Teaching is a loaded word.

One premise is that there is a teacher, and a student, and they have different roles. Teaching does not describe joint truth seeking; it does not describe friends cooperating to create knowledge. This idea of roles assigned to people is harmful. It assumes that at the start the teacher has the good ideas, and the student does not. Assuming someone is right is a very bad way to figure out what is true.

How do you tell if teaching was a success? Simple: did the student learn the lesson, or not? If the student doesn't like the lesson, thinks it is silly, or has some other criticism or disagreement with it, then teaching has failed. Even thought disagreement and criticism and having your own rival ideas are all good things. Teaching can fail even when a good result is reached. So if you are focussed on teaching you will strive to avoid certain positive results in favor of certain negative results (that student believes what he is told to believe -- it's about obedience, really).

One of the ideas behind teaching is that the teacher chooses what is to be learned, for example by making a lesson plan. Then he teaches the things he believes should be known, and the student learns those. This is a bad attitude. It doesn't leave room for following the student's interests. What if you start and the student finds he is not interested? Or that he wants to continue in a different way than the teacher had planned? Well, the teacher might agree the change is good. Or the teacher might think it is bad. Either way the assumption is that it's the teacher's decision about what should be done next. He's the expert. He's the authority. The assumption is not that a teacher is only there to help the student follow his own interests and learn what he wants to learn and only with as much precision as he chooses.

Teachers give grades. They judge and evaluate students (in terms of how closely the student's ideas after the lesson(s) conform to the teacher's ideas about the subject). What would make more sense is for students to give themselves grades: they should judge if they have learned something to their satisfaction or not.

Grades and tests have another use: they can be used for certification to demonstrate to people (like prospective employers) that you have certain skills. But in that case a third party should do the testing. Having a single person give the lessons and the tests -- help the student and also test the student -- is a conflict of interest. Then a teacher has to decide what is "fair" to tell the students about the test material. The teacher knows what will be on the test and has to keep information secret that the students would want to know. When a third party does the test the teacher has no conflict of interest. He can tell students absolutely everything he knows that would help them. He doesn't have to hold back and make judgments about how much is "fair" to keep secret.

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I believe that individuality and freedom are good things.

I also believe that questions have a single true answer, including moral questions.

This belief in single truth does not apply to ambiguous questions. For example, "Is it good to be a banker?" is ambiguous. Any time you can say, "It depends (on something or other the question didn't provide details about)" then the question is ambiguous -- the details could go either way. A proper question which we expect to have a single, true answer must have no ambiguity or it's really a set of different questions (one for each possible interpretation) and that set of many questions certainly might have lots of different answers. A proper question is more like: Is it good for me to choose banking as my career, taking into account my mind, and the entire (relevant) state of the universe? Of course we'd never write out that whole question. But we can still know that is the type of question that has only one answer. The question is still very ambiguous though because the first part isn't clear. What does choosing banking as a career mean? Does it mean taking certain college classes? Committing to it forever? Trying it out in some way, perhaps just by reading some articles? Does it mean avoiding skill at a second type of career? Ultimately the question should either be a factual question, or it should refer specifically to a single choice and ask which option is best (which is actually a type of factual question). We don't know how to write perfect questions. But that's no matter.

It may appear contradictory to believe in single truth, but also in freedom and individuality. What use is individuality if one thing is best? And what use is freedom to do something other than the one truth?

It is not contradictory for two reasons.

First, just because there is a truth does not mean we know what the truth is. Often we have guesses, but we might be mistaken. Having freedom to explore our own guesses at what the truth is, and in general having an open society, contributes to finding a single truth!

Second, what I should do with my life and what you should do with your life are different questions. One truth doesn't mean we should do the same thing with our life. It means for each of us there is a best thing to do.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)


Choice Theory

There is a branch of philosophy which I call *choice theory*. It is about what a choice is, and how to make good choices. It has two major branches which are related but distinct. The first branch is: for a given goal, which choices will achieve it? The second branch is: which goals are best to choose to pursue?

Choice theory is not about personal taste. It's not going to tell you which ice cream to eat, which music to listen to, nor what type of chair to use. It may give hints, and rule out some approaches, but people are different and choice theory is general. On the other hand, you can think about and develop the relevant theories for your own personal situation, and use that to help you make choices.

Which ice cream should you eat? Well, not one you hate. Not one you can't afford. And don't stop to get ice cream when it will make you late to something important. And stuff like that. Otherwise, whichever you like! And which is best to like? Well, I have no idea. There must be some answer to: which ice cream should you like *if* you have the following personality, values, bank accounts, life situation, life history, and live at the following place, and the following ice cream sellers are nearby, and so on (in short: specifying your mind and your complete environment, which is the whole universe). And for all I know whatever person and life you put into the question, the true answer comes out: chocolate (though I seriously doubt it is always the same). But suppose you could work out exactly which ice cream was best. It would be bad to do so. Waste of huge amounts of computing power (including human thought). It'd be much more productive to pick whichever ice cream you feel like, quickly, and then get back to doing something more important. Even in real life it's generally not worth thinking for long about which flavor to get. Just try one, and have another later if you didn't like it, because your time is valuable. So, even if we could tell you exactly what ice cream to eat, we would be foolish to do so.

Achieving Your Goal

What is choice theory good for, then? Suppose you have a goal, then you shouldn't choose things which prevent or sabotage achieving your goal (except by way of causing you to change your mind about whether the goal is good, that sort or prevention is not bad). This sounds really obvious, but bear with me: it has implications. As long as you agree it's true I'll be happy. Suppose the goal is to invent something cool. You have a specific idea in mind, but what I'm going to say applies no matter what it is. Consider for a moment. That's pretty powerful. What we're going to say next applies very broadly: to all inventors. Even if it's a pretty small thing at least it's relevant to many, many people. That's the power of generality. So, we have our inventor. Should he petition to have profane books censored and/or burnt? You may think the answer is: we can't tell from the very limited information. It depends on his personality and his values and what kind of society he lives in and a thousand other things.

But it does not depend on any of that. He should not wish for books to be censored or burnt because they are profane.

This isn't a matter of personal taste, or subjective. I'm not saying this because I love books, or because my society values books, or because I can't imagine having a different way of thinking about the world. The arguments that he should not burn the book come from the laws of physics and epistemology (the study of knowledge) and logic. Those are the most rational, objective things we have.

For precision, I will add that it depends also on the meaning of the words "book", "burning", "profane", and so on. If you imagine a society where burning is a way of taking information in, just like our reading is, then certainly "book burning" is good there, because the words refer to something else entirely. But I don't strictly need to put this caveat. My sentences should be interpreted in terms of what the words mean here if you want to understand the intended meaning.

So what do we know? He wants to invent something. And how do you do that? The details vary, of course, but in general it requires thinking to create knowledge of how to make the new invention, and also knowledge of what the invention should do. Now that we see thinking and knowledge are important issues then it should not be surprising that epistemology has a lot to say.

Creating Knowledge

The prevailing theory of how knowledge is created, which current has no serious rivals, is evolutionary in nature. I'm not going to explain it in great detail here, but I will sketch out some relevant details. The main idea is that knowledge is created through a process of conjecture and criticism. You guess at the truth. You point out problems in your guesses. You reject guesses that you've discovered are flawed. And you make new guesses, including slight variants of old guesses (change them to remove the flaws you found). In this way better ideas are found: knowledge is created. Perfect knowledge is never created, but there is no limit to how good it can get (except as may be imposed by the laws of physics).

Notice that two of the requirements for knowledge creation are to have other guesses, not just one you like, and to have criticism. These other guesses we can call *rival theories*. They are alternative ideas about what might be true. It's important to have an open mind and create any rival theories we can imagine which make sense. This gives a better possibility of finding good ideas. And the type of criticism needed for knowledge creation is: criticism in terms of what is true, or not. Other types, such as disliking something, or being annoyed, or parochial, personal preferences cannot be part of the process of discovering the truth -- of creating better and better knowledge.

If you don't have these things -- rival theories and criticism -- then knowledge will not be created. And that's bad for invention. Further, the more you have of these, and the better they are done (with more devotion to seeking the truth and less personal bias and more of an open mind, and with more effort and creativity), then the more and faster and better knowledge will be created. And that's good for invention.

So what is best for this inventor to do, in terms of the most effective way to invent things? It is absolutely not to try to censor and burn books he considers profane. That is the destruction of rival theories and the suppression of criticism. Better is for those books to be subjected to criticism, and for his own ideas also to be subjected to criticism, and for the truest ideas to win out. Even if that means he discovers he holds mistaken ideas and should change his mind. In fact, such a discovery is a great thing: now he has the opportunity to improve his ideas, thus increasing his capacity to invent things. What the inventor should prefer is an open society.

Inventing is also aided by thoughtful, literate friends to have interesting communication with. You might try to imagine a solitary inventor, but if so what business does he have trying to get books banned? That's not a solitary activity. He could just leave them alone if he's really, truly solitary. And also if they read books and get smarter they will be more able to get good enough to help him in the future. His excuses could be:

1) If other people get too smart they will destroy me before I can finish my invention.
2) If other people learn too much they might discover my invention should not be invented, and persuade me to stop. Or even force me if it's dangerous and I don't listen.
3) If other people read this book, which is bad, they will become worse, and thus be less able to contribute help to the inventing process in the future.

The answer to (1) is that the more they learn, the more reliably they will have good ideas, including about choice theory. And choice theory does not recommend destroying inventors. It argues in favor of creative lifestyles (in the senses both of creating things and creating ideas) -- we will get to this argument later in the section about which goals are best to pursue. The less people know, the more possible it is they will mistakenly think it's a good idea to destroy the inventor (a bit like he mistakenly thinks he should destroy books). So he should want them to become smart.

The answer to (2) is that if the invention is a bad goal then it's best to learn that and choose to have a better goal. One of the ideas of choice theory is that to have and pursue good goals we must not only choose wisely now, but we must also be open to changing our mind later, and happy to learn new things that help us see more clearly which goals are good. Doing anything else is not the most effective way to have the best goals. Also, it is folly to assume we are right and that persuasion is to be feared. The knowledge creation process allows only criticism in terms of which ideas are true, never in terms of who believes which ideas, not even in terms of which ideas we believe. Rejecting ideas because they are not our own is not valid.

The answer to (3) is that we should deal with rival theories by criticizing them, not suppressing them. Because, again, we might be wrong. If we suppress the rival theory we won't find out who was right. If we criticize it, and allow criticism of our own theory, then we have a chance to find out. More knowledge will be created by not suppressing the rival theory (book). So the claim that allowing it to exist will make society dumber and less helpful is wrong: actually free access to ideas -- even those you consider bad ideas -- will help society to improve.

There is one exception to these things: war. If an idea, or book, intends to spread violently, and does not listen to criticism, nor does it care to compete with rival theories on the battleground of reason, then no matter what we do the outcome isn't going to be determined by reason, it is going to be determined by force. In that case, any arguments about how it is best to have an outcome based on reason, and to act to allow one, are void. because that isn't going to happen.


With that established, can we perhaps expand the reach of these arguments without changing any of the logic we can see this line of argument applies to videos as well as books. And to pamphlets. And posters. And even computer files and web pages. Most generally: it applies to censoring or destroying any type of *knowledge* because we consider it profane. And not just profane. Any kind of dislike will do: the only valid reason to reject rival theories is because they are false. And each person should make up their own mind: if one person makes up his mind and forces everyone else that is more prone to error. And force isn't using criticism: people who haven't changed their mind to the correct theory, aside from perhaps being right, must have some false idea, which you could criticize.

And it isn't just inventors who are aided by knowledge creation. It is anyone who wants to know something new, or accomplish something difficult. It is anyone with a creative goal.

We can summarize this as a principle: all people with creative goals should prefer an open society and prefer for rival theories and criticism to be freely expressed.

And that is not trivial! Nor arbitrary. Nor personal opinion.

As an aside, what would justify the intentional destruction of knowledge? First: war. Second: we delete computer files frequently. But it isn't because we dislike them. It's because we want to free up space for new files we consider more important. We also sometimes knock down old buildings. Again not because we have anything against them. It's just they are in the way of things we think are even better. Censorship is not like that. You can write your own book which you think is better and people can make their own choice of which to buy. Existing books are never in the way of yours like a building or computer file physically occupies part of your property that you might wish to use for something else. And even if we imagine running out of space due to all the bad books everywhere, censorship remains bad: you could instead persuade people that they should make room for new things by deleting old ones. And you could offer advice about what is bad, which they would listen to if they considered the advice worth the space.

What does it mean to have an open society? It means having institutions of some sort that facilitate discussion of ideas. It means having people who are open to criticism and to changing their mind. It means having traditions of voluntary interaction so that theories of what to do are never forced on people who disagree with them. It means a society that values persuasion: that believes if your idea really is good you should be able to convince others, and if you cannot, that is evidence not of their unreason but of the weakness of your idea (though it could be neither, and you are free to try again later). It means a society where only the supporters of an idea bear the risk of trying it out. Why, by the way, would true ideas be persuasive? Because people who are seeking the truth will prefer them. And because no one will think of valid criticism of them, but people can think of valid criticism of their rivals (and if no one has thought of that criticism yet, then how do we know which is true?). Why should people seek the truth? Because, like our inventor, they have creative goals, and seeking the truth is part of knowledge creation. (Other goals are addressed later.)

Some Examples

That's all somewhat abstract. What does living in this way look like day to day? How do the institutions of our society compare to the ideal?

Democracy is good. This does not mean there is nothing better which might replace it in the future. But we have a system in which people in power voluntarily step down simply because their ideas did not persuade enough voters. The policies our Government enacts can be changed through criticism. Each politician running for office provides conjectures about how a part of Government should be run, and faces off against rival theories. We have a system that is rational and which creates knowledge.

The free market is good. This does not mean there is nothing better which might replace it in the future. Competition between companies consists of competition between rival theories of how to run companies and what products to make (they compete over making what customers want, which is a helpful thing for people to create knowledge about). And the free market is responsive to criticism: people who believe a criticism of a product can choose not to buy it. The free market is a knowledge creating institution.

Problem solving in personal relationships is good. It means creating knowledge which helps people to have better lives. This is an open society issue because one of the main alternatives, which is in fact the status quo in many parts of the world, is to deal with disagreement in relationships by insisting on obedience (generally to the man, head of household, or elder). Obedience to one set of ideas about how a family should live is not a way of creating knowledge, and it is not an effective way of accomplishing creative goals people in that family have.

Here is another one which isn't really an open society issue: human cooperation is good. There could be an open society in which people generally led solitary lives (though it's somewhat difficult to imagine why that would be best -- other people are a good source of both conjectures and criticism -- and if it is not best why would people in an open society, where knowledge is created, continue to do it for long?) One reason human cooperation is good is that I can trade something that you value more than I do, for something I value more than you do, and we can both benefit. This sort of benefit helps make humans more powerful and and more wealthy -- it means they can better achieve their goals because they now have traded for things that will help achieve their goals more. Human cooperation also helps people who share a goal, because they can work together to achieve it, and share insights into how to achieve it, and share criticism of ineffective ways to achieve it.

Creative or Destructive Goals?

What about the issue of which goals we should choose to pursue? First, they should not contradict, or we won't succeed at achieving them all. And second, they should always allow for error correction in the future -- they should allow for themselves to be changed. Never should our goal be to be completely committed to a certain future and to devote all our efforts to creating that future. Rather, it is better to be strongly committed, but also to continue to think about whether this is for the best, and to reevaluate our goal if we find reason to. We must always include in our goals the idea that they may be an error, and be open to correcting them. Our goals should be held tentatively.

As we've seen, creative goals imply a preference for an open society in which knowledge is created which helps us accomplish those goals. But we have not seen why we should prefer goals of that type. Why should we aim to create and do, rather than to destroy and die?

Here are two reasons. The first is that we only ever have imperfect knowledge of what our goals should be. We, partly, don't know. And thus it is strongly in our interest to become powerful -- to gain the ability to accomplish whatever we want. That way as we learn good things to want we will already be prepared to accomplish them. And as we learn new facts, we will already be prepared to react to them. And as new facts happen (a volcano erupts, a meteor comes) power will give us more available choices to react. The way to become powerful is to have knowledge of how to accomplish a wide variety of things, and also knowledge with general applicability, and also to physically change our world to be more useful to us. The open, creative society is the powerful one which is ready to achieve new goals as we find them.

The second reason is that massively destructive goals, such as destroying the Earth or committing suicide, if accomplished, create a barrier. It is a barrier against error correction. Once the destruction occurs then, if it was a mistake, it is too late. You will never find out you were mistaken, never learn to live better, because now you are dead.

What about minor destructive goals? Well, what good are they? They are perfectly useful as a lead up to massive destruction. But they don't mesh well with our creative goals, including to have enough food to eat, a nice place to live, an interesting and happy life, and to be able to solve our problems.

Also consider that we do not need to justify our preference for creative, not destructive, lifestyles, nor justify that we already have creative goals. Ideas do not need justification. They only need to best their rivals. What are the arguments for a destructive way of life? What is claimed to be good about it? Nothing. Just because it is a logically permissible alternative does not make it an important rival theory. Until an strong argument or explanation is created in favor of destruction then we need not concern ourselves with it.

Creative goals is a very wide range of goals. It gives a lot of freedom for people to differ. That's part of the power of the open society. People with wildly different goals can live together in peace, and even cooperate in mutually beneficial ways.

Which Goals For Me?

But which creative goals are best for me?

Of course it depends on your situation. But here are examples of the sort of thinking that you might do for yourself.

Let's start with something simple: you prefer not to fight with your wife. Then you should want to understand the fights, and you should want to have some understanding of human psychology, and you should want to have fine control of your emotions, and you should want the ability to think clearly and rationally during the beginning stages of a fight. And to get all this, you should want to be good at introspection, and able to take criticism very well (in fact: you should enjoy it and seek it out), and you should, today, enjoy to read (because that gives access to a lot of knowledge), and you should prefer to live in an open society where your ideas about how to prevent fighting will not be suppressed, and where other people with ideas about it will be able to cooperate with you.

Say you want to be rich. Then you better not be scared of failure -- you need to be willing to try out your ideas without any guarantee they will work, and you need to be willing to pay the costs of the trial, or persuade people to help pay. You will be aided by an ability to think quickly and clearly, and to do work efficiently. You will be aided by knowledge of what people want and will pay for. You will be aided by knowledge of techniques for constructing things -- the more general the better -- and to aid in that you could learn about the laws of physics, and about chemistry and engineering and architecture and so on. You would do well to understand economics, and also the law. For many of the previous some math will help. And understanding computers will help a lot: they can automate many tasks, and store information, and they open up new ways of doing things, and new ways of interacting with customers, and new ways of advertising. You can get rich without all of this, but there are other reasons they are good, and certainly if you wish to become rich you should make improving your skill at some of these a goal.

Say you value your time. Then seeking rational attitudes towards your habits and compulsions will help. Questioning some of your strong desires will help. Is acting on romantic love the best use of time? Sex? Bad moods? Smoking? Drinking?

Say you value the truth. Then you should not be a person who lets emotions cloud his judgment. You should not always try to prove you are right: it's better for your goal to be to figure out who is right. You will be more effective if you are not apathetic or lazy in your efforts to find the truth.

Say you are racist. Why? You should want to know, if you want to have good goals. Are racist goals good? If you don't know why you are a racist -- why being a racist is correct -- then you have no reason to think that sort of goal is good. Better not to pursue it. You might think you are a racist because of your upbringing, but that it isn't best. In that case you should try not to pursue racist goals, and should try to pursue self-change.

One thing to keep in mind is that a lot of change in how we live is already recommended, and once that is done, what to do next will be much easier to see.

The Two Branches

The two branches of choice theory are related. This is important to know because we shouldn't first think about what goals to have, and then after we decide that start to work out how to accomplish them. You can learn about which goals are good to have by thinking about how to accomplish them. Suppose the goal you are considering is to sell a billion copies of your book. You might work out that the most effective way to do that is to give speeches explaining why your book is great. Alternatively, you might figure out that won't work because a different book will be more popular, and the only ways to sell that many copies without rewriting are to force people at gunpoint, or to secretly destroy the other book and its author so the ideas can't be recovered. Just by working out what methods of achieving the goal will succeed we can sometimes see whether it's any good or not.


OK, this is it. It's time for the secret, surprise ending! There is something I haven't been telling you. *gasp* It is another name for "choice theory". And the other name is: *moral philosophy*. Morality is about how to live. Or, we might say, which choices to make.

The reason I use the name choice theory is that many people strongly believe morality is not objective, or don't listen closely to moral philosophy, or associate morality strongly with religion, or with sin, or with sexual rules. But choice theory? Many more people are persuaded *that* is objective. Why wouldn't it be? It's largely about epistemology, logic, and physics.

Choice theory faces rivals for being a good theory of morality. Mostly they are religious. None of them are up to the standards of modern philosophy. Unfortunately, some of those rivals are the prevailing moral philosophy right now, and they cast a shadow over the whole subject. Because they have serious flaws, often including: false, logical contradictions, arbitrary or subjective, no particular reasons given why it is right, based on faith, argued for via the weight of authority, full of parochial rules like about sexual conduct and other sins, and trying to tell people what to do instead of help offer them ways to life effectively.

You may not be sure how objective epistemology is. That is another can of worms which I won't go into detail about. But I will give a brief argument. One of the things very widely held to be objective is science. And the reason it's objective is: the scientific method. It tells scientists to put aside their personal fancy and look dispassionately at the evidence and to seek the best conclusion regardless of what they would like to be true. Or in short it says: seek the objective truth. There is also a philosophical method. It's like the scientific method, but used for matters of non-science (issues determined by argument alone without reference to evidence, measurement, or observation). Both the scientific and philosophical methods are ways of thinking. And they both say roughly the same thing: seek the truth. And if we were to categorize them they are both ... epistemology. Epistemology is the branch of philosophy concerned with how to get knowledge and truth, and these methods are ways of doing that. And epistemologists, of course, use the philosophical method, just like scientists use the scientific method.

You may still think science is different. Well, what's different about it? There's evidence. We can see and touch things to see who's right. It isn't our choice. However, and as many philosophers have pointed out, our sense data is not a certain road to truth. It can be mistaken. Our beliefs about our sense data can be biased. We can delude ourselves unconsciously. Lots of things can go wrong with observational evidence. So how does science work if the evidence is uncertain? By using the scientific method which provides good ways to think about things objectively. That is all the sanction science has, but also it is all that it needs. Epistemology has the same sanction: philosophers of epistemology use the same sort of method in their thinking. None of this provides certainty. But it is persuasive. There are no known alternative ways to think about these things which are better, or even comparably good. (I realize that statement deserves further argument and explanation. Maybe another time.)

In conclusion, call it what you will. Choice theory is essentially a type of logic. It exists objectively. What it says is based on not personal taste but mostly the laws of epistemology (which are governed by the laws of physics). And it can help you answer the ancient moral question, "How should I live?"

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)


The following pop culture references contain no spoilers.

On Felicity. Felicity has a theory that pasta being served on Monday means a bad week. A dog disrupted her activity a few times (the same activity each time) and she thought that was a sign not to do it. When something works out conveniently for starting a relationship with a guy she thinks that is a sign as well.

In Harry Potter, Harry hugs a friend and tries to put unsaid things into the hug, and believes the person understood some of it.

Lovers often speak of fate and destiny, and are pleased by silly coincidences like having the same birthday (or even star sign, which has 1/12 odds). Or having the same favorite color or band or movie. Or having the same phobia, or having lived in the same area in the past. "Was it really a coincidence that we both were at the bar that night? I hadn't been to a bar for months; I don't even really like them!"

This is magical thinking.

Felicity may not mean that there is a wizard casting a spell on her. But she does, undeniably, mean there may be *information* coming from these sources. The laws of physics don't allow for pasta choices to control whether events go well or not for the next week, nor do they give you a surprise dog as a hint not to do an activity. Any thinking that ignores the laws of physics and imagines things happen outside the laws of physics is magical thinking.

Harry's idea that a hug can explain his feelings on a number of complex matters is also magical thinking. A hug has information in it, but only a few bits. You can hug a bit tighter, or a bit longer, but people can't tell the difference very precisely and how that will communicate any sentences is a mystery. You could have a code, but you'll need about five bits per letter; communicating even a single letter that way would be difficult. Just imagine trying to work it out so you and your friend hug and then you figure out which letter of the alphabet he meant based on hug length and tightness, arm position, etc... Back in reality his hug is not communicating all the things he imagines. Hugs do not form magical connections between minds. All he's really communicating is one simple thing: positive feelings. To the extent the other person applies this data point to various outstanding issues within his own mind that is not communication at all, but just him figuring stuff out himself. He will only reach the conclusions Harry hopes if he independently comes up with the same ideas. That's a reality-based way to look at this. But Harry does not; he tries to do magic. (Magic of a sort not allowed in Harry Potter universe.)

Magical thinking is extraordinarily self-centered. It imagines either that the laws of physics are watching over your shoulder like an intelligent being and taking steps to help you out, or that if they are written in stone, timeless, on that stone are laws just about you. The real laws of physics do not say anything specifically about humans, let alone about you personally. They don't have clauses to make information pop into the heads of people you hug. They don't change lunch menus for your edification.

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Let's consider rival theories to the idea that there is objective truth, and that we have ways of seeking truth such as the scientific method and reason. What, exactly, do they claim? It's objectively true that there is no objective truth? If we all have our own personal truth then can't I have an objective truth for me, and have it apply to everyone else as I want it to? (And thus I have taken away everyone else's personal truth. Sorry.) The idea of subjective truth is like saying just because there is a door there for me doesn't mean it's in the same place in your world. In other words, we all live in different worlds that aren't necessarily connected. But if that's the case, how is communication possible? How can we understand each other without having any facts in common? Having no facts in common doesn't just include locations of objects, it also includes gestures and speech made by people. The only serious ideas are that we have facts in common between all people (ie, there are some objective truths), or solipsism (ie, other people aren't real, I'm just imagining them).

Solipsism is very silly. The other people have complex, autonomous behavior. Whatever you want to call them, they are outside your mind. So, they act *as if* they are real people. The claim that they somehow aren't is completely arbitrary.

Consider someone who says the scientific method, or reason, is bad or doesn't work well. Well, does he want justification? That's an epistemic error. Does he have a rival theory? Let's hear it! And subject it to criticism. If he doesn't have a rival theory of how to seek the truth, how'd he come to his conclusion that the scientific method or reason are ineffective? Did he do auguries? Did he use reason?

If it's essentially undeniable that some facts, like the location of a large building, have the same truth of the matter for everyone -- they don't depend on our subjective opinions -- then we should consider if there are any things for which this can be denied. Any sort of measurable, physical fact is out. The cafeteria does not serve pasta for Felicity and roast cow for me, and when we each pick up menus they just magically say different things (and they change themselves undetectably if we swap menus), and there are not two different versions of the kitchen, located in the same place, preparing different meals. (By the way, that undetectable menu change is a good example of magical thinking. It requires physics be paying attention to what we are doing and intelligently manipulate affairs.)

That leaves logic, math, philosophy, religion, and morality -- things we cannot measure or observe.

All of these things, essentially, are facts. (Religions contain magical thinking. Never mind them.)

Math is a good example. Math is not a bunch of arbitrary rules that people made up. It derives very closely from physical facts. First there were the counting numbers. These were invented to let people think about who has more cows which is a matter of fact. And it let people think about the fact that if they have eight cows, and two die, they have six left. These concepts, just like any other part of our language, were just words and ways of thinking we developed to correspond to the physical facts.

This story does not just account for the counting numbers. We can cover all the rest of math. Sets, for example, are a way of organizing cows into groups convenient for various types of thinking. Zero is when all your cows die. Negative numbers are for keeping track of how many cows you owe your neighbor, or expressing your change in cows some months. Fractions came about when two brothers inherited three cows. And these fractions allowed them to express lengths with arbitrary accuracy. Which allowed them to notice the fact that the area of a square is the length of a side squared. These things can also be discovered by writing equations. X+3=1 is an equation involving only counting numbers and addition but which reveals the existence of negative numbers and which corresponds to reality. 2*X=3 shows two brothers times their share of the cows makes three cows (again, it corresponds to reality, to facts), and that reveals fractions. Now that we have squaring we run into: X^2=2 and we discover square roots and hence real numbers. And "imaginary numbers" come from X^2=-1 -- they are a way of expressing what X is in that simple equation. Whether you like to consider them real or not, they express what that X is; they are, like the other numbers, terminology and ways of thinking that correspond to reality. And there you go, that's most of the basic concepts of math.

Good philosophy and logic also correspond to reality -- to facts. Computers are built out of logic gates, and they really do work. Evolution is a philosophical theory about a method of creating knowledge, but it also is a fact: if the preconditions are met, evolution takes place, and the results are as stated. The philosophy corresponds to the fact, and if it did not then it would be bad philosophy. And morality -- choice theory -- is about this fact and its consequences, and other related facts like the results of an open society. The results of various choices are also facts, determined by the laws of physics, and how well they correspond to the outcomes we intend is also a matter of fact.

The fact that there has been a lot of faulty thinking, and ideas which do not correspond to reality, shouldn't be taken to mean the quest of finding true ideas -- ones that do correspond to reality -- is hopeless. The Earth is not flat is a good idea we worked out, despite the abstractness of the idea of flat, and also of the idea of categorizing a certain set of molecules as the Earth.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)


Power is good.

Power is the ability for humans to do what we want and accomplish our aims. Power lets us make things happen; power lets us have more control over the future.

Power can be used to accomplish good things, or bad things.

Many fear power. For those who hate power over nature I have little sympathy. Why should we not understand the physics of our world and live effectively? Even walking around, and balancing, are a matter of skillful control over the natural world. Electricity and computers, while considered more unnatural than the power of walking, are also immensely valuable; they transform the world much more to our liking. Some complain that we interfere in the natural order of things. This is magical thinking. There is no natural order. There are just the laws of physics, and the species that happened to evolve here. There is no thought or preference behind it. (It is ironic that people of this sort are frequently atheists who look down on religion.) But never mind that: how best to save as many species as possible, and increase biodiversity? Through skillful manipulation of the natural world for that aim.

Consider five possible worlds:

In one humans commit mass suicide to avoid messing up the natural world. A few millenia later a meteorite wipes out most species, like we suspect happened with the dinosaurs. A few billion years later the sun goes super nova and that's the end. In the mean time, species sometimes die out due to natural variance in climate and other randomness. This future is no good.

In another we continue with somewhat clumsy use of the natural world, and refrain from increasing our power and skill because people fear it will be used badly. We still die to the meteor or at least to the sun. We save some species, but we kill others by accident. This future is no good.

In another we gain great power and control, and we save every species that we want to, deflect meteors, and either change the sun or, perhaps, eventually leave. When we leave we will bring with us any species we wish. Without this gift of space flight they could not survive further. This is paradise.

In another we gain great power and control, but they are used in ways you do not like today. The reason is that your present ideas about what should be done are mistaken. But this is a good future as well. We cannot judge the future by how well it conforms to what we want now. We must judge instead by how rational it is. If it is an open society which favors persuasion then we should be pleased. And if, in the event, we still don't like a policy (in most cases we ourselves would have changed our mind by then) we are free to criticize the mainstream idea and persuade people of our view. And further, in a free society, remember that we can, personally, save all the species we like. The only obstacle is our own personal power. If we have enough control over our world, including the required resources, then we don't need anyone to agree with us. (We may need people to trade with us, and to work for us. But the market allows cooperation without agreement over the proper aims of life, so that is no obstacle.) This, too, is paradise.

In another we have power but people take control of society forcefully and decisions are made by whim not reason. The rulers suppress the power of others. Eventually they start killing people (and they care even less for other species). If you have trouble imagining a suitably dark continuation from there, try reading 1984. This is a disaster by all accounts; this future is no good.

How is this disaster to be avoided? Two main ideas are:

1) Avoiding disaster is a matter of power: skillful control over our lives and our future. With power comes the ability to create safeguards and take steps to prevent disaster. Today we have only limited power to prevent disaster. But if we become more powerful, our power to make the world safe and free will grow.

2) Avoiding disaster is a matter of controlling those who might do ill; the enemy here is freedom. Only people with appropriate, well-liked ideas should be allowed their liberty. Power must be doled out in accordance with who has humanity's best interests are heart.

While certainly there is some danger to (1), it is the only reasonable way to proceed. Yes, we might develop weapons and dangers faster than safety measures. But that is a somewhat strange fear. There is no particular reason that should happen. Meanwhile there are very powerful reasons the opposite should happen: we will develop precautions first because we know to do otherwise is dangerous. Developing dangers we cannot handle is stupid; people will aim to avoid such folly.

You may think the history of war contradicts me. I disagree. Developing powerful weapons provides safety from external invasion (a serious threat). It is true that many societies have been war like. But what of it? We now have an open society and we prefer peace. Our development of powerful weapons technology, like nuclear weapons, was an important part of the defense of our society. And now we have voluntarily ceased development of those weapons. We only wish to have that power to the extent we need it and no more.

Now let's look at (2). There is something implicit in this: there are rulers deciding who to dole out power to, and deciding who has humanity's best interests at heart and so on. And these rulers use force. For our benefit, they say. Remember what we are trying to avoid: people who use force to gain rulership, and who then suppress the power of those they disagree with or otherwise dislike. Well, that is exactly what (2) proposes to set up. Why, then, might it sound appealing? If it sounds appealing probably you are thinking of the disaster as the ascent of bad rulers with bad ideas who hate freedom, and the solution as rulers who like freedom. You identify with the second set of rulers. You imagine they would rule as you would rule. They will promote the values you agree with.

This is a mistake. Even if the rulers start with your values, they might change their minds, or you might change your mind, and then you will not be happy as you find force used against you. And even if you continue to agree that does not mean you are right; we need a society that seeks the truth and creates knowledge. That means an open society with freedom of thought and in which no particular view is entrenched in power.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)


Are there hard problems that families face? Hard parts of daily life? Hard parts of relationships? Conversations? Truth seeking?

The answer may seem obvious: yes.

Many people find these things hard. So, they are. You could change the meaning of the word "hard" to "cow-related" and then the answer is no, but that would be silly. Who could argue with this?

*dramatic pause*


Relationship problems, including family problems, can be solved with agreement. This doesn't necessarily solve the fundamental issue, but it lets life go on happily and agreeably. The only thing preventing this is irrationality.

Physics is hard. I mean it's hard to make new discoveries. But that does not mean it's hard to be a physicist. Doing physics can be fun (and if it is not, then the solution is really straightforward: switch professions). All you need to do is find internal agreement and you can go on with life happily and agreeably even if the fundamental issue remains elusive. And the only thing preventing this is irrationality.

Fundamental issues are hard, like figuring out the true laws of motion (but need not be upsetting). And irrationality is hard to deal with. Other than that, life is easy and carefree. There are no problems specific to families that make families unhappy. There are no particular difficulties in relationships that cause fights. The reason people believe there is, is that they are irrational but also blind in such a way they do not attribute the fault to their own irrationality, and instead assume it is a difficult situation and no one's fault. This, unfortunately, encourages them not to seek solutions.

Two of the most common reasons people are unhappy are wanting things they lack the knowledge (including skill) to achieve, and wanting reality to be different than it is (now, without having to bother changing it).

Ever wished your friends were a little kinder? More understanding? Smarter? More fun? Shared more interests with you? Were available more often? Either that is wanting the facts of reality to be magically different, or it is wanting to change your life without learning how to do so. If you wanted to learn how, you'd be thinking "I wish I was more skilled at improving my friends. Maybe I'll make a breakthrough tomorrow." If you were thinking of good goals for what your life could be (yes *your* life. you should want a life with a good environment including the portion of the environment consisting of people) then you'd call them goals not wishes (or you'd, right now, be thinking wishes was the wrong word). (BTW misunderstandings are caused by people being different which is caused by people disagreeing about which way is best to be.)

What is a agreement? It is an idea for how to proceed that everyone involved *prefers*. It's a preference that they have in common. In other words they agree about what to do. If you have that what can go wrong? A hurricane, sure. A fight? No. People only fight when they disagree (including misunderstandings so they think they disagree).

Hurricanes aren't problems. How to prevent damage from one is. But if that upsets you we are looking at the sort of reality denial I mentioned earlier. And there are solutions. Tie down your pigs so they don't fly away, feed your cat until it's too heavy to be blown away, etc...

Finding a agreement is the same thing as finding a common preference. It is the same thing as finding a solution such that no one is hurt. It is the same thing as living non-coercively.

Internal agreement is about getting your own autonomous theories to agree.

What is a theory, and how do we know they are roughly autonomous?

Consider fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. If you ask them whether the movie or TV series is better most will say they TV series. In this way many different people are alike. In other ways, these people are very different. In other respects, the contents of their minds are very different. If you ask them why they prefer the TV show they will give a lot of the same answers. Again, they are *alike*. The more detail you ask about, the more they will think and the more their answers will be different. These people have different minds and think differently, so this is to be expected. But this one part of their minds behaves, roughly, alike. That thing is less than a person and more than a simple fact like the weight of the average hippopotamus. We know it behaves roughly autonomously because it is capable of giving the same answers even in very different environments (that is, in different minds). I call it a theory. I have also called it a part of a personality or a personality strand. And I also call it an idea because I don't want people to think I mean something like Newton's Law of Gravity which they might if I said "theory". Idea, however, has connotations of something less than the type of theory I have just described. (The reason there is no ideal word to use is that our culture/language does not understand this issue very well yet.)

What gets in the way of agreement? Ignorance? Differences? Problems being hard to solve?


Ignorance is no obstacle to agreeing. There is a rational, objective way to think about the situation, including both people in it (or more), and they can both take that view. More concretely, they can agree to put off a decision until the ignorant person learns more. Or they can agree the best thing is for him to do as the more knowledgeable person suggests for now. This can be evaluated without knowing whether the more knowledgeable person is correct or not. You don't have to agree about that and you can still agree about what to do next. If he wants you to do something and you aren't sure if it's good there is a rational way to think about this situation, and you can use reason to decide how to reply (do it, don't do it, decide later, whatever). And if you can make your decision according to reason, he can agree it is correct. Or he can disagree and criticize, and then you can agree with the criticism, or reply to it further. And so on. And then you will agree about what to do because of what you have in common: reason.

You may fear the "and so on" step will take a long time. He will criticize what I said. I won't think that's right and will criticize what he said. That will sound wrong to him and he'll argue back. Then I'll argue more. And so on.

That is not the natural way of things.

When people are rational and are listening to each other and taking each other seriously and are not biased in favor of their own ideas but are really open to whatever view makes most sense, then every step of the way we can expect the likely result is agreement and the rare result is another round of disagreement. (Another likely result is a short break for some questions to clarify things and increase understanding.) What we have on our side here is that good ideas are hard to come by. So usually we won't have a better idea than the one someone tells us. And if we do, they probably won't have a better idea than that. And so on. And if this goes wrong then all that's happening is we have an unusually long string of good ideas. Not particularly scary :)

Long running disagreements are common, and people remaining different is perfectly fine. It can be hard to understand each other and to get a clear view of which lifestyles and personalities are best, and how to have them. But that isn't what we are talking about here. The issue is agreeing about what to do next. We always have the option: go our separate ways. The only reason we are having this discussion is that we both want to do something together (we already agree on the main point). So that's why it should be easy. We will find a way to do it that we both like. If we haven't yet either we will think it's worth continuing to try (and so we will be happy to keep trying) or we will think it's too much trouble (in which case we would not like to keep trying. but we won't, so no matter).

There is perhaps an underlying idea here: that both people will respect the right of the other to go his own way if he prefers to do so. Either person is expected to agree to that without further discussion if the other wishes it. This is perhaps not a matter of reason but simply of liberal principles: we wish people to be free to live their own lives, not obliged to do what we want them to do. This is a principle of open societies, and it is a principle of the Enlightenment, and it is good. Forcing someone to continue to try to find a mutually agreeable way to work together doesn't even make much sense. If you want mutual agreement then you should let him go when he wants to.

Certainly in families and personal relationships we should especially want our loved ones to be free and not to do anything they don't want to, right?

People being different and problems being hard to solve are also not obstacles to agreeing about what to do next. That people are different means they may prefer to go their separate ways; they may not wish to cooperate for a common goal at this time. But in that case they can agree to that; they can both prefer it. And if there is a hard problem to solve, then you can agree to work on it, or agree to avoid it, or agree to a temporary measure that seems best, or whatever. There is no reason that should cause people to fight.

Disagreeing about what to do next is fighting. It means you can't agree to go your separate ways, and can't agree to do something together either. You are failing to cooperate or separate. And this is not rational. If you can't be productive together, go do different things. Fighting won't help anything. A discussion might. But if you want a discussion, and the other person does too, then you agree about that, and you agree about what to do next. For there to be a fight at least one person must be unwilling to have a discussion.

You may think *that* is the problem: that person doesn't want to discuss. He is preventing problem solving. But that isn't obvious at all. Many things aren't worth discussing. Why bother? You could be writing a mathematics paper. Or learning chemistry. Those might be much more valuable things to do than to discuss this problem. He could have plenty of other reasons too. Maybe he'd rather discuss later. If you think he's wrong you might want to discuss that. And he might not want to. He might not want to tell you his reasons, or hear yours. Now do we have him cornered? He's avoiding criticism! Nah. He still might have better things to do. Further, he might think you are acting unpleasantly and he doesn't want to talk about it because he doesn't think you will take him seriously and listen with an open mind. Or maybe he expects mean or unhelpful comments from you. He might be right about that. If he isn't -- if you are sympathetic to him, and want to help -- then why won't you let him alone?

There is one especially good reason to discuss apparent problems. But it is never urgent. It only becomes urgent if people avoid it for a while, which is a sign of irrationality or a mistaken view of how important it is. (But you will get opportunities to correct that mistake if you know better and they are being rational.) The reason is: to prevent *chronic* problems. One time problems don't need discussion. Sure, something went wrong. But if the same situation is unlikely to happen again then who cares? Forget about it and do something valuable. And a lot of problems could be chronic but people figure out (all by themselves) how to do better, so they don't need discussion. You should only think something is chronic after the second time at earliest. Before that don't worry it could be chronic. The third time is a more reliable indicator that there's a repeating problem.

People do chronically avoid fixing chronic problems. (And by problems I mean irrationalities that cause them to fight with people in their lives. And by fight I mean sabotage finding agreement about how to proceed.) They do this out of irrationality. Fixing repeating problems is worthwhile. (Note: in theory the costs of fixing could exceed the costs of all the many repetitions that will happen. In that case it isn't worthwhile.) This supports what I've been saying: people fight due to irrationality, not due to life being hard in some way.

Isn't being rational hard?

No, not really. It's hard to figure out what is the rational way to live. It's hard to create that knowledge. But if you don't know how to be rational very well, so what? Do your best. No one can ask more of you than that.

The real issue is: today we know how to be rational to a certain degree. Many people don't live that way. They live less rationally than we know how to. And it isn't due to ignorance. They say being more rational is hard or unpleasant.

Living according to reason is, of course, actually rather more pleasant, because you accomplish your goals more, learn more, solve more problems, fight with friends less, and so on. (But reason and truth are no guarantee of happiness. And indeed the deluded man often thinks he is happy. That is an issue for another day.)

What is supposed to be hard about it?

- Taking criticism well (let alone enjoying it)
- Not being attached to your own theories or ideas
- Not having a biased perspective
- Not taking discussion personally (or better: applying it personally without getting offended or upset if it implies you have made mistakes and should change)
- Keeping your emotions under control (or better: changing your emotional makeup so you don't have inappropriate ones in the first place)
- Thinking seriously and trying in general (if you don't want to do that, why stay alive?)

Really, being irrational is a lot harder. Then people can make comments wondering why you aren't suicidal, and have a point. Rational people are immune to such things.

Taking criticism badly makes life a lot harder. It means you have bad reactions to criticism. That itself right there is a problem! You get upset. Better if you didn't. And then also it means you stay wrong longer when you have bad ideas. So you spend more of your life making mistakes. These make your life harder than if you'd done something better.

Being attached to your own theories and having a biased perspective also make you stay wrong longer. And they make it harder to come to agreement with your friends. That makes life harder and less agreeable for both you and your friends. Not thinking seriously makes you stay wrong longer too.

Taking discussion personally makes it harder for you to have productive discussions. It makes life harder than if you were more rational.

Acting on emotions not reason means making more mistakes, which makes your life harder. Imagine the man who gets angry, then drunk, then loses a lot of money gambling. Now his life is a lot harder and less pleasant.

Perhaps the hard part is changing these characteristics.

And indeed that is hard.

But not because life is hard.

It is hard because of irrational memes and the accompanying logic of a static society, from which we come.

Life is not hard. Our culture is hard to deal with.

The problems we face which seem hard are either fundamental (and not upsetting), or parochial.

What should you do about this? One thing well worth bearing in mind is: when conversations start to go wrong, slow down. Pause and think. Be much more careful with what you say next. Regain perspective. Arguing the fine details you were discussing isn't really that important. If you fight about it and never speak of it again life will go on anyway. If you *don't* fight about it and never speak of it again, life will go on too, but better. Take your time. Don't imagine pressure to act now. It isn't there.

*   *   *

Reader: You sure seem to know your Roman Numerals. Very fancy. But can you do large numbers?
Elliot: Sure, no problem.
Reader: Can you do 40?
Elliot: Hmm. That's larger than I expected. Too hard. You might even say 40 is XL.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)


Knowing that being open to criticism, and treating rival theories evenhandedly without regard for which is *yours*, are the best, most rational, most effective, most knowledge creating, most problem solving, most truth seeking ways to live is one thing. Living that way is another. Deciding it is best does not automatically mean you will do it.

Probably you have irrational memes that are preventing you. They make you feel bad and ashamed to be wrong, they make you feel attacked by criticism, they make you feel attached to your ideas, and they make you blind to their existence, and sometimes blind to the fact that you are not in fact acting in the rational way described above.

I can say this without knowing who is reading because such memes are ubiquitous in our culture. You are not alone. You are not a rare person with an unfortunate difficulty. It is like that for everyone. That can be hard to accept because it means if people do better *that could have been you* -- there was nothing fundamental to stop you. So it is *your fault* that you are doing worse than they are. But as much as taking responsibility for your failures can be hard, it is worthwhile. It means you recognize you can do better; denying that would be a huge obstacle to improving. And it means taking responsibility for your successes: having pride in what you have achieved, and seeking to do more.

But what exactly should you do tomorrow to start making progress? Here is one approach, which is by no means the only one.

One place to start is by changing your sense of identity. Ideas which you no longer believe *are not part of you*. If you are proven wrong, but change your mind, then suddenly *you are not wrong anymore*. Criticism isn't about making you wrong, which you'd want to deny. It's about giving you the opportunity to not be wrong anymore; to abandon the wrong parts.

Even ideas that are still within you do not necessarily deserve any respect. If you don't like one, but it's hard to change, whatever: screw it. *It's not you*. It's just some nasty intruder who has taken up residence in your mind. Don't let it be part of your identity. Don't feel ashamed of it. Don't defend it. Don't act on it. Just attach your sense of identity and self-worth to only a smaller, better part of your mind over which you have control. (And really, who can fault you for refusing to feel bad about things over which you do not have control? If you don't control it, it isn't your fault. You may have made mistakes in the past, but the current version of you hasn't.)

The most obvious thing that will go wrong with this is your emotions. You'll feel bad anyway, or feel weird, or still feel defensive about parts of you which you don't respect intellectually, or feel guilty. Screw them. Emotions are largely bad. They are the tools of your memes. Just ignore them. They have no power over what actions you take in your life. They don't move your limbs around. They do not control what words you say. And they do not control what you think is true.

Don't repress emotions. You don't want to be in denial about having them. Just disrespect them. They aren't the boss of you. It's like if you are into sports and you feel some physical pain. If it's nothing medically dangerous, then you don't respect it. It's just your body being annoying. It is part of your environment, just like emotions. Not your fault. You just keep playing.

Acknowledge emotions. They exist. Take note of them. But don't act on them. They aren't reasons. And don't take them personally. You didn't choose to have this emotion (just now; maybe it's due to your choices long ago.)

"Don't live life through gritted teeth," is good advice. You don't want to settle into a permanent routine of having this sort of conflict in yourself. But nor do you want to surrender. What you need to do is win. And take pride in your struggle to do so. Don't grit your teeth. Shout your defiance.

Bad emotions won't stop occurring overnight. The easiest cases should take a few days at least. Most cases will take more like six months, and harder cases won't be complete for years. Times can vary tremendously, but I think ballpark estimates are more useful than nothing. One thing you can see is you shouldn't give up quickly. And after two months is giving up quickly.

Success and progress are different. Progress can come fairly soon. But usually after a few attempts there appears to be absolutely no progress. And this is disheartening. But then not too long after you break through and it gets a bit better.

What does an attempt look like? You feel an emotion. You notice it. It can take a while to learn to notice them, and figure out what emotion it is. You look at it dispassionately. You get perspective. You don't act on it. You think about why the emotion is not reasonable, and think you don't want to have it anymore (you can do this while reflecting later at first). You think about what would be a good attitude to have. You think about what the best thing to do is, according to reason, and you do that, even though you don't feel like it. And then you feel proud and good, or at least at first you think you have reason to be proud and to feel good.

In abstract terms, what you are doing is putting your emotions and memes into a very hostile environment, hateful of them even. And in that environment they cannot function properly, and over time they change and evolve. You can't control them directly, but you can take attitudes about what sorts of emotions and memes are acceptable to you, and harass anything that doesn't qualify until your unconscious mind manages to sort out all the details and change it.

You may feel dumb at first having this emotion you don't want and not knowing how to get rid of it. And every time you feel the emotion, you feel dumb or silly. The emotion is dumb. Your lack of control is frustrating and is in part a lack of skill on your part. But trying to accept or reconcile with the emotion is no good life. That makes you a slave to it. This feeling dumb is hard on the meme/emotion too. It has trouble existing in that kind of environment. You know it's dumb. That means it is struggling. You're making progress! Be glad. As things move along the emotion will persist for less time, and eventually it will just be short flashes (stay aware! stay alert! notice these flashes. if you stop noticing and giving them enough thought to keep them in a hostile environment, they'll never go away). as you gain more distance from the feeling, you can laugh at it, or scoff. it's just this evil thing and it's dying. it has less and less power. your blindness is already gone. you can see it for the dumb thing it is. and now it's getting more and more painfully obvious every time it comes up. great! you are stronger than it.

you need to keep a positive attitude, and keep your optimism. memes can be beaten. emotions can be changed. you know this is true intellectually. but also you can develop emotions so that you feel it. if you're going to have emotions, put them to good use. instead of figuring out what causes good feelings and then doing that (ie, being the slave of your emotions) figure out what is worth liking and then start enjoying it. every time you do it, think about how lovely it is. take steps to make it a positive experience. soon you'll look forward to it.

a lot of this can be done in your head. do thought experiments. imagine the situation and then try to question parts of it or imagine acting in ways you'd feel bad about but think are good. if it's too hard feel free to stop for now, not because you are giving up, but just because you have a life to live and you don't need to do everything at once. just make more attempts. even if progress isn't visible every time it's still happening. when there is a breakthrough all those previous attempts with no obvious results did play a role. and you are learning about your own temperament. that's good too. understanding yourself makes everything easier. it makes it easier to be aware of your emotional state. it makes it easier to find the weak points of the emotions. it makes it easier to brainstorm attitudes you could take that would improve matters.

so, thought experiments. they are low risk. low cost. easy to abort. fast. less pressure to hurry. more control over setting up just the right situation. and it's not as personal. you are thinking about how you would feel in a situation instead of being in the situation and feeling it. and you start wondering why, and trying different things to see which cause you to change how you feel for the better. and as you gain skill, you gain control, and then you win.

it is unfortunate that all this should be necessary. I sympathize. I really do. memes are nasty buggers. they hurt you. they are evolved to be good at hurting you, and to be hard to get rid of. but it's worth fighting them. it's the only way to live your own life. it's the only way to control your life and have free choice. and it's the only way not to pass the same memes on to your children (which is done in large part by hurting your children in certain ways).

remember: you are creative, and your memes are not. yeah they contain a lot of knowledge. but they don't have a creative mind like you. if you put them into an environment they don't already have knowledge about they won't be able to adapt. so there is plenty of reason for optimism.

*   *   *

Static memes are like a hostage situation. They hold your emotions hostage. The options are to meet their demands, or to storm the building and probably lose some of the hostages.

Yeah it sucks. But the damage was done when the memes took over the building and grabbed all the hostages.

The demands memes make include finer control over your emotions (ie, more hostages, more weapons, a larger zone around the building where the police can't come, a new building even with satellite TV, etc)

Don't negotiate with terrorists. Don't succumb to emotional blackmail.

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Do you feel bad about being fat? You shouldn't identify with your body. It isn't your mind. It's not the real you. It's part of your environment. Don't take it so personally. The only good reason to feel bad about being fat (besides increased risk of death) is that it indicates you have made bad choices: you failed to choose ways of eating that would achieve your goals. That lack of skill is an aspect of your mind. (But still, don't feel bad. Acknowledge your defeat and brainstorm an improvement in how you approach eating.)

By the way: just don't eat when you aren't hungry. That's all there is to it. It sounds hard to believe, but hunger evolved to keep humans fit and our body has powerful mechanisms to keep us from being overweight. Getting fat takes a lot of effort. Stop putting in the effort -- stop working hard against yourself -- and you won't be fat for long.

This still sounds hard to believe. Most people think they don't eat except when they are hungry. But those same people eat an entire plate of food at dinner time. All at once. So how could they possibly know if they were full already when they ate the last few bites? You have to wait a while to find out.

People also compulsively finish their plate even if they feel full. All the time. (Just like their parents forced them to do when they were younger. And like they will force their own children to do.) If you always finish your plate you have no idea if you are eating the right amount. You need to try other amounts to compare.

Many people fear "snacking". The real issue here is they aren't very aware of what they eat, so if they eat snacks and don't pay attention (common) they end up eating a lot while not hungry, and then they still eat meals (because people eat those without being aware of whether they are hungry. it's also just a habit.)

people also eat "comfort food". again that is eating when you aren't hungry. it might be worth doing to improve your mood, but don't claim you only eat when hungry if you do that.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)


How do you think so that you come up with good ideas? What's the secret?

In general:

  • keep an open mind
  • examine all sides of an issue
  • don't reject your ideas because they seem bad, try to improve them
  • speak up and ask friends for criticism, suggestions, etc, don't wait until you already have a good idea to have a helpful discussion
  • optimism helps
  • learn good ideas other people have had
  • try to connect different ideas
  • ask lots of questions. asking others is ok but asking yourself questions is the best.
  • seek the truth whatever it is, not what you want it to be
  • don't let your emotions get in the way
  • don't let what seems best for you cloud your judgment of what is true
  • hold your ideas tentatively, not with certainty
  • don't be afraid to discover you are wrong about something, even something you feel strongly about
  • keep trying, you aren't going to have your best ideas in the first five minutes. not on the first day either. think about stuff every day.
  • apply ideas to areas they weren't intended for if they could logically apply and see how it works
  • sometimes a joke idea can work if you change it a bit. dumb ones too.
  • good ideas can come any time, even in the shower. be aware and alert.
Stuff like that. You've probably heard most these before (maybe separately). But doing all of them excellently in real time is harder than just remembering these bullet points.

To really do them well in your life what you need is to create certain kinds of *attitudes* and *policies* that feel *natural* and you do "automatically". you need to form good habits so your first reaction is something from the list, not something irrational or emotional or anti-truth-seeking.

one way to do this would be to take them a couple at a time (pick related ones) and pay close attention to how much you do them or not and watch for situations where you should do them. then make sure to do them, even if it doesn't feel normal. after a while you'll get more used to it, and see how well it works which will be encouraging (or you'll see it has a problem and have to reconsider if it's really a good idea -- but that's good to you'll learn something). after a while you will start to predict the situations where you should do these things in advance and you'll be mentally ready before it even happens. with practice/learning it gets faster to figure out what you were going to do, and check if it fits the new things you are trying to do, and if not figuring out what you should do instead. after a while it becomes second nature. that's good. now do it with more things.

to do this successfully you need to be pretty self-aware. and you need to take your time not act (or talk) without thinking. it helps if you can put everything aside, mentally, for a minute, and think about how to proceed. don't get caught in the moment -- then you'll revert to old habits.

it also helps not to question your new policy every time it comes up. if you think some of these things might be good to do, and want to try them, then do so wholeheartedly, even if you aren't sure. that's the only way to see if they really work. decide to try them for a while and if you need to reconsider at some point fine, but don't reconsider every time it comes up, do that separately if you notice some problem. if you're wondering if it's really a good idea every time you're gonna sabotage it (unconsciously) or just make the whole experience unpleasant. it's kinda like if you were trying to read more, but you often don't feel like reading, then every time you pick up a book if you struggle with your feelings about it that is not gonna be much fun or work out well. it'd be better to make a decision, and then try to just do the reading if you think that's best. if there's a problem then reconsider the overall policy, but don't reconsider the individual reading sessions every time. you decided it was best to do this, so just do it, you can always change the policy later if it was a mistake. dealing in terms of entire policies of behavior can be a lot easier than trying to decide everything from first principles every day.

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Socialization is the process of learning to interact appropriately with other members of society. It sounds like a dirty word to me, something bad, but many people think it's good and fear that if they home school their kids will not be socialized well. To me it sounds like breaking people in -- breaking their spirits -- for conformity.

How to interact with people is a type of knowledge. You can learn it like anything else. You don't need to go to school. You could read a book about it. Or in this case a good source is TV where you can see how people treat each other. Or perhaps even better you can go outside, you can meet people, you can observe your parents, etc

Another issue is that this is parent-centric. what's the parent doing deciding if his child needs more socialization? if your child wants to home school (after hearing your advice, which should be in favor) then start home schooling. if you're worried about socialization, let your child know what you think he might be missing. if child finds he has a problem -- say he tries to make some friends but fails -- then *child* can decide what he wants to do about that (taking into account your advice). child can decide he'd like to try school to improve his social skills if he wants to and he values improving them and he thinks school will help. and he can do something else if he prefers that. this is called "freedom" and it's also a more effective way to learn -- people learn better when they are in control and follow their own interests and try their own ideas about how to learn (they also learn better with lots of good suggestions, many of which undoubtedly will be followed).

the real thing you can't get at home is being beaten up by bullies. and teased for being different. and hazed. and that intense pressure to start making progress with the opposite sex and go on dates and go to dances. and the pressure to be cool, and to have friends. you'll also miss out on this culture that expects you to defer to authority and not think independently. a culture where an 18 year old can be expected to ask permission to go to the bathroom -- they aren't free to go where they please. the teachers enforce it by punishing people who displease them. but worse are the other kids who don't want to risk their own status, so when you do group work they pressure you more than any teachers. and you could miss out and tests and grades and that fear of failure that ruin people's minds for life cure inborn laziness.

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When was the last time you weren't sure if you were hungry and thought about it for a while before you made a decision? Probably this is rare at best; you probably are thinking it's too obvious not to know.

If you always seem to know if you are hungry the very likely reality is that you aren't listening to signals from your body much at all (because those aren't perfect and aren't always so obvious and sometimes take some attention and thought to figure out) and you are deciding without thinking. And the result of that would be: you don't eat only when hungry; you don't even know if you are actually hungry most of the time.

When was the last time you were hungry and ignored it for a while? You don't like to do that? That's very strange. Eating promptly isn't that important. You should reasonably often be in the middle of something you prefer to continue. Sometimes you should be so engrossed you completely forget to eat. Not eating for a while is no big deal. So why then is the "eat less" diet so hard? It's not because eating less is hard. Just do something else. Just don't pick up a fork. It's not because hunger prevents you from doing things you are really into and focussed on and enjoying. It's either because you are bored all the time and your hunger is more interesting than the crap you do. Or you are just wildly irrational about food.

Being wildly irrational about food would be no surprise. Our culture is obsessed with food, and with weight, and with appearance, and with sex, and there is huge pressure on people, and people try diets all the time, and think in concepts like whether a calories is "worth it" and attempt self denial all the time. Which all suggests that people's eating habits haven't got much to do with hunger, and have a lot to do with reactions to this huge cultural pressure (going along with it. or rebelling. either way the eating habit probably has more to do with that than hunger. the only way for your eating to really be hunger-based is if you don't much care about pop culture food/weight/sex/appearance attitudes.)

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Are emotions learned or inborn?

They are learned. They are ideas. They are thoughts. That we often don't recognize them as ways of thinking and just ideas is one of the things wrong with them. They aren't a very good way of thinking.

Babies and young children appear to have emotions. It seems a bit improbable they already learned them from people somehow. So what's going on?

Seeing a behavior we associate with an emotion does not mean the person is feeling that emotion. There is an assumption there that he thinks like us, and expresses ideas and emotions just as we would. But the whole idea here is this child does not yet think like us, and doesn't know about emotions. So if you see a behavior you do not know what the thought process behind it is. It isn't like yours. There is, prima facie, no evidence the child is being emotional.

Of course, parents then go and tell them they are being emotional and encourage it. "Oh, you seem angry." Or, "She looks so happy." And it's a classic situation that a parent says his child is upset/angry (and calls it a "tantrum") and the child says he isn't being emotional and he just wants the actual thing in dispute and the parent isn't listening. Notice how the parent interprets something in terms of his emotions, and the child denies he is thinking that way, and the parent then insists really it is emotions and tries to force that interpretation on the child.

Unfortunately teaching of emotions is largely inexplicit. Just avoiding statements like, "and how did you feel after susie did that?" or "i know you're upset about XXX, but..." is not enough. i expect emotions will be passed on pretty much completely normally even if you never say anything like that. we don't know their exact mechanisms and logic.

if we can't suppress the idea of emotions, what should we do? well suppressing it isn't a good idea anyway! that's not truth seeking! if your kid picks up the idea of emotions who cares? just don't coerce him about them, don't hurt him, so he doesn't get irrational entrenchments. the truth seeking approach is freedom of thought and information. just convey the same rational ideas about emotions too, and give some advice, and criticize the emotional way of life, and let the truth win out.

what is a rational approach to emotions? at the least: they aren't necessarily right. emotional choices need to be backed by reasons to be any good. making decisions based at all on how you feel is not the way to find the truth, or to make good choices, or to have a life worth being happy about. and emotions aren't that important. at least if you don't think they are. people make such a big deal about them they create their importance. just don't think about it too much and it's not such a big deal.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (2)


How should society and government be organized?

The first thing is that we don't need a revolution. Whatever suggestions I make, I don't want a government 5-year plan to implement them all, or some big movement gaining millions of supporters overnight demanding big changes. When I say something would be better, what I want to see is individual people keeping an eye out in their lives for opportunities to do things a bit more like that. And to make changes one at a time. And if something goes wrong, they should backtrack a little, and then figure out what was going wrong and how to address it. A huge, fast revolution is a recipe for lots of errors. More gradual change intermixed with large doses of error correction is the only thing that works.

Gradual doesn't mean slow, exactly. And knowledge can spread a lot faster now than in the past. A book can sell millions of copies, and if you add in all the bloggers, radio shows, and TV shows talking about it, then a lot of people can become familiar with something quickly. The point of gradual, the way I mean it, is not to skip steps -- to progress by small degrees. It's possible (but hard and unusual) for every step to be done quickly. As long as they are all done properly then that's ok. But the focus needs to be on doing things right not on abrupt change. Not improving our society drastically by next week isn't a huge disaster that we must avoid at all costs. We are doing OK. Yes, the sooner we improve the better. But the most important steps in the spread of new ideas are error correction and creating understanding. It's no good to have a revolution for some idea if most of your supporters don't really understand it as well as they should. That isn't going to work out. You'd be much better off to have discussions and debates for longer until people know what they are supporting a lot more clearly. And error correction means we need a lot of criticism before we put some big change into effect. We need to know all the things that might go wrong and address them. One way to get that is to try things one at a time and get criticism of them that way, so a lot less harm can be done by mistakes. Another good source of criticism is the opposition: the people who disagree. Instead of trying to beat them and get your idea implemented, it's much better to welcome debates with them and to get their ideas on what might go wrong, and also to seriously consider whether their suggestions may have advantages.

F. A. Hayek, The Road to Serfdom, page 235 (my emphasis):
There is one aspect of the change in moral values brought about by the advance of collectivism which at the present time provides special food for thought. It is that the virtues of which are held less and less in esteem and which consequently become rarer are precisely those one which Anglo-Saxons justly prided themselves and in which they were generally recognized to excel. The virtues these people possessed--in a higher degree than most other people, excepting only a few of the smaller nations, like the Swiss and the Dutch--were independence and self-reliance, individual initiative and local responsibility, the successful reliance on voluntary activity, noninterference with one's neighbor and tolerance of the different and queer, respect for custom and tradition, and a healthy suspicion of power and authority. Almost all the traditions and institutions in which democratic moral genius has found its most characteristic expression, and which in turn have molded the national character and the whole moral climate of England and America, are those which the progress of collectivism and its inherently centralistic tendencies are progressively destroying.
The virtues are all good, and they all go together. I highlight respect for custom and tradition in particular because some people don't realize it is part of the same set of ideas as the others. Here are some ways they go together. Independent minded people are better at taking initiative themselves. Self-reliant people are better at taking responsibility -- they have to be because they aren't relying on someone else to do it for them. People with suspicion of power prefer to do things voluntarily if they want them done, instead of having some power make them be done. Independent people generally want others to be independent as well and want non-interference to go both ways. Tolerating differences is easier in a culture where everyone takes responsibility for themselves -- if your different idea is a mistake, it's not my problem. Where does respecting tradition fit it? It's because...

Well, why respect tradition anyway? That is because knowledge evolves. There are successive stages with each being a little better (on average). Starting over means losing knowledge. And you don't instantly get something better. It would take a long time to get something better if you throw away what you have. What you have contains lots of subtle and important aspects that you probably don't understand and that you won't instantly replicate.

Consider some old software. If you want to add a new feature it's tempting to do a rewrite so you can do the whole thing in a modern style you like better. But this old software has had years of bug fixes. Those are important. If you start over you'll have to redo all that bug fixing. And there are no guarantees at all the new system will be better. Often rewrites turn out worse. I recently read about some text-and-keyboard based systems replaced with modern graphical interfaces that use the mouse a lot. The result? Takes longer to use the system now (and lots of stuff didn't work).

If you want to have lasting institutions that know more than individual people -- that can improve without limit over the generations -- then you need a culture of people who don't just throw away whatever they don't personally understand and don't always recklessly assume they could do better. Without people like that any good traditions will be destroyed.

What does this have to do with the rest? With individual initiative, voluntary action, and so on? Perhaps nothing directly. But the same sort of people like both, because they are both good things, and they both come from the same kind of thinking: how can we make the world better and seek the truth? Revolutions come from people who certain they are right; forcing your neighbors comes from conviction you know best; individual rights and respect for tradition both come from fallibilism.

And there does seem to be a connection historically. Think of movements, like communism, and the French Revolution, that are very hostile to the status quo, and want to sweep it away and implement their own grand vision. This grand vision is never "individual freedom for all" it has specific things they want for everyone which they believe are best -- it isn't individualistic; it's one single grand vision for everyone. And they'll use force against people who disagree and want something different, including people who want to be left alone.

So that's a glimpse of what society should be like: respect traditions and individual rights and freedom to be different.

Another major issue is the use of force. Force is bad because issues decided by force are not being decided by reason. Force doesn't find the truth. It doesn't make the best result happen. And even if people were being forced to do the best thing that's very inefficient. They don't understand what choices are good to make, so some authority is having to make their choices for them and do their thinking for them. So their minds are going to waste and the authority has a lot of work to do. (And, by the way, if the authority was so wise and amazing it could actually make better choices for everyone then it'd be even more effective making great inventions than just running our world a bit more efficiently than we do.) And if the authority doesn't notice some fact that people who actually have their own lives do notice? Well, the authority is using force not listening to arguments. It already decided this person is wrong. So it won't listen now. It will just make mistakes that could have easily been avoided.

Our society uses force. For many things it does not. But for some it still does. Taxes are forceful. If you don't pay them you do go to jail against your will. You cannot just say "leave me alone". Nor can you say "why should I owe you money when I trade freely with my business parter? What does that have to do with you?"

I don't want taxes to disappear over night. That'd be a disaster. The institutions of our society have knowledge in them about how to run the most peaceful society that ever existed. That's good. They still use some force because using less is *hard*. But I do want people to look towards using less force. We can make some improvements now, and eventually we can eliminate all force and have a purely voluntarist society.

What does our government really do, fundamentally? They run the post office badly, and ban competition. That's just dumb and should be stopped in the months (perhaps a few years) it takes for some private companies to set up mail services and to deal with the existing postal infrastructure (we don't want to just let it got to waste. we don't want to just pick one company and hand it to them for free, although that might turn out better than nothing.) more usefully they run the military. and also ban competition. banning competition there makes more sense. a new post office is no danger to anyone. a new military could be! but they should relax that restriction a little. don't ban all private armed forces no matter what. (actually that is a little relaxed already: private security companies are allowed). instead only dangerous ones should be banned. start with a conservative notion of which ones are dangerous. but until we have a notion of what dangerous is, even a very strict one, we can't start creating knowledge about where the line should be and improving it. (we can create a little knowledge in thought experiments. but that isn't good enough. we need to actually change our society in order to organize thought about real problems from many people and start using the full problem solving power of our society.)

by problem solving i don't mean we would have created a big problem and now we'll be desperate to find a solution. a problem is just something we don't know the answer to, like a question, or something we can make better. problems are good. they mean we've recognized things worth thinking about. they are opportunities for improvement. and problem solving is just creating knowledge to improve the situation we noticed.

What does our government really do, fundamentally? they run certain services like the post office, the military, and law making and police and fire departments and courts and midnight basketball. these vary from no justification to the reason is that it's hard to run without force. that's the fundamental justification. there's also practical reasons. our government has *legitimacy*. any replacement would need to create that too. for something important like police work that's hard. for courts that's very hard. people don't want arbitrary or unfair legal decisions. our government has long history of doing this work and doing ... it's hard to say how good a job is done. it's better than any other organization in the history of the Earth, but much worse than our imagination allows for, and we all know it could be improved in many ways.

why does the government use force to maintain a monopoly? it isn't b/c it has no competitors. while that is true for, say, law making, that isn't a reason for using force! that just means the monopoly would last a while even without force. sometimes people complain we need the government to do the most important stuff. but that's silly: if it's true the government should immediately take over the grocery stores. but our grocery stores function better than most government services. free market stuff usually does. the more important something is, the more reason we should want to make sure the government *does not* do it if at all possible. (like, medicine. letting government play a bigger role in medical treatment is a very bad idea.)

another reason is people want the government to make them safe and solve their problems (like hurricane relief). when a hurricane happens and the government responds about as well as it usually does, people complain about it being mishandled and blame the leaders currently in power. it's not their fault! governments just aren't very good at anything. too many compromises. too little accountability and responsibility (they are playing with tax payer money, not their own. their is no company owner who really cares how things turn out. and no stockholders.). no market forces to help it to improve either. government has also played around with, for example, flood insurance. they ended up rebuilding people's houses who decided to build on the beach. over and over. often rich people. there's a reason private companies didn't want to provide flood insurance in certain places: building houses there is really risky. but people want the government to bail them out even if they make stupid choices like building on the same beach for the 5th time.

there are practical reasons for our government. it's a big organization that can do a lot of stuff no one else can (yet). partly this is b/c it's got a way bigger budget and private companies would be able to do the same if they had the money. but this isn't a fundamental reason. it just means we can't eliminate certain services until some other companies step up. so those companies should start stepping up now. get bigger! we need you Walmart. maybe not Walmart, they have the wrong area of expertise. someone, though. big companies are good. useful. powerful.

what about law making? if not for our government who would decide? that's the wrong question: it is asking who should rule? the right idea isn't to find the best ruler and entrench him. it's to have a system where bad policies are gotten rid of. which we have! a private company could use just the same sort of system of voting and check and balances to make decisions that our government does. there is nothing connecting our democratic system to forceful tax collection and suppression of other organizations that would do the same functions. American Idol lets people vote; a law making company could too if people thought it was a good idea. (quite possibly it isn't good to let them vote on most laws directly because they won't understand the issues well. but it could work out OK if advocacy groups on each side offer explanations. and badly if they just offer propaganda.) at the heart of the issue our government is made up of people supported by some traditions. companies are made up of the same. so fundamentally companies can be just as wise and fair about choosing laws.

but what about having multiple law making companies? how does that work? what if they contradict each other? won't they fight? well, no they won't fight! that'd be insane. it'd cost a ton of money. it'd get people killed. it'd piss off all their customers. it'd cost them legitimacy in the eyes of the public about whether they are dangerous and or to be trusted -- maybe *one* side of the dispute could save face with a very good reason why they fought but at least one is screwed. there are huge incentives to settle things peacefully. to negotiate and form agreements. to find ways of proceeding that all the major parts of society can live with. which is great. that's just what we want to find. today if people disagree with the government they can talk about it but if no one listens they can't do a damn thing -- they will just be forced to go along with it. these companies would be trying their best subject to huge incentives not to force each other, so that's much better. our government tries not to force citizens subject to tiny incentives and tiny accountability. we could have a better attitude towards government force that would improve matters a bit, but as it is many people approve of using force on their queer neighbors.

a lot of legal issues it doesn't matter if different courts disagree. for all contracts you can just write in the contract which court to use (and maybe backups in case they go out of business. or maybe the company itself could specify the backup when it goes out of business). this is good. it means courts with laws people find fairest will get the most business. courts with the best history of enforcing their laws fairly, clearly, understandably, etc will get the most business. i'm mixing up courts and law makers here. one possibility is they would be the same groups. they choose what laws they think are good and provide judges to make rulings according to those laws. but certainly the two jobs could be separated. a group of judges could make rulings according to whichever set of laws they were asked to. that'd work fine. and some law makers could publish what they think the laws should be for anyone to use without ever doing anything to enforce them.

one thing that will happen is a lot of laws won't be enforceable. that's good. if someone smokes pot what will happen? maybe some people want to prosecute them, but they of course have hired the services of an armed force that thinks pot smoking is fine. so now these two police forces have a dispute. if the pro-pot-smoking people want they can say: screw you. we aren't hurting anyone. leave us alone. or we'll fight. and then the law is not enforceable unless you want to fight over it. that's kind of a good thing. laws should only be to prevent force and fraud -- big important things worth fighting over b/c the crime itself is a kind of fighting already. if other laws weren't enforceable that'd just mean we had more freedom. but as nice as that'd be, i don't think that is what would happen. no one wants to resort to saying they'll fight. they'd much rather agree. so they will need to negotiate an agreeable way of dealing with the issue. so in general groups with extreme positions might both agree to let a more moderate party decide. or, anything. figuring this stuff out takes creativity. it's not obvious what the answer should be. but this scenario is better for finding the truth than what we have now, which is one big unaccountable monopoly that doesn't have to find agreement with anyone b/c we think it's legitimate for our government to just use force on anyone who disagrees with a law, even as stupid a law as banning smoking pot.

another reason people say we need government is to solve public good problems. this is a worse reason than the ones about law making and who gets to use force i've been talking about. in those cases there is a real problem, and it's a hard one, and our government does it better than anything else that has ever existed. and our government traditions are wiser than any single person. so it's pretty understandable people that people are very skeptical about changing these things. they should be. we need to be careful not to mess it up. but, as i've been saying, we can do better, we can make institutions that use less force and find more truth.

so, public goods are things that are hard to get people to pay for because people who don't pay would still benefit from having them around, like a umm public bridge that anyone can use, or a dam that controls floods for a whole valley (so if you live in the valley you get flood control whether you paid or not). there's a lot of detail I could go into. it's kinda tedious. for now let's just try ridicule. this isn't an invalid argument. anything that can be made fun of for having massive, stupid flaws isn't very good!

so that bridge. the only reason it's being made a public good is they won't put a toll booth on it to control who goes over it to make sure only people who paid can go. toll booths are pretty cheap relative to the price of a bridge.

and that valley? you can sell the name of the dam, and the schedule of how much flooding you allow when, and you can sell vacations to the lake you created and sell the water you gather. you can sell tours. there's stuff to sell. just cause you can't force everyone you claim you are helping to pay you as much as you feel like asking for doesn't mean the system is broken and we need government force. use some creativity to figure out a business plan that doesn't involve guns. and how do you know it should be built if no one wants to pay for it? maybe they won't pay because you are wasting money.

and you know what? all goods are public goods. partly. and they are also all private goods, partly (by which i mean: you can sell parts of them and only the buyer gets the benefit). like with the dam you have effects on the world that some people might benefit from but not pay for (a "public good" even if some people don't like it so it's sometimes a public bad that you want them to be forced to pay for) and you also have the stuff you can sell exclusively like the tours and name and schedule of flooding. the policy of how to use the thing built is an important issue that can always be sold. but consider some other goods, like a book. writing and selling a book gives everyone a very useful and free public good: the *option* to buy that book. that's a great option to have. it's free. people who won't pay for it get it anyway. so books are a public good. there are also things about books you can sell. you could sell what the title will be. you could sell an advertisement on one of the pages. you could sell which brand of soft drink the character in the story loves. and you can sell physical copies of the book, or electronic ones, and only the people who pay get those things. mixed public and private. everything is. take the sandwich store down the street. very useful. if i want a sandwich on short notice i can get one. that is a service they provide every day. i never have to worry about whether there will be quick food for me. there will be. that's a public good. if you think it isn't, imagine living somewhere with no food stores! even if you haven't eaten out for a year it's good to have the option in case you want to some day. it's worth something to live near them even if you haven't ever used one if your whole life yet. stores also let you walk in and get out of the rain. many you can stay there a while. oh no, a public good! who cares? they like you to come in. they are happy to help. if they said: oh no! government! come help! people are getting free rain protection and refuse to pay! tax them and give us some money! then they'd just be stupid.

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I watched The Wedding Date. Spoilers will be included, but don't worry you're better off skipping this movie. She has to go to her sister's wedding which she doesn't want to. But it's a wedding so she has no choice. (Already we can see how enjoyable weddings are.) At the wedding they drink a lot. And they have to take dance lessons. Why would you schedule activities for your party you don't know how to do and don't want to learn how to do? (Maybe the bride liked the lessons, but pretty much no one else.) She hires a male escort to come pretend to be her boyfriend for $6000 out of her retirement plan. That's so she can face her family and they won't insult her life as much. They already are mean to her because her boyfriend of many years dumped her. (Doesn't make sense to me either.) They want her to get married, so having a boyfriend makes them happier.

As usual there are cold feet over the wedding. first the bride "isn't sure she can go through with it" but then decides to get drunk instead of thinking about it. then the groom reconsiders when she finally tells him (days before the wedding) who she had been sleeping with when they first got together. it's his best friend. the same one who dumped the main character who has the escort now. he gets mad and physically assaults the friend who is now his best man. then he uses the male escort as his new best man (the guy has been making friends with everyone). the groom also reconsidered getting married at the last minute over this but then decided to do it anyway.

meanwhile she (the main character again who has to go to this damn wedding) falls in love with her escort, and he with her. her falling in love makes a tiny bit of sense. he was pretty umm mature/stable like he stayed calm and was friendly to everyone and didn't fight with anyone. but like she didn't know him at all. she even said she didn't know him and asked for information about himself. he said his college degree, that he hates anchovies, and something else so boring i forgot. she was satisfied. people like to fall in love with "mysterious" people anyway, even though all that really means is you have no way to tell if this person is any good for marriage or parenting or living with every day or solving problems with. so he did well socially i could understand if she wanted to get to know him more, but not falling in love already. and the other way 'round? no clue. there was nothing appealing about her. she had a bad family life, got drunk and stupid, was unpleasant, never said a single interesting thing, never displayed skill of any sort.

he told her that if he was going to charge for sex he'd tell her in advance. she said she would never do that. then she got drunk and got lots of money from ATM for sex with him. but he didn't charge her. and she was too drunk to remember it. and then he got offended she'd gotten the money. by the way, if she's that drunk, isn't that a bad time to start their sex life? she's not in her right mind making good judgments.

after the money thing their next fight was because he didn't tell her when he found out her ex-boyfriend was into her about-to-be-married sister. she "trusted him" and felt betrayed. he left. then he came back and said he'd rather fight with her than love someone else, or something like that. well, that's good, because if they had two fights in a few days already then what's it going to be like after the initial infatuation wears of? personally i prefer not to fight.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)


I say this a lot: force is no way to find the truth. Only conjecture and criticism can. One reason I say it a lot is that people don't seem to get it. Parents force their kids over silly things like playing with fire. Teachers force students over studying. Governments force citizens over what projects to fund.

Maybe people don't realize there is a truth to be found for all these issues. Which projects are best to fund is a matter of truth. We want a true answer -- the best answer we can get. An answer that says it's the best, but turns out false, is no good to us. What the right ideas are in an academic field is a matter of truth too. It's not a matter of the teaching deciding. We want the truth not the teacher's opinion that might be false. And which things a student should study is also a matter for truth. We don't want a list that's completely false and will result in disaster. We want a list that has truth regarding the matter of what will work well -- will help the student. And with fire, we should want our kids to have true ideas about fire. That's what's safe -- just like adults are safe around matches because they have true ideas about the properties of matches and fire. But instead of helping child learn the truth, they just use force, and he doesn't learn. They claim it's for safety or something, but really their actions are not at all safe: how many fire-related child injuries are children going behind their parent's back because they are trying to follow their interest and their parent won't help them learn safely? Safety comes from knowledge of how to be safe, not from an ever vigilant parent trying to watch every choice child makes and overrule some -- that never works children will get some time to themselves.

A common mistake people might make when trying to stop using force is they want to meet their friend for a fun day at the park, and their friend declines, and then they say, "Wait, don't just force the answer to be no. Let's find the truth of whether you should go to the park." Actually that's fine so far, but if the friend says no again you better leave him alone or you are using force to make him discuss when he doesn't want to. Involuntary discussion is no way to find the truth he isn't going to come up with great ideas he'll just try to get rid of you. And your trying to force discussion on him is no way to find the truth about whether the discussion should be had or not. If he's not interested probably it's bad to discuss. Even if he's being dumb.

On the flip side, discussion park visits is a pretty good idea if you do it well. And by well I mostly mean briefly. The discussion can be only a few sentences each. You say in one sentence why you want to go or think it's a good idea with 1-2 reasons especially ones you think your friend will appreciate. Then he thinks a little and either agrees or says a criticism or those reasons or says a reason not to go. Then you stop and think for a bit if you didn't predict what he said. And you probably agree with him. If not you give a criticism of what he said or a new reason that now appears more important to say. Then he thinks a little and maybe agrees or replies. And so on. But every step of the way there is a good chance you stop and either agree or just be done with it if it looks like agreeing will be hard. If it's hard to agree about the park thing why bother? We have enough to deal with in our lives, like agreeing about things where it's harder to go our separate ways, or doing scientific research or paintings.

This park thing is a matter for truth, but not a very important one. A more important one is who should be President. This is never discussed as well as it could be. You never see the opposing candidates actually discuss like I outlined above with brief points and answers and come to agree on most of the issues. If they were being rational they could resolve a lot of this stuff. I'm not saying the truth is obvious at all. But even if they don't agree on the absolute truth, they can agree on: given our present knowledge, what is most reasonable to believe? But candidates never have to go through the reasons for their positions in detail and let themselves get "pinned down" in an argument. It's just not expected. Instead they both say talking points that appeal to different groups of people and hope they get more votes. That's not a great way to find the truth. Yes having more appeal is good, but it's not nearly as good as having a rational discussion with the other side. On the upside, in the scheme of things the *change* from one election to the next is the voters who changed their mind during the last 4 years, plus any changes in policies by either side, so the system as a whole is pretty rational.

Here are examples of rational conversations:

Joe: Want to go to the park?
Sue: Not especially.
Joe: We could play frisbee.
Sue: I'd rather watch Avatar at home.
Joe: Cool, can I watch too?
Sue: Sure.

Joe: Want to go to the park?
Sue: If we'll play frisbee.
Joe: No my wrist hurts we'd just walk the dog
Sue: Dogs are boring and the sun burns my skin.
Joe: OK, see you later.

Joe: Want to go to the park?
Sue: What for?
Joe: There's going to be a concert thing.
Sue: What's it like?
Joe: It's a bunch of trance bands I bet you'd like it, and it's free.
Sue: OK, sure.

Joe: Want to go to the park?
Sue: What, like a date?
Joe: No expectations, I just thought it might be fun and I'd like to get to know you more.
Sue: I don't know, what would we do there?
Joe: Play frisbee or taunt the plants. And talk.
Sue: OK, sure.

And here's some ruined by politeness:

Joe: Want to go to the park this afternoon?
Sue: I think I might have band practice then.
Joe: What about in the evening?
Sue: Oh! I promised David we'd work on our science project then.
Joe: What about tomorrow?
Sue: I think I'm pretty busy with homework.
Joe: Maybe some other time.
Sue: Yeah.
(Joe leaves with no idea if Sue wants to go or not. Our best guess is she doesn't want to go, even though she refused to say so and actually said *yes* to maybe another time.)

Joe: Want to go to the park this afternoon?
Sue: I don't know.
Joe: Let's do it. Come on!
Sue: I guess I don't see why not.
Joe: Good, I'll pick you up at 3pm.
(This could happen if Sue does not want to go but is being polite.)

In this next one Sue is at Joe's house and he wants her to leave so he can do some things alone.

Joe: Could you please leave, I'd like to do some stuff without you.
Sue: Well I can see I'm not wanted here. Why'd you even invite me over? Jeez. Fine I'll go. You don't have to be such a jerk about it.

To avoid that, Joe is more likely to say:

Joe: I have a thing I have to do in an hour, OK?
Sue: Sure, I'll leave then.

That's polite. Sigh. Doesn't figure out the truth of when is good to leave at all. Doesn't get what anyone wants. Sue isn't allowed to say anything even if she wants to stay or this might happen:

Joe: I have a thing I have to do in an hour, OK?
Sue: Well, I was hoping I could stay longer so we could watch Avatar on TV together at 8pm.
Joe: Oh, well I guess you can stay then.

Now Sue is staying even though Joe doesn't want her to because she dared give a reason but Joe is too polite to give one himself. The truth of whether she should stay isn't found and she runs a serious risk of Joe "dealing" with this problem by just not inviting her to visit again.

*   *   *

Here's another movie review for Just Like Heaven, also with spoilers (also there is one vague spoiler for Cruel Intentions). In this romance, she's a ghost and only he can see her. The magical thinking continues throughout and actually since there are already ghosts it's easier for them to get away with magical romantic "fate" stuff like she's a ghost because her unfinished business is him and she just happened to be getting set up on a first date with him the night she got hit by a car. By the way romance movies sell better with a happy ending, so actually she's in a coma and wakes up when he kisses her (funny, right? But people actually like this stuff and find it "sweet" or it wouldn't be in movies meant to have mass appeal.) Cruel Intentions has a sad ending. In the director commentary he said he got in the contract from the very start he wouldn't have to change the ending when it turned out that test audience would prefer a happier ending. So there really is a lot of pressure even to mess with the script to get happy romantic sweet endings, enough so you need a contract to protect you.

One cool thing about the movie is that he had rational reason to believe the ghost was real, and in fact he actually gave good evidence to other people. There was "stuff only she would know" style evidence that wasn't great but OK. But what was cool was she could see things and talk with him, so she was able to see behind someone's back and then he could repeat how many fingers were being held up and prove something weird was going on. He could do this with a blindfold on and it would actually work. He could have won the Randi Prize. He could have persuaded scientists. That would have made a much cooler plot. Instead he only persuaded his friend, but still that was a cool way for it to happen. Usually ghost movies no one bothers to look for ways to actually test if it's real. The friend suggested the idea actually: he's like "if you're telling the truth about this ghost, then she ought to be able to see behind my back". that's a good thing to say! and then he really could! still the most likely thing is a hidden camera and a big elaborate set up. but cool anyway.

Their relationship was way above average for a romance movie. They spend most of the movie going around together (cause only he can see her, so she's always with him) and they spend the whole time talking pretty much. they don't really talk about personal stuff or philosophical opinions much but they do get used to each other's company and have good reason to want to be around each other more and they both actually have character backgrounds so you can see how each helps the other. his wife died 2 years ago and he's been drinking beer on the couch since and when he's trying to find out what happened to her (at first they don't know she can't remember) he gets out of the house finally and the company helps him too so he gets out of his funk. and she was a doctor who worked 26 hour shifts and had no life apart from that and personally I respect that but she's glad to have a social life now.

in fact at one point she is planning to stay in the hospital with her body and him to go home, and they don't plan to see each other again. and he's hesitant to leave. and to me it's obvious: he's going to miss her. they've been talking all day for days straight and like each other. of course he doesn't want to give that up. but he doesn't figure out to say anything and they part. so in most movies they fall in love and i still can't see why they like each other at all. but here they actually realize they have a relationship *less* than I do, at one point. so that's great! not some crazy instant falling in love for no reason.

to add drama when she wakes up from the coma she forgets him. but he's really good about it and says he doesn't want to scare her and totally backs off and leaves her alone. but he does go make her the garden on her roof she wanted since she moved in (he's a landscape architect). that's nice of him. and he doesn't then get mad when it doesn't cause her to remember, or say she owes him a chance, or anything. actually he was slightly too passive I think. but they touch hands in parting or something and she remembered. I thought he should have said something like, "I know you don't remember, and I know this will sound magical, but when you were in that coma you came to me as a ghost and we fell in love. I know a lot about you, so if you give me a chance you'll be surprised. Can we try spending a little time together? You can also verify this story with your sister and with my friend." That'd be a weird thing to be told, but well it's a movie with ghosts, if we can look past the supernatural a bit it's perfectly reasonable otherwise and she has good reason to give him a chance. nothing to lose anyway.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)


One reason we might fail to agree (and thus fail to find a common preference) is because there is a conflict of interest. Both people getting what they want is incompatible; it's contradictory. This would be a problem with no good solution.

While conflicts of interest do exist in a very basic sense, there can still be solutions and agreement, at least sometimes. New resources can be created. Preferences can be changed.

To say that agreement is being prevented requires not just for a conflict of interest to exist at all, it requires something more comprehensive. The conflict-of-interest theory says there is no agreement to be found due to this conflict of interest. By implication there is no way to create new resources to get rid of the conflict. And there is no available possibility of people changing their preferences to no longer conflict and still being happy with the new preferences (if you aren't happy with your preference, it isn't *really* your preference).

This conflict-of-interest theory raises some questions. Why can some problems be solved (agreed upon) and not others? Which ones can't be agreed about and how do we identify those? And what really is preventing agreement? We know it isn't just the conflict of interest because that doesn't *always* prevent agreement, so there must be something more that is sometimes, but not always, present. Anyone seriously advocating for this conflict-of-interest theory of the impossibility of always finding agreement should have answers to all these questions.

There are plenty of other theories about what prevents agreement. If we reject the conflict of interest theory that does not force us to conclude there is always agreement to be found.

The conflict-of-interest theory initially seems pretty convincing when you look at examples. I want to eat this bowl of ice cream, and so do you, and we can't both have it. We can both have half, but then we won't get what we want, which is a full bowl. Ice cream is fungible (two bowls of ice cream, same brand, same temperature, same flavor, same size, same toppings, can be exchanged and it doesn't really matter. Like staples or paper clips are fungible you wouldn't care which one you used even if there are microscopic differences.) So in the context of a family trying to get along, ice cream shouldn't really cause trouble. Just go get some more. If you don't want ice cream enough to visit the store, then it's not really too big a deal who gets this bowl. But not all resources are fungible. Sometimes you can't go get more, and then the conflict-of-interest theory has more power. Also, some things are expensive enough that they might as well be unique for the average family. Many families can't afford an extra bathroom, or an extra plasma TV. And there are things with personal significance. You can buy a new dog, but it just isn't the same as the one who's gone on every family trip for five years. You can buy a new doll or blanket, but that might not feel the same either. And sometimes they stop making things and there's only a new version for sale. And many pieces of art are unique. So what if the family has a nice painting and two siblings both want to take it with them when they move out? And the parents might want to keep it as well? Now it seems plausible that maybe there is no agreement to be found without some sort of sacrifice or compromise where people don't really get what they want.

One way to solve these problems is to find something so much better everyone prefers that. Stop worrying about the painting and go to Disneyland. That is something that perhaps everyone will be happy with and honestly prefer. For a few days the painting problem is solved -- no one is being upset by leaving it where it is. And you could follow Disneyland with Hawaii, and then with a European vacation, and so on, and the problem could be solved indefinitely. This is very expensive, but it illustrates a type of possible solution: find some things you care about more and focus on those. It's important to recognize this is a *genuine* solution. They aren't sad, deep down, about not having the painting yet. This is no compromise. They'd really rather have these awesome vacations than have the painting now. So one thing this proves is that changes of preference are possible. Not because you have to, or any pressure, but because once you see this new option you really do want it more. That doesn't mean you can automatically solve the painting problem by offering something someone wants more. You can have $10,000 instead of the painting, OK? Well, I might like that more, but what I'd like *even more* is both! If I only get the money I'll still be wondering why can't I have the painting? I'll miss it. But with the vacations you could offer the person both and they would say: I don't care. I have no use for the painting until I get home, so it really doesn't matter to me. Probably leaving it at my parent's house is best until I get back. So they really do prefer to have the vacation and *not* have the painting (yet). They have found at least temporary, genuine agreement.

All agreements are temporary. People could always change their mind. I'm not saying you can go back on a contract on a whim, or that you will have any right to undo whatever you agreed to. But you might *want* to, and so if what we care about is people continuing to agree and be happy in a family then it does matter even if you have no legal right to change your mind. You might agree your sister can have the painting, and then five years later you decide you miss it and now you want it again. And now more problem solving is needed for both people to be happy with the result. It should be recognized there are good reasons not to change your mind five years later. Your sister has had it this whole time and has gotten used to it; it might be integrated into her life now. Her friends might be used to it. Her decorating scheme might depend on it. She might be far too busy to want to deal with finding a replacement; she might want that part of her life to remain stable. But on the other hand it's entirely possible a new agreement would now be better. Maybe she's tired of it and would easily agree you should have it. Then you'll both change your minds to this new agreement that you have it. And that, too, might only be temporary. Maybe five more years after that you'll give it back to your parents. If your sister said, "No you can't have it now because you agreed," that would not be rational. That isn't a way to find the truth of who should have it. If she wants it that's important. But your old preference that she can have it isn't important anymore because that is no longer your preference. Maybe you should change to have that preference again -- and maybe you will if she describes how much having this painting is making her life better and you think, "wow, I didn't know! I'd never want to take that much away from you!" -- but that will be a new preference based on the present, and you shouldn't be pressured into keeping your past preference. People make mistakes. And it might not have even been a mistake but maybe your situation changed so you want the painting more now.

Agreements being temporary is just like our theories being temporary. We don't promise to keep the same ideas in the future. Even if we think something is true we should hold that idea *tentatively*. People can make mistakes. One thing that means is you can never be completely certain. How could you justify your certainty if you know you might have made a mistake in your arguments or judgment? You can say being wrong is *unlikely* all you want, but if there is ever new evidence that suggests you might be wrong you need to be willing to reconsider.

So one way to find (temporary) agreement is to find an issue that trumps the one you disagree about. Find something more important. And focus on that. Solving the painting dispute with constant luxurious vacations isn't very practical. But this fundamental approach actually does work quite often. It's very good for solving very small problems. If you disagree about a bowl of ice cream then quite possibly that is not worth thinking about, and there are a hundred things you could think about instead that are more important and better. Sometimes couples fight about just exactly who said what, and what should he have said, and what did he mean, and lots of little details. In the scheme of things those aren't very important. They could probably both be a lot happier to drop it and discuss physics, or whatever their interests are. If that was suggested and they considered it, they could very well both prefer it. They might prefer to leave the "who said what" issue in a state of disagreement (they agree about what to do next, but not about the issue itself in some sense. that's the kind of agreement we need for people to go on with life and cooperate). If they both prefer to leave it alone now then they agree about what's important and the problem is solved, at least for now.

What else is there for resolving conflicts of interest? There's making new resources. Not just making them yourself, but finding them works too, or thinking of ways to get them. Anything that adds them to the possible solutions when they weren't there before. Maybe there is a second painting at your grandparent's house that you both like, and once you think of it you can agree to have one each. You might genuinely prefer that. You might think about it and realize your decorating scheme only needs one painting, and that either one will actually fit in really well, so you'll be happy with either one. You might also realize you'd prefer the second painting instead. (You might even both prefer the second painting once it's mentioned, and then start disagreeing about who gets that one. That this could happen proves again that genuine changes in preference are possible. No one is giving anything up in this case by asking for just the second painting. If they secretly, deep down, wanted the first painting, well all they have to do is ask and they'll have it, But they don't want it. They changed their mind.) You might prefer some posters if they were offered to you. They may not be as artistic, but they have cool dragons. Once you realize this is an option and consider it, you might like it better. Or for the ice cream problem you can go buy some more. Lots of problems are very easy to solve this way. They are so easy people don't even count them as problems, or as conflicts of interest. But if you both like a food and there is a limited amount that is a conflict of interest! It's just easy to solve by buying more. That doesn't mean it wasn't a real conflict of interest. What it means is most conflicts of interest are easy to solve. This should be encouraging.

What else is there? You can change your mind about what you want. Not because there is something new and better, or some more important issue, but just because you are persuaded you were looking at things incorrectly. Your sister could explain how important the painting is to her and then you might think it's best she have it. You might explain why you expected to get the painting for years, and your sister might see that was a reasonable expectation and decide she wants you to have it. You might believe the painting is worth a lot of money, but if you were corrected on the facts you might not want it anymore. Because you planned to sell it after a few years. Or because you planned to impress rich friends with it. The point is your plan of how to use it might not work if you learned a new fact. You might consult some home decorators and find out it actually won't fit in with the latest trend you were hoping to use and decide you don't really want it after all. And it isn't just factual theories you could have been mistaken or ignorant about. You could be persuaded of a moral theory. Maybe you want the painting to take it away from your parents, and you could be persuaded that is a bad way to live and you could come to think that you'd be better off not doing that. Another thing that could happen is you could gain some control over your emotions and perhaps learn how to get rid of an emotional attachment to the painting. This doesn't mean giving something up. Maybe the attachment is an inconvenience, and you're better off not wanting the painting (now you can put up those cool dragon posters), but you didn't know how to get rid of the attachment before. Or maybe some emotion is clouding your judgment and a bit of rational discussion can help you see more clearly.

There is also creating new options. New resources are actually useful because they allow new options. You don't have to prefer to get the painting, or not to get the painting. You can now prefer to get the other painting. You can prefer the new option of getting rid of your emotional attachment *and* not having the painting. That's a different option than only not having the painting and its a lot more appealing. Going on vacation and dealing with the painting later is also a new option. New options are where most solutions come from. Lots of them exist from the start by no one has thought of it yet. So just brainstorming some ideas of how else you could deal with the situation might think of something you both prefer and agree to. Why would you prefer it if you don't get the painting or whatever else? Because it has to be better in some way. Maybe you get the second painting and the joy of knowing how happy your sister is with the first one. Maybe you get to feel good about knowing the painting is being put to its best use, and you could not have that if you got the painting yourself.

What if none of this works? You think about it for a while and you don't have a solution you both prefer. Maybe theoretically there is one to be found eventually but you are getting tired of working on this and don't have all decade.

Then we should think about why it isn't working. The conflict-of-interest theory says it doesn't work because there is a conflict of interest. But is that really the problem? So many conflicts of interest were easy to solve. What is setting this apart and making it hard to solve? A special kind of conflict-of-interest theory? Maybe. But what kind? What are its properties? What causes it?

Another reason to fail to find agreement is irrationality. If you both refuse to use reason then of course you are never going to agree. Even if only one person is being irrational that can easily sabotage any agreement. That is a possible explanation that accounts for the continuing disagreement.

Why might we suspect irrationality? Isn't finding agreement hard? Even if conflicts of interest are possible to solve they might still be hard. And there may be other things which also make problems hard to solve, including having only a limited time (before the benefit of a solution isn't worth the effort), or a limited time before it's too late (the bowl of ice cream melts and then no one wants it), or just the difficulty of thinking of good ideas (which really is hard, and when you think of them is unpredictable and might not be soon).

Finding agreement about a philosophical issue, or even a fact, can often be hard. Understanding each other can be hard. Communicating can be hard. Cooperating can be hard. That's all true. But to agree about how to proceed with life does not require that you solve any particular problem, or agree about any particular thing, or learn any particular thing. You can specify all the unsolved problems and even disagreements you want and you can still agree about how to proceed.

You can disagree with your spouse about whether you were right not to tell her something, but still agree about what to do next time a similar situation comes up. That's not strange. It won't be the same situation again. This time you'll know more and you'll have talked about it first. You don't have to ever agree about who was right that one time to agree about what's best to do next time. And you don't need to know the perfectly true morality about telling each other stuff and privacy to agree. You can just share what you each know about the morality of the situation and come to a reasonable conclusion based on the current state of your knowledge. It may be a mistake, but it's the best you know how to do, so you can both agree to it.

There is always a reasonable thing to do given what you know, and even given both of your differing opinions. What should be done if one person thinks X, and one thinks Y, and they have to agree about issue Z? There is an answer to that question. And they can look for it. And they can look at it objectively without worrying about who thinks X and who thinks Y, just take those are premises and consider the whole situation. If they are being rational that shouldn't be any problem at all. There need be no fighting about X or Y no matter how much they disagree. Just establish they don't think they will persuade each other about those issues fast enough to be a good approach, then don't try to. Drop it. And decide what to do despite the disagreement. This can work even for what might appears to be a very major difference. Suppose I'm Christian and you are Jewish and we are discussing what religion to teach our kids. And we try to figure out which of us has the correct religion, but soon we give up on that and decide we'll have to disagree about that. Agreeing about how to proceed is still pretty easy. We can agree to teach our kids about both religions. Or neither. Or we can share with them information about both, and about other religions as well, and atheism, and let them make up their own minds. Or imagine you disagree about which religious holidays to celebrate. Well you might agree to just celebrate all of them from both your religions. And if you try that and find out it's too many holidays and you don't like it, then you might both be happy to pick some not to celebrate since you both see the problem of having too many.

If you are, overall, pretty similar people, then it shouldn't be too hard to come to some sort of agreement that takes into account what you disagree about. There's nothing stopping you. There is always an evenhanded perspective to approach the issue from. If you try that and find you disagree about something else, don't worry, just start over by saying: "imagine we disagree about the first thing, *and* this new second thing, then what would be a good way to approach it?" And you can do that for unlimited disagreements. Every time you get a fresh approach you have a good chance to agree if you are similar people. You'll both be looking at the same scenario and you'll both have (because, by premise, you are pretty similar people) a similar way of looking at it and similar sense of what's fair, so probably you can agree. If you agree most of the time, and you can create an infinite number of different ways to look at this problem and have a chance to agree on each of those, then it usually shouldn't take too many shifts in perspective to find an agreement.

On the other hand, if you are really different people it might not work out so well. It might. Different people often agree about some things. But you might find every time you shift your perspectives to both work on some new thing you look at it wildly differently and find lots of new disagreements and it might be hard even to understand just what the disagreements are. But it's *still* easy to agree! You can agree you shouldn't have kids together, and shouldn't marry, and perhaps shouldn't even be friends. See how extremely easy that was? You can agree you shouldn't put yourselves in any situations where there will be pressure to agree, and you can avoid them, and you can *agree* to take steps to get rid of any such situations you already got into. (By the way, of course, if you do agree about a narrow area, like physics, then it's fine to be in a situation where you need to agree only about physics, like working on the same research project. But do be careful, you will need to agree about slightly more than that like how to write up the results and which journal to publish in.)

But what if you marry someone and find out you hate them later, but already have kids and shared finances? Then you're stuck with a messy divorce! Life sucks. Lots of conflicts of interest about who gets the kids, the house, the dog, etc... Right? Well, that is a good example of irrationality being behind problems and failures to agree on how to proceed, isn't it? Some people divorce amicably. Others divorce hatefully and aren't thinking straight and aren't having rational discussions. And that makes all the difference.

So when it comes down to it, "go your separate ways" is pretty much always an option and if you have so much you disagree about it's best to take that option, you can *agree* to do so. That's the rational thing to do, isn't it? And you can look rationally at how to separate. You might both want that painting, and a list of other items. But you can both consider it this way: suppose two people have a real hard time agreeing about anything, but have to divvy up some stuff, what should they do? And part of the answer, which they can both see, is that they shouldn't expect some detailed discussion of exactly what is best to work well. Neither of them should expect what they consider the perfect outcome to happen. Because they can see the two ideas of the perfect, fair outcome are wildly different, and they both see there is no plausible way to change that, so they can both see the best thing that can happen, the most rational thing, is an outcome that is more simple. They can see there is no good way to satisfy very detailed, delicate preferences they each have, so it's best not to have those at all. And they can see they won't agree about what are good reasons to want items, so they don't need to try to understand each other's preferences very well. They could just auction the stuff off to themselves -- they each get one million points and bid on the items. They can agree to order the items for bidding by alternating picking an item to go next. They can agree to flip a coin to see who picks the first item to bid on. Why shouldn't they agree to that? What can they reasonably prefer? They might reasonably prefer to make lists of which things they most want and negotiate some other way, sure. The auction in particular might not be best. But they can't reasonably prefer to get just what they initially wanted. When they think about it objectively they see there is no good way to make that happen; it's not a rational way to approach the entire situation of two people who disagree to just do what one wants. Even if there is just one item they could just pay money for it. Whoever agrees to pay the other person more money gets it. Or flip a coin. There are plenty of options. There is no reason they can't agree. Unless they are irrational.

The same sort of theory about agreement between different people applies to agreement between different theories (think of it like portions of your personality) within one person. There is a lot of overlap. People's ideas can disagree. A new idea can resolve everything by being better than the others. Something being more important can create temporary agreement about what to do (if your house catches on fire then all sides of the debate about which type of new computer to buy will be happy with the plan of going down the fire escape). There are always shifts in perspective available: if sitting and thinking indefinitely is no good, then you can think: what should a person do who has 20 minutes left to think, then Z event happens, and meanwhile he isn't sure between the ideas X and Y? And there is some rational way to approach that and the answer doesn't have to involve resolving X and Y. And you can think about the answer without invoking the X and Y ideas -- those parts of your brain can be left out. So decide what is best to do and if you are rational then the X and Y theories in your head shouldn't mind being overruled, at least for now, like this. They should be theories that know they might be wrong, and know it's important to live in a truth seeking way and that means sometimes disagreements last a while because you don't know what's true. And if these parts of your personality are at all sane they'll realize you have other things to do so they won't mind being put on hold sometimes. And if you have other very important things they could be on hold for years. And you, your whole personality, can perfectly well agree to that. Unless you are irrational.

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What is an irrationality? It is an area where you are unable to change your views according to criticism or improvements. Where you are stuck with a bad idea or way of thinking that you can't seem to get rid of. So any sort of problem solving, which relies on creating new ideas and finding new options and preferences that people prefer, is sabotaged.

If you have an irrationality or some other part of your personality you don't like then is looking at your past to see where it came from an important part of trying to fix it? No, rethinking events is not a critical part of fixing irrationalities. It is hard to tell what past event caused what facet of your present personality (especially events from your childhood). People are complex! And even if you could figure out the cause that would not automatically lead you to a solution. It could easily be no help at all. Sure now you know who to blame, but knowing who hurt you and how doesn't tell you how to live now, how to construct a fixed person out of yourself.

The idea of "facing" past trauma is also useless. It's true that denial prevents solutions. But acknowledging the problem and finding solutions for it is a different thing than "facing" it which is an unpleasant, scary affair.

Reliving what you think has gone wrong with your life is most often the sign of a victim mentality where you think of yourself as a damaged person, and obsess about your damage and blame people for it. That is not a good way to live. It may be someone else's fault originally, but what you need to do now is improve the life you have, and if you do not that is *your* fault. If you let your past disasters become part of your self-image that is especially bad; they should be kept at a distance because you are trying to get rid of them ("it's not really me! i swear! give me another month and I'll have killed it off").

Looking back is not entirely useless. Sometimes it can give you some ideas, perhaps by thinking about what you could have done differently. But if so it should be fun and interesting, not painful, and there should be no need especially to dwell.

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perhaps belief in spirit is a leap of faith, but for some of us, believing that science and reason have all the answers is a similar leap of faith
This is bad thinking. The entire point of science and reason is they are not leaps of faith: they give reasons which they hope to persuade you with. They do not claim to have all the answers, although they may claim to be capable of finding all answers that are possible to find. But that's only because non-rational, magical thinking cannot find any answers! So reason is what's left, it's the only thing that finds any answers, so of course it finds all possible answers. But you don't even have to believe that. We don't care. The scientific theories we already have are not matters of faith. And we can improve on them. And that makes them a different and better sort of thing that religious faith.

Science is about how to not fool ourselves. Religion is extremely good for fooling ourselves.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Message (1)