So these issues, including bad epistemology, are very prevalent in our culture.
Caeli: Oh dear. Something should be done.
Elliot: I know.
Elliot: By the way, solipsism, induction and more are addressed very well in The Fabric of Reality by David Deutsch.
Caeli: What doesn't that book cover?
Elliot: Morality, education, and aardvarks.
Caeli: I've got to go in a moment, is there anything you'd like to add first? Besides that I should buy and read that book. Because I will, already :)
Elliot: The idea of children as gullible sponges, and the idea of children as extraordinary stubborn are both very common in parenting. This shows a lack of careful thinking. Watch out for it.
Caeli: What are some more examples of each?
Elliot: Until recently, the general idea was that children needed to be physically beaten to break their stubbornness. It's that hard a task to make them submit and start listening to your ideas.
Elliot: Meanwhile, parents are deathly concerned that their children may hang out with the wrong friends, because they could very easily pick up some bad ideas from them.
Caeli: That certainly does contradict. I better go now.
Elliot: It was nice talking, Caeli.
Caeli: Bye!

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)

Rationally Resolving Conflicts of Ideas

I was planning to write an essay explaining the method of rationally resolving conflicts and always acting on a single idea with no outstanding criticisms. It would followup on my essay Epistemology Without Weights and the Mistake Objectivism and Critical Rationalism Both Made where I mentioned the method but didn't explain it.

I knew I'd already written a number of explanations on the topic, so I decided to reread them for preparation. While reading them I decided that the topic is hard and it'd be very hard to write a single essay which is good enough for someone to understand it. Maybe if they already had a lot of relevant background knowledge, like knowing Popper, Deutsch or TCS, one essay could work OK. But for an Objectivist audience, or most audiences, I think it'd be really hard.

So I had a different idea I think will work better: gather together multiple essays. This lets people learn about the subject from a bunch of different angles. I think this way will be the most helpful to someone who is interested in understanding this philosophy.

Each link below was chosen selectively. I reread all of them as well as other things that I decided not to include. It may look like a lot, but I don't think you should expect an important new idea in epistemology to be really easy and short to learn. I've put the links in the order I recommend reading them, and included some explanations below.

Instead of one perfect essay – which is impossible – I present instead some variations on a theme.

Update 2017: Buy my Yes or No Philosophy to learn a ton more about this stuff. It has over 6 hours of video and 75 pages of writing. See also this free essay giving a short argument for it.

Update Oct 2016: Read my new Rejecting Gradations of Certainty.

Popper's critical preferences idea is incorrect. It's similar to standard epistemology, but better, but still shares some incorrectness with rival epistemologies. My criticisms of it can be made of any other standard epistemology (including Objectivism) with minor modifications. I explained a related criticism of Objectivism in my prior essay.

Critical Preferences
Critical Preferences and Strong Arguments

The next one helps clarify a relevant epistemology point:

Corroboration

Regress problems are a major issue in epistemology. Understanding the method of rationally resolving conflicts between ideas to get a single idea with no outstanding criticism helps deal with regresses.

Regress Problems

Confused about anything? Maybe these summary pieces will help:

Conflict, Criticism, Learning, Reason
All Problems are Soluble
We Can Always Act on Non-Criticized Ideas

This next piece clarifies an important point:

Criticism is Contextual

Coercion is an important idea to understand. It comes from Taking Children Seriously (TCS), the Popperian educational and parenting philosophy by David Deutsch. TCS's concept of "coercion" is somewhat different than the dictionary, keep in mind that it's our own terminology. TCS also has a concept of a "common preference" (CP). A CP is any way of resolving a problem between people which they all prefer. It is not a compromise; it's only a CP if everyone fully prefers it. The idea of a CP is that it's a preference which everyone shares in common, rather than disagreeing.

CPs are the only way to solve problems. And any non-coercive solution is a CP. CPs turn out to be equivalent to non-coercion. One of my innovations is to understand that these concepts can be extended. It's not just about conflicts between people. It's really about conflicts between ideas, including ideas within the same mind. Thus coercion and CPs are both major ideas in epistemology.

TCS's "most distinctive feature is the idea that it is both possible and desirable to bring up children entirely without doing things to them against their will, or making them do things against their will, and that they are entitled to the same rights, respect and control over their lives as adults." In other words, achieving common preferences, rather than coercion, is possible and desirable.

Don't understand what I'm talking about? Don't worry. Explanations follow:

Taking Children Seriously
Coercion

The next essay explains the method of creating a single idea with no outstanding criticisms to solve problems and how that is always possible and avoids coercion.

Avoiding Coercion
Avoiding Coercion Clarification

This email clarifies some important points about two different types of problems (I call them "human" and "abstract"). It also provides some historical context by commenting on a 2001 David Deutsch email.

Human Problems and Abstract Problems

The next two help clarify a couple things:

Multiple Incompatible Unrefuted Conjectures
Handling Information Overload

Now that you know what coercion is, here's an early explanation of the topic:

Coercion and Critical Preferences

This is an earlier piece covering some of the same ideas in a different way:

Resolving Conflicts of Interest

These pieces have some general introductory overview about how I approach philosophy. They will help put things in context:

Think
Philosophy: What For?

Update: This new piece (July 2017) talks about equivocations and criticizes the evidential continuum: Don't Equivocate

Want to understand more?

Read these essays and dialogs. Read Fallible Ideas. Join my discussion group and actually ask questions.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (241)

Asking Good Questions

I'm asked lots of questions. Writing great answers for all of them would take too long.

I prioritize writing answers I consider interesting or important.

Sometimes I give a short answers or a link. Sometimes I suggest that a friend answer a question. But I still don't answer some questions at all.

My first priority is what I want to answer. Secondarily, I'd like to answer questions that the asker cares more about, puts more effort into, and gets more value from.

Sometimes people ask careless questions. Sometimes they barely care what the answer is. Sometimes they lose interest in the topic a couple days later but don't share this fact. Sometimes they could have easily found the answer with Google, but they don't respect my time. Some questions are dead ends where they have no comment on the answer and no followup questions.

I have limited information about how important a question is to you. You can help with this problem by writing better questions. Here are some things you can do to get more attention:

  • Ask on the Fallible Ideas discussion group or curi forum (this website). Those are my preferred places to take questions and I give them priority. But don't use FI unless you read the guidelines and format your post correctly.
  • State steps you already took to find the answer yourself, and why they didn't work.
  • Write well. Use short, simple words, sentences and paragraphs. Clearly mark quotes. Emphasize key points. Do an editing pass to make it clearer and easier to understand. Keep things organized and limit repetition.
  • Make it really clear what the question actually is.
  • Give specifics. I don't have a solution to "I am sad". That describes millions of different problems. (If you want a very general purpose answer like "Then do problem solving." you can state that you want a general case answer with no specifics.)
  • Mention relevant background knowledge you have. If you ask about altruism, I may suggest you read Ayn Rand. If you've already read her, you should have told me!
  • Say what kind of answer you're looking for. What are you looking for? What sort of information would you consider an adequate answer?
  • Say why you want an answer to this question and what problem it will solve for you. Say why the question is important.
  • Use relevant quotes and make sure they are 100% accurate (use copy/paste) and give the source. E.g. if the question has to do with something I've written, link and quote it.
  • Keep it short. If some detailed information is important for reference, put it in a footnote after the question.
  • If you refer to something, and it's important to your question, then provide a link. For books you generally want to give the Amazon link. If it's long, say which section is relevant and explain what information the reference has and how it relates to the question.
  • Sending money, even just $5, sets your question apart from others.
  • I strongly prefer ebooks over paper. They don't have page numbers and do allow searching for quotes. And if you really want me to look at a book and can't find a free link, then buy me the ebook. But it's usually better to just quote a lot instead.
  • If your question isn't answered, look at it from another angle or make some progress on it, then ask another question. Having a question unanswered is no big deal. It's not a negative response or a rebuke. No answer is neutral. If it's important, just reread this guide and try again after a few days.
  • If you have followup questions or arguments that depend on my answer to the question, especially criticism of my ideas, let me know.
  • If you think I need to address this question for Paths Forward reasons, explain that.
  • If you want me personally to answer, say why. Otherwise write your question in a generic way that other people could answer, too.
  • If you think I'll get value from the question or a followup, tell me what's in it for me.
  • Don't be or act helpless or needy, don't act like you deserve free answers, and don't rush and write carelessly.

If this sounds like too much effort to you, then understand that answering your questions is not my problem. But note that you will benefit from these steps too because they'll guide you to do better thinking. They'll help you understand your problem better, make some problem solving progress, and sometimes answer your own question.


Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (9)

My Paths Forward Policy

If you think I'm mistaken or ignorant about something important, I want to hear it. I am open to public comments and criticism. See Paths Forward for an explanation of my methodology for not blocking error correction (always having some Path Forward so that if I'm mistaken, and someone knows it, and they're willing to tell me, then I can be told and I won't ignore it).

I do not reply to everything addressed to me, at all venues. I do reply to a fair amount, but I don't have time to answer everything. However, I will guarantee you some attention if you follow a method of getting my attention which anyone can follow with predictable success. Here's what you do:

  1. Post your issue to the FI Google Group. Format your post correctly, e.g. by making it plain text with attributed quotes. Read the guidelines for quote formatting. For most issues, you should quote from something you're arguing with and point out a mistake in the quote. You can also do general comments and respond to your own paraphrases of my views, but pointing out at least one mistake in a quote is important too.

  2. If you don't receive a reply from anyone within a few days, post a self-reply with some followup points. Try again. If the first post didn't have them, follow up with a brief statement of why this is important and a brief summary (one paragraph max, each). Also make sure you're providing a clear question or call to action. What do you want to happen next? What sort of response do you want? Mention you want a Path Forward from me.

  3. If you still don't receive a reply within a few days, write a self-reply asking why you didn't receive a reply, and include a brief statement of why replying to you matters and what you're looking for.

  4. If you still don't receive a reply within a few days, email me personally ([email protected]) and ask for an answer and say that you've read Paths Forward. Link the FI Google Group topic, or at least give the subject line and date.

Summary: Post to FI. Follow up on why it matters and what reply you want. Follow up asking why no one is answering. Follow up by emailing me. You will get an answer by the end of this process.

Notes

You're welcome to try contacting me in other ways, and that often works, but no promises.

Formatting posts correctly is an intentional barrier to entry. If you aren't willing to do that, I suggest you post to my blog comments (which don't have formatting requirements). I consider the FI formatting the best for a serious discussion, so if you're looking for a serious discussion you should learn it. I like this barrier to entry because I believe it improves discussion while avoiding unpredictable, subjective judgements (like about the quality of your writing and ideas – I will not ignore you because I believe your comments are low quality, as long as you follow the steps listed above.)

I don't answer everything the first time, but if you are persistent as stated above, then I can guarantee you an answer.

The reasons I want you to post on my public forum are that I want other forum readers to benefit from my answer, I want my answer to have a public permalink so I can refer other people to it in the future, and I want other people to be able to answer you (instead of me).

If you receive an answer from another person, and you think it's inadequate and really want an answer from me personally, you can continue with the steps outlined above and explain this (say why the answers from the other people are inadequate and why you want my personal attention).

I (or someone else) commonly will answer a point before reaching step 4. Often at step 1. (I'm most responsive on the FI forum, so just posting there with correct formatting is frequently enough to get a reply. I'm next most responsive to personal email, then blog comments, and then less responsive to everything else).

Like many busy people, I am less inclined to answer if I think something is low quality. I certainly don't want to reply to every low quality thing addressed to me. However, if you follow the steps then you'll get a reply from someone, including from me if necessary. (Often other people are fully capable of answering issues, especially the comments I consider lower quality, so I don't always want to do it personally if someone else will do it.)

If you don't want your content to be exclusive to my forum, that's fine. You're welcome to put it on your own website and post a link or copy/paste.

If you want me to address something which costs money, offer me a free copy somewhere within the first 3 steps. If you won't do that, say why.

If I still don't answer after step 4, your personal email went in my spam folder. I don't think this is a common problem, but if it happens feel free to post to FI again and bring it up and I'll see it or someone else will who can contact me. Or it'd be fine to post 10 blog comments in a row or tweet me or something until I notice. Say that you did the 4 Paths Forward steps and I didn't reply, so maybe the email went in spam, and identify the FI posts in question so I can find them. Or you can email Justin or Alan and they'll get my attention. I mention this because spam filtering is a conceivable problem that could get in the way of Paths Forward, and I don't want that to happen. Email is not 100% reliable for contacting me, but it's pretty good and there are solutions if it fails.

Alternatives

What if you don't want to be so demanding and challenging as to ask for a Path Forward from Elliot/CR/FI? Maybe you expect you're wrong (rather than offering a correction), but you're still interested in pursuing the issue and learning something and getting it resolved? Perhaps you want some Path Forward for yourself to make progress?

Follow up on your own posts with new questions, new explanations of the issues and their importance, new angles and perspectives. Rewrite what you're saying a different way. And report what you've done to make progress, what effort you've put in (and what the result was), what you're planning to do, and if you're running out of ideas and if you'd like help with something. Keep at it over time. Be persistent, honest and curious and FI people will want to help. And make it easy for them: take short advice/comments/suggestions and then do a bunch more on your own initiative (and share this so they see giving you help was worthwhile), rather than expecting them to guide you step by step. Put effort into your learning as independently as you can, e.g. by taking book and link suggestions and doing series of blog posts about them as you read. Be a pleasure to help and offer more value than you ask for. (If you don't know how to offer value, but want to, ask.)


Update My Paths Forward Policy is a now a backup for my debate policy. The debate policy should handle most issues. Use it first. If something goes wrong with that, the Paths Forward Policy is still available.


Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (9)

Pre-Scripted Discussions

People in conversations usually just say their own (largely pre-determined) stuff, following their own script, because that’s all they know how to say.

They know something, and they are proud to know anything at all, and they go into the discussion planning to talk about that knowledge they do have, and they try to stick to that.

This is why they are so non-responsive when I say things that require off-script responses. They don’t know how to think on their feet and actually address a question. They can basically only answer a question if they already read/heard what to think about it in advance.

Some things this comes up with:

  • Meta discussion (e.g. any kind of proposal about how to organize the discussion, like to switch forums, use quotes, or go slower with smaller steps).
  • Asking them to engage with critics or rival ideas instead of just present their positive case.
  • Any questions they didn’t expect or which seem a bit off topic to them. it doesn’t matter if you have a reason for asking and it’s actually relevant, they don’t know how to answer because it doesn’t fit their script.
  • Any criticism that doesn't fit the script, e.g. about their writing being too unclear and failing to communicate. Dealing with misunderstandings isn't part of their script or pre-knowledge.
  • The people who seem to be talking to themselves or doing a monologue more than they are having an interactive discussion.

This is unnatural and unintuitive to me because I learn during discussions.


Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)