Caeli: Hi!
Elliot: Hi, Caeli.
Caeli: Will you tell me about morality?
Elliot: Morality is an area of knowledge. It includes theories about how to live well, and how to make good choices, and what's right and wrong and good and evil. You could also call morality the theory of decision making.
Caeli: How can we determine what is moral, or not?
Elliot: For a lot of questions, we don't have to figure it out. We already know. We know stealing is wrong, and murder is wrong, and being kind to our friends is right. The usual thing to do is to use the knowledge we already have. We don't have to justify it. All we have to do is be willing to improve on it if it seems to have problems or flaws. But as long as it seems to work, then philosophically there's nothing wrong with using it even if we can't prove it's right.
Caeli: Then how will our moral knowledge get better? Do we really have to wait for problems -- for things to go wrong -- before we can fix them?
Elliot: No. If you want to, you can think about morality. If you do thought experiments, and imagine situations, and what you'd do in them, you can find problems now. And if you're suspicious there might be a problem, or just curious, then go right ahead and look for improvements.
Caeli: What else will help?
Elliot: It is good to fit theories into more general frameworks, or alter them to be more universal, or connect them with other ideas we have. Doing this is interesting in its own right; it's part of how we learn. But it also helps us correct errors. When our ideas don't mesh together nicely, that is a sign they could be improved. And the more generally they apply, the more varied examples we can try them out on, which will help reveal hidden flaws.
Elliot: Note that all this is exactly the same way that we would approach any other topic.
Caeli: What if I do want to know justifications for morality? Why are things moral?
Elliot: Well that's tricky, and we don't know the whole answer. But to start with, morality is the right way to live. That means it works well, in terms of whatever criteria are important. We have a lot of ideas about what those criteria are, like happiness, wealth creation, freedom, scientific achievement, or creating a lasting and valuable political tradition such as the United States government. And there are smaller things we value, like helping a friend, or teaching our child something he wanted to know, or cooking a tasty meal, or eating a tasty meal. Some of the things I just said might be wrong. Maybe they aren't so good after all. One of the things morality is about is figuring out which are right.
Caeli: I'm getting a clearer picture, but what about the foundations? What do we justify moral ideas in terms of?
Elliot: Let me be very clear and say again that we do not have to justify ourselves. And the whole idea of foundations is confused: we never discover ultimate, final, true foundations upon which we can never improve. There are always more subtle problems that we can work on.
Elliot: And knowing the correct foundations, or the reasons for things, is often not very helpful. Just because you discover how your fear of spiders came into existence doesn't necessarily mean you're any closer to getting rid of the phobia.
Elliot: Note, again, that this is the same for other topics besides morality.
Elliot: But with that said, it is interesting to think about why things are right. We have a lot of answers to that, but they aren't very well connected, and we could do with some deeper truths. I do have thoughts about that. I think I can answer your question to your satisfaction.
Caeli: That sounds good. Go ahead.
Elliot: What does morality consist of? Well, it's not supernatural. And it's not from God. What's left? It must come from physics, logic, and epistemology.
Caeli: What's epistemology?
Elliot: It is knowledge about knowledge. It answers questions like how we learn. But it doesn't just apply to humans. Lots of things contain knowledge. The obvious example is books or computers. Those contain the knowledge we put into them. Animals and plants also contain knowledge. Or perhaps saying they express knowledge would be clearer. I don't mean they have a compartment inside in which the knowledge is stored, though they do have DNA. But consider a tree. It expresses knowledge about how to turn sunlight into energy. A wolf expresses knowledge about how to hunt prey. There's also less obvious human-made examples, like a table embodies knowledge of how to keep items in locations that are convenient for humans.
Caeli: Alright, I get the idea. You mean knowledge very broadly.
Elliot: Yes.
Caeli: Isn't epistemology a type of logic?
Elliot: Yes, you can think of it that way. In that sense, math is logic as well. And how to argue is a matter of logic. And how to lie with statistics is a matter of logic. I consider epistemology important enough to mention by name.
Caeli: Is logic part of physics?
Elliot: I don't know. But I do know that brains are physical objects, so our knowledge of logic comes only through physical processes, which we know about through physics.
Caeli: Alright, so morality consists of physics, logic, and epistemology. Now what?
Elliot: This might appear completely useless. It's a bit like saying a computer consists of atoms. Yes, it does. But that doesn't tell us anything about how it works.
Caeli: It's reductionist.
Elliot: Yes. But we can move on from here. Morality is going to let people get good things. Let's ignore what the things are for now, and consider the getting. How do people accomplish their goals and get what they want? What will let them do that?
Caeli: Hey, it seems like we are getting somewhere already.
Elliot: Yes. So we're going to want power, in a very general sense. The more humans can shape reality, and have the power to get what they want, the more they will be able to get good things, whatever those are.
Elliot: Second is knowledge. People will need to know what is good or they might accomplish the wrong things.
Caeli: No wonder you mentioned epistemology in particular.
Elliot: Third is error correction. People might make mistakes while getting these good things, or they might be mistaken about what is good. So we're going to need to be able to deal with that and fix mistakes.
Elliot: Fourth is consistency. If people try for contradictory things, that won't work. Another way to say this is not to be self-defeating. If you're trying to get two different things, but it's not possible to get both, then you're bound to fail.
Caeli: This is cool so far.
Elliot: So these are our ingredients to build with. Now keep in mind that I could have named other ingredients. It isn't very important. There are a lot of ways to cover the same general ideas and name them different things.
Caeli: Alright, so what's the next step?
Elliot: Next we will do a thought experiment.
Elliot: The following is partly due to David Deutsch. It was his idea that for almost all practical purposes, it does not matter what the foundations of morality are, so long as you take morality seriously and apply it universally. And it was his idea to apply this to a morality based on squirrels.
Elliot: So, we haven't said what the good stuff people are trying to get is. Let's imagine the answer is maximizing the number of living squirrels, and see what happens.
Caeli: Isn't that absurd? And easily variable: why not bison?
Elliot: Yes it's absurd. But the consequences are interesting anyway. I don't want to give away the ending, so let's keep going.
Caeli: Let's clarify first. Do we want to maximize the number of squirrels today, or how do we count?
Elliot: The goal is the most squirrels at the most times. Take the average number of live squirrels at any given time, since the universe started, until the present, and that's your current score. The goal is to increase the number as high as possible.
Caeli: So should I start a squirrel farm and raise squirrels?
Elliot: Heavens no! Squirrels are dirty rodents. They might have diseases. You won't be able to sell them. Maybe you could get the government to pay, but then you'll be beholden to them.
Caeli: It sounds like you don't like squirrels. But for the sake of the thought experiment, shouldn't you pretend that you do?
Elliot: No. That isn't one of the things we're imagining.
Caeli: But we are considered a squirrel-based morality.
Elliot: We want to maximize their number over long timeframes. We don't have to like them.
Caeli: Won't liking squirrels help us treat them better, and increase their population?
Elliot: So, you build a squirrel farm. You have thousands of squirrels for tens of years. You increase the squirrel score a tiny fraction of a point.
Caeli: Isn't that better than nothing?
Elliot: It's not good enough to get a score of one.
Caeli: What should we do instead?
Elliot: Plan for the long term. The first thing to worry about is that a meteorite, exploding sun, or other large scale disaster wipes out humanity or squirrels or both. Making sure that doesn't happen is far more important than any farm. So we should focus on science before farms.
Caeli: That's counter-intuitive.
Elliot: Next, I'm worried about nuclear war, terrorists, and large problems here at home. They probably wouldn't be able to destroy us entirely, but they'd set us back and set science back. So we need good diplomacy and foreign policy to protect our scientific research.
Caeli: OK, that makes sense.
Elliot: And we need a powerful economy in order to produce materials for setting up millions of squirrel farms (or more). So capitalism and free trade are important.
Caeli: Hey, now we're getting somewhere, you've actually mentioned squirrels again.
Elliot: Yeah. Now where should we put these farms? On Earth, they'll just get in the way of people. Squirrels are dirty rodents that no one likes, and we need happy people to do science and capitalism.
Caeli: Shouldn't people change to like squirrels? Squirrels are the focus of morality!
Elliot: I don't see any need for that. We're going to put the squirrel farms on other planets. Humans and squirrels don't need to share any planets.
Caeli: Don't people like to have some squirrels around?
Elliot: Yes, I suppose so. Our dogs need something to chase. So we'll have squirrels in parks still. The point is we don't need to locate any squirrel farms on Earth. We want human civilization concentrated to reduce travel time.
Caeli: So your general idea is that the best way to maximize squirrels is to work on science, diplomacy, capitalism, and normal things -- the same things people care about today in real life -- and then eventually, when we are powerful enough, to colonize other planets with squirrels?
Elliot: Yes.
Caeli: Is there anything we should do differently? Maybe farmers shouldn't shoot squirrels.
Elliot: If a farmer shoots a squirrel, we get a tiny reduction in our squirrel score. If a farmer is unhappy because he didn't get to shoot a squirrel, we get a reduction in farm productivity, which will delay the squirrel colonies. Every day those are delayed, with their trillions (or whatever) of squirrels, counts for a lot.
Caeli: Will we colonize the moon with squirrels, or Mars?
Elliot: No, human colonization will come first. That will help us get the raw materials and production plants needed for a truly massive squirrel colonizing effort later.
Caeli: When will we finally make a lot of squirrels?
Elliot: Basically, once it's easy.
Caeli: Should we at least do it slightly before then. Perhaps as soon as we could do it universe-wide, instead of when it's easy to do it universe-wide?
Elliot: That's a good question. But we need to be able to do it reliably. If we barely have enough resources, and we're stretched thin, then that's very risky. Something could go wrong. When it's easy is approximately when the risks will be gone.
Caeli: OK, that makes sense. We need to get this right. We wouldn't want all the colonies to die because we made a mistake.
Caeli: I guess reliability is very important. If our ultimate goal is lots of squirrels, we should do everything we can to make absolutely sure that that happens. So, what if people forget about the plan to colonize planets with squirrels? Or change their minds about the squirrel mission?
Elliot: That's a good question. And the solution is to have institutions in our society for error correction. What that means is we must have lots of criticism, all the time. In an environment heavy on criticism, bad ideas are refuted, so no rival theories will ever be able to challenge the squirrel theory. If the criticism ever went away then what would matter is things like how easy a theory is to remember, not whether it's true. So then squirrels might lose. Criticism is their best defense against false ideas.
Caeli: Won't there also be criticism of the squirrel theory.
Elliot: Yes. But so what? It's true, so it will survive the criticism. Whatever question you ask of it, it will have an answer. And all arguments will eventually lead people to squirrels.
Elliot: As a bonus, institutions of criticism like this have the happy property that if the squirrel theory is not right, or we've slightly misunderstood it, or whatever, then that error will be corrected.
Caeli: What if we just entrench the squirrel theory. We'll indoctrinate our kids with it. Everyone will be required to believe it. I know it's heavy handed, but squirrels are worth it. Won't that be even more reliable? People can be stupid and might not understand the squirrel theory's brilliance, even though we know it's true.
Elliot: That would not work reliably at all. People might start to question the indoctrination. Or they might be indoctrinated with something else. Institutions might change over time. Preventing that is very hard. Or our civilization might go extinct because it has a static culture and can't do science. Or we might just never reach the stars and make the colonies it dreams of: we aren't indoctrinated with how to accomplish our mission, and indoctrinated people don't think freely so might not invent the answers.
Elliot: The one and only advantage squirrel theory has over rival moralities is that it's true. That does not mean it indoctrinates people better. So the only reliable thing to do is play to our strength and use criticism and persuasion.
Caeli: That makes sense, and it also is a much nicer way to live. We get to think instead of be taught to mindlessly obey.
Elliot: Yes :)
Elliot: Another thing to consider is that institutions of criticism, which keep the squirrel theory prominent, are far more important than actually creating lots of squirrels. If we neglect the squirrel project, we'll be led back to it. People will argue that we aren't making enough squirrels, and we'll change our policies. But if we ever neglect our institutions of error correction and criticism, then no matter how many squirrels we already have, we might stop caring about them and throw away the project overnight.
Caeli: OK, I think I've got the idea now. So, what's the overall point?
Elliot: This way of thinking applies to more than squirrels. Take any pattern of atoms, and make the goal to spread it across the universe, and what we'll need to do is maximize human power first, and then when we're ready, spread it in a stable, reliable, risk-free way. (Note: for squirrels, the pattern is not a single squirrel, it's a habitat with many squirrels, oxygen, water, and food.)
Elliot: So for any goal like that, we should ignore the goal and focus on human power. We need to enable ourselves first. And we need to learn how to accomplish the goal, and avoid mistakes, so knowledge and error correction come in there. And we wouldn't want to start a campaign to ban space flight, or science: that'd be inconsistent with our goal.
Caeli: OK, I see how all goals like that are best accomplished with the four ingredients you mentioned earlier.
Elliot: Amusingly, the goal of minimizing the number of squirrels also has very similar steps to maximizing squirrels. We need human power to reliably keep squirrels extinct, and make sure aliens never create any, and make sure a terrorist doesn't build a squirrel, and make sure squirrels never evolve again somewhere. So we must monitor the whole universe vigilantly, and we must keep the eradication of squirrels alive in public debate. Everything is the same, except what we do at the end.
Elliot: So, if the basis of morality is squirrels, or bison, or crystals, and we think carefully enough about what to do, then what we'd end up with is almost exactly the same morality that people believe in today: we'd first value human happiness, freedom, science, progress, peace, wealth, and so on. The only difference would be one extra step, much later in time, where we'd fill most of the universe with squirrels or bison or whatever.
Caeli: That's interesting.
Elliot: So each theory of morality is partly the same, and partly different. The part that's different could be maximizing squirrels. It could be maximizing bison. It could be minimizing squirrels. That part is easily variable, which makes it a bad explanation. But the other parts, about knowledge creation, wealth, happiness, human power, and freedom are all constant. They seem more universal. They at least universally apply to moral theories that minimize or maximize things (which includes any sort of utilitarianism).
Caeli: So, it doesn't really matter what the basis for morality is?
Elliot: Exactly. And suppose we thought the basis for morality was squirrels, but we were wrong. This would not cause any significant problems. We'd end up doing the right thing for now, and learning of our mistake long before we actually filled the universe with squirrels.
Caeli: OK. I think I'm getting the idea. But can you clarify how things like science follow from our ingredients?
Elliot: Yes, certainly. Science helps increase our knowledge. And this understanding of reality helps us better avoid errors. Power to shape reality comes from knowledge, but also from having great tools, and having resources. So we want robots, computers, factories, brooms, freezers, toilets, and so on. How do we get these? Capitalism. Free trade.
Caeli: What about fair trade, communism, and so on?
Elliot: Some people think those are what we need. It doesn't really matter to my point. We need a good economic system, whichever one it is. And we already know how to argue about which is good. We have lots of professional economists, and philosophers, who know about this. And we have lots of good books about it.
Caeli: OK. So go on.
Elliot: Acting consistently, and avoiding self-defeating policies, is a matter of knowledge too. If we wanted, we could boil it all down to knowledge, and useful physical manifestations of that knowledge. But it's better to go the other way, and boil it up to freedom, science, and so on.
Caeli: Why is freedom important?
Elliot: Thinking freely means there aren't any good ideas that are being automatically ruled out. And it means being free to question any ideas we already have, so we can find errors in them. Living freely means being able to shape our part of the universe in the best ways for us. And when everyone agrees about freedom, there will be no wars, and no fighting. Everyone will work on their own goals, and no one will mind, and no one will want to control others. Even if they disagree.
Caeli: So let me try to summarize the structure of your argument.
Elliot: Go for it.
Caeli: There are certain ingredients that help us get what we want, whatever that may be. And it turns out that what specifically we want is not critical: the way to get it will be about the same regardless. In short, the ingredients are knowledge and human power. But they imply valuing science, freedom, wealth, and roughly the same things we value today.
Elliot: That's right. So there you go. A justification of the morality we already know, from simple principles.
Caeli: What about rationality? I don't believe you mentioned it.
Elliot: You're right. We've been looking at issues on a large scale. How individuals should make choices is an important matter too. Rationality is one of the things I advocate they strive for. I'll tell you about individual-sized morality tomorrow, OK?
Caeli: Yes. :) Bye.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (11)

Morality Is Not For God

Caeli: Hi!
Elliot: Hi, Caeli.
Elliot: Here's something I find fairly amazing. Read this quote by Jack: "Morality is about things like how can there be a good God when there is evil in the world, and honoring thy parents. I'm an atheist and don't believe in that stuff."
Caeli: What's amazing about that?
Elliot: Jack believes that a typical example of a moral question is a religious question about God or a religious commandment. He is handing morality over to religious people. He thinks it is in the religious domain. He doesn't want it.
Caeli: Should he want morality?
Elliot: Philosophically, morality is about how to live. That's an important thing to know about, so he should be interested. But he believes the utterly absurd religious dogma that morality is a matter for God.
Caeli: Why would an atheist do that?
Elliot: Well, maybe he just never questioned that idea. Maybe he was turned off of the subject by the religious perspective on it that he was taught, and then he never realized that religion was wrong about what morality consists of.
Caeli: Should he have noticed?
Elliot: If his policy was not to be faithful to religion, that would mean questioning all of it. So that isn't his policy. That's not necessarily bad: religion is massive so it's hard to question all of it. But if he has a different policy, which consists of only questioning parts of religion, how does it work? Does he question parts he doesn't like?
Caeli: He could have questioned the religious monopoly on morality, but not realized the monopoly is false.
Elliot: Perhaps. But Socrates argued convincingly that morality cannot be determined by God, and his arguments are well known. It's in the Euthyphro dialog which can be read here.
Caeli: What was Socrates' argument?
Elliot: The argument takes the form of a difficult question with two answers, and then we can examine the consequences of each answer. The question is: is God's morality right because God believes it, or does God believe it because it is right?
Elliot: Either way we answer, religious morality will lose out. First consider that God chooses his beliefs about morality because they are right. What that means is that there is a conception of right outside of God, and God has no control over it, he simply uses his wisdom to figure it out. This is analogous to if God did not create the laws of physics, but did figure them out and tell them to us. In that case, he is only a messenger.
Caeli: That is surely unacceptable to the faithful, so let's answer the other way.
Elliot: Alright. The other answer is that something is morally right because God believes it. God can choose what's right. If God changes his mind, then morality changes too. So if God decides murder and theft are good ideas, then they are morally right. If that's the case, what's so good about morality? All it means is doing what we are told, no matter how horrible it seems to us.
Caeli: Perhaps God could do that, but He wouldn't.
Elliot: Why wouldn't He? Because it'd be wrong to?
Caeli: I guess that's why.
Elliot: If so, that refers to a morality independent of God.
Caeli: Back to murder, I don't think many religious people would accept a morality like that.
Elliot: Indeed. Which means they can't honestly give that answer. But the first answer didn't work out, either.
Caeli: What do you mean that the first answer didn't work? The world you described then made sense.
Elliot: It didn't give God or religion any special relationship with morality. He was just a messenger. So if the goal is to defend a religious monopoly on moral truth, then it didn't work.
Caeli: Let's back up a little. Most people wouldn't like a morality that allows for murder. But that doesn't mean it's logically invalid.
Elliot: True. But consider this: how would we know what morality was, if it was purely what God said?
Caeli: We'd listen to him.
Elliot: God doesn't talk to us. Except insane people.
Caeli: Good point. But let's pretend he did.
Elliot: But we might mishear him. Or we might misunderstand one of his ideas. So what we'd need to do is think about whether what we believe he's said makes sense. If it doesn't, then our best guess must be that we've misunderstood.
Caeli: Isn't that how it works when talking to other people, too?
Elliot: Yes. We have to come up with an interpretation of what they were trying to communicate, and we can only believe we've understood if we can invent one that we believe makes sense.
Caeli: So back to God, then even if moral truth was whatever God said, we'd have to use our own judgment to understand what he'd said?
Elliot: That's right. So the morality we acted on would still be human morality, created in human minds, according to what humans think makes sense.
Caeli: That's cool.
Caeli: So changing topics again, are there any religious defenses against Socrates' overall argument?
Elliot: No good ones. There is one idea which says morality is an aspect of God; it's an essential part of his nature.
Caeli: What's wrong with that?
Elliot: Consider if someone said physics was a part of God's nature. First, can he change his nature? If he can, we have the same problem as when he changes his mind and approves of theft and murder.
Caeli: So let's assume he can't change this part of his nature.
Elliot: Then, he's really no more than a messenger. There is a thing that exists, call it an "aspect of God", or not, it doesn't matter, God can't change it, so it's independent of his wishes. Calling it part of God is no more than a choice of terminology.
Elliot: People can still discover the laws of physics, just as if they were not part of God. So what difference does it make, for reality, to call the laws of physics an "aspect of God"?
Caeli: Is it the same for morality as physics?
Elliot: Yes, the logic works the same. He can't change the nature of morality, and humans can discover it the same way, and everything is exactly as if morality was not an aspect of God.
Caeli: Does it make any difference if we call the laws of physics an "aspect of God"?
Elliot: If it doesn't, then nothing meaningful is being asserted. If reality acts as if there is no God, then our explanations of reality do not need to include God.
Caeli: Could there be a God that isn't part of our explanations?
Elliot: I don't see any reason to think there is. But it's not important. Socrates never denies the existence of God, and he never denies that God is good (actually, the people of Athens were polytheistic, but that's not important). He argues only for morality independent of God. It isn't anti-religious at all, or at least one need not see it as such.
Caeli: I think I'm lost. Can you remind me of the structure of the discussion so far?
Elliot: Socrates asked a question, that either way you answer, you can't reasonably hold that morality is a matter for God. There's a claim about it being part of God's nature, but that didn't work either. So the conclusion is that morality is not God's domain. And then the larger conclusion is that Jack could have known this, because the argument is ancient. But he doesn't. That's meaningful.
Caeli: What does it mean?
Elliot: That he took a religious dogma for granted, despite a well known refutation. So, when he questions religion, he does it selectively.
Caeli: How does he select what to question?
Elliot: I don't know. But the most obvious guess would be that he questions the parts he does not like, or has a problem with. For example, he doesn't like the lack of science in religion, and the lack of scientific and rational attitudes, so he questions that and changes his mind.
Caeli: Is there anything wrong with being selective like that?
Elliot: Not at all. It's a very good thing to improve parts of your beliefs that you find problematic. However, Jack is loudly anti-religious. He would surely be very surprised to know that the sort of faith and adherence to religious dogma that he hates in others, is something he himself still has in at least one major way. And it isn't just some technicality, or some flaw shared by all people because no one knows better yet. The right idea actually predates Christianity.
Caeli: Well noticed.
Elliot: Thanks.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Message (1)

How To Ask Questions

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

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)

How To Ask Questions 2

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

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)

How To Ask Questions 3

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

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)

How To Ask Questions 4

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

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)

How To Ask Questions 5

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

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)

How To Ask Questions 6

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

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)

Learning By Force

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

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Message (1)

Learning By Force 2

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

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (3)

Parents As Rulers

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

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)

Parents As Rulers 2

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

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (2)


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

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (4)

Monogamy 2

Caeli: Hi!
Elliot: Hi, Caeli.
Caeli: What are some problems with marriage?
Elliot: It requires restricting your life if you want to commit to a marriage, forever. To reliably avoid a breakup, you have to avoid drifting apart. You have to make sure your interests remain compatible.
Caeli: That sounds easy. We'll just discuss what's interesting until we agree.
Elliot: There are no reliable ways to agree, about anything, quickly. You might not agree. You might not think of any persuasive arguments today. And you might not again tomorrow. Who can say when you will?
Caeli: So it might take a long time? Years? Even if it does, so what?
Elliot: Well, normally disagreement doesn't have to be a problem. People disagree all the time and life goes on. There is no reason they must hurt each other. The problem comes when you are unwilling to drift apart. Part of the way people who disagree are able to continue amicably is by going their own ways: each does what he thinks is right.
Caeli: Married people don't have to do the same thing all the time.
Elliot: True, but they have to do the same thing more then never, or being married makes no sense.
Caeli: If they have a disagreement and haven't resolved it yet, that doesn't mean they won't do anything together, it means they won't do one thing together. And it's only temporary.
Elliot: They could have two disagreements, or three, or fifty thousand. And they could all last over a hundred thousand years. They might move to different countries, and have no contact of any sort, for centuries. They might die before they see each other again.
Caeli: People don't live that long.
Elliot: One day they will, with life extension. But that only adds to my argument: if they die before solving the disagreement, then the fact that it could be solved hasn't helped their marriage.
Caeli: Isn't that all very unlikely?
Elliot: I don't know how likely it is. But I do know that marriage has no defense against this. It could happen. So the philosophical grounds for marriage are shaky. At best you are taking a risk.
Caeli: If it's a big benefit to be married, and a small risk, then it might be worthwhile.
Elliot: Perhaps. But how big is the risk? Why do you think it's small?
Caeli: What you described seems unlikely.
Elliot: Does it really? It's very common that families fight and disagree. It's very common that controversies are not resolved in the lifetimes of the people who started them. And it's very common that marriages don't work out, because the couple grew bored of each other.
Caeli: Isn't that only bad marriages?
Elliot: Isn't the divorce rate around 50%?
Caeli: So half of marriages work out?
Elliot: No. People hate to divorce so they try very hard to avoid it. On first principles, we might think that for every divorce, ten couples want one but won't do it. The numbers don't work out for that. Still, there are a lot of unhappy marriages, and a lot more that are more neutral: not a constant source of pain, but nothing magnificent about them.
Caeli: That sucks. But lots of people are dumb. Maybe the successful marriage rate is very high among intelligent people who understand what marriage means and how to do it right.
Elliot: It's a cliche that smart guys get dumb about girls.
Caeli: Are there other cliches about how bad marriages are?
Elliot: Why marry? Just find a woman you hate and buy her a house.
Caeli: I want a house. Maybe I should piss some guys off.
Elliot: Good luck with that. Have you seen The War of the Roses?
Caeli: No. Is that a movie?
Elliot: Yes. It's about a marriage that doesn't work out. The people start hurting each other very badly.
Caeli: Why does that happen?
Elliot: People feel they'd never hurt their partner. They are in love. They want the marriage to work. They are committed to trying very hard. You might expect all this will result in them being very nice to each other. And that works at first. But if things start to go badly, then they feel betrayed: the other isn't as passionate as they are. All the efforts they made now spite them, because they know this person wasn't really worth it, he only lied that hew as. The more you put at stake, the more there is to be upset about if it doesn't work as you hoped.
Caeli: Not everyone feels that way. Some are jerks.
Elliot: Right. So marriages with jerks work out badly. Then of the marriages entered into in a serious, loving, passionate, committed way as described above, they suffer from the logic I described where the more people try, the more betrayed they feel if it doesn't live up to expectations.
Caeli: Why wouldn't it live up to expectations?
Elliot: Partly because of unreasonable expectations. Romantic fantasies are pretty grand. But more importantly, because people are different and want and expect different things.
Caeli: Wouldn't they have talked about what they want?
Elliot: A little. But you'd be surprised. People are scared to disagree and fight, and don't want to break up, and they're insecure, so they often try to avoid discussions like that. If they do agree, the discussion won't make things better, and if they don't, it could ruin their relationship today.
Caeli: You act like people could break up at any moment.
Elliot: Can't they? Most people are prepared to break up, immediately, if they discover certain things, such as that their partner secretly has a child, or is having an affair.
Caeli: Who would want to be with someone who lied like that?
Elliot: There's very little that would put me off my friends. If they were criminals, that would put me off. But only immediately if it was an especially bad crime. If they were mean to me, I'd assume it was a misunderstanding, and only mind if it kept up for a while. Friendships are far more stable than romance.
Caeli: Is stability good? Maybe passion is inherently unstable, because it's so strong.
Elliot: Stability is supposed to be one of the goals of marriage.
Caeli: That doesn't answer whether it's good.
Elliot: If nothing ever changes, that is bad. But if things change very rapidly, that is worrisome. Misunderstandings are very common, so we should be resistant to those. And there are many more ways to be wrong than right, so we should try out new ideas tentatively at first. When people change their opinions of each other quickly, it's usually because they lost perspective and they are focussing on one little issue and over estimating its importance.
Elliot: Consider cooking using a recipe. A stable recipe would mean if you change the quantities of ingredients slightly, then the meal comes out about the same. That's good. Unstable means if you put in an extra drop of water, or pinch of flour, it will come out wildly different. More generally, unstable things get wildly different results based on different inputs. In our life, the input data is sensory data, and our observations of the world. We know we make lots of mistakes in that area: there are hallucinations and misunderstandings and misinterpretations of what we see all the time. So a stable approach is important.
Caeli: What do you recommend instead of monogamy? Polygamy?
Elliot: No. My advice is more like "just don't do it". We don't want the opposite of marriage, or even something that makes sense in terms of the romantic mindset. That's too similar. We want to find a better way to look at relationships. When we do that, dichotomies like monogamy versus polygamy will go away. That doesn't matter.
Caeli: That's pretty vague.
Elliot: Well I can't tell you exactly how to live, and I don't want to. The idea that everyone should do the same thing is another flaw in marriage. People are different.
Caeli: Good point.
Elliot: I can tell you some concrete things to avoid. Maybe that will help.
Caeli: Cool. Go on.
Elliot: Promises are irrational. People shouldn't make them.
Caeli: Why?
Elliot: Suppose I promise to do X. The time comes, and I'm considering doing it. Now, I either think X is morally right, or not. If it is right, I will do it whether I promised or not. If I think it's wrong, I shouldn't do it, but I might because I promised. So a promise ends up either being a promise to do what you would have done anyway, or a promise to do wrong.
Caeli: That's amazing. Promising is taken for granted as normal, good, natural, and just generally part of life. But this is a very brief argument that it's no good.
Elliot: Yeah. Just because something is widely accepted doesn't prove it's very good.
Caeli: Doesn't a promise communicate useful information about your plans?
Elliot: Yes. But people should just say, "I plan to walk the dog," instead of promising to.
Caeli: Does it make much difference?
Elliot: Yes. People don't get very upset if you change your mind about a plan. But a promise they will hold against you. You promised, and how can they ever trust you again if you don't keep your promise?
Caeli: Isn't trust important?
Elliot: If you don't make a promise, you don't have to be trusted, so that's a much better way of interacting and not irrational as explained above. But now that you ask, trust is bad.
Caeli: Why?
Elliot: Trusting someone to do something means not using your own judgment about whether he'll do it. It means if he doesn't, you play the victim and say he hurt you. It's better to think about what he will do, and make your own prediction, and take responsibility for it, not put part of your life in another person's hands.
Caeli: What if you don't know what he will do? Maybe you just met him and can't predict that.
Elliot: Then you certainly shouldn't put great trust in him!
Caeli: What if someone chronically breaks promises. Isn't that important?
Elliot: It means the person is bad at predicting what he will do, or it means he says what he thinks you want to hear. Either way, abolishing promises will fix things. He won't have to lie to you, or you can just consider him unreliable and not count on him.
Caeli: Isn't it better if we can count on people?
Elliot: If someone is unreliable, promises won't help anything. The cure can only be for him to get better at planning things.
Caeli: Doesn't a promise mean he will try?
Elliot: If he intends to try, he could tell you that. But he might not: he's unreliable.
Caeli: So what do you recommend instead of promises?
Elliot: This is like the same question about marriage. The answer is: they are bad. Get rid of them. Just don't do it. They don't need any replacement.
Caeli: Don't they serve a functional role of communicating peoples' intentions?
Elliot: Only trivially. It's not hard to just state your intentions plainly.
Caeli: But that's unconventional, so can be hard.
Elliot: True enough. But that's only more evidence that the whole tradition is irrational and we'd be better off without it.
Caeli: What's next?
Elliot: The romantic tradition is stereotyped. It's the same for everyone. People are different, so that's no good. This, like with promises, doesn't demand any particular alternative. Part of the problem is actually trying to have a one-size-fits-all solution.
Caeli: So would you say the solution is just to live your life, without worrying about what some tradition says to do? To believe they have no authority over how a life should be.
Elliot: Yes, that's good. But only for certain traditions we've identified as bad. Tradition isn't a bad thing in general.
Caeli: I see. What's next?
Elliot: Marriages aren't based on what's functional. People are attracted by pretty people, and what feels right, and first impressions, and whether the sex is good, and things like that. But none of those have anything to do with who would be good to share a kitchen with, or raise a child with, or have to live in the same country, city, and house as. People don't seek marriage partners based on who, rationally, would actually be nice to live with. In fact, they reject their friends out of hand due to a lack of spark or chemistry, or it not feeling right, even though their friends are the ones they know well, and get along with, and can rationally expect to still like in a few decades.
Caeli: I guess, again, the alternative is built into the criticism: find people to do specific projects with (like raise a child) who have the qualities you think are important for that project.
Elliot: Yeah. The next criticism of marriage is simply that it's well known that it often hurts everyone involved.
Caeli: You mentioned that earlier.
Elliot: Indeed, it comes up a lot. But it's worth repeating, because people are good at forgetting it. When people contemplate marrying, they aren't generally thinking to themselves that the usual result is being hurt badly. They expect it to work out, even if they have no reason to.
Caeli: OK. What's next?
Elliot: We've talked about marriage being part of a tradition, which I usually call romance. There is more detail than that.
Caeli: What?
Elliot: I'll tell you tomorrow.
Caeli: Bye.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)

Monogamy 3

Caeli: Hi!
Elliot: Hi, Caeli.
Caeli: So, what did you want to say about marriage as part of a romantic tradition?
Elliot: I'd like to tell you something else first. Maybe I should have started with it.
Caeli: Alright.
Elliot: You asked about polygamy. People often assume that is the alternative to marriage. But when I talk with poly people, I find their motivations are things like they want to have sex and love with more people. But my largest objections to monogamy is that the sex and love parts are bad.
Caeli: That does give a different impression than you gave before. You should start with it next time.
Elliot: By the way, it's polyamory, not polygamy. "Amor" is love, and "gamy" is marriage. I think only religious people advocate many literal marriages, more philosophical people just live together and fall in love without trying to all get married.
Caeli: Oh, ok.
Elliot: My motivation is simply to do what's rational. I don't like the entire mode of relationship epitomized by monogamous marriages, but also found in polyamorous people. I generally discuss monogamy because it's dominant.
Caeli: What's irrational about love and sex?
Elliot: Let's separate them. Love is vague. Does it mean something other than "likes a lot"? Answers vary. But the real problem is a sort of separation. First, people decide if they are in love (based on how they feel, sexual attraction and chemistry, dreamy eyes, first impressions, mysteriousness, loneliness, desperation, stereotypes, and so on). Second, people derive all sorts of conclusions from being in love. The conclusions have nothing to do with the evidence from the first step, only to do with "love". So by separating the evidence gathering, and the concluding, people cover up a huge lack of logic.
Caeli: Why is that so bad?
Elliot: Many of the conclusions about love don't follow at all from the evidence used. They often have nothing to do with each other. Conclusions are things like: they should have a close, personal, exclusive relationship full of obligations and expectations. They should share their bank accounts. They should raise kids together. And if someone feels in love, everyone thinks that means the object of his affection is obligated to give him a chance, hear him out, and try to see if it will work. Why should you raise kids with someone who has dreamy eyes? Why should you share finances with someone sexy?
Elliot: And one shouldn't be able to create obligations for other people just by feeling a certain way. That's not rational.
Elliot: It reminds me of an email exchange. One person thought poor, hungry people should be able to steal oranges from a rich man's grove to feed their children, and that the rich man was guilty of something if he didn't allow it. The other person said: and if the poor people choose to have twice as many children, is the rich man twice as guilty for not feeding them?
Elliot: This illustrates how perverse things can get if my choices create obligations for you which benefit me.
Caeli: What criteria should be used for having kids, or sharing finances, if not love?
Elliot: For example, having intellectual agreement, and shared values; being at roughly the same place in your lives; being good at working out problems together and not fighting; knowing each other well.
Caeli: Don't people marry based on all those in addition to love?
Elliot: They take them into account, some. But not enough. Love often overrides some of those. It shouldn't, but it does because they are undervalued. There is a common expression, "Love conquers all," which sums up how much power people attribute to love.
Elliot: And people generally marry within 18 months. That's not enough time to get to know someone really well. People reasonably often learn new things about their friends after decades.
Caeli: They don't date their friends. Perhaps they get to know each other faster when they're trying.
Elliot: I think it's more likely that dating makes them know each other less well. Interacting in only stereotyped situations like that gives them plenty of opportunity to lie and mislead about what kind of people they are.
Caeli: Lying to your love? Perish the thought!
Elliot: But it's very common. People get nervous, and don't want to risk the relationship over something the other person might not like. They don't want to risk a fight, or a break up. Lying is normal during courtship. It helps keep your options open.
Caeli: Are you sure?
Elliot: It's ubiquitous in popular culture like movies. But also in live journal entries by real people, and advice columns, and so on.
Caeli: That is pretty convincing, I guess. That's awful.
Elliot: Romantic relationships put an undue burden on people to have no privacy, and ties honesty and trust up in this. But privacy is important. It should be expected that people take steps to maintain it.
Caeli: OK, that makes sense.
Caeli: Love might not be perfect, but that doesn't mean the general idea is bad.
Elliot: Well, what's good about it?
Caeli: It makes people happy.
Elliot: As we discussed, usually it doesn't. People get hurt and betrayed. They only stay happy if the person they love acts the way they want.
Caeli: It sounds terrible when you put it that way.
Elliot: Indeed.
Caeli: But it's not terrible!
Elliot: Why do you say that?
Caeli: Have you been in love?
Elliot: That isn't relevant.
Caeli: Isn't it? If you don't know what it's like, how can you comment?
Elliot: If I don't know something that you do, then tell me about it.
Caeli: I guess I didn't have anything specific in mind.
Elliot: It's hard to give the pro-love arguments myself, and refute them, because there really aren't any. No one seems to think it needs a rational defense, even though it hurts people all the time. This hurting is considered unremarkable. That just proves the huge irrationality of people's attitudes.
Caeli: That sounds right, but I'll need to consider it more. Let's move on to sex.
Elliot: I have a few things to say about sex. The first is that rubbing your bodies together isn't very interesting. I realize it stimulates nerves, so perhaps it's comparable to eating. And it releases chemicals, so perhaps its comparable to taking drugs. But neither of those is very interesting either.
Caeli: Do people claim sex is interesting?
Elliot: They make a big deal out of sexual knowledge, skill, and expertise, as if there is lots to learn. And they say it creates a meaningful connection between the participants, at least if done lovingly. And they sometimes claim it's like an emotional dialog, that involves real and important communication. And they claim it helps them get to know each other intimately.
Caeli: And you think all of that is false?
Elliot: That's right. Except for sexual skill: there is some, just not lots. It's relatively simple. But it's understandable that people think otherwise, because before the internet information about sex was hard to find.
Caeli: Why was it hard to find?
Elliot: Because people hide it. Especially adults from kids.
Caeli: Why hide it?
Elliot: The supposed justifications were things about the morality of chastity, the virtue of not interacting with sex before marriage, the sin of masturbation, the righteousness of self-denial of sex, and the great value of (sexual) innocence.
Caeli: That sounds religious.
Elliot: Yes.
Caeli: Does that mean atheists are immune?
Elliot: Not at all. Being an atheist means rejecting God, not all of religion. Whether one rejects more depends on whether he is a thoughtful person, and whether he figures out what else is religious, and also on his judgment about what should be rejected.
Caeli: Isn't it obvious that sex is religious?
Elliot: It's obvious that religion has stuff to say about sex. But it's not obvious that religion is wrong, nor that non-religious people shouldn't think and say the same things about sex.
Caeli: What religion says about sex varies by religion. They can't all be right. Shouldn't that tip people off to distrust the religious view?
Elliot: Yeah. But that logic applies to all of religion. If it hasn't worked persuaded people to question the rest of religion, we shouldn't expect people to apply it here.
Caeli: So you don't think sex has the various special properties people attribute to it, and that it shouldn't be important.
Elliot: Right.
Caeli: I'm not sure how to argue with that.
Elliot: As with love, no one seems to think sex needs a rational defense. They often go so far as to claim that sex is not about being rational.
Caeli: You mentioned marriage being romantic the other day. Can you elaborate about your view on romance? It seems related.
Elliot: Let's try the dictionary first:
1) a feeling of excitement and mystery associated with love "¢ love, esp. when sentimental or idealized "¢ an exciting, enjoyable love affair, esp. one that is not serious or long-lasting 2) a quality or feeling of mystery, excitement, and remoteness from everyday life "¢ wild exaggeration; picturesque falsehood
Elliot: Do you notice anything interesting about those?
Caeli: A number of things.
Elliot: Cool :)
Caeli: One of them says something exaggerated or false. That's not very rational.
Elliot: Yes.
Caeli: Two mention mystery, which is about not knowing things. It's about lack of knowledge.
Elliot: Yes. And that's an awful thing to base a relationship on.
Caeli: One of the meanings of romance actually is love.
Elliot: Right.
Caeli: Another meaning is something unserious and short. But you equate romance with monogamy, which is long term.
Elliot: People often base long term monogamous relationships on short term passionate romance. They want to have both. This is similar to being attracted to the mysterious.
Caeli: It mentions idealizing love, which means imagining it's perfect when it isn't.
Elliot: Yes, good.
Caeli: Very first, it mentions romance being a feeling.
Elliot: Yup. It's not about what really exists in someone's life, just how she feels about whatever is there.
Caeli: It mentions excitement a lot.
Elliot: Yes, which reinforces the short term focus.
Caeli: But you think people look for romance in long term relationships. Why?
Elliot: They say they do. They say they look for romance in who they date. And people who have been married want to keep a "spark", and will go to therapy to get it back. That spark, most would agree, could be call romance. "Keeping the romance alive" is a common expression. There is lots of advice about how to do it on Google. For example:
23 Ways to Keep Your Romance Alive
Itty-bitty ways to make him lovesick for you every day of the week.
Caeli: Lovesick doesn't sound good.
Elliot: Yeah. And it seems pretty self-centered. It's focussed on keeping him wanting you, not keeping a balanced relationship.
Caeli: There's a lot like that in magazines too.
Elliot: Right.
Caeli: Do you want to go through a list of romantic tips and comment on them?
Elliot: Yes that sounds fun, but it should be a separate dialog.
Caeli: Alright, see you later.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (4)

23 Ways To Keep Your Romance Alive

Caeli: Hi!
Elliot: Hi, Caeli.
Caeli: Let's look through 23 Ways to Keep Your Romance Alive.
Elliot: OK. I'll quote each, and then you say what you notice.
Share a Secret Code
Pick a word that's likely to come up occasionally in conversation (heat, midnight, bedroom, whipped cream...) and agree that every time someone uses it, you have to touch -- anything from a kiss to a lingering thigh stroke under the table.
Caeli: This suggests touching is a key part of romance.
Elliot: Right. Let's keep track of how many are about sex. So far, 1/1. The words were intended to be ambiguously sexy as well. Notice also that thigh stroking is supposed to take place under the table. Why do they need privacy for it?
Caeli: It's partly a taboo. It's partly because it's intimate. It's partly because it's just between them.
Elliot: And partly because people are ashamed of their sexuality.
Caeli: There's a lot, so let's do the next one.
Transform Dinner Into Dining
That midweek post-grind meal you devour together? Make it register off the mush-o-meter with some tiny adjustments to the atmosphere. "Pull out your nicest dishes and light a couple of candles, even if you're just having a mushroom pizza," suggests Gregory Godek, author of 1001 Ways to Be Romantic (Casablanca Press, 2000). "It's the mood, not the food, that sets a romantic scene. So stick a bouquet of daisies from the corner store in the center of the table, lower the lights, and turn up Enrique Iglesias or Bessie Smith. You could even conveniently forget the utensils so you have an excuse to feed each other."
Caeli: This suggests a large element of romance is mood and atmosphere. It doesn't really matter what you're eating, as long as it feels special.
Elliot: If feeding each other is fun, why does it need an excuse?
Caeli: It's embarrassing to ask.
Elliot: It's embarrassing to ask something so simple of your spouse? The person closest to you in all the world, that you trust completely, and could tell anything to?
Caeli: Apparently.
Elliot: Evidently, complete trust isn't really the norm, and many spouses aren't close at all. In fact, I remember a Malcom in the Middle episode where the husband wants to do something sexual (we don't hear what), and then, before his wife can reply, says he was joking out of fear of rejection. Then she says yes and he's surprised.
Caeli: With all the attention sex gets, shouldn't they have talked about it before?
Elliot: One would be tempted to think so.
Get Swept Off Your Feet
Make up your own tango moves and groove with your guy for 15 minutes while you wait for dinner. Pop in the Marc Anthony CD, then press your pelvises together, entwine your legs, and twist and twirl around the living room. "Slow dancing is so intimate," says Godek. "The way you stand hip-to-hip, block out the world, and sway to each other's rhythms ... now you're really cookin'."
Caeli: This is mostly about touching, so the sex count is now 2/3.
Elliot: Yup. It also equates touching slowness with intimacy, and uses the euphemism "cookin'" to mean hot, which means sexy.
Caeli: Why is that a euphemism if the meaning is obvious?
Elliot: Because the author avoided writing "now you're doing something sexual that will really get you in the mood to have sex".
Caeli: Isn't that rather crude writing, with no style?
Elliot: Yes, but why is it? Because people don't like to be explicit about sex. They prefer not to say it.
Caeli: I see. Next?
Outlaw Grunge-Wear
You and your guy are having a Blockbuster night. But wait, think twice before you change into your lounging-on-the-couch clothes ... You know, oversize T-shirt, shabby sweater. That gear isn't exactly a recipe for a night of making googly eyes. Instead, slip into something a little more comfortable but a lot more cuddle-enticing. "A fitted T-shirt or a semisheer tank top, especially when worn without a bra, is a lot sexier than some too-big shirt you're swimming in," says fashion designer and Cosmo contributing editor Shoshanna Lonstein. "Pair it with your favorite perfectly worn-out blue jeans or khaki cutoffs for a casual but irresistible look."
Caeli: 3/4 for sex. I wonder what an "irresistible" look means. Why can't it be resisted?
Elliot: It means that if you do that, he will have sex with you.
Elliot: What's interesting to me is that people have to be reminded so much to act sexy, and if they forget about it, and wear normal, comfortable clothes, that is not sexy. It's so much work people have to push themselves to do it. Being sexy is different than being a good person and living pleasantly. It's all this extra stuff to do, based on its own value system, that doesn't even claim to be morally right.
Caeli: If you take it for granted that having sex is good, then it is about how to accomplish that, so it's implicitly right.
Elliot: I suppose. But it is so intrusive. Why should sex need to intrude on our clothes, on our movie watching, or on our couch use?
Caeli: Because movie plus sex is more fun than just movie.
Elliot: Isn't that a bit strange? If you want to have sex, why not just do it now? Then watch the movie in your preferred attire.
Caeli: It's nice to take things slow, sometimes.
Elliot: Why? What purpose does it serve? For example, people don't take movies slow, by pausing them on and off every few minutes. They would only pause for a functional reason, such as a bathroom or food break, to stop watching, or to comment on the scene. People generally avoid pauses in movies, because it interrupts the flow.
Caeli: Apparently sex works well spread out more.
Elliot: But why? What's the functional reason?
Caeli: Maybe it's like eating desert, which people savor.
Elliot: People only do that because they are irrational about diet, and don't eat as much desert as they want, and they're trying to pretend they like it that way. But they don't, and they are tempted to binge all the time. Which sounds a lot like sex. People want to do it a lot, sometimes binge, often feel guilty afterwards, and never get all they want.
Caeli: Hmm. Well maybe there is a functional reason that I don't know.
Dish With Him
Flash back to the '50s and get passionate over pots and pans. "Okay, it's totally old-fashioned and cornball, but I find doing dishes together incredibly romantic," says Janet, a 28-year-old chiropractor. "My dishwasher went on the blink one night, and my boyfriend offered to help clean up. We both rolled up our sleeves and got sudsy in the warm water. We talked about the places we'd love to travel to, the crazy things we'd like to try just once in our lives, and our hands kept touching -- we just got completely lost in each other as we did this mindless activity. It was so sweet and oddly intimate that I haven't bothered to get the dishwasher fixed."
Caeli: This isn't about sex, so 3/5. I guess doing something together can be nice.
Elliot: Sure. But why something so dull? The article even calls it mindless.
Caeli: That leaves more attention leftover for talking.
Elliot: If they want to talk, why not sit on the couch and talk?
Caeli: Because if they didn't have anything to say at first, it'd be awkward. But while washing dishes, they aren't pressured to say anything at first.
Elliot: That may be. But why do they need an excuse to think of what to say? Why are they uncomfortable talking with each other? They don't seem very close or intimate. The dishes, if they are a pretense, are a sign of a lack of intimacy, exactly the opposite of how the people interpret them.
Caeli: Good point. Also doing dishes sucks. It's a lot of trouble for an excuse to talk.
Touch Tenderly in Front of the TV
When you're both chilling out in front of the tube, heat things up with some hands-on action. "Give each other mini foot massages while watching the evening news," suggests Laura Corn, author of 101 Nights of Grrreat Romance (Park Avenue Publishers, 1995). "Or lay your head in his lap and let him stroke your hair." For the ultimate drive-in date experience, invest in an extralong extension cord and watch TV outside on the deck or on lawn chairs on the front stoop underneath the stars.
Caeli: Didn't we already have this one?
Elliot: Romance is a bit limited. It prefers the dark or candle light or moon light. It likes fancy things, or chances to touch or taste or smell. It likes unusual things you wouldn't do otherwise -- things you only bother with because they are romantic.
Caeli: This is about sexual touching to "heat things up", so 4/6 for sex.
Flash Him
When no one's looking, give your guy a sneak peak in public. Granted, it's not exactly violins-in-the-background romantic, but it's certainly guaranteed to send his heart (and pulse) soaring.
Caeli: 5/7 for sex. Maybe you should comment first, usually.
Elliot: It seems to say, "Who cares if it's romantic? It's sexual. He'll like it. He'll be excited." Now, why should he be excited? He's seen it before. All he wants. Hasn't he?
Caeli: I guess not. At least not in public.
Elliot: And public is fun because it's naughty, it's wrong, and there is a risk of being caught?
Caeli: Yeah.
Elliot: Sex isn't wrong, naughty, bad, or sinful. That's a horrible idea.
Elliot: Back to the earlier issue: Why keep in sexually unfulfilled?
Caeli: Maybe he had all he wanted earlier, but he still wants more.
Elliot: He wants the same thing over and over, without limit?
Caeli: Yes.
Elliot: Isn't that boring and mechanical?
Caeli: That's what the tips are for: to spice things up with variety they might not have thought of.
Elliot: There aren't many interesting variations on showing him your breasts. And are these tips only for young people? The tips are roughly the same every article, so surely older people have tried them already.
Caeli: I don't know. Let's move on.
Send Him a Sweet Afternoon Treat
If you know your guy's facing a particularly grueling, sucky afternoon at the office, call up a local restaurant that delivers and send him an I'm-thinking-about-you lunch, suggests Ilene Rosenzweig, coauthor of Swell: A Girl's Guide to the Good Life (Warner Books, 1999). Let him know dessert's waiting at your place later.
Elliot: This didn't have to be about sex, but then they put in a euphemism for sex at the end, so that's 6/8. It's also about food, again.
Caeli: Also, why does he need reminders that she's thinking about him? Aren't they so close and intimate as to take it for granted?
Elliot: Right. And also, consider all these tips are aimed at girls. And that's true of most such lists. Why? Because guys aren't expected to really care, even though girls apparently do. That's not a perfection connection and total agreement.
Caeli: I think a soul mate sounds nice.
Elliot: Of course it does. That's the point. Who wouldn't like to meet someone who really understood him, and agreed about everything he didn't want to argue about? And fulfilled his sexual fantasies. But it's silly. You can't find such a person. The only difference between a soul mate and many people you meet is knowledge (and the soul mate is imagined to be prettier). But how can the person have all this knowledge of you, if you have only just met? It's silly.
Caeli: Sometimes people do meet, and have a connection right away. What's going on?
Elliot: They are connecting with things they share in common because they are common in our culture. They are stereotyped. Often it's romance: they both like to eat fancy dinners, have sex in the moonlight, and have sex during movies, so that seems like a connection.
Caeli: Isn't that a gloomy way to look at the world?
Elliot: Only if you're expecting romance to be a primary source of your happiness.
Caeli: Oh! :)
Keep Him in the Dark
For the ultimate lights-out love nudge, fake a power outage. "Unplug the phone, computer, and TV, then turn off all the lights," instructs Godek. "With nothing else to distract you, you have no choice but to break out the candles and cling to each other as you tell scary ghost stories...or just plain cling to each other."
Elliot: 7/9 for sex. It's only implicit, but it's fairly obvious. The meaning here seems to be that if you have things you like, such as your computer and TV, then sex won't be appealing enough to bother with. So just deprive yourself of everything more attractive than sex.
Caeli: Maybe the issue is avoiding distraction.
Elliot: Distractions are things you can't easily turn off, like street noise, or worrying you're fat. If it's something you can easily turn off, like a TV, then distractions mean things you prefer to do; they are chosen.
Caeli: What if you would turn if off, but you're not thinking?
Elliot: If you aren't thinking, you can't take the advice from this article.
Caeli: Are you sure it's about sex? It just says to tell stories and cling.
Elliot: If you just cling that will get boring fast. But people don't just touch, and sit there for ages and not do anything more. There is a standard progression.
Caeli: Why doesn't it say sex more clearly, then?
Elliot: Because that's embarrassing, and crude, and people get the idea. And people like to imagine that they have this brilliant, original idea to use that situation as an excuse for sex, which would be ruined if it was clear everyone else did exactly the same thing.
Caeli: OK, seems right.
Elliot: Two of the other ones were about how to turn TV watching into sex. Now we have one about getting rid of the TV to have sex. As our counter is showing, one of the main themes of romance is just to have sex more often.
Caeli: If that's all it takes, why don't people do it without being advised to? People certainly care about sex a lot.
Elliot: At first they do, then it gets boring.
Caeli: That sucks.
Elliot: Only if you expect your happiness to come from sex.
Ban the Peck
Replace that chaste, no-effort lip graze with a 10-second smooch -- and make every single kiss a bit of bliss.
Elliot: 8/10 are about sex now. This is another one that intrudes on your life. It says stop doing what you normally prefer. It assumes that many people consider kissing too much bother, and don't want to spend their time on it, and just do it quickly and symbolically. And it says, as usual, stop that, spend more time on sex.
Caeli: This isn't sex, it's kissing.
Elliot: I mean sexual stuff. Kissing has a lot in common with sex. It's a form of cheating on your sexually exclusive partner, it's something people get jealous over, it's foreplay for sex, it's a form of touching, it arouses people.
Caeli: I see. So you mean "sex" broadly.
Map Out the Hot Spots in Your Neighborhood
Make it your mission to fool around in every prime passion nook of your neighborhood -- behind trees, on nearby park benches, under a lamppost. Every time you walk out your front door with your dream guy, hit one of these desire-designated areas until you have the whole area PDA'd.
Elliot: 9/11 are about sex. This continues the same themes we've been noticing. Do more sexual stuff. It's romantic.
Caeli: It's also about how to make sex more interesting, which implies there is a problem with sex getting boring, like you've been saying.
Write Him a Sexy Check
While you're taking care of the bills, take care of your guy with a personal payment for head-to-toe kisses, suggests Godek. "Tell him he can cash in anytime."
Elliot: 10/12 are about sex. This again says to have more sex. And it also seems to imply the guy can't have as much sex as he wants without a special gift.
Caeli: Should guys have all the sex they want? Why should a woman have to do that?
Elliot: She doesn't have to. But sexually frustrated and deprived people is not good. Notice that the attitude of assuming the woman won't want to is setting people up for problems. If the cultural norm is that guys and girls want different amounts of sex, then that must result in tension. I'm not sure it's true though. Girls want sex too. They just don't like to admit it.
Caeli: What's wrong with admitting it?
Elliot: Sex is dirty, impure, unchaste, sinful, and taboo. It's carefully hidden from children, and from other people in general, and people, especially girls, often feel guilty. Sex has to be justified, by a loving, romantic, relationship, or it's wrong.
Caeli: Most guys don't seem to care about that.
Elliot: A lot do. Caring is considered nice. But it's true that most of the pressure is on girls. Look at Islam: if a girl is raped, they blame the girl. It's her responsibility to be chaste, no matter what. And abortions for rape victims is still a controversial issue in the US.
Caeli: Ugh.
Elliot: Yeah. And there's a whole issue, among psychologists, about rape victims (girls) blaming themselves. We're all familiar with the reasons, too. They're well known. She dressed sexy, and attracted him, and flirted too much, and has breasts, and guys can't control their urges anyway.
Caeli: Ugh.
Elliot: Let's do one more and then stop for now.
Caeli: OK.
Make Out Every Time You're Alone in an Elevator
Use this love-lifter as a cue to sneak in a secret smooch session.
Caeli: That's about sex again, so 11/13. Wow that's a lot.
Elliot: Yup. And it's the same theme of having more sex, and having it differently to make it less boring.
Caeli: This is cool, let's do the rest later.
Elliot: Sure.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (5)

23 Ways To Keep Your Romance Alive 2

Caeli: Hi!
Elliot: Hi, Caeli.
Caeli: Let's continue with the other ten ways to keep your romance alive.
Play the Dating Game
Get out of the same old Saturday-night film-and-food groove. For your next date, come up with three out-of-the-ordinary evening ideas -- perhaps a starlit ferry ride, a game of mini golf, dinner at a restaurant with a kind of food you've never tried, or even seen, before -- and write them down on index cards, suggests David D. Coleman, coauthor of Date Smart! How to Stop Revolving and Start Evolving in Relationships (Prima Publishing, 1999). "Then, have your guy blindly choose one of the cards and embark on a mysterious, exotic adventure."
Caeli: The sex count was 11/13, so now it's 11/14. This article sure likes trying to sell books, doesn't it?
Elliot: Yeah. No matter. What stands out to me is that this is supposed to be exotic and mysterious, but the examples given are all very well-known, usual ideas. And even if this works, won't most people have personally tried them with a previous partner?
Caeli: What's your point?
Elliot: That they are seeking mystery in the mundane, and somehow this works for people. So either they are unfamiliar with the mundane or forgetful. Neither of those is an impressive quality.
Caeli: Oh.
Elliot: Also, this tip uses randomness to try to make things more exciting. But I advocate an intentional life. Think about which activity you'd like best, use your best judgment, and do that one. Letting chance decide is abstaining from living part of your own life.
Caeli: Isn't thinking about everything a hassle? Sometimes people want to relax.
Elliot: Thinking doesn't have to be painful, or time consuming. But even if we imagine thinking is sometimes distasteful, people do think often. So, what is the explanation which shows that the particular decisions that are especially painful, and must be avoided, are ones like which fun activity to do, from a short list?
Caeli: You mean that if we're going to avoid decision making, why avoid those decisions in particular?
Elliot: That's right. It's an easy decision with limited options and only pleasant results.
Caeli: If they have a bad time, they might blame themselves later for choosing it.
Elliot: If they choose randomly, and have a bad time, they might blame themselves for choosing to choose randomly.
Caeli: You mean no matter what they do, they could blame themselves?
Elliot: Yeah. So that isn't an argument against any of their options.
Caeli: OK. Next?
Read Seductive Stories to Each Other
Pick up a steamy best-seller like Vox, by Nicholson Baker (it certainly got Monica boiling for Bill), and take turns reading it aloud. "My boyfriend and I love sharing juicy novels," says Liz, a 30-year-old producer. "We'll get in bed or curl up on the couch and take turns being the narrator. At first I was a bit nervous and rigid -- I sounded like Rod Serling from The Twilight Zone -- but eventually I found my natural rhythm and got really turned on by it. It's so utterly romantic because we're in this sort of fantastical fictional world together rather than sticking our noses in our respective books. And listening to my boyfriend's voice is unbelievably sexy."
Caeli: Plus one for sex. 12/15 now. She says once she got into her rhythm, she was really turned on by it. It's about getting aroused with each other.
Elliot: Some of the messages are: romance is about fantasy; they would have read their own books, because they have different interests, if not prodded to do otherwise; it's good to find voices (and all sorts of things) sexy; you should focus more of your life on sex and romance (by reading "steamy" novel -- note the euphemism).
Caeli: Next?
Go Postal
Create some surprising postal passion by mailing I-want-you notes to your man. Start by telling him exactly what you love about every part of his body.
Caeli: 13/16 are about sex now.
Elliot: Why doesn't he already know he's wanted?
Caeli: Maybe he just likes hearing it.
Elliot: Is he insecure? Or maybe most days she is not passionate about wanting him (for sex)?
Caeli: Most days she probably isn't.
Elliot: So the advice is she should be more interested in sex, and feel more passionate about it, more often. Just like most of the others. By the way, what if she doesn't love every part of his body?
Caeli: I guess her attitude will be to go without, or to break up.
Elliot: That's an unpleasant set of options.
Caeli: What else could she do?
Elliot: Never mind that for now. Just notice that romantic monogamy offers unpleasant choices.
Caeli: OK, noted.
Play Barber Babe
Show your man some passionate pampering by giving him a sensual shave. After his morning shower, lather up his face with a great-smelling shaving cream and slide the razor in the direction the hair grows. "It's a way to steal a very intimate moment when you're both usually so rushed to get out the door," says Kelly, a 26-year-old massage therapist who loves to groom her guy. "Not to mention the perfect excuse to straddle him."
Caeli: 14/17 are about sex. This is touching-based, and an excuse to straddle him.
Elliot: Why does she need an excuse to straddle him? They'll both like it, apparently.
Caeli: It's more fun if they don't talk about it first, and confusing if she just does it with no context.
Elliot: Setting things up so that talking ruins the fun is awful. How are people supposed to decide what's best without saying their preferences?
Caeli: That's a rhetorical question?
Elliot: Yes, mostly. One could answer, for example by saying, "sign language".
Elliot: How come they are rushed to get out the door, by the way? This isn't a flaw in romance, but it is a flaw in conventional culture. As a pattern, they have this unpleasant morning rush.
Tempt Him With a Slew of Where-to-Find-You Clues
Make your usual rendezvous a million times racier by keeping them mysterious for your man. "I have a standing Friday-evening drink date with my boyfriend," says Sue, a 27-year-old tax attorney. "To keep it exciting, I have this trick for spicing things up: I send him on a treasure hunt ... to find me. I pick an obscure, out-of-the-way bar, one we'd never normally go to in a million years. Then every hour on the hour during the workday, I send my boyfriend an email feeding him clues about where I want him to meet me that night -- little riddles that hint at the name, landmarks that will lead him to the location. When he puts all the pieces together, he finds me waiting in the most private booth I can find. Now he's scheming up the next mystery meeting."
Caeli: 14/18 for sex.
Elliot: What if they don't find each other?
Caeli: I suppose the hints will be fairly obvious, at least the last one.
Elliot: Or she could get mad that he "doesn't know her at all" because he couldn't understand some obscure hint, and he could be mad about wasting his time looking for her. So he calls her cell phone, and she says "if you don't know, then I'm not going to tell you". Then they break up because both are angry about different things and neither will apologize.
Caeli: They might apologize, and have make-up sex.
Elliot: Or they might have angry sex before that. Sex doesn't actually solve the problem. They'll still break up later. Or get married, and fight for their whole lives.
Caeli: Is that fair? Maybe they'll put it behind them.
Elliot: What's needed is an attitude of problem solving. This is lacking in romantic relationships, where compromises are expected.
Caeli: What's wrong with compromise?
Elliot: It's a course of action no one thinks is best. The goal should be something that everyone thinks is best.
Caeli: What if I approve of the compromise?
Elliot: You think it's the best option available?
Caeli: Yes.
Elliot: Then it's not a compromise, it's getting what you want.
Caeli: No, what I want is my way.
Elliot: You think your way is not best, but you want it to happen anyway?
Caeli: Yeah.
Elliot: You want the wrong thing to happen?
Caeli: Oh. I guess so.
Elliot: That's not good.
Caeli: What's the right attitude?
Elliot: Whatever you think would be best to do, you should want to do that.
Caeli: But what about what I initially wanted. Won't I be giving that up?
Elliot: If the "compromise" proposal doesn't get you what you wanted, why would you think it's best?
Caeli: Because we have to do something, and I don't want to fight.
Elliot: OK, it probably is better than fighting. But that's not the real alternative. The alternative could be to try to think of some plan that you'd be happy with, that didn't involve any fighting.
Caeli: Isn't it assumed that we've already tried to do that, and failed?
Elliot: No. It seems more like it was assumed that wasn't possible, so it was never tried.
Caeli: Oh. Maybe you're right.
Hold the Sports Section Hostage
Steal the paper before your guy gets a chance to check out the scores. Place a ransom note on his pillow and insist that your demands for A.M. sex, smooching, and snuggling be met before you'll consider giving him access to the stats.
Caeli: 15/19 for our sex count. Stealing and demanding don't sound nice.
Elliot: Yeah. The assumption is that he'd rather read about sports than have sex, so he should be forced into sex.
Caeli: Ugh.
Outlaw Work Talk
Make office gripes and groans a taboo topic when having dinner with your doll. "My boyfriend and I make meals our time," says Anne, a 29-year-old furniture maker. "We talk about upcoming vacations, friends, movies -- anything that lets us share ideas instead of bombarding each other with tales of work woes. After eight hours of focusing on other people on the job, it's such a luxurious treat to indulge in some time that's all about us." If professional topics accidentally pop up, quash them by saying, "Get your mind out of the grind and back onto me."
Caeli: 15/20.
Elliot: If she considers office-talk unpleasant, why would he talk about it? And why is the default assumption that they find each other's work boring?
Caeli: And why outlaw it, instead of just asking nicely?
Give Him an All-Day "Scentual" Reminder
"The next time your guy sleeps over, spritz a small item of clothing -- scarf, underwear, camisole -- with your signature fragrance, and slyly slip it into his briefcase or backpack," suggests author Corn. "With your sexy scent wafting out every time he reaches into his bag, he won't be able to take his mind off of you." When the clock strikes 5, he'll follow his nose all the way to your front door.
Caeli: Should this one count as being about sex?
Elliot: It's based on sensory stimulation. He slept over last night, so coming to the door may not mean immediate sex, but can be assumed to mean sex that night. Since we counted touch-focussed ones, I think smell-focussed should count too, to be consistent. So, 16/21.
Caeli: So it's not quite a count of sexual ones, but also ones about sensory stimulation?
Elliot: I guess so. Sex is a type of sensory stimulation. Not just touch, but smell is said to be part of it too (and the others, of course). And the quote even says specifically that the smell is intended to be sexy.
Caeli: OK, makes sense. But is it bad that the tips focus on this?
Elliot: It demonstrates that romance pays a lot of attention to sex. Sometimes people deny that.
Caeli: Why do they deny it?
Elliot: To disingenuously defend romance.
Caeli: What's the attack it's under?
Elliot: "If romance is supposed to be a way to have a good relationship, then why is it mostly about sex?"
Caeli: And the assumption is that sex is not what a good relationship consists of?
Elliot: Right. Everyone agrees to that. That doesn't mean sex can't be there. But there has to be other stuff. Otherwise it's just a fling, for fun, and won't last.
Caeli: So the conclusion is that romance, due to its focus on sex, can't be about how to make an actually good non-sex-based relationship?
Elliot: Yes.
Get a Sound Track
Create your relationship repertoire by picking a few favorite songs (a sentimental score, a sultry in-the-mood croon, a sassy "Feel the Earth Move"-type number) that really capture the essence of your couplehood and make them yours by playing them on romantic, sexy occasions.
Caeli: This is about a sense, and it's sexy, but I don't think it should be counted as about sex. So 16/22.
Elliot: Yeah, presumably they'll just want to dance, or hold hands and feel special. Which might lead to sex. But so might going out to dinner, and absolutely everything else couples do.
Caeli: Are you sure everything might?
Elliot: Fights can. Apologies can. Eating can. Movies can. Going to sleep can. Doing something together can. Missing each other because they were apart can. What can't?
Caeli: How about getting dirty and gross?
Elliot: Washing each other off could be sexy.
Caeli: How about giving a political speech?
Elliot: Sounds tense. They'll want to relax afterwards.
Caeli: How about being diagnosed with an STD?
Elliot: OK, you win. :)
Compliment Each Other in Public
"My girlfriend tells everyone that I'm the most talented person she's ever met," says Andrew, 28, a teacher. "She'll tell a cashier, 'We'll take a chocolate brownie because my guy so deserves it.' When she introduces me, she says, 'This is my hilariously funny boyfriend' or 'Meet my handsome boyfriend. He puts George Clooney to shame.' My heart jumps every time. I swear it makes going to the deli sexy."
Caeli: 16/23 are about sex. That's our final count. It's 70%.
Elliot: Why do they feel the need to exaggerate so badly? I think they're insecure.
Caeli: If they're insecure, wouldn't the best thing be honest compliments that they know they can trust?
Elliot: Only if the truth is good. But it might not be. They probably honestly aren't sure about each other -- they don't know if they'll want to marry or not -- and that's scary.
Caeli: Hey, even this one had to bring up sex again, it says it makes deli trips sexy.
Elliot: Yeah. It's ever present.
Caeli: Any concluding points?
Elliot: This is an advice column. In many ways, it's better than people actually, usually do. It's an idealization. It's also worse in some ways, because people don't always take romance this seriously. But if taking romance seriously makes things worse, that's a damning criticism of romance.
Caeli: Any final thoughts?
Elliot: Please don't have kids with someone just because you like the sex and have romantic moments.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)


Caeli: Hi!
Elliot: Hi, Caeli.
Caeli: What should I ask about today?
Elliot: How about authority?
Caeli: What about it?
Elliot: Believing ideas because they are backed by some authority is a blight on our society.
Caeli: Isn't that well known? You can't trust something just because the government said it; experts can be wrong; "argument from authority" is a logical fallacy.
Elliot: That's all true. It could be worse. But it could also be a lot better. Take government. Although people distrust it in certain ways, they also think governments have special, magical powers. Only governments can solve public good problems. How? By force. Why can't normal people solve public good problems by using force? Because force is bad. So why does it work for the government? Because people trust the government to do the right thing and not make mistakes. Which is absurd given its record.
Elliot: The reason "argument from authority" is a well-known fallacy is because it's a common fallacy. It needs to be pointed out because people do it all the time.
Elliot: Experts can be wrong, but people often assume they are right, or likely to be right, and trust them based on faith, without knowing the expert's reasons, arguments, or method of reaching his conclusions.
Caeli: Aren't experts usually right?
Elliot: Who knows? Being right isn't a matter of probability.
Elliot: The reason experts are valuable is that in certain circumstances we can reasonably expect they have looked into issues for us, using methods we would approve of. When we ask a lawyer what the law says, we're saving ourselves the trouble of looking it up. We'd only want to look it up ourselves if we thought we might know something the lawyer doesn't.
Caeli: How is that different from what most people do?
Elliot: One of the critical things is that I only listen to the lawyer if I agree with him. If I think he's mistaken, he has no authority over me. I'll form my own opinion, and argue with him, and I won't consider him likely to be right.
Elliot: But it's a frequent occurrence in debates that someone says scientists, research, or "the experts" back his side. That's silly. Expertise cannot overrule disagreement. If I disagree, the person needs to give actual reasons that his side is right. If experts have come up with good arguments, he could quote them, but they will only have whatever power is inherent in the arguments.
Caeli: What if someone says scientists have proven that apples are nutritious? Should that have no more weight than if my neighbor said he had proven it?
Elliot: We can reasonably suppose that a scientist has done something before saying this. If we want to say he's wrong, we'll need to answer whatever basis his claim has. If your neighbor says stuff, it's likely he has just made it up. In other words, when a scientist says something, it's an idea that has been subjected to a lot of criticism already. When your neighbor says something, that isn't so.
Caeli: And being subjected to criticism makes ideas better?
Elliot: Yeah.
Caeli: Then won't scientists have better ideas than you?
Elliot: Not necessarily. I can think about ideas, and criticize them, just as scientists do.
Caeli: So let me try to summarize what your position. If someone believes something because an expert told him to, that's reasonable as a way to save time, but it's no good in a debate. If there is disagreement, we need to give reasons, and they should be judged on their merits not their source.
Elliot: That's correct.
Caeli: I think I'm convinced. But you said authority is a blight on society. Is this really so bad?
Elliot: People get the things you summarized wrong, frequently. But that is indeed not the end of the world. I was thinking of a number of other issues as well.
Caeli: Like what?
Elliot: There's authority over children, granted to teachers, parents, and adults in general. There's government authority, as I mentioned earlier. There is religious authority. But none of those are the worst of it.
Caeli: What is the worst?
Elliot: The worst forms of authority are very subtle. Imagine you play a game, and win. Should you feel proud?
Caeli: I think so. I did well.
Elliot: Did you? Perhaps the game was very easy.
Caeli: If it's easy, couldn't that indicate I'm good at it?
Elliot: It could. But the point is that feeling proud automatically is trusting in the authority of the game designer. I believe that it's important to think about games we play, and consider whether beating them is something to be proud of or not.
Caeli: Are there many games that aren't worthwhile? I don't know any.
Elliot: There are games designed for young children which are simple and I wouldn't be proud to beat, today. It's true that games designed be large companies generally meet some minimum quality standards. However, there are a lot of other games available to play. Many computer games come with "world editors" that let users create their own games. Most of these games are badly done and they often include godly items that let you easily win.
Caeli: Should games never have godly items or power-ups?
Elliot: It depends how easy they are to acquire. If a game gives rewards much greater than the difficulty of the task achieved, then it becomes very easy. That should be boring. But many people keep playing. They are submitting to the authority of the game designer, even though he's just a regular user with no special expertise. They aren't thinking.
Caeli: How can I tell the difference between a good and bad game?
Elliot: In a good game, you'll be learning things. You'll be able to beat the same areas faster and more efficiently after you've played a lot. You'll know useful tricks that you discovered, which weren't obvious. In computer and video games, you'll learn things about the AI, and find its weak points.
Caeli: What's AI?
Elliot: Artificial Intelligence. Whenever there are enemies in a game, controlled by a computer chip, they have an AI which tells them what to do. It's often very simple and can be taken advantage of.
Caeli: If they are usually simple, why is taking advantage of one interesting?
Elliot: Because it's not simple to discover how they work. You see the individual actions that the enemies perform, but the AI consists of a few fairly universal rules. You have to try to find patterns and form general explanations from what you observe.
Caeli: Oh, that's cool. So, how else can I tell which games are good?
Elliot: Consider chess. When you learn more, you'll be able to beat people you couldn't before. And you'll know more patterns. And you'll be better able to invent new patterns. You'll know general principles like "control the center", and you'll know why they are important, and when not to follow them, and how to take advantage if your opponent doesn't do it.
Elliot: In a bad game, you might just issue an "attack" order and your hero will kill everything, because he's too strong. There's nothing to learn, no interesting ways to win faster the second time. Or imagine you have some spells. How many different ways are there to use them? If there's only one way to use each spell, then there's very little decision making, and little to learn. But if there are a lot of options to keep track of, that's a better game.
Caeli: Are you sure you couldn't beat a bad game faster the second time? Suppose there was a godly item a little ways in. If you knew where it was you could run straight there and get it faster than you did last time.
Elliot: That's true. No game is absolutely, completely worthless. Their value is on a continuum. Some are very bad, others are very good. We should only be a little bit proud if we beat a very bad game. The main point is that we need to consider how hard the game was before we're proud to beat it, instead of just assuming that the game creator did a good job.
Elliot: Another issue is competitive games that aren't fair. Suppose there is a game where one person controls orcs, and one humans. You might assume that if you're beating another human being then you must be doing a good job. But that is only true if the game designer made the game fairly fair. If humans are actually ten times more powerful than orcs, then the only way you could lose is if the other person was ten times better than you.
Caeli: That sounds silly.
Elliot: I've watched people play games where one player gets a huge advantage, use the advantage, and go kill other players. They think that's fun. The advantage is generally something that takes no control to use, like attacking really fast for lots of damage, and having tons of health.
Caeli: What are some examples of veiled respect for authority besides games?
Elliot: There are a lot at school. People give undo authority to The Instructions. Many people try to do exactly as they are told, and get confused if the instructions aren't clear. They don't think about what might be a better way, or whether they are learning much. I remember people would refuse to take my suggestions simply because the instructions said to do something else. They didn't offer up any reasons that the way in the instructions was better, whereas I did give reasons that my way was an improvement. But it didn't matter. The instructions had authority.
Elliot: Another example is that when people want to learn about something, they often do their homework. Is that the best way to learn the material? Rarely. It's one-size-fits-all learning, and that's not ideal. But people assume that because the lesson plans and assignments were designed by experts, they are best.
Caeli: Got other examples?
Elliot: Suppose people are playing a game together. And don't worry, this is completely different than I was talking about earlier. Now, the rules say to do one thing. But one player doesn't want to. He thinks that won't be fun or interesting. He wants to make a change. Many people will refuse on principle. The rules have authority.
Elliot: This is terribly frustrating. You're in a room with three friends. No one else is around. There should be nothing here to thwart you. It should be very easy to get what you want. But you start playing a game, written by people far away, and for whatever reason you don't like part of it. That's no surprise, games aren't perfect and it wasn't designed for you personally. No big deal, right? Just change it. But your friends may call you a cheater, and think you just don't want to lose. They may think they are winning and like it that way. They may say games have rules for a reason. If you're playing with your parents, they may tell you that you can't change the rules of life, and you'd better get used to it.
Caeli: Next?
Elliot: There are experiments that psychologists have done. They'll assign people roles. Some of them have authority, and some don't. It's not like before everyone plays there part. The people arbitrarily given authority aren't special in any way. They don't know best. But it doesn't matter.
Elliot: In one experiment, everyone was divided into two rival groups. The groups fought. Why? Because they respected the authority of the people who put them in groups. They accepted the rules they were told of how the experiment would work. They cared more about that than being nice to the new people they met.
Elliot: There's another experiment where they told people to use electric shock on others. Even when the others screamed and begged them to stop, they kept doing what they were told. They were told it was important. They had faith. (In fact, the people being hurt were only acting.)
Caeli: That's terrible.
Elliot: Often, just naming something gives it authority. Instead of asking what's the best way to do something, people often pick a named thing, and ask how that school of thought handles it. What is the Attachment Parenting way to handle bullies? What is the Parent Effectiveness Training way? People choose an authority to submit themselves to, and then try to get all their answers from it. Lost is what would be rational and what would work well.
Elliot: This is very common. People want to know the Zen way to think about something, so that they can be Zen. They want to know the Christian way to approach something, so they can be a good Christian.
Elliot: If someone goes up to you and says, "Will you do whatever I say, for a while?" you will almost certainly decline. That's a terrible deal. You should only do what he says as long as it sounds like good ideas. But if he says, "I've found out about this new way of living, called Mystara's Glory. It will make you happy." then a lot of people will agree. And they'll find themselves doing whatever he says, and asking how to do it better. All he has to do is veil his orders with a name, and people will think the name must have at least enough authority to be worth a try.
Caeli: That's sneaky. But are there any good reasons to want to know, say, what Zen says about something?
Elliot: Sure. If you liked Zen ideas in the past, you might be interested in hearing more because you think Zen may be a good source of ideas. And knowing the source and history of ideas can help you understand them better.
Caeli: If there's one thing I should take away from this, what is it?
Elliot: Never obey authority.
Caeli: Why?
Elliot: Because I said so.
Caeli: You're silly.
Elliot: Excellent :)
Elliot: More seriously, people should think for themselves more. Make your own choices, live your own life, be independent, and take responsibility for what you do. If someone tells you to do something, or a Proper Noun tells you to, and you do it, that's your decision and your responsibility. I don't care if it's Hitler, or your father, or Zen. You need to make your own evaluations about what's a good idea. There isn't much point being free to live your own life and have your own ideas if you don't actually use your freedom.
Caeli: Why'd you mention Hitler?
Elliot: Because people try to excuse German soldiers who were "just following orders," and that is no excuse.
Caeli: Oh. Ugh. Anyway, I'm leaving now. See you later.
Elliot: Bye.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)

War And Trade

Caeli: Hi!
Elliot: Hi, Caeli.
Caeli: Why are we at war?
Elliot: Because people want to kill us.
Caeli: Why do they want to kill us?
Elliot: What difference does it make?
Caeli: Maybe we could reason with them, or stop pissing them off.
Elliot: We've tried to reason with them. It hasn't worked. I'm not saying it's impossible. But apparently we don't know how.
Caeli: Maybe we were almost at a breakthrough.
Elliot: There aren't any signs that we were.
Elliot: As far as pissing them off, and why they want to kill us, there are mixed messages coming from various places. The Western media would have us believe that our cultural imperialism and colonialism, and arrogance, and stuff like that is to blame.
Caeli: What does that even mean?
Elliot: Theoretically it means that we should not meddle with other countries, and certainly not try to control and exploit them. But the left advocates all sorts of intervention in other countries. It isn't actually isolationist.
Caeli: Not controlling and exploiting other nations sounds good.
Elliot: Sure. No one disagrees about that.
Caeli: Then what's the argument about?
Elliot: Suppose an American company opens a factory in a third world country. They offer work for 20 cents an hour. They make a profit. Some people say this is exploitation. Others say it's just offering people an opportunity, and if they didn't consider it an improvement, they wouldn't take it.
Caeli: What do you say?
Elliot: No one is forced to take these jobs. They want to. That's not exploitation, it's free association and free trade. If anyone actually is forced to take a job, that actually is wrong and, more to the point, criminal.
Caeli: Some people say that they are forced to keep the job, even though they don't want it, because they have a family to feed. They have no choice. The big company is taking advantage of their circumstances. Is that exploitation?
Elliot: By force, I meant if the company sends thugs to beat up people who quit their job. If you're "forced" to keep your job in order to continue being paid, that is not exploitation.
Caeli: These people are in such bad circumstances. What should be done?
Elliot: They will be paid higher wages when there is more competition for their labor. The more people that want to hire them, the more leverage they'll have. So, if they start more local companies, then foreign companies will have to offer higher wages to get any workers. And if more foreign companies come to "exploit" them by offering jobs, they will compete with each other and wages will go up.
Caeli: So you're saying if people would just shut up and encourage more big, American corporations to build factories in third world countries, that would be a huge step towards solving the problem, and towards making those areas richer. And by contrast, opposing those projects keeps wages down, and hurts the people that the protesters supposedly care about.
Elliot: Yes, you've got it. But bear in mind that there are other obstacles those people face.
Caeli: Like what?
Elliot: Violence. Not by visiting Americans, but by other locals. And by their own governments. And their governments confiscate and squander wealth.
Caeli: Why do they elect such bad leaders?
Elliot: In many cases, they don't elect them. They live under tyrants who took power by force. In other cases, they don't know better, or none of the other candidates looked better, or the guy made false promises and fooled them.
Caeli: What should be done about that?
Elliot: If we spread democracy to those countries, and helped establish good political traditions, that would help. They don't have a lot of things we take for granted, there. Respect for human rights is not ingrained in their culture, nor is the idea that interactions should be voluntary.
Caeli: Do you advocate meddling like that?
Elliot: Not really. I'm just saying that if you want to help those people, that would help. Not much else would. For example, giving them money is little help, because their governments steal it. Or the people themselves squander it, because they aren't knowledgeable about how to use wealth efficiently and effectively.
Elliot: If there was an intervention that was popular enough and well thought out enough to get a hearing in American political debate, I'd almost certainly be in favor of it. But I don't spend my time telling people that what we really need to do is go help Africa.
Caeli: Should we care if Africans have it rough? Or is it not our problem?
Elliot: It isn't our problem. When people say American companies are taking advantage of these people's circumstance, that's silly. We didn't create their circumstances. All it really means is that they are willing to trade with people who don't have much. That's far closer to kindness than exploitation.
Caeli: Is it kindness?
Elliot: Nah. It's profitable. It's just trade. Free trade helps everyone involved.
Elliot: Continuing on, it does matter if there are people in the world in bad conditions. They are humans beings. People matter. It is not our responsibility. But if we can help, that is a perfectly good thing to do. And if we can help at a profit, that's even better. That's a good reason to prefer helping them through trade and offering jobs (which is a form of trade) instead of through government intervention, which is paid for with taxes, and not designed to make a profit.
Caeli: What about charity? That's not profitable.
Elliot: Voluntary charity is a thousand times better than involuntary (government) charity. My only concern is how effective it is. Is it really doing much good for the amount of money spent?
Caeli: What's fair trade?
Elliot: Fair trade is a doctrine that says free trade is good sometimes and bad sometimes. It opposes any trades that people don't like. For example, minimum wage laws are a form of fair trade. What those say is that any trades where someone's labored is valued less than a minimum amount are illegal.
Caeli: How do they choose the minimum amount?
Elliot: However much money they feel people "need"? I don't know. I guess whatever is politically feasible.
Caeli: What are the effects of minimum wage laws?
Elliot: They make it illegal for unskilled people to get jobs. If your labor is worth less than the minimum, you can't sell it. Unless you can get someone to overpay you.
Caeli: Why is it overpaying?
Elliot: Labor has a market rate. It's governed by supply and demand. The more people want to purchase a hour of a certain type of labor, the higher the wage for that hour of work, because sellers are in a good bargaining position. The more people want to sell those hours, the lower the wage, because buyers are in a good bargaining position. The more other people you could trade with instead, the better deal you can ask for.
Caeli: That sounds like basic economics.
Elliot: Yeah, it is. Or it should be. So, labor has a price that it's worth. If you set the minimum wage law too high, now that can't be sold.
Caeli: What if it isn't set too high?
Elliot: If it's set so low that it doesn't exclude any trades, then it has no effect whatsoever. The only possible effect of minimum wage laws is to make certain trades illegal.
Caeli: That sucks. It especially hurts unskilled people, who were supposed to be the beneficiaries of fair trade. What do people want them then?
Elliot: First, they can't handle the idea of unskilled people. They don't want anyone to have to live on very little money, so they just try to ban it. They like to imagine there is plenty of money to go around, and the only problem is greedy capitalists.
Caeli: I thought the problem was people who have little skill, so they don't create much wealth.
Elliot: Indeed. And that isn't exactly a problem, anyway. If we had free trade, these people would have better, richer lives than their parents did. And they'd quickly move up in the world. Of course they'd like to be rich now. But most of them will be happy to work their way up, if given a chance.
Caeli: Do minimum wages help some people who get paid them?
Elliot: Yes. A few people benefit. But mostly it just destroys jobs, by making many jobs illegal. However, it does create an artificial scarcity of labor for certain jobs, and thus raise the price.
Caeli: Price raising? So it works?
Elliot: Of the people who would have been paid below minimum wage, some lose their jobs entirely, and some are paid more. That isn't exactly working. But it's worse. Consider the ones who are paid more. That money has to come from somewhere. It comes from employers. A lot of these employers are small businesses who don't have extra money. The owners have to work longer hours because they can't afford to hire enough help. And they raise their prices. If prices go up, being paid more isn't as helpful. Most people lose out.
Caeli: That sounds like a big mess.
Elliot: Indeed. When you forcibly prevent free association and free trade, that makes a big mess. Free trade always involves two parties who want to be there, and who both think they are benefitting. Who could object to that?
Caeli: Fair trade advocates.
Elliot: :)
Caeli: Hey, weren't we discussing the war?
Elliot: We're at war because people want to kill us. Some people in the West think this is because of unfair trades, racism, cultural insensitivity, and so on. But that's false. If you listen to the people who want to kill us, that's not what they actually say.
Caeli: What do they say?
Elliot: They frequently say that they hate Jews and Christians, and want to subjugate and kill them, and force Sharia on them. And they believe that America is Satanic. And keep in mind that this isn't just terrorists, these are standard things that Imams say at religious services, and leaders say on TV in Arabic.
Caeli: What's Sharia?
Elliot: Very strict, Islamic law. It's nasty stuff. For example, women are treated like dirt and are stoned for adultery.
Caeli: How can people who make a fuss about opposing racism and sexism in our culture stand for something like that?
Elliot: That's a good question. If you can get them to answer it, I'd love to hear.
Elliot: So, what else do the terrorists say? Here are some of their generic bullet points:
  • They (meaning Jews and Crusaders) are Conspirators who have been, and are, responsible for all the woes of Muslims and they are planning much worse. (If you believed that of someone, wouldn't you want to kill them too?)
  • They (Jews and Crusaders) are corrupt in that they are promiscuous, their women are whores, they are materialistic, they gamble, they trade with interest, they don't kill their homosexuals, etc...
  • They love life, while Muslims love death. (Here, the underlying allegation is that, being corrupt, there is nothing they will risk their lives and comfort for, and hence they are destined to be defeated.)
  • They attacked us and occupied our lands and oppressed our peoples, and we want bloody revenge.
  • They do not follow Islam.
Elliot: The men who committed the 9/11 attacks said that they were mad about Bosnia.
Caeli: What happened in Bosnia?
Elliot: We used military force against Christians to defend Muslims.
Caeli: Why are they mad about that?
Elliot: Who knows. It doesn't make sense. Perhaps because they are ignorant. I think what's going on is our enemies hate us first, and make up excuses second. Whether the excuses are coherent doesn't make much difference. The West apologizes for the terrorists and makes up more Western-friendly excuses, and their own people know that it's all just different ways of saying "death to the infidels".
Caeli: What are some facts I should know?
Elliot: First, let me warn you: this stuff is unpleasant. It involves death and suffering, and callous disregard for life.
Caeli: I think I better hear it anyway.
Elliot: They have textbooks in schools in the Arab world with maps that don't have Israel. They indoctrinate their children with lies and hate. There was an incident where a school was on fire. Some girls tried to leave. Not so fast. The religious police caught them: they didn't have enough clothing covering them. It was improper. So, the religious police sent them back into the fire to die. Fifteen girls died. These cultures we are dealing with don't value human life like we do. Especially not female life.
Caeli: That's so awful.
Elliot: Yeah. It also makes it implausible that the real reason they want to kill us is because they are upset about some incident we caused. They cause worse incidents, themselves, all the time.
Caeli: If they don't value life, and won't be reasonable, what can we do? Surely we can't just kill all of them.
Elliot: Careful with "can't". We could. It's within our power. But, we rightly do not want to. Not everyone is part of the religious police, or a terrorist. People are full of contradictions. They cheer the 9/11 attacks because Americans were hurt, worship Osama for his great success, and also believe the US government or the Jews were behind the attacks. That's a contradiction. Sometimes they don't care for life. But other times they do. A lot of them would like a better life if they knew how to have it. A lot of them would be happier living in peace.
Caeli: There's an argument which says that Arabs aren't cut out for democracy.
Elliot: That's racist. Arabs are just as capable of being free and democratic as white people.
Caeli: Then why don't they have democracies?
Elliot: Bad traditions, bad culture.
Caeli: What can be done?
Elliot: Use force as necessary, to defend ourselves. But also use persuasion, and spread knowledge. Like everyone, they are capable of improving.
Caeli: Is defensive force good enough? We can't wait until they attack before we do something. It's too late then. People will be dead.
Elliot: By defensive force, I don't mean waiting and retaliating. I mean taking whatever measures are necessary to defend ourselves. It's whatever policy is required to keep us safe. If that means making attacks against people who are a threat, but who haven't attacked yet, so be it.
Caeli: Can we really tell who's a threat before they attack?
Elliot: In many cases we can. There are such things as terrorist training camps, weapons depots, meeting rooms, bunkers, fortified positions, and monetary backers. Those are all good targets. Without them, the terrorists are much weaker.
Caeli: How could someone object to attacking any of those?
Elliot: If a terrorist training camp is not within our borders, people say that States should be sovereign, and to let the local government deal with it.
Caeli: What's wrong with that?
Elliot: Nothing if they do it. Everything if they don't.
Caeli: If they won't get rid of terrorist training camps within their borders, and they ask us not to, aren't they aiding terrorists?
Elliot: Yes.
Caeli: And isn't that justification to invade?
Elliot: Yes.
Caeli: This stuff doesn't seem that hard.
Elliot: That's what I always say.
Caeli: If we invade, won't innocents be hurt?
Elliot: Yes. That's unfortunate.
Caeli: Is it not wrong?
Elliot: If hurting innocents was always wrong, no matter what, our hands would be tied. One terrorist straps babies all over his body, and he's invincible. He kills whoever he wants. And if property counts, all he has to do is steal a robe. If we shoot him, we damage someone's property.
Caeli: What's the right attitude, then?
Elliot: Take reasonable steps to minimize collateral damage, such as never aiming at innocents. But do not take any steps that are suicidal.
Caeli: Suicidal?
Elliot: If a step would kill Americans then that's no good. We shouldn't kill ourselves. Not ever. Not even one person.
Caeli: Would you kill 40 Iraqis to save one American?
Elliot: We don't face decisions like that. We face decisions about what policies to have. The policy I suggest would actually save countless lives. People would very quickly stop screwing with us. Any terrorists would be completely unwelcome anywhere. The civilian populations would be highly motivated to do something about them. If they don't, we will.
Caeli: What if they weren't unwelcome?
Elliot: Then those people are aiding terrorists. That doesn't mean we'll target them on purpose. But if they decide to sleep next door to a terrorist, and die in a bomb blast, that is no disaster.
Caeli: What about today? People die as collateral damage. They didn't make the terrorists completely unwelcome. Do they deserve it?
Elliot: Things are murky today. We try very hard to protect people. Frequently even people that concretely aid terrorists. But certainly people who are only complicit, and don't do anything about terrorists, or help in minor ways. By protecting their ability to help terrorists, we encourage them to do so, and we prevent it being clear who is guilty or not. This ambiguity is the largest cause of collateral damage.
Caeli: So by being so nice and so forgiving, we actually encourage people to push the limits and come very close to being a threat to us that must be forcibly dealt with?
Elliot: Exactly.
Caeli: That reminds me of earlier. Protesting free trade, in an effort to help poor people, actually hurts poor people.
Elliot: Yeah. Good intentions don't guarantee good results.
Caeli: Nice talking.
Elliot: Bye.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)


Caeli: Hi!
Elliot: Hi, Caeli.
Caeli: Is it a problem if people are greedy?
Elliot: No.
Caeli: Why not?
Elliot: Doing something because it's in your interest is good. Doing it because you are forced to is bad.
Caeli: Why are you talking about interest?
Elliot: Greed means trying to get stuff you want. It could be money, it could be other stuff. It is the things you value. Things you consider to be in your interest.
Caeli: But when people say greed, they always mean money.
Elliot: They are cheating. When one person gets what he wants, and it isn't money, they don't call it greed, even though it's equally self-interested. When another makes money, that is greed. And by the way, money is just an "I owe you" for actual, real stuff. Money should not be the object of scorn anymore than wheat is. Money is actually quite nice: it's easier to carry around and doesn't go bad.
Caeli: Doesn't doing things for money make people ignore other things, like treating their customers well?
Elliot: Treating customers well is profitable.
Caeli: Not always. If you can trick them, you can get something for nothing.
Elliot: That doesn't mean treating customers well isn't profitable. It is.
Caeli: Isn't that kind of pedantic?
Elliot: No. It's important that treating customers well is a way to make money. It works. We shouldn't overlook that.
Caeli: OK, but maybe you could make more money by tricking people, so a greedy person would prefer to do that.
Elliot: If you trick people, or do anything else but sell/trade something valuable, then you are working against people. You have to outfox them. That is far harder than cooperating with them. Now and then it has spectacular results, to be sure. But frequently it has bad results. But Cooperation consistently has good results, and also has more spectacular results.
Caeli: I guess your point is that more wealth is created when people don't work against each other.
Elliot: Yes. Fighting with people over the wealth that already existed is a silly strategy, when you can just make more.
Caeli: What if you cut corners, but your customers don't know?
Elliot: Then there is an opportunity for someone else to sell a similar product, but in a more transparent fashion. Or for him to inform people about your shoddy work.
Caeli: What if no one finds out?
Elliot: Then you've managed to trick the entire world. Congratulations. But that's very hard. Your workers could talk. How will you stop them? By paying them a lot?
Caeli: Sure.
Elliot: I thought this was about narrow-minded greed. But now you want to pay your workers well.
Caeli: Good point. But it might be worth it to fool everyone.
Elliot: The better you do, the harder it will be to prevent leaks, and the more rewards are available for someone who spills the beans. There are other issues as well. Consider new hires. They have nothing invested in the company. For many of them, being fired in their first week wouldn't be that big a deal. How will you keep them quiet?
Caeli: I'll pay them.
Elliot: Having to pay a lot of money to all your workers, and more besides to new people, just to keep a secret, doesn't sound like the best way to get rich. Secrets are expensive. But it's worse than that. Not everyone will accept money. Many people have principles.
Caeli: OK, I give up.
Elliot: Greed doesn't motivate people to do bad things, because doing bad things does not make your life rich and fulfilling. Doing bad things turns people against you, and it is bad to be that way and makes it hard to be creative. The greedier someone is -- the more he cares about achieving things -- the more he will want to ensure he gets it. And there's only one reliable way to do that: create valuable, good things.
Caeli: What about people who want stuff besides money?
Elliot: They, too, should create valuable, good things. Like philosophical dialogs, or Warcraft III maps. This can bring them fun or knowledge. Or if they want to attract a desirable wife, the best way to do that is to be a worthwhile person with good, valuable things in his life.
Caeli: What are the alternatives to greed?
Elliot: If you aren't trying to get good things for yourself, then you're not greedy. This is very dangerous. What will you try to get? Common candidates are to increase the fairness of the world, or the proselytize for a religion, or to try to hurt people.
Caeli: What's wrong with fairness?
Elliot: It means going around interfering with people. It means deciding that their way of living is unfair, and doing things to them by force. Like taking their stuff and giving it to poor people.
Caeli: Don't poor people have a right to have stuff?
Elliot: No. Not unless they make it.
Caeli: But wouldn't it be better if everyone could have a nice life?
Elliot: Yes. And everyone can. They should get jobs. It's easy. No one is stopping them.
Caeli: But maybe they need help.
Elliot: Then help them, on your own time, with your own wealth.
Caeli: OK, what if I do. Is that good?
Elliot: It's OK. But in general poor people are the ones who have made bad decisions about what to do with resources. That's why they don't have any. They squander wealth. Helping those people is often a waste.
Caeli: Who is it better to help?
Elliot: Productive people who have a large effect on the world. If you can make a brilliant scientist just a little bit happier, so that he makes better inventions, that could make the whole world drastically better.
Caeli: Only if you get lucky.
Elliot: Well, in the abstract, consider this: there are people who are skilled at using resources in good ways so that they have large, beneficial effects. They end up with more resources, and so does everyone else. People like that, due to logic, are likely to end up rich. And on the other hand there are people who constantly make bad decisions. Every time they use wealth for something, it turns out badly. Those people will end up poor, due to logic.
Caeli: OK, I guess there must be those kinds of people. And I see that helping the first time is very efficient, and helping the other type is best avoided. But do the two types correspond perfectly with rich and poor people?
Elliot: They don't. There are people with inheritances who are not doing much of value. But never fear: those people will either soon be poor, or they will hoard their money so it won't do anything bad.
Caeli: Isn't hoarding money bad?
Elliot: Quite the opposite. If the silly rich person sit around with pieces of paper, that is absolutely great. He isn't causing any trouble, and meanwhile some other person has the actual stuff the paper represents, and will do useful things with it.
Caeli: But won't the rich guy get interest and become richer?
Elliot: Perhaps. But no matter. Loaning money is a great thing: it gives poor people an opportunity to control a lot of wealth. This means that poor people who are skilled with wealth can get a chance to use some, and do good things.
Caeli: Oh, that's cool.
Elliot: Yeah. So as I was going to say, there are also poor people who are not incompetent and stupid. But, again, never fear: they can and will move up in the world. They will make good decisions, and their wealth will increase. And, as we've discovered, if some rich person will loan them wealth, that will be great. Both people will benefit: the rich man took a risk on this person, and will be paid for it. And the poor man will make a huge profit and keep a lot of it. Their mutual greed lets them cooperate.
Caeli: What happens if the person who gets the loan fails?
Elliot: That is a very important possibility. The result is that both people will be poorer. And that's as it should be: the rich man had bad judgment to loan this person his money, and now he won't be able to make that mistake again. And the poor man squandered money, and now no one will want to loan him money again. So the whole system is self-correcting. The people who do well have more power to make decisions about what to do with wealth in the future. And the people who do badly, end up with less power to make decisions.
Elliot: I want to add at this point that lending money is a very important skill. It is not a way that rich people hurt us. A man who has a talent for finding skilled people who lack capital, but who want to do great things if only they could get started, is very important. He irons out the bugs in the system. Instead of having government wealth redistribution, we have loans. We have people who actively seek out people who should have wealth distributed to them, and who personally give them money. That is wonderful.
Caeli: I'd like some money.
Elliot: What would you do with it?
Caeli: I'm not sure.
Elliot: It's a good thing that people are too discerning to give you much, then.
Caeli: Actually, they will give me thousands of dollars.
Elliot: That's true. That's a small enough amount that it's no big risk to a rich person. And even someone who works at minimum wage will make many thousands of dollars per year. So anyone can pay that back.
Caeli: But I can get it now, before I make it. It could help me get started. Say I wanted to work with computers, but first I needed to buy a computer and take a few classes. I could get money, now, to do those things, and pay it back later. That's so useful.
Elliot: Yeah. Without people willing to take a risk on you, it'd be harder.
Caeli: You've mentioned force a few times.
Elliot: When people trade, they both think they are benefitting. And they usually really are, because they have different needs and priorities. This is purely good, and it's purely voluntary. The reason people trade voluntarily is that it helps them. Their greed -- their desire to benefit themselves -- makes sure I have plenty of people to trade with. If they weren't greedy, they wouldn't be motivated to trade with me. They wouldn't bother. That would suck.
Elliot: If someone was doing something at gunpoint, no one would call that greedy. Greedy actions always refer to things people choose to do, voluntarily, because they want to. It's meant to slander their motives. But never mind that. It proves the person is living freely. That is great.
Caeli: But what if their motives are bad?
Elliot: Who cares? As long as they don't hurt people or do criminal actions then you have nothing to complain about.
Caeli: What if I don't like it?
Elliot: As I've said, he hasn't hurt you. He's just living his own life. Leave him alone. Just as you want to make your own choices, let him make his. That's what living in a voluntary way means. No one does anything they don't want to. People have a right to their own lives.
Caeli: But that could lead to disasters, when smart people are prevented from intervening and helping avoid disasters.
Elliot: Interventions are also capable of leading to disasters, and in fact they frequently have.
Caeli: But imagine I'm really sure I should intervene. Then if I only intervene very selectively and carefully might that be best?
Elliot: No. If it's such a good idea, then what's the point of using force? Persuasion will be easy.
Caeli: What if it relies on something only I know?
Elliot: Tell your idea to people.
Caeli: They might not understand.
Elliot: You could solve this by figuring out how to explain it better. So that's one solution available to you. You could also solve it by explaining to them that you know something, and it's very important, but they don't understand, but despite that you'd really like them to take a certain action that will have good results. You could persuade them to do this. So that's another solution available to you. Third, you could think of a way to make their intended course of action not cause a disaster.
Caeli: That's cool. But will I really be able to make their mistake not cause problems?
Elliot: Often, yes. There's a very common example of this. Suppose an airline company is going to need a lot of fuel, and you know the price is going to go way up soon. What do you do? Well, you could tell them to buy a lot, so they don't go out of business. But the don't believe you. Now what? Easy. Buy fuel yourself. As the price goes up, sell your fuel, thus increasing supply and keeping the price from going up as much.
Caeli: That's great. Not only have I helped keep the price down, to protect the airline, but I've also made a profit. Greed could motivate me to save a lot of companies.
Elliot: Yeah. Keeping prices stable is very profitable, and it helps people a lot.
Caeli: I'm going to go. Any parting words?
Elliot: "Greed is good" is a cheat code in Warcraft III.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (4)


Caeli: Hi!
Elliot: Hi, Caeli.
Caeli: What does "fungible" mean?
Elliot: It means stuff that isn't unique so you can swap them and it doesn't matter. Like paperclips or staples. If I lend you paperclips, I won't care if I get exactly the same ones back. They are all the same. Compare that to a pet dog. Dogs are different and you wouldn't want to get a different dog back from your dog sitter.
Caeli: OK, that makes sense. What are some applications of the concept?
Elliot: Money is a big one. It's all the same. If you spend less on one thing, you can spend more on another, and vice versa. Whether you spend money that came from one source (like a paycheck) or another (like a gift) to buy something doesn't actually make a difference. You end up with the same amount in your bank account regardless.
Caeli: Don't people know that?
Elliot: No. People often have different policies for different sources of money. Paychecks go primarily to bills, expenses and savings. And people are usually fairly stingy with them. But other sources of money are often seen as "extra" and treated differently. Like gifts, tips, or money found on the street. People often aren't as careful and frugal with "extra" money.
Caeli: I see. Is it important to avoid that?
Elliot: Yes. We should have a policy about how to spend our money which we consider best. Money is the same, so it should treat all our money the same way.
Caeli: Can't we afford to be more loose with money if we have more?
Elliot: That's true. So the policy can take that into account. It can say that rent is first priority, and then have something else to say about remaining money. But the divisions should be based on real things in your life, like the cost of rent, not on irrelevant things like how much of your money was a gift, how much interest on investments, and how much from paychecks.
Caeli: I see. That's a good idea. Do you think that the way people do it actually approximates the right policy decently? Perhaps the paycheck covers normal things about right so they know money after that really should have a new, looser policy.
Elliot: That may work out reasonably for some people, but they should think about whether it does. For some people that will work badly, and if they notice they can avoid that error.
Caeli: OK, good point. What else is important?
Elliot: The fungibility of money comes up frequently in politics. Suppose an organization, like Hezbollah, spends a certain amount of money on charity projects like building schools. And the rest on killing Jews. Then if you give them money for schools, the actual result will be funding murder, because money is fungible and they have an increased budget.
Caeli: Is it really a charity project if they build a school on top of a weapons depot?
Elliot: No. And besides that, they build schools for propaganda purposes. And so that they can indoctrinate kids using biased textbooks.
Caeli: What sort of lies do they put in their textbooks?
Elliot: False histories of Israel, maps that don't have Israel and say Isreal isn't a legitimate country, conspiracy theories. And it's not just lies. There's also extreme, undying, unthinking hatred and vilification which is too subjective to call a lie.
Caeli: A book like that might be amusing to read. And the weapons depots might be fun to visit. I like weapons. I could look at them and ask to shoot the guns.
Elliot: Yeah, even horrible books like that are no danger if no one is using force, you can stop reading whenever you want, and you are aware of rival views on the matter. This is all the more reason not to fear TVs. But back in real life, terrorists who fill textbooks with propaganda are not nice to their kids. They use them as human shields in their wars, and do their best to force them to be hate-filled and to believe lies.
Caeli: What are some more examples?
Elliot: People often say that if they cut money on one thing, like art, it will be available to spend on another, like English. This is sort of true. But if you cut money on anything it will be available to spend on anything else. It doesn't have to be art, and it doesn't have to be English, and the decisions for which two things shouldn't be related.
Caeli: So you're saying there is no reason to tie the idea of cutting art funding with the idea of increasing English funding. It could just as well be math funding that's increased, and which it is doesn't depend in any way on the qualities of art. Art money is fungible and works just as well to fund any other class.
Elliot: That's right. The same sort of thing comes up a lot with government programs and budgets. Going back to the charity issue, that is also common. For example suppose there is a homeless guy who wants to eat, and also wants luxuries. And suppose your city has a food voucher program, so you give him food vouchers. You may think this is great and he will have to spend your money on a meal, so you're helping him and not providing for his luxuries. But you're wrong. Every dollar of food you buy him is one less he has to buy himself, so after eating he will have more money left over to buy luxuries, thanks to you.
Caeli: That sucks. What can we do about it?
Elliot: Don't give money to people with values you consider bad. You will be supporting those bad values because money is fungible. Any promises to spend your money on things you approve of won't help, because that will just free up equal quantities of money for other purposes.
Caeli: Aren't there two exceptions? Let's get back to the homeless guy and the food vouchers. The first exception is if vouchers plus his own money don't combine to have leftovers after food purchases, then he won't be able to buy luxuries. Why don't you reply to that and then I'll say the other.
Elliot: That's true. But keep in mind that in that case you could have given him money and not food vouchers, and it would have made no difference. And keep in mind that if he eats well today he will be less hungry tomorrow and will have an easier time diverting funds to luxuries like alcohol and cigarettes.
Caeli: OK. The second exception is if the total amount of money required to be spent in certain ways is more than he would have spent in those ways anyway. If he has already eaten and gets another food voucher, it won't turn into booze.
Elliot: It won't. But it won't turn into food either: he's full. It will just be wasted.
Caeli: Are there any other important issues around fungibility?
Elliot: I can think of two. The first is that it's not rocket science, and it's important to a lot of major world events, like funding terrorism, so fungibility really ought to be well known. But for some reason it's not a large part of public debate. That's important.
Caeli: What's the second thing?
Elliot: Fungibility matters to certain physics and philosophy. For example there are moral philosophies, like utilitarianism, which treat people as fungible. They don't care who's who, they just care about the total happiness or whatever. All such moral philosophies are very bad. People aren't fungible.
Caeli: Not at all?
Elliot: Well, consider dogs. Pet dogs usually aren't fungible. But certain characteristic of dogs are, like being soft and hairy. Many dogs will fetch balls. And there are dogs with specific purposes that basically are fungible, like dogs that sniff for drugs. Any dog with sufficient training and a good enough nose will work.
Elliot: So, the fungibility of a dog depends what you care about. If you care about the nose, they are pretty fungible. If you care about whether it remembers you, they aren't fungible at all.
Elliot: Now let's look at people. If you care about people's ideas, and personality, and past history, they are not fungible. But in certain ways they are fungible, like if you need unskilled labor to build a pyramid.
Caeli: Moral philosophies need to care about people's ideas, so they shouldn't treat people as fungible.
Elliot: That's right. It matters differently if a good person is happy and if a bad person is happy, for example.
Elliot: Another issue is continuity of people, or indeed any objects. When is it the same object, and when is it not? This is related to fungibility which also has to do with what is the same or not.
Caeli: What's an example of a continuity issue?
Elliot: If you take a wooden boat, and you do repairs and renovations so many times that eventually every single scrap of wood has been replaced, and indeed every single atom of the original boat is long gone, then is is still the same boat?
Caeli: That's tricky.
Elliot: It's not so bad. Objects shouldn't be defined by their atoms. What matters is human explanations of what is what. And for general human purposes, that's the same boat. For a specific issue people are thinking of it might sometimes be useful to regard it as a different boat, but in general there is no reason that changes atoms should disrupt continuity.
Caeli: OK. You mentioned continuity of people.
Elliot: Yeah. Suppose you changed out all the neurons in someone's brain with metal ones. Is it still the same person? Is it now a computer?
Caeli: That's the same problem as with the boat.
Elliot: Correct. And it is still the same person. The worldview and ideas haven't changed. It's also a computer, but it was before as well. Just like being made of our organic material (in other words, mostly carbon) doesn't make your brain less of a computer, being made out of metal wouldn't make you less of a person.
Caeli: I'm going to go to sleep soon. Any last words?
Elliot: Some people try to analyze military conflicts by counting the dead bodies on each side. That's wrong. People aren't fungible, and you can't reach any reasonable conclusions about the morality of a war without thinking about why people died, in what circumstances. Counting is no good. It doesn't even work for pure military calculations: not everyone is an equally competent soldier.
Caeli: Makes sense. Bye.
Elliot: See you later.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Message (1)