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)

Learning By Force

Caeli: Hi!
Elliot: Hi, Caeli.
Caeli: Are time outs OK?
Elliot: No. They aren't voluntary.
Caeli: Why do they need to be?
Elliot: Well, it depends what they are for. If the goal is to get rid of the kid, by force, because the parent wants a break, then they work OK. But tying the kid up with rope would be more effective. On the other hand, if the goal is for the child to learn something, then using force is no good.
Caeli: Can't people be forced to learn?
Elliot: No.
Caeli: Consider all young people. Some are uninterested in learning. Of those people, some will go on to learn things. It can't be voluntary, because they didn't want to. Therefore some people were forced to learn.
Elliot: Good try, but no. There aren't any people who are completely uninterested in learning all topics. No one is irrational about everything.
Caeli: Do rational people always want to learn?
Elliot: Yes. There are always things they want to learn.
Caeli: What about a kid who hates the piano, but his parents make him take lessons, and he grows up to be a skilled pianist. When he was six, he was not a skilled pianist. In the meantime, he learned. If his parents had not used force, he wouldn't have learned that skill.
Elliot: The child didn't learn from being forced. Let me remind you what force is like. It's when your mother shrieks that you're really upsetting her, and threatens to take away your property and freedom if you don't listen to her. And your father, sternly, says you better do as your told real fast. And you have a feeling that if you don't, he'll start shouting or maybe hit you.
Caeli: That's awful.
Elliot: Yeah. So, your parents do all that. Now the child has an easy choice. He can go to piano lessons, or face that scene every day. So he goes. Now, while he's there, the piano teacher forcibly prevents him from doing something else, like reading Popper. He is unable to pursue his other interests during this time. What sort of the force does the piano teacher use? Well, threatening to tell his parents that the child isn't applying himself is probably enough. But the teacher is in a position of authority and power and will have other leverage over the child as well.
Elliot: So, now what? Well, the child can either waste his time, or try to learn something he isn't interested in. Further, if he doesn't learn it, he will be under increasing pressure to make progress, and perform songs for his parents, and so on. And if he does find a way to learn about it, his time won't be completed wasted, and lessons will be less unpleasant because he won't always be fighting with his teacher.
Elliot: So, what's the result? Well, ninety nine times out of a hundred, the result is nothing but unhappiness all around. Never forget that. But what about the other time? That one other time, the child manages to, despite that it's absolutely the wrong thing for him, figure out a way to become interested in piano and learn about it. Shall we celebrate now? Of course not. If he'd spent all that time learning something that wasn't an uphill battle, that would be a much more reliable way to become successful. And the worst part, by far, is the force. If someone gets it into his head to learn piano, even though he's bad at it and has always hated it, that's no big deal, if he can quit whenever he wants to. The worst that can happen is he won't like it and will stop. But when force is involved, disaster always looms. And there's is such great pressure on everyone, especially the child, that it's very hard to think. It's hard to be creative. If only the child had been gotten to the piano lessons with less or no force, his chances to learn piano would be far greater.
Caeli: Good points. But imagine another child, of an even rarer variety, who is actually a pianist at heart, but doesn't know it. He believes he isn't interested in piano, but he is. Soon after lessons start, he discovers this, and everything goes smoothly. Force played a role as a catalyst.
Elliot: First, bear in mind that the reason this scenario goes more smoothly is that it contains far less force. Almost the entire thing is voluntary. So, of course it comes out better. But, from where the parents are sitting, this is nothing more than good luck. They can't have reasonably expected anything but disaster, and they did it anyway. That's awful.
Caeli: What about for the child?
Elliot: Imagine ten kids with potential, who are pianists at heart, but believe they aren't. If you forced all of them to try piano, nine would hate it for the rest of their lives. They'd be turned against it, by the huge pressure on them, and the, well, force. It's violent, wrong, distasteful, and to be avoided. It will be entirely reasonable if most of these kids stay far, far away from a topic that has brought such pain and agony, whenever they are able to.
Caeli: And what about that other child. Did force help him?
Elliot: Nope. He managed, somehow, to ignore the force. That was hard, and almost ended in disaster, but through some miracle of human creativity, he defeated the force and became a pianist in spite of it.
Caeli: But if the parents hadn't used force, he wouldn't have become a pianist at all.
Elliot: First of all, if a parent never says much about pianos, his children may still become pianists. It happens.
Elliot: Second, the parent can't know the force will "work". There is no way for him to know that his child is that one-in-a-thousand case you are talking about. It's overwhelmingly likely that he isn't.
Elliot: Third, and this is my original point, children never learn from force. They learn, as I've described, despite the overwhelmingly horrible experience that force brings. What they actually learn from, unsurprisingly enough, is some combination of piano lessons and thinking.
Elliot: Fourth, there are other things the parents could have done. Suppose they actually did have some reason to think their child would make a good pianist. Or even less than that, a reason that being a pianist is more wonderful than most people give it credit. Well, they could tell their child about this. They could persuade him. All these parents willing to go to such extreme measures seem to be very sure their child will be an expert pianist (despite that fact that many other parents have thought the same thing, and tried the same methods, and failed miserably). So, surely these parents draw their certainty from something. They can present this something to the child. If it's worthy of the parent being so certain, surely the child can be persuaded to give piano a try. And if he does that, then by the premise that this child is a natural who only needs to get started, then he will succeed, with no force.
Caeli: Oh. That's a nice way to look at these things.
Elliot: Yeah :)
Caeli: So let me summarize what we've said. First, time outs are bad because they are forceful: the child doesn't want to stay in his room, but is made to.
Elliot: Yes, but let me add that if the child did want to stay in his room -- if he thought that was a good idea -- then a time out would not be needed: the parent could simply suggest that the child might like to go to his room now, and the child will agree that that sounds nice.
Caeli: Cool. So, second, we discussed if force can be used to make people learn. You described in detail how force is distasteful, and almost always makes things much worse. Next, I honed in on the rare case where it seems to help. But, finally, you pointed out that there are much better solutions to even that case.
Elliot: That sounds right.
Caeli: I think we got distracted though. The purpose of time outs isn't learning. Isn't it important that children be punished when they act wrongly?
Elliot: Let me remind you that parents often say that time outs help children "learn their lesson", or they order children to "think about what they did".
Elliot: But anyway, what's the point of punishment?
Caeli: Maybe it's to learn to stop doing bad things.
Elliot: But that's learning, and we agreed that force doesn't cause learning.
Caeli: Oh, oops. Well, maybe it's not about the child. Maybe it's about the people he hurt.
Elliot: And what do they gain from his timeout?
Caeli: Maybe they'll feel better by getting a break from him, or because he was punished.
Elliot: If they feel better because he was punished (forcibly hurt), that is perverse. That doesn't help them in any way. And he's a human being, and they shouldn't want to see him suffer.
Caeli: What about getting a break?
Elliot: They could leave. Or they could ask him to, nicely.
Caeli: Why should they have to leave if the child hurt them?
Elliot: They don't have to. It's just an option. Imagine that your friend hurt you. Wouldn't you consider leaving and avoiding her?
Caeli: Yeah, I guess I would. But let's consider the case where the victim doesn't want to leave. And also, the child doesn't want to leave when asked.
Elliot: At this point I want to question the idea that the child has hurt someone. That wasn't the original premise. You've only added it when you needed a way to excuse treating the child badly.
Caeli: So what? It's useful to change hypothetical scenarios while we discuss them, to make the questions we want to ask about work better.
Elliot: That's fair enough. But there's a danger. Consider a parent who at first declares a time out for a bad reason. But when pressed, starts saying the child acted wrongly, and then elaborating that therefore the child hurt other people and that's unacceptable. But if the child hurting people was such a big deal -- say he used a knife and the victim is now in the hospital -- then that would be obvious from the outset, no one would even consider that a time out is the appropriate response, and there would be no issue about the victim and child staying in the room together. Everything would be very clear. The only reason that things are murky is that, in fact, the child did not hurt anyone badly.
Caeli: OK. I see how the idea of the child making a moral error got exaggerated to hurting someone, and then it got as severe as necessary to excuse whatever was being done to the child. But let's get back to my question: no one wants too leave the room. Now what?
Elliot: Well, suppose the child really did hurt this person. Then, tell him. He'll be apologetic and happy to leave the room if that would help.
Caeli: How can you expect that? That never happens.
Elliot: And why not? Isn't it the most natural thing? Isn't it what you would do?
Caeli: I might do that. I hope I would, now that I think about it. I see that it's natural in a way. But few people act that way. It's not well known in our culture. How can you expect a child to do it?
Elliot: Well, I don't expect him to. I was just saying what should happen. If it doesn't happen, there will be a reason it doesn't. And the reason, as you've just argued, is not that the child is unusually bad and wicked. He can't be expected to do this. Few people know how to. So any further problems are probably not the child's fault.
Caeli: That's a very nice point.
Elliot: We should be careful not to dismiss optimism out of hand. It's important, even when the ideal thing that we think of doesn't actually happen. It can cheer us up with glimpses of nice and possible ways of life. It can draw us closer to those things. If anyone bothers to suggest something wildly optimistic, sometimes people actually manage to do it. Often they do part of it. It's important to know good things to aim for.
Elliot: A further and related point is that children are not innately wicked. Ignorant yes, wicked no. So suppose a child does something wrong. What should we expect next? For the child not to know what to do? Sure. For the child to continue acting wrongly, persist in fighting with people, make things worse, or resist good ideas? No, none of those.
Caeli: Don't those things happen a lot, in practice?
Elliot: Yes. But when they do, it's not because you're dealing with a child. As I've just shown, the attributes of childhood don't cause those things.
Caeli: I see. So, what does cause them?
Elliot: Past history of fighting between the parent and child, past history of the parent giving bad advice or hurting the child. Past history of the child being thwarted. That sort of thing.
Caeli: What about past history of the child doing things like that to the parent?
Elliot: Children have no power to thwart their parents.
Caeli: Yes they do. Parents have responsibilities that children can use against them.
Elliot: Responsibilities? Like what? Parents often use threats to not fulfill their responsibilities as leverage. For example, a parent might threaten not to feed the child dinner, or not to help him travel to an event.
Caeli: Like if the parent wants to go out, but can't find a babysitter because the child has driven away all his sitters (by being horrible) and none want to come back.
Elliot: They could hire a thug. He'll handle the child, no problem.
Caeli: They don't want to.
Elliot: So, the child has devilishly trapped the parents by using their own good will against them?
Caeli: Right.
Elliot: And why would he do that?
Caeli: I don't know. But doesn't that happen a lot?
Elliot: I think what happened is that the child was forced to endure babysitters that he did not want to spend time with. The experience was unpleasant for all involved, so the sitters didn't want to come back. The parents then felt guilty about hurting their child, and that's why they don't want to hire a more harsh sitter. But they don't know how to solve the problem, and they desperately want to have a free evening again. So they start getting resentful, and blaming the child, even though all he wanted was to not be left alone in the power of people he doesn't like. They start thinking that if this is the consequence of his desire, then he must be asking for too much.
Caeli: Oh. I guess that would make sense. So, what should they do to fix it?
Elliot: I'll tell you next time, OK?
Caeli: Alright. Bye bye.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Message (1)

Learning By Force 2

Caeli: Hi!
Elliot: Hi, Caeli.
Caeli: Here's what you said last time about a scenario we discussed:
I think what happened is that the child was forced to endure babysitters that he did not want to spend time with. The experience was unpleasant for all involved, so the sitters didn't want to come back. The parents then felt guilty about hurting their child, and that's why they don't want to hire a more harsh sitter. But they don't know how to solve the problem, and they desperately want to have a free evening again. So they start getting resentful, and blaming the child, even though all he wanted was to not be left alone in the power of people he doesn't like. They start thinking that if this is the consequence of his desire, then he must be asking for too much.
Elliot: Correct.
Caeli: I asked: what should they do to fix it?
Elliot: One issue is the idea of "asking too much". Why is that too much? Why can't there be enough that the child can have all he wants? The likely reason is that the parent imagines a limited amount of stuff that people can get and have, and imagines that problem solving means compromising means dividing up what's available.
Caeli: What's the right view?
Elliot: That problem solving involves knowledge creation. This creates new property, new stuff, so there is more to go around. There is no reason we can't create enough for everyone to be happy.
Caeli: A good analogy might be comparing wealth redistribution with just making more stuff. What would you say about that?
Elliot: Excellent idea. Yes. Consider when there were not nearly enough TVs to go around. Or computers, or something else. People could have focussed on sharing them fairly, and trying to make do with what they had. But that is at best a band-aid. It doesn't make the world awesome. What's much more effective is to mass produce TVs and computers. Now they are very cheap.
Caeli: Who should get TVs while there are still only a few?
Elliot: That is just details. It's not too important. It's parochial. It doesn't effect whether the overall policy is going to end the scarcity.
Caeli: Fair enough, but I'd still like to know.
Elliot: We have a very good system. They go to the people who value them enough to trade wealth for them.
Caeli: I'd trade wealth for them. But I don't have very much to trade.
Elliot: The general reason that people don't have much wealth to trade is that they've chosen not to. They have preferred to do all sorts of other things besides maximize the amount of wealth they create. That's perfectly reasonable, but they shouldn't then complain that they have less wealth, in the form of TVs or otherwise.
Caeli: Not everyone chose not to have much wealth. For example children, and people in poor countries.
Elliot: That children don't have much wealth is their parents doing. But it's also just a parochial detail that will sort itself out in time.
Elliot: As for people in poor countries, I'm sorry the world isn't as nice a place as they would have liked. But it never will be: people will always be able to say, "I wish my country was richer". So that complaint must be empty. There are things to be done. They can move to another country, if there is one they prefer. Or they can take steps to improve their country. Or they can make themselves into an unusual person, who is wealthier than his neighbors.
Caeli: Most people who try to get rich, fail.
Elliot: As many rich people will tell you, it's not very hard, if you just keep trying, and really dedicate your life to it. The primary reasons people fail are their own faults. They give up far too easily, or they let other priorities get in the way.
Caeli: Isn't it good to have other priorities?
Elliot: If you make something other than being rich a priority, that is a perfectly good way of life, but you should then stop complaining that you are less wealthy than other people who make wealth a higher priority.
Caeli: Isn't money just a stupid game? Wouldn't it be better to focus on creating things that help people, like dialogs?
Elliot: Money is like an "I owe you" for wealth. Wealth means stuff that people want. Stuff that's valuable. When you create valuable things, people will trade you for them. Instead of trading you their own valuables, it's more convenient if they give you money, which you can then trade to someone else for whatever wealth you want.
Caeli: Don't people want dialogs, but not pay for them?
Elliot: People buy lots of books, magazines, subscriptions to websites with written content, and so on.
Caeli: Don't they pay in large measure when they have to, not based on when something is worth it?
Elliot: Yes. But look, if people really wanted my dialogs, I would charge for them, and people would buy them. The reason it's difficult to charge is that people are not yet persuaded that my dialogs are worth buying.
Caeli: So why do you write them?
Elliot: I like to.
Caeli: Might people become persuaded of their value when they read them?
Elliot: Yes.
Caeli: If they don't, will you be sad and wish you hadn't written them?
Elliot: No.
Caeli: Why not?
Elliot: Because I will still have liked writing them.
Caeli: So back to the parents with no babysitter. The first thing they should do is reject the idea that the child is asking too much, and accept the idea that whatever he wants can be created.
Elliot: Yes, basically. But there's another issue. His preferences are not set in stone. It might be better for him to have other preferences, and want other things. Those other things might be easier to create. They might also be harder. But if the original preference is not possible, then another one would be better.
Caeli: Wait, it might not be possible? Before you were saying we can make stuff.
Elliot: We can be happy. We can create many things. We don't have a fixed supply of things to divide up. But we do have laws of physics to contend with. But that's OK. We don't have to want anything that's physically impossible, and if we do, we can change our mind.
Caeli: When people don't get something, but change their mind to not want it anymore, don't they often secretly still want it and remain unhappy?
Elliot: Yes. But what you're discussing is the case where the person didn't actually change his preference. Further, by pretending he did, he has tricked everyone into not trying to help him fulfill it. And he has made it hard for him to pursue getting what he wants himself while keeping up his charade. So, not only is this no criticism of actual changes of preference, but it's a harmful policy that makes solutions much harder to come by.
Caeli: What do you mean by a solution?
Elliot: A course of action that everyone involved prefers. Or, I will also take a course of action that I prefer, and I am morally right to do.
Caeli: Isn't it reaching for the sky to find something everyone prefers? That is ideal, but usually the best we can find are compromises, that everyone thinks is OK, but it's not their top preference.
Elliot: That's incorrect. Usually we find genuine solutions. The reason you think otherwise is that you are only noticing failures. Most problems are solved with no fanfare. People often don't realize there was a problem, because they solve it so easily.
Caeli: Well, let's only consider hard problems then.
Elliot: OK, but bear in mind that which problems seem hard varies drastically by family. There are no problems that all families find hard. Or put another way, for every problem, some families find it very easy to create real, genuine solutions. And this proves that in every case, "ideal" solutions are possible.
Caeli: Are compromises really that bad?
Elliot: No one gets what he wants.
Caeli: They get most of what they want.
Elliot: That doesn't make sense. You can't mix different people's ideas to get compromises. Ideas do not mix. A compromise is a genuinely new idea about what to do, that isn't what anyone wanted.
Caeli: Why don't ideas mix?
Elliot: Well suppose I want to go to the beach, and you to the forest, and we only have one car. How do you mix our ideas?
Caeli: Easy. We'll go to a beach that has trees.
Elliot: There are infinite ways to mix the ideas so that elements of both remain. We could just as well go to a forest with sand, or just put sand and leaves in a bag and go to the mall. Or read a book that includes a forest and a swimming contest.
Caeli: Why is infinite ways of mixing the same as none?
Elliot: Because it means that whatever people come up with, which they say is the proper way to mix them, is actually their own idea about what to do, and what elements of each plan to keep. They are not just taking the two original ideas and following a recipe for proper mixing. They are using their own ideas about what is important.
Caeli: I guess your point is that there is no way to determine, on general principles, a fair mix.
Elliot: Right. What matters is whether the new idea contains the things that everyone wants, or not. If it doesn't, someone is not getting what he wanted. He may change his preference, and if he does, that's fine, and it's no longer a compromise. But if he doesn't, then that is not fine.
Caeli: What's so bad about not getting what you want.
Elliot: How about I demonstrate by killing you.
Caeli: But I don't want to die.
Elliot: Exactly my point.
Caeli: But what about if I wanted a cookie, and didn't get it. Is that so bad?
Elliot: The reason a cookie is not such a big deal is that it's pretty easy to stop wanting. Aren't you yourself thinking, "It wouldn't be the end of the world if I didn't get my cookie?" That is a sign that you don't have a strong preference about the cookie, and are almost ready to stop wanting it. You'd like a cookie if it's convenient, but if it's too much trouble, you won't mind not having one.
Caeli: I see. But what if it's not like that. What if I really, really want it?
Elliot: Then not getting it will hurt.
Caeli: Oh. That does matter. So, where were we?
Elliot: What should the parents do about not having sitters, and resenting their child for this? First, the things their child wants, such as not to be left alone with horrible, boring, cruel people, are possible. Second, if he wants any things that actually are impossible, or are just bad ideas, he can be persuaded to change his mind.
Caeli: "Don't want that, that's impossible." is a pretty strong argument, isn't it?
Elliot: Yeah.
Elliot: Third, maybe the parents should stay home with their child. That might be nice. There are ways they could enjoy it. Fourth, there are good babysitters they could find. Or they, or the child, could make friends with cool adults. Fifth, getting resentful isn't helping anything. The child is not trying to torture them. Or hurt them at all. All he wants is to be happy. To get perfectly reasonable things for his life, such as not to be in the power of anyone he doesn't trust.
Caeli: He shouldn't be in the power of people he doesn't trust!
Elliot: Yeah. His parents can feel good about making sure he never is.
Caeli: You said in your original summary that the parents don't know how to solve the problem. Doesn't that mean they don't know how to do the stuff above?
Elliot: Yes. But they can learn. They can apply general problem solving techniques, such as thinking about what everyone wants, and what actions might get those things.
Caeli: Wouldn't they have already tried that?
Elliot: You'd be surprised. Most of the time that people fight, they are being irrational, and they haven't even taken minimal steps to actually solve the problem. They often don't clearly know why the other person wants what he wants. And if they don't understand the reasons, how can they expect to come up with solutions? You need to understand someone's motivation to know what else might also satisfy him. Or to know why his thing is important and it might be nice to make sure he gets it.
Caeli: That's a shame.
Elliot: Indeed.
Caeli: I'm leaving. Nice talking.
Elliot: Ditto.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (3)

Parents As Rulers

Caeli: Hi!
Elliot: Hi, Caeli.
Caeli: What do you think of the "parent as ruler" model?
Elliot: It's awful. Bad for parents as well as children.
Caeli: Why do parents do it if it's bad for them?
Elliot: Because they don't know better.
Caeli: What are the bad effects?
Elliot: An unhappy child who is thwarted from doing and getting things he wants. A stressed parent who must constantly watch his child to enforce the rules and make decisions before the child does. Worse decisions about the child's life because the parent often doesn't know what's best for the child, because he doesn't know the intimate details of what the child wants.
Caeli: Don't parents usually know what's good more than children?
Elliot: In general, sure, but they can convey this information as advice. But what I mean is parents don't know the personal details of their child well enough: what mood he is in, what he's trying to accomplish right this second, what has struck his interest, and so on.
Caeli: Shouldn't a good parent know those things?
Elliot: Sort of. Parents should be paying attention but it's not possible to know those things with perfect detail. And in fact parents are often quite mystified by their children. They often don't see what makes them tick.
Caeli: I guess that's especially true for teenagers. Parents don't understand them at all.
Elliot: Yeah, but young kids as well. Consider the "terrible twos" where a child might bang pots and pans. Parents sometimes say he is trying to annoy them, but that is mostly just bitterness talking.
Elliot: Parents primarily say things like "that is just how children are" and they say it's natural or genetic. That is a retreat from explanation. They are saying they don't know why, it just is. So they really don't understand their child's motivations very well.
Caeli: Isn't it kind of obvious? He's interested in the noises it makes, and the feelings of hitting things together which makes them vibrate.
Elliot: That could be it. Most adults have been bored with things like that for many years, and because of their parochial mindset, they can't imagine that anyone else would be interested in them.
Elliot: But it also really can be an attempt to hurt the parents. The classic psychological explanation for this would be that the child does it to get attention. That is possible. But also, parents treat their children badly in a variety of ways, and they don't know this, and the child doesn't know it's wrong, but he may know he's unhappy.
Elliot: And as is somewhat well known, family dynamics get set up where the people habitually poke each other. Each person, when poked, reacts badly, upsetting the other, and thus causing him to do more poking. It's a cycle.
Caeli: Poking?
Elliot: It's a generic word for doing something to something. More concrete examples include banging on pans for children, or leaving toys on the floor. And for parents, there is yelling at the child for the pans and other things, getting frustrated/upset and blaming child for the toys, or being annoyingly over-protective and nagging.
Caeli: Aren't there good reasons to leave things on the floor? My floor isn't empty. For example, it has table and chair legs on it. Also some books, a frisbee, some clothes, some boxes.
Elliot: Very good. The way of dividing up which things are allowed to be on the floor is parochial. It says that toys are "a mess", but chair legs are so normal people don't even think of counting them. But why is that? For example, with proper design chairs can be stacked and put in the corner or closet, or folded up, or paired to take half as much space. Why shouldn't they be put away?
Caeli: Because they are used so often, and it's too much trouble to put them away.
Elliot: Correct. But the same can be said of a child's favorite toys.
Caeli: Right. There are good reasons to leave toys out. So why did you list it as something children do to poke their parents?
Elliot: Well, parents habitually get mad about it. Sometimes children throw a bunch of toys on the floor just to poke their parents. In many cases, children believe the false theory of what a clean room should be, so they would clean up if they weren't acting irrationally and in a cycle of fighting with their parents.
Caeli: How can people get out of a cycle like that?
Elliot: The cycles only work so long as the people are not self-aware enough to notice what's going on while it's happening. If they are, they can just stop doing it. Revenge is pointless, poking the other gets them nothing useful and is bad for the poker since he does live there.
Caeli: Why is revenge pointless?
Elliot: It doesn't make your own life nicer to have hurt someone else.
Caeli: How is it bad for the person who does the poking, precisely?
Elliot: It's bad for everyone when any family member is upset. Conversely it's good for everyone when that person is flourishing.
Caeli: What are some ways it is good/bad?
Elliot: A flourishing family member will find new music and TV and share it, and write nice dialogs, and bring over interesting guests, and help solve any interesting problems that the others around him have.
Elliot: An upset family member will ask for help (but not of the person who hurt him), and be less creative and therefore less interesting.
Caeli: How does one become more self-aware?
Elliot: By thinking carefully.
Caeli: Is that brief answer a sign that you don't know how to explain it?
Elliot: Maybe. I might know if you asked a different question.
Caeli: Wait. You aren't sure if you know how to explain it?
Elliot: Right.
Caeli: How can that be?
Elliot: Why would I know? No one told me.
Caeli: The thing under discussion is ideas in your own head. No one needs to tell you. Don't you know what's there?
Elliot: I don't know all of it at once. But even if I did, that wouldn't help. Consider a sprinter who knows how strong his muscles are. Can he win a race? He may not know. Even figuring out what time he can get would take a lot of physics calculations.
Elliot: Now consider puzzles where you are given a situation and some information about it, which is enough to reach the solution, and you have to figure out the solution. What's the point of them? Well, it's not obvious how to get from knowing the resources available to knowing their best use.
Elliot: What a given set of stuff can do, if used properly, is an emergent property of that stuff which can't be seen just by looking at it. So even if I knew all the ideas in my head, that wouldn't mean I'd know what can be done with them.
Caeli: That all sounds right in theory. But I still don't see how you can not be sure if you can explain how to be more self-aware. Don't you just think about what the answer is, and what to say, and either you have ideas about it or you don't?
Elliot: I have ideas. Forming them into a coherent, English explanation is tricky. But there's the further issue of my audience. I want to answer your question. That means, among other things, that I need to know what your question means. If we talk more, I'll learn about what you want to know, and what you do and don't understand, and then it'll be easier to see what would be good to tell you. Giving a brief answer is one way to get you talking, and it also gauges your interest: if you don't ask again, you evidently didn't care very much.
Caeli: I do care; I've just been distracted by this other topic.
Elliot: Oh, I wasn't commenting on you just now, only in general. If you're interested you will ask again. It might be in a month, or a year. Whenever you ask, I'll figure you're interested then.
Caeli: Oh. That's nice of you. Some people would be resentful after a year. They might say, "So, you've come crawling back? Now you want my help? Well too bad."
Elliot: I wouldn't say that. It's cruel and silly. What do I know about your interests? Maybe you've scheduled what to work on perfectly, and it involves asking that question in a year. And why be resentful? You haven't hurt or wronged me if you don't ask any questions, let alone not asking one particular one for a while.
Caeli: Why is it cruel?
Elliot: The crawling part is insulting. And saying too bad is cruel. It's just being spiteful. Trying to hurt the questioner for the sake of hurting him. It's saying he doesn't have any reasons to give for why he won't answer, he's just not going to.
Caeli: Isn't the year delay a reason?
Elliot: Why would it be? Unless he forgot the answer, in which case he could just say that.
Caeli: People don't like to wait so long.
Elliot: But why was he waiting? He should have gotten on with his life immediately.
Caeli: Isn't it better to have a conversation more quickly than that?
Elliot: There are various advantages. But people have other things to do. Sometimes they are important, and take a year, or ten.
Caeli: What are the advantages?
Elliot: Remembering the topic and the context. The full context includes what other things were said recently, and current events, and so on. It makes for a richer conversation more interwoven with the rest of life. And one may not be interested in the topic anymore in a year. Interests often drift a bit, and hopefully move on to progressively more advanced or subtle things, and sometimes they change wildly.
Caeli: Why might they change wildly?
Elliot: A person could convert to a religion, or discover a very good philosopher, or have a mid-life crisis.
Caeli: The conversation could drift to match the new interests. Consider our conversation: it went from parents as rulers to being self-aware to knowing how to explain things to delays in conversations to why it's morally right for Elliot to give money to Caeli.
Elliot: Hmm. Money...?
Caeli: Yeah. Don't you remember?
Elliot: Oh! Now I remember. I was going to pay you $0.50 to pull all the weeds in my garden. And it'd be wrong not to pay you, after you did all that work.
Caeli: I give up. You win. :)
Elliot: So you wanted to know about being more self-aware.
Caeli: Oh, right. I forgot to ask another question. I guess that's a bad sign.
Elliot: I wouldn't worry. You asked other things instead.
Caeli: OK, so, I find it hard to keep track of everything important, all at once. And I have habits and do them without thinking enough and applying all my ideas from other parts of life.
Elliot: One thing that helps is forming good intuitions.
Caeli: Isn't that the opposite of being self-aware? It's acting intuitively instead of carefully thinking.
Elliot: We can't keep track of everything at once. What we need to do is create policies about how to live which we can keep track of. The policy itself can say in what situations to use it, and in what situations you better stop and think carefully.
Caeli: Won't things go wrong if we just follow policies? They won't be right all the time.
Elliot: We can make improvements to them when we find they don't work the way we'd like in a situation. We can think carefully about what policies to have and what improvements to make, so they will be full of our best knowledge.
Caeli: Then what makes them easier to remember?
Elliot: One thing is that there's less to remember: a policy about how to live doesn't have to include all the reasons for why to live that way. You only need to remember your conclusions.
Caeli: You seem to have a really good memory though. Whenever I ask stuff you have answers ready.
Elliot: Your questions remind me. But it's easy to remember stuff when it's interesting enough, and it comes up in context. And in many cases I've thought about how to answer what you're asking about somewhat recently.
Caeli: You've thought about all these things before?
Elliot: Mostly, yeah.
Caeli: How'd you manage that?
Elliot: If someone asks you the same thing next month, what will you say?
Caeli: Oh, I suppose I now know about all the things we've discussed. So I'll say I had conversations.
Elliot: Indeed. So, that's a lot of the answer. The rest is mostly reading and thinking.
Caeli: Cool. I think there are some loose ends but I need to go. Can we finish up tomorrow?
Elliot: Sure. Bye.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)

Parents As Rulers 2

Caeli: Hi!
Elliot: Hi, Caeli.
Caeli: The first thing you told me about how to be more self-aware was about how to create and improve policies which tell me how to act in many situations. By having policies that I can remember, which are designed to represent my values, I'll be able to act on my values better than if I tried to address every situation, in real time, from first principles.
Elliot: Yes, and further, you can create policies with reach. They will apply to many situations. So you won't need to have remember something for every situation, because policies can cover many situations that share common themes.
Caeli: Can you give an example?
Elliot: One of my policies is not to shame people, especially in public, but also in private. So if I'm considering making a joke at someone's expense, this policy can tell me what to do. Or if someone makes a mistake, the policy will tell me to carefully only criticize the idea and not the person, and possibly in private if people might misunderstand. And the policy also applies to how I treat myself: it's bad to be self-deprecating. It's better to be respectful of people, including myself. Even if I make a mistake, that doesn't mean I'm bad, and I should be confident that I am not, rather than put myself down.
Caeli: It's not exact, you know. Not shaming yourself and not putting yourself down are similar but also somewhat different.
Elliot: That's true, but the policy has applicability and helps me with that issue all the same. It doesn't have to fit perfectly to be meaningful.
Caeli: Can I have another example?
Elliot: May you.
Caeli: Oh. Is the difference important?
Elliot: In some contexts it is important to use English correctly. But mostly I thought that either you didn't know the proper word, or were not self-aware enough to notice.
Caeli: Why would this indicate a lack of self-awareness?
Elliot: Is there any advantage to using the wrong word?
Caeli: Oh. I suppose not. Are you sure it's wrong?
Elliot: I can give you another example. In other words, I am capable of doing so. But that's not what you wanted to know.
Caeli: I see. Thanks for pointing it out. I hadn't thought of that, but I'll try to use language precisely and pay attention to what my words mean.
Elliot: Another policy I have is to distrust categories. People frequently use categories to gloss over the issue of whether the actual qualities of something lead to their conclusion. It helps them not make part of their argument without people noticing.
Caeli: What are some examples? It'd be good if they were wildly different to help illustrate how the one policy can apply to wildly different issues.
Elliot: Some people say that all stories can be divided into seven categories. Doing this is an information-losing process: knowing a story's category has much less information than knowing the details of the story. People then proceed to say things about a story based on its category, without considering if the actual details of the story support this very well or not. First they lose information, then they ignore it, so they don't have to argue with it.
Elliot: This sort of glossing over details is very common in psychology. They say there are different types of people, like introverts and extroverts. Then people actually say things like, "because you are an introvert, it's hard for you to speak in public". But that is absolutely horrible as an analysis. What we should do is look at what qualities make it hard to speak in public, and see if the person has those. Plenty of generally introverted qualities have nothing to do with speaking in public, and plenty of public speakers would be called introverts.
Elliot: Another way being distrustful of categorizations is useful is for detecting logical fallacies. People often say there are three kinds of dog, and then argue that a dog is not the first or second type, and therefore must be the third type. That doesn't work, because there might be other types of dog the person hadn't thought of.
Caeli: Do you think of all these things yourself?
Elliot: Not all. A friend told me it's bad to shame people. I hadn't put it in those words before. Identifying that categories are a sign of bad arguments has probably been done by others, but I thought of it myself. But maybe it hasn't: philosophers think categories and definitions are signs of good arguments.
Caeli: Are you implying that something is wrong with definitions?
Elliot: Yes. We already have a good sense of what words mean, and trying to discuss it explicitly rarely helps much. Further, it distracts from the actual topic. And further, it is used in a bad way very similar to categorization.
Elliot: Writing explicit definitions for words is an information losing process. When you write down definitions you can't express all the subtleties and connotations that the word has. People often make arguments that follow from the definition of a word they have chosen, but they forget that their definition isn't the whole story.
Caeli: Well noticed.
Elliot: There's a further issue with definitions (and sometimes categories) which is that they are part of a quest for certainty and justification. People, especially philosophers, want to avoid errors, so they try to make their arguments air tight. They try to hard to get perfect premises that they get distracted away from thinking about anything interesting. It's easy to argue with people's definitions and categories. They always have perversities if you look closely enough. But it's boring to do so. We should be focussed on creating useful knowledge, not trying to express minute details such that mistakes are impossible.
Caeli: What's wrong with trying to avoid errors?
Elliot: First of all, it doesn't work. We aren't perfect, so we can't do it. Second of all, it misses the point. What we need to be good at is solving problems, and correcting errors. That will help us deal with both present and future problems, instead of only a proportion of future problems.
Caeli: That does sound better. But maybe we should do some of both?
Elliot: Sort of. For example, how do you deal with the problem of apologizing to your wife after you hit her? Mostly just avoid facing that problem in the first place. But that's just a sort of problem solving in advance. You know of a problem and take steps to make nothing bad happen. A separate issue is what to do about unknown future problems. The ones we don't see coming. We can't avoid those very well, because we don't know what they are. That leaves problem solving as the only reasonable option.
Caeli: Hmm.
Elliot: David Deutsch gave a speech which discusses it. I think you'd like it.
Caeli: So one step towards being more self-aware is to craft intelligent policies about how to live. Do people actually do this very much?
Elliot: Yes. For example, most people have policies about how much to tip, if anything. They rarely fully consider the issues involved in tipping, and generally just use their pre-existing policy. And that's OK: they only need change it if it seems to have a problem.
Caeli: This doesn't seem like it's really about self-awareness.
Elliot: Perhaps it's just the right way to live. But it frees up attention to be more aware of other things. And there is the issue of whether we think about our policies and try to improve them frequently, or not. There is the issue of whether we realize we are executing policies, and whether we realize we could do otherwise.
Caeli: Doesn't everyone know they could do otherwise?
Elliot: Many people never seriously consider not leaving tips (unless they are poor). It's just something they do and assume, without consideration, is how life works.
Caeli: What are some other steps to take to become more self-aware?
Elliot: There is the standard advice: question everything, think before you act, reflect after you act. But it doesn't work very well. Many people think they do that, but don't at all.
Caeli: For example?
Elliot: If you ask most people about marriage you will discover they haven't thought about it very much. They will have a strongly held position about how great monogamy and commitment are, but there arguments will just be the standard ones that everybody knows. They won't have looked any deeper. People who fancy themselves free thinkers are rarely any better about this than conservatives. The same holds true of other issues, like parenting.
Caeli: So one of the keys to being self-aware is not to have blind spots?
Elliot: Yeah. A lot of "free thinkers" seem to think that they don't have blind spots, and it's only other people who are dumb. They are never right about this. One thing that's needed is a humble attitude which assumes we do have blind spots, and will make mistakes, and what's needed is to find and correct our errors.
Caeli: That has parallels to what you said about needing to focus on problem fixing.
Elliot: Yup. The idea has reach.
Caeli: So, I still don't really know what to do.
Elliot: It's a large issue. What to do is basically to try to explain the world. While learning, and connecting topics, and considering the reasons for things, we will get a better perspective, and find errors when things don't fit together well. And bear in mind that the worst enemy of bad ideas is criticism, but by contrast criticism is the best friend of good ideas: it helps to prove their worth.
Caeli: How does being criticized show an idea is good?
Elliot: A good idea will withstand criticism. It will be easy to defend the criticism, or make minor modifications to meet it. A bad idea will be unable to cope with criticism: it will be hard to change or fix, because analysis only finds more problems that need fixing. And it will be hard to defend, because there is plenty of true criticism of it.
Caeli: I believe the general idea of what you've just said is that we should embark on an open-ended quest to learn and to rationally explain reality. Is that right?
Elliot: Yes. And there are various things to recommend this approach, like that it isn't parochial. It doesn't reference any of the unique features of the human situation.
Caeli: Isn't learning unique to humans?
Elliot: Knowledge creation plays a part in the laws of physics. Intelligent aliens would also create knowledge. A parochial feature of our world is sky scrapers. On another planet with different available resources, and different gravity, and different weather conditions, there might very well not be any sky scrapers. Maybe everyone would live underground. But there would be explanations.
Caeli: It's cool that you know to question things like sky scrapers. But a lot of people never thought of that. How can you blame them?
Elliot: I don't. Ignorance isn't wicked. What's much worse is that people often reject good ideas without much consideration, or they realize one of their ideas is flawed but they never do much about it. Or they know they have a problem, but they try to ignore it.
Caeli: What if they were ignorant of how to consider ideas too? Then it wouldn't be their fault they didn't listen.
Elliot: People make choices. Some people come from much worse circumstances, with much less help, but still manage to be great. Others mess up their life in unconventional ways. They could have lived conventionally, but chose not to.
Elliot: More generally, the concepts of free choice and responsibility for our actions are a critical part of our explanation of what people are, and how life works. And they contain a lot of valuable truth. We don't need to give perfect justifications for them in order to be right to use them.
Caeli: Do you admit they are hard to defend precisely?
Elliot: Everything is hard to defend precisely.
Caeli: So, yes?
Elliot: Yes.
Caeli: The original topic was parents are rulers. Can you remind me how this connects to that?
Elliot: We got to discussing bad cycles in families, and a key element in getting rid of those is self-awareness. People often get in patterns of hurting each other habitually, and what's needed is not just good intentions and kindness (though those are important), it's also the awareness to realize what is going on, and to keep perspective, and to stop it. We can choose not to continue if we pay enough attention.
Caeli: What do you mean about keeping perspective?
Elliot: Is it really so important that your sister stole your toy? It matters, but most times that happens it's not worth fighting over. Most things aren't worth fighting over. Fighting sucks. Life is grand. Just go live your life, nevermind this or that little way you were wronged. Things go wrong all the time. If you make your life nice, that will more than make up for it. Getting your sister back won't make up for it.
Caeli: That sounds cool.
Elliot: Another example is that some workers steal from their companies. I don't mean a lot, just some materials or tools. A wise man once said about this: "I am making money faster than they can steal it." And it was true. They were not trying to ruin him, and it was best to just let it go. He was still making money.
Caeli: Remind me why parents shouldn't be rulers.
Elliot: It makes them responsible for their children's lives, which is a huge burden. It takes away their children's freedom, and makes it harder for their children to learn how to live. The children will pay for their parent's mistakes, and that's a bad incentive structure. The parents have no right to control their children.
Caeli: Why don't parents have a right to control their kids?
Elliot: The right way to parent must be a universally applicable educational policy for helping ignorant people to learn. Right?
Caeli: Yes, sounds right.
Elliot: So, it must be workable in a wide variety of situations. On other planets, with different weather, and different natural resources, and different cultures. And critically, it must work if the pupils are larger and stronger and more powerful than the educators. In that case, the parents can't control their children even if they want to. The correct educational policies would work anyway, so they can't rely on having power over the learner.
Caeli: Oh. I see.
Elliot: I'm leaving now. Bye.
Caeli: Bye!

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (2)

Monogamy

Caeli: Hi!
Elliot: Hi, Caeli.
Caeli: What's wrong with monogamy?
Elliot: One of the problems with monogamy is that you only get to try out one theory of who you should be with, for all of time.
Caeli: Is it really forever?
Elliot: You have to commit to not change partners anymore to really call it monogamy. If you kept changing partners as much as you wanted (say, a few times a day, depending who you were with) that would be something else entirely.
Caeli: I see. Plus forever is how marriage is supposed to work.
Elliot: Right. So, you have this one partner forever. You can't try out rival ideas of who you should be with. This is very bad.
Caeli: What's so bad about it? If your partner tried out someone else, he might like it and leave.
Elliot: If he did find a better life for himself, wouldn't that be good?
Caeli: Not for me.
Elliot: Would you want to hold back someone you loved, selfishly, and keep him from being as happy as he could be?
Caeli: No, I guess not.
Elliot: You may be worried he will leave because of New Relationship Energy: because he's excited by benefits with the new person that won't last. This does indeed happen. It's a parochial error. It means he's lost perspective on his life, and is misjudging which things will have lasting importance.
Caeli: OK, so how do you avoid that mistake?
Elliot: Well, one way is not to be monogamous in the first place. But never mind that for now. If the new relationship has temporary benefits, wouldn't it be a shame to miss out on that? He'll learn cool stuff, and when he comes back, he will share it with you. You'll both be better for it.
Caeli: Hmm, maybe.
Elliot: In general, criticism makes good theories stable, and crushes bad theories. Good theories only appear good when you compare them to their rivals. Just by themselves, we have no way to judge them. We don't know how close to the truth we are. We only know if they seem to solve our current problems. Having a history of being adaptable, and defeating rivals, is a way to boost our confidence in a theory.
Caeli: So what does that mean for relationships?
Elliot: It means that trying lots of relationships will make it clearer which are good and which are bad, and help you see why the good ones are better than the others.
Caeli: People usually do try a lot of relationships before they settle down.
Elliot: Yes, and that's good. But once they settle down, they stop doing this. They stop learning about relationships in this way. They limit themselves, and don't try new relationships they think would be valuable. They avoid them without learning about them. As long as their are still temptations, it proves the person still has more to learn (or is in the wrong relationship).
Caeli: Can you give some more concrete examples?
Elliot: Marriages get unstable after a while because people forget what being in other relationships is like. There is actually a common experience in stories and on TV of someone who cheats on his longtime partner only to realize that he prefers to be with his partner. He just needed to be free to spend time with other people, and compare, to see that being with his partner was best. But he wasn't allowed to, and had to cheat to learn about the issue. That's bad for everyone involved. Who would really want a partner to stay with him in ignorance?
Caeli: That's not appealing. Like if he said he loved me, I couldn't believe him, because he wouldn't really know.
Elliot: Spending time with lots of people increases our perspective. Like with everything else, the ideal policy as far as learning is concerned is to do it as much as we are interested in.
Caeli: What about STDs?
Elliot: They are parochial, they have nothing to do with learning, or what the ideal sorts of relationships are, and you are assuming that relationships have something to do with sex.
Caeli: Don't they?
Elliot: In our culture people equate the two. But there is no good reason to. Sex isn't very interesting, and it doesn't make sense to choose who to live with based on who we like to have sex with.
Caeli: But you should live together if you want to share a bed.
Elliot: Sharing a bed is annoying. You have to deal with snoring, and waking each other up, and it makes it less convenient to sleep at different times. And there is no need to share a bed in order to have sex. (Though if you sometimes fall asleep together, there's nothing wrong with that.) Everyone should have a room, and a bed, of her own.
Caeli: Why "her" own? You usually use masculine pronouns when you are not talking about a specific person.
Elliot: Because "a room of her own" is a famous quote by Virginia Woolf.
Caeli: Why isn't sex very interesting?
Elliot: It consists of rubbing your bodies together, and playing with ancient remnants of our animal past. That part is very simple. More complex is the ideas our culture has about sex, but those are extremely parochial. And none of them have much to do with learning, they are just things purported to make people happy. But happiness is a bad goal.
Caeli: Is it wise to attack happiness while criticizing monogamy? Should you pick so many fights at once?
Elliot: Do you mind?
Caeli: I guess not. So what's wrong with happiness?
Elliot: Nothing is wrong with happiness. The problem is aiming for it. It should be an indirect consequence of a good life. Trying to get happiness directly is either meaningless (because we only do what we think is moral), or it means we sometimes do things that we do not think are moral.
Caeli: I thought the happiness thing would be very controversial, but your argument seems solid. Except, why is morality the right thing to aim for?
Elliot: Morality is about how to live. By definition it's our best ideas about how to live. Whether they provide happiness, money, knowledge, whatever. And it takes into account, by definition, whether we are treating others rightly or not, and so on. Seeking happiness does not necessarily take all those things into account.
Caeli: People often say the reason they want to do something, like go get ice cream, is that they will enjoy it. In other words, it will make them happy. Do you object?
Elliot: That's fine. If an activity provides one valuable thing, that is a noteworthy fact about that activity, and a good answer to why to do it.
Caeli: So let's get back on topic. You were saying sex is boring and has nothing to do with relationships.
Elliot: That's right. In general, a relationship (which is not a very good word) just means people cooperating in some way. Well, it generally doesn't mean free trade. What we mean is a personal relationship. So, if it's not about wealth or stuff, then what's the point? Well, people can share ideas.
Caeli: What's a better term than relationship?
Elliot: Human coordination is better.
Caeli: What do you mean by coordination?
Elliot: People who share goals (or parts of goals) can coordinate (act in a way that works together) to achieve those goals. Coordinating means people changing what they do so that the overall result of the actions of a group of people achieves what they want better.
Caeli: That does seem like a more universal way to look at it. But what does it have to do with sex?
Elliot: Not much. That's part of my point. :)
Caeli: What do you think of love?
Elliot: It's a vague word. Do you mean strong liking?
Caeli: Have you been in love? I don't think it's vague.
Elliot: It doesn't matter if I have.
Caeli: Yes it does. How can you know about it if you haven't?
Elliot: If there is an important part that is hard to figure out without being in love, you can tell me about it. Even people who had been in love might not have noticed it.
Caeli: OK. Well, when people commit to each other they feel safer. And when they love each other, they try to help each other. They are able to trust each other. They both benefit. And it makes them happy.
Elliot: That's a lot of purported benefits. First, we should keep in mind that those are not the usual experience. People often are in love then break that trust and hurt each other. Lovers and families have some of the worst fights (excepting wars and other deadly violence).
Caeli: If they break the trust, it wasn't true love.
Elliot: A policy of calling all instances of love that ended badly, "fake love", does exist. But if you want to talk about it that way, then what we should really discuss is the state of thinking you are in love, but not being sure. And since you can never be entirely sure it won't end badly tomorrow, that will be the only kind of love there is.
Caeli: Oh, hmm. Is there no way to be sure it will last?
Elliot: If there is, no one has found it. If someone did, he would write a book and get very rich.
Caeli: Maybe some of the people who have lasting marriages do know.
Elliot: But people try to take advice from them, and it does not work reliably.
Caeli: So can you reply to more of the benefits I said?
Elliot: Yes. Trust is bad. Trusting someone is just refusing to take responsibility for your own expectations of the person. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Once you know a person, you should make your own predictions about what he will do, and if you are wrong, you should not hold that against the person. If you can't safely expect someone to do as he said, then make sure your plans don't count on him doing it. Trusting people is just setting yourself up to have fights.
Caeli: Are you against making promises as well, then?
Elliot: Yes, exactly. Don't take people's word for what they will do, and play the victim if they don't. Be a responsible, independent person who prevents being let down by proactively considering what will happen, not taking anything on trust or faith.
Caeli: What about feeling safe together?
Elliot: Partly that is a matter of trust. Partly that is a matter of knowing each other well, and having genuine reasons to consider the person safe. The second thing is purely good, but it can be isolated away from the term love.
Caeli: Why isolate things away?
Elliot: If we can identify components of love, and pull them out, we can then see if there is anything good left we haven't identified. If there doesn't seem to be, we will know what love is, or at least the good part: it's the individual parts we identified. Doing this will help it to be less vague.
Caeli: OK. So what about helping each other?
Elliot: First, people should help themselves. Second, if a policy of cooperating seems mutually beneficial, and also they are willing to risk that the other person may not do as expected, then great, help each other. This happens all the time. People who aren't in love do it.
Caeli: Maybe people who are in love want to do it more.
Elliot: People should cooperate when their rational judgment tells them it is best, and not otherwise.
Caeli: Isn't it helpful to have someone who will go out on a limb for you, without being persuaded?
Elliot: Most of the time, no it is not. It's better to persuade people to do things. They won't have to trust you, so they won't blame you if it goes wrong. And they will understand what's happening better. But now and then, there is a reason not to explain, such as a great rush, or needing to protect someone's privacy. In that case a person who will "go out on a limb for you" is valuable. What he should be doing is using his best judgment to decide he should help out. He doesn't know the reasons, but his best judgment tells him that you do have good reasons.
Elliot: Let me add that I don't see this to have anything to do with love. The default policy of many people is to help strangers in relatively minor ways if they ask for help. This is a good thing. Living in a society where help is easily available makes us all more powerful. It's easier for everyone to achieve their objectives. Most people in our society have good objectives. And in general people try to have good objectives. Humans being powerful is good. The opposite, humans being weak, would only ensure our destruction (one day an asteroid will come, or whatever, and if we don't have good enough science then -- if we aren't powerful enough yet -- then we will all die).
Caeli: What about love making people happy?
Elliot: People should be happy about love if and only if love is a good, rational thing. So this can't settle the argument.
Caeli: I guess we'll discuss this again. Can you summarize your main point?
Elliot: We shouldn't be scared of trying things that aren't best, and if something is genuinely good, it shouldn't fear criticism and rivals. If it's good, it will beat those rivals. Trying bad things helps us see why the good ones are better, so it stabilising good things. It helps make sure we'll stick to good things in the future. It means when you have second thoughts, you'll be able to remember why that thing was bad. And if you're still not sure, try it more. Learn and find out what's best. Marriage means not trying rival theories about who to live with and have sex with anymore. It means committing yourself not to. That is bad for learning.
Caeli: Maybe marriage isn't about learning.
Elliot: Maybe. But learning matters a lot. And if people admit marriage harms knowledge growth, that'd be a good first step.
Caeli: See you later!
Elliot: Bye.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (4)